The Swami as a social activist, crusader against bonded labour

Social activist and veteran Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh, who championed the rights of bonded labourers, passed away on Friday at the age of 81.

Critically ill, Agnivesh had been admitted to the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS) in New Delhi for treatment of “liver damage”, and died of multi-organ failure.

Always clad in saffron, Agnivesh rejected idol worship as an avid follower of Arya Samaj principles. But it was his work to free bonded labourers that he would become known for.

Born in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, Agnivesh’s original name was Vepa Shyam Rao. He gave up the identity of his Brahmin caste, religion and family, and moved to Haryana to join the Arya Samaj in the late 1960s.

During the Emergency, he opposed the then Indira Gandhi government’s crackdown on opposition leaders and was sent to jail. He went on to join the poll fray in the 1977 elections that followed. Contesting the Assembly election on a Janata Party ticket from Pundri, a constituency in Haryana, he beat the Congress candidate by a huge margin. Two years later he became the education minister in the state government.

In 1981, he founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front).

In the decade and a half that followed, the BMM conducted numerous surprise checks and raids on industrial units to free bonded labourers, particularly children. Passionate about the cause, Agnivesh would not just register a police complaint but also pursue the case to conclusion. The BMM was believed to be instrumental in the release of thousands of bonded workers from industrial units, brick kilns and construction sites in and around Delhi.

Agnivesh is also believed to have paved the way for other social activists in the national capital, due to the impact of his work.

In 1994, he was made the head of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. For his contributions, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, often called the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, in 2004.

In 2010, the UPA-II government appointed Agnivesh as the mediator for a dialogue with the Maoists, a move that never went very far. A year later, he joined the anti-corruption movement that led to the ouster of the UPA from power.

Agnivesh also fought for the rights and dignity of minorities and women. In 1987 he led a march against the Sati system. He made several efforts to secure entry of ‘untouchables’ into temples, and was one of the first signatories to the campaign to repeal Section 377 of the IPC. Under the Modi government, he spoke up against mob lynchings.

In 2018, he was attacked in Pakur, Jharkhand, by a mob, which knocked off his turban and kicked and punched him. He blamed the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, affiliated to the BJP, that had earlier called a protest against him for being a “Naxal sympathiser”.

Agnivesh also tried his hand at television, hosting a weekly debate and, for a fleeting few days in 2011, appearing on Bigg Boss. His stay on the show known to court controversies ended when the Arya Samaj ousted him for it. Agnivesh said he came on board to spread awareness about social issues.

His body will be placed at the BMM office in Central Delhi for people to pay their tributes on Saturday, before his last rites at an ashram in Gurgaon. (Indian Express)

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