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My tete-a-tete with Swami Agnivesh…a man who is seen anywhere and everywhere…

Posted on: December 6, 2011

(This interview was done much before he decided to go to Bigg Boss!)

The room is a bit like the man himself. The walls espouse causes — from ending child labour and banning domestic violence to lifting a law that gives the army special rights in troubled areas. The Afghan girl with green eyes — made famous by National Geographic magazine — stares at visitors from a wall. Next to her is a neat hand-made chart listing all the promises made by political parties in the 2009 general elections.

Swami Agnivesh — a man for all causes — sits in the midst of all this, holding forth on subjects as disparate as Maoist violence and Swami Ramdev. If there is one thread that connects the issues that the political and social activist has been raising over the years, it is injustice. “My heart bleeds when I see injustice. So I reach out to people,” says Agnivesh.

In his saffron robes and turban, Agnivesh is difficult to miss. You see him everywhere — holding talks with the government on thorny issues, taking part in seminars and leading marches. In May this year, the government asked him to act as an interlocutor in peace talks with the Maoists. The result, he stresses, was a huge disappointment. The Maoists called him a “pawn,” and he felt “cheated” by the government.

What derailed the process, he says, was the killing by security forces of Naxalite leader Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad in July. “Days before the killing, the Naxals had shown interest in a dialogue. But now they don’t trust the government anymore,” he rues.

Agnivesh, 71, is soft-spoken, but doesn’t mince his words. He says he has “doubts” about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s intentions in resolving the Maoist issue. “Mr Singh had promised to conduct a judicial inquiry into Azad’s death, but more than four months have passed and I still don’t see a step forward,” he says.

He stresses — three times in the course of our conversation — that he doesn’t believe in violence. “But state violence is far more devious and deadly,” he says. “And it is the state which provokes villagers deprived of health and education for years to pick up the gun.”

It was the Naxalite movement that gave Agnivesh his first taste of politics. The armed uprising in parts of Bengal was gaining ground when he was teaching business management at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta. “I was highly influenced by the cause, though I could never endorse the method they adopted,” he says.

Those were difficult days. On the one hand, Naxalism was leaving its impact on him, and on the other, Hinduism was beckoning. The boy then known as Vepa Shyam Rao embraced the cause of religion, inspired by Arya Samaj leaders. “In 1968, I left my job and moved to Haryana to dedicate my life to the poor,” he says. And Rao was rechristened Swami Agnivesh.

Agnivesh has dabbled in active politics too. In 1970, he along with some other Arya Samaj members started a political party called the Arya Sabha. Two years later, the party merged with the then Janata Party. Agnivesh, who fought elections from Haryana in 1977, says he had a “special rapport” with former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar and shared his socialist ideology. He became an MLA and served as an education minister in Haryana.

But Agnivesh soon started questioning the “undemocratic” functioning of his party. “I realised that nobody cared for any cause. Instead, everyone concentrated on power and money. So I withdrew from politics and took up social causes as a full-fledged activist.”

He hit the headlines when he spearheaded a movement for the liberation of bonded labourers working in stone quarries, brick kilns and in the carpet and glass manufacturing industries across India. The former chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery also got actively involved in movements against foeticide and sati.

Agnivesh says he was drawn to causes when he was very young, but as the grandson of the Diwan of the princely state of Shakti, now in Chhattisgarh, he was not allowed to question social inequality.

He was four when he moved to his maternal grandfather’s house after the death of his father, a government officer. Life changed drastically after that. He studied in a municipal school and remembers walking around barefoot because his mother didn’t have the money to buy him a pair of shoes.

The hard times continued even when he moved to Calcutta in 1956 to study commerce at the Mirzapur City College. “My first choice was St Xavier’s. Even though I qualified, I could not study there because the classes took place during the day — which was when I had to take tuitions to be able to pay my bills,” he says.

Agnivesh, who went on to do his masters degree in commerce and then studied law in Calcutta, lived in the city for 12 years. Not surprisingly, he speaks fluent Bengali. “The first Bengali words that I learnt were naamte din(let me get down, please),” he recollects, referring to a phrase often used in crowded buses. “Since I was always short of cash, I used to travel standing on the footboard of a bus. And I could always jump off a moving bus if I was asked for the fare.”

It was in Bengal that Agnivesh was introduced to Marxism. But the 2007 violence in Nandigram, when the police fired at protesting peasants, shocked him. “I was highly disappointed to see how the CPI(M) tackled the issue. It is against the ideology of the party which is pro-poor. I believe that the CPI(M) urgently needs a change in leadership; the sooner the better,” he says.

There is some political speculation about Agnivesh aligning with Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress. “No, not at all,” he says. But he did join an anti-CPI(M) rally in Lalgarh in Bengal in August, I point out, and shared the stage with Banerjee. “We had announced our rally much before she did. Our dates clashed, but we decided to go ahead with it. Moreover, it was an apolitical affair,” he clarifies.

Agnivesh is not the usual saffron-clad sadhu. When it comes to religion, he is inclusive. His office in central Delhi has a bronze statue of the Buddha, a poster of Jesus and another displaying the teachings of the Koran. In the midst of our talk, a maulvi from Lucknow walks in for a meeting. “I believe in a multi-religious forum. All religions should work together for peace.”

The tech-savvy guru carries a laptop and has a website. He accesses his email and is on social networking sites such as Facebook. “You need technology to bring power to the people, and I am using it,” he says.

He takes a moment to speak to a friend — a foreigner — on Skype on the Ayodhya issue. “It was a joker’s judgment,” he says, when I later ask him for his views on the sharing of land in Ayodhya, as decreed by the Allahabad High Court.

In September this year, he staged a dharna in Kashmir against the killing of youths by security forces. But unlike many other social activists, Agnivesh doesn’t endorse the call for a separate homeland for Kashmiris. “I don’t think that the Kashmiris’ demand for separation is justified. Nor do I see any hope in their achieving this status. But I would always support their voice against state atrocities,” he says.

Agnivesh’s bid to extend a helping hand to anybody who needs it may bring him back to politics one day. Disappointed in the state of mainstream politics, he has been pinning his hopes on Swami Ramdev’s newly launched political party, Bharat Swabhiman. “Even if he gets 25 people inducted into the Lok Sabha in the next general elections, it will be a great achievement,” he says.

Will he join Ramdev’s party, I ask him cautiously. “I will extend all possible support externally,” he says, quite like a smart politician.

I am suddenly reminded of what his own website says about him. “He looks like a sadhu (holy man), talks like a politician…” For him, clearly, it’s faith that counts.

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