Swami Agnivesh passes away: Social activist spent decades working to free bonded labourers, foster inter-religious harmony

While Agnivesh spent his early years in Andhra Pradesh, much of his social activism was based in Haryana

FP Staff September 12, 2020 12:04:47 IST
Swami Agnivesh passes away: Social activist spent decades working to free bonded labourers, foster inter-religious harmony

Social activist Swami Agnivesh, who passed away at the age of 80 on Friday evening, was best known for his work on freeing bonded labourers, as also for his efforts to ensure inter-religious harmony.

Along with his social activism, Agnivesh also took up several political causes, taking on various political parties at different points of time. He was jailed for opposing the Emergency, and several decades later, was also accused by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha for being a 'Naxal sympathiser.' For a short while, in what was perhaps the most unusual aspect of his long public life, he even appeared on the reality show Bigg Boss.

Early life

Agnivesh was born in Andhra Pradesh's Srikakulam and his original name was Vepa Shyam Rao. He studied law and had a brief stint of working with Sabyasachi Mukherji, who later went on to become Chief Justice of India.

Agnivesh joined the Arya Samaj in 1968 and became a sanyasi in 1970, relinquishing his caste and surname.

Later, he was jailed for opposing the Emergency announced by former prime minister Indira Gandhi. He remained behind bars for 14 months.

After the Emergency, Agnivesh joined active politics and was elected to the Haryana Legislative Assembly in the cabinet of Bhajan Lal. He became the state's education minister. However, he resigned only five months later, after he protested against his own government, seeking a judicial inquiry into police firing in the Faridabad industrial township that killed 10 workers.

Social activism

While Agnivesh spent his early years in Andhra Pradesh, much of his social activism was based in Haryana. The state was carved out in 1966 after the reorganisation of the Punjab state. Among the first major agitations Agnivesh took part in was a demand for a fair share for Haryana after the state of Punjab was divided. He also took part in protests seeking total prohibition in Haryana, and for remunerative prices for farm produce.

In 1981, he founded the organisation Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM). The organisation works on rescuing bonded labourers through checks and raids in industrials units, brick kilns, etc.

An article in The Indian Express notes that the organisation is known for not just registering a case in such matters, but also pursuing the case to its logical conclusion.

Apart from bonded labour, Agnivesh also campaigned against the Sati system, and in favour of the entry of Dalits into temples.

On several occasions, he took public positions in favour of marginalised groups, such as on repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which effectively criminalised homosexuality until it was partially struck down by the Supreme Court). He also spoke out against incidents of mob lynchings and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

In 2010, during the UPA-II regime, Agnivesh was appointed as a mediator for a dialogue with Maoists. However, the attempt met with little success.

In 2018, the activist was attacked by a mob in Jharkhand's Pakur, where he had gone to address a rally of the Pahadia tribal community. He had blamed the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, who had termed him a Naxal sympathiser earlier. While the Bharatiya Janata Party had denied involvement, it said that the attack was not a surprise given his 'track record.'

Last rites to be conducted in Gurugram

The social activist was admitted to the ILBS on Tuesday in a critical condition for treatment of liver cirrhosis and had been on a ventilator since then. He passed away on Friday evening.

Agnivesh's mortal remains will be placed at the Bandhua Mukti Morcha office in Central Delhi on Saturday to allow people to pay their tributes. His last rites will be conducted at an ashram in Gurugram.

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