Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh. File picture: IANS
Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh. File picture: IANS

‘Swami Agnivesh had a passion for justice’

By Janine Moodley Time of article published Sep 18, 2020

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Durban - A FIERY, fearless and vocal leader who fought for the rights and dignity for all.

This was how many people described Swami Agnivesh, a social activist and former Arya Samaj leader, following his death on Friday, aged 80.

Agnivesh died at the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences in New Delhi, India, due to multiple organ failure. He had liver cirrhosis and was on a ventilator.

According to a historical account of his life’s journey on swamiagnivesh.com, Agnivesh studied law and commerce but he became a full-time worker at the Arya Samaj in 1968.

Two years later, he renounced all material possessions and relationships - earning him the title of Swami. He later formed a political party, Arya Sabha, based on Arya Samaj principles.

In 1975, he went underground after the ruling party began targeting opposing parties. He was soon arrested and was jailed for 14 months.

After the 1977 elections, he became education minister in India but he was soon asked to resign after he launched a judicial inquiry into his own government.

In 1981, he founded the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which he still headed before he died. The liberation front fought for the rights of workers.

Swami Vedanand Saraswati, spiritual head of the Arya Samaj South Africa, who shared a close bond with Agnivesh, spoke of trips to India where he witnessed bonded labour.

“We saw women, men and children working in the quarries, digging, breaking and loading stones; a humanity reduced to and treated as beasts of burden. We had the unforgettable heart-wrenching experience of interacting with children rescued from child labour by the organisation’s activists.”

Saraswati said he cried when he saw children in suffering and bearing burn scars from heated iron rods as punishment.

“They were from Bihar and, being a descendant of indentured labourers from Bihar, I listened to their exploitation and relived their human tragedy through the trials and tribulations of my forebears.”

Throughout the years, Agnivesh also encouraged dialogue between religions and was a social activist who campaigned for, among others, women’s rights.

During his frequent visits to South Africa, Saraswati said a special relationship developed with Agnivesh and the people of the country.

“He leaves us with such treasured memories of active engagement in the struggle for human rights in this country, which he inspired in all of us.”

Saraswati reminisced on the first trip Agnivesh took to South Africa many years ago.

“He saw the Girmitiya Diaspora in South Africa descendants of bonded labourers, and realised how deep-rooted the plight and fight for the rights of the oppressed was in the history of India, and the global consequences of such social injustice.”

Agnivesh, at one point, visited a rural village in the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg and met with the locals.

“I watched him play and dance with the village folk and their children. In the midst of their suffering, they were able to celebrate life and Swamiji was delighted to be a part of that simple happiness and joy.”

During one of his trips, Saraswati said he also visited Parliament, where he met senior government officials.

“He was a warrior who not only shaped my life personally but countless others, who were called to serve the cause of the people. His life was his message to stand for truth and justice.”

Bisraam Rambilass, president of the Arya Samaj South Africa, said Agnivesh spared no effort in convincing the Arya Samaj, other Hindu organisations, and all Indian South Africans that they needed to commit to the new democracy in South Africa.

“As faith-based leaders, it was imperative that we ensured the pillars of the emerging new nation were based on fundamental human rights.

“The government must be guided by a moral and ethical compass, and faith-based organisations need to help steer the government to avoid it veering from this path.

“It is only with the onset of the corruption, at the hands of some ruthless leaders of the ANC government, that we realise how prophetic Swamiji’s advice was.”

Ashwin Trikamjee, president of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, described Agnivesh as a fearless exponent of justice.

“Swami Agnivesh had a passion for justice and righteousness. He actively campaigned for human rights of the poor and downtrodden. He promoted the rights of women and exposed the evils of child and bonded labour.”

Trikamjee said he remembered when, during a visit to the country, Agnivesh pushed for religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

“Swami Agnivesh argued that for the world order to be one of peace and justice, it was imperative that a new and proactive spiritual vision - commensurate to the challenges of the emerging world order - be enunciated without delay.”

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