For several decades the voice of Swami Agnivesh remained a strong and persistent plea for justice and social reform. Following his death at the age of 80 on September 11 in Delhi, there have been moving reports of rescued bonded workers and others from the poorest sections of the society remembering him with tears for giving them a new lease of life .
Rescue and rehabilitation of bonded laborers in India was no doubt a very important contribution he made. The laws for this would have remained largely on paper but for the continuing efforts made by several social workers for their implementation with Swami Ji leading these efforts. This led to the rescue and rehabilitation of a large number of bonded workers from mines and quarries. In the process court cases were fought and won which made the path of other social workers in different parts of the country easier. Some regional branches of Bandhua Mukti Morcha which Swami Ji established gave continuity to this work. I visited the Alwar branch twice and was surprised at the achievements in terms of rescue and rehabilitation of bonded workers and related work. Swami Ji visited other areas of this work and his presence strengthened such efforts of other organizations, as I could observe in the context of the efforts of the ABSSS to rescue bonded workers in Chitrakut, in Bundelkhand region. This work got repeated recognition at the level of national and international organizations, and Swami Ji headed the UN committee on modern forms of slavery. He got help and support from several eminent persons including the great writer Mahashweta Devi and some retired senior government officials.
Swami Agnivesh also came forward repeatedly to help several other great social movements of our times including the Narmada Bachao Aandolan and the great movement of Chattisgarh miners led by Shankar Guha Niyogi. Thus his contribution to the cause of justice extends much beyond the efforts to rescue and help bonded workers.
He was a strong source of support for anti-liquor movement, particularly in Haryana. I remember visiting one such village in Haryana on the same day as the day of his visit and I could see that his visit was regarded as a big boost by villagers who were in the thick of this anti-liquor movement.
Swami Agnivesh made an important contribution to social reform efforts by speaking against superstitions from time to time. In the process he did not at all mind inviting the wrath of some powerful religious fundamentalists.
Perhaps an even bigger contribution was to oppose forces of communalism and to promote social harmony. This is a task that has become increasingly important in India in recent times. If this opposition comes from a saintly figure like Swami Agnivesh then this has its own importance.
In this context the writings of Swami Ji on religion and spirituality and on linking these with social justice concerns were also important. He also found important co-authors who contributed to this.
He could have taken this work further to evolve a liberation theology for Hinduism. Perhaps this needed much more time than he could spare in the middle of his many-sided activities. He could have also contributed more to evolving alternative development policies and paradigm for India.
Once when I wrote such a detailed article I got a call from him early in morning. I was travelling but he insisted on discussing in great detail what he considered to be the plus and minus points of my analysis. This gave me an idea that he had been thinking a lot on these issues.
For several decades Swami Agnivesh maintained a continuing presence in various platforms for justice and social reform in India. While by and large this was a big source of strength for our social movements, but there were also movements of controversy when he faced criticism from within the social sector. My own inter-actions with him also saw some phases when I could not agree with him, despite admiring his work in many areas. This, however, is not the time to dwell on such differences and controversies. On the whole, we remember him as a man of remarkable talents and strengths who used these over a very long period to promote many-sided justice and social reform in India. In the process he faced dangers and threats time and again but he carried on his work regardless of these dangers. His presence at various meetings and platform of justice and social reform will be missed. Rest in peace, Swami Ji.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.