Swami Agnivesh. Credit: Right Livelihood Foundation

The Right Livelihood Foundation mourns 2004 Laureate Swami Agnivesh

News 11.09.2020

Swami Agnivesh. Credit: Wolfgang Schmidt

The Right Livelihood Foundation mourns the passing of 2004 Laureate Swami Agnivesh, who was a champion of religious and communal co-existence and tolerance in India and beyond. Agnivesh died at the age of 80 after a longer illness on Friday, September 11, in New Delhi.

“Swami Agnivesh was a champion for the oppressed who sought to create unity through religious tolerance,” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation. “His legacy remains a guiding light for communal co-existence at a time of widening social gaps and increasing extremism. We are deeply saddened by the passing of this extraordinary leader.”

A compassionate champion for the most vulnerable, Agnivesh worked on a number of social issues, including child and bonded labour, the inclusion of Dalits in Indian religious society, women’s rights, and religious tolerance and reconciliation.

He was born as Vepa Shyam Rao on September 21, 1939, into an orthodox Hindu family. After practising law and teaching, he gave up his career to work full time for the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement, in 1968. Two years later, he became a sanyasi, renouncing worldly possessions and becoming, in the process, Swami Agnivesh.

Parallel to becoming a “renouncer,” Agnivesh co-founded a political party, the Arya Sabha, to work for political order, based on Arya Samaj principles. This set of principles was spelt out in a book published in 1974, Vaidik Samajvad (Vedic Socialism). It rejects the lopsided materialism of both capitalism and communism in favour of what the Arya Sabha constitution calls “social spirituality.”

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, cracking down on opposition parties, Agnivesh and some colleagues were arrested. He spent 14 months in prison. After the 1977 elections that swept Indira Gandhi from office, Agnivesh was elected to the Haryana state legislative assembly, being given the post of education minister. However, he rapidly became disillusioned, resigned and decided to devote all his energy and time to social justice movements.

During this period, he began to denounce bonded labour, which became one of his most emblematic causes. In 1981, he founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front), which has secured the release of more than 178,000 Indian workers, including 26,000 children. The organisation has also helped create a number of trade unions.

Besides bonded labour, Agnivesh campaigned to end the practice of sati, the immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres and also fought to secure entry of Dalits into Hindu temples. He has participated in a number of people’s movements (including Narmada Bachao Andolan, which also received the Right Livelihood Award) regarding land, water, forests and fisheries issues.

In 1999, concerned about escalating religious fundamentalism and obscurantism, he helped to launch a multi-religious forum called Religions for Social Justice. After the 2002 massacre in Gujarat, he organised a group of 72 eminent religious-social leaders who spent five days in the violence-affected areas of Gujarat and denounced the Hindu fundamentalist organisations and sectors responsible.

In later years, he remained committed to promoting interfaith dialogue.

He received the 2004 Right Livelihood Award “for promoting over many years in South Asia the values of religious and communal co-existence, tolerance and mutual understanding.”

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