Swami Agnivesh (India)
Laureate of alternative Nobel Prize, founder Bonded Labour Liberation Front
“We need to dream big! We should assert ourselves as citizens of the world, though we belong to different nationalities. It is high time that we all join hands in this Theater of Transformation, as world citizens. We need to create a constitution for a federation of the Earth. Where the whole earth becomes one home, and the whole of humanity becomes one family. Women are the future of humanity. We are so fortunate that so many women are now standing out and standing up. They are really giving us the leadership we need.”
Swami Agnivesh, winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize (the Right Livelihood Award), 2004, is a cyclonic Swami. At the young age of 28, he abandoned a promising career as a professor of law and management in Calcutta for a life of activism. Born into a Brahmin – upper caste – South Indian family, he shed his name, caste, religion, family, and all his belongings and property to adopt the life of a ‘Swami’ or renunciate, and began his life’s crusade for social justice and compassion. The term ‘Swami’ is misused and misunderstood. It denotes, as with Christian or Buddhist monks and renunciates, one who gives up all his individual, social and birth based identities and belongings to serve humanity and pursue spiritual truth.
Seventy-five-year-old Swami Agnivesh is easily the most distinguished leader of the Arya Samaj. In 1994, he was appointed the Chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. He is better known across the globe in general and India in particular for his campaigns against bonded labor, and is Founder-Chairperson of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labor Liberation Front). He was elected as the President of the World Council of Arya Samaj (Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha) in 2004.
Whether it was Gandhi, Dayanand, Ambedkar all worked for the betterment of the society and the people with a few differences in their methods and ideals. They all styled themselves in particular ways. Swami Agnivesh too has his own style but with clear reasons and commitments. He is clad in saffron from top to bottom. However, we often find Swami say that the saffron, ‘is my uniform for socio-spiritual action, a call to battle on behalf of the oppressed.’ Saffron is the color of sacrifice, commitment and purity and he believes it helps him in his work of love, truth, compassion and justice. However, he also makes it absolutely clear and says with utmost realism and practicality that, “If my clothes come in the way of this, I won’t mind renouncing them. It matters little if you call me “Swami Agnivesh or simply “Agnivesh”. All that matters is the fire inside me, the presence of the divine in the inner temple of my being, should continue to blaze till the end.”
Swami Agnivesh is a man of action. He preaches but preaches only what he practices. His words catch fire in the heat of his involvement imprinted with the zeal of compassion. He has given proof of being an outstanding leader and has inspired many young minds to strive towards making this world better place to live in. His dedication to work with the oppressed and passion for social justice are as old as his political career which goes back many years to his entry into the Haryana Assembly in 1977. His activism, appearance and understanding leaves a lot of us astonished and at the same time provokes us to strive hard for social amelioration while generating love and respect among the masses. He looks like a sadhu (holy man), talks like a politician and – most importantly – voices the case of the underprivileged millions of India. Unlike the politicians who mouth religion between the teeth of communalism, Swami Agnivesh participates in politics as an outworking of his spirituality. He bridges politics and religion with the plank of social justice.
For over four decades Swami Agnivesh has campaigned for the rights and dignity of ‘bonded labour’ or inter-generational slaves, and child labour, and restored their freedom through path-breaking new legislation. Swami Agnivesh is one of the very few people who have seriously taken up the responsibility to fight for the poor and the underprivileged. He has continuously waged battles in order to fulfill his duty towards this cause. Swami Agnivesh’s campaigns have led him to fight alcoholism, female foeticide, bonded labor, child labor, injustice to Tribals and Adivasis, as well as struggle for the emancipation of women and even the violence against animals. His current ‘mission’ includes fighting the consumer culture and the Western model of development in India, opposing Western cultural imperialism, and battling casteism, obscurantism and communalism.
He established the Movement for the Freedom of Bonded Labour (Bandhua Mukti Morcha). He has advocated relentlessly for women’s rights, taking on the most controversial issues. In turns, he has addressed the plight of child widows, the shameful practice of sati, the burning of widows on the husband’s funeral pyres, dowry deaths where greedy parents-in-laws murder their young brides for more money. He has actively crusaded against the crime of female foeticide, which has reduced India’s population by about 60 million females! An environmental activist, he draws on Gandhian wisdom to advocate simplicity and sustainability and economic rights, and to deplore the economics of greed that accompanies globalization.
While Swami Agnivesh’s chief preoccupation is social justice and rights, he has also championed the search for peace in violent conflicts. He has led numerous initiatives to foster peace and interfaith harmony in Kashmir during the worst periods of violence. He partook in a peace march to Palestine 2012. His particular concern at present is the Maoist conflict that is spreading across large swathes of central India. In 2010 Swami Agnivesh was appointed by the Government of India as the mediator to foster dialogue between the government and the Maoist leadership. He is at present deeply concerned with the plight of the aboriginal Indians called Adivasis dwelling in this area for millennia, who are facing the brunt of this conflict. He is actively involved in advocating for their protection and rights.
Swami Agnivesh has spearheaded the interfaith and inter-religious movement nationally and globally. He has steered it towards genuine responsible engagement in overturning many of the social scourges that religions inadvertently or deliberately support. The Sarva Dharma Sansad or All Faiths Parliament he established in India in 2007 is the first interfaith movement that includes both women and men leaders. Its purpose is to overcome the seven principal scourges of Indian society: casteism and discrimination; injustice and violence against women; extremism; dogma and communalism; drug and alcohol abuse – that is also linked to violent abuse of women and children; poverty and exploitation; and corruption. Swami Agnivesh also hosted a weekly television debate on parliamentary TV called ‘Vichar Manthan’ or Thought Forum where eminent experts addressed burning social and political issues amongst a live audience of youth from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds.
Swami Agnivesh stresses his faith in spirituality, and he makes it very clear that spirituality ought to be ‘social spirituality’. In other words, it ought not to be of an individualistic or escapist variety. He stresses the need to keep the interest of various people in society intact and above the interest of individuals. His education in Arya Samaj persuaded him to believe that the spiritual quest of an individual is inextricably linked with his social life. Spiritual quest of an individual and one’s social life complement each other like two sides of the same coin. Religion should thus, never degenerate into an exercise of escapism.
He is unsparing in his critique of the ‘bankruptcy of the political leadership’ of India. Issues taken up during the freedom movement, like pledges to stop the proliferation of liquor, have been fast forgotten. What has been taking deeper roots instead is communalism religious fundamentalism and obscurantism. For him spirituality should be made into a resource for social transformation. If one is seriously committed to change and transformation in society, then obscurantist, ritual-ridden, superstition-mongering religion needs to be given a prompt burial. And this is what he strongly insists on.
According to him, ‘Our real issues are poverty and the glaring socio-economic inequalities which need immediate attention.’ These are the biggest issues and challenges that we are faced with.’ He points out that the values common to all religions have been neglected and the vacuum thus created has been filled by communal politics. For Swami Agnivesh belief, faith and action cannot be compartmentalized. He is outspoken about the ironies of religion. India has the largest number of temples and shrines in the world. The goddess of wealth (Laxmi) is in India; yet our country is beset with abject poverty. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is worshipped in India, but our country continues to be plagued with illiteracy.
Well-informed and up-to-date with social issues, the swami has clear perspectives on a wide range of issues – ranging from the ruinous debts of the Third World nations (which he wants to be abrogated), to cultural imperialism, to an appropriate developmental pattern, unsustainable over-consumption by the rich, and of course, the need to make religion more people-friendly. Swami Agnivesh is a man of word and practice absolutely determined to achieve his goals.