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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 37 New Delhi September 1, 2018

Hate Ideology And Rising Intolerance - Swami Agnivesh: Social Reformer Under Attack

Sunday 2 September 2018


by Ram Puniyani

On August 17 (2018), during the funeral procession of the former Prime Minster of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Swami Agnivesh was assaulted outside the BJP head office, when the Swami was trying to participate in the procession. The assaulters, some members of the crowd, began to heckle him and then they physically attacked him. They were raising the slogans, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Deshdrohi Wapas Jao (Go Back Anti-National)’.

A month ago, in Pakur, Jharkhand, Agnivesh was brutally assaulted, allegedly by the student wing of the BJP. The attack was severe and as a matter of relief he survived while his turban was taken away and his clothes were torn asunder. In the wake of this attack many a BJP supporter, justifying the attack, circulated the video of Swamiji’s speech. In this video he is criticising Prime Minister Modi for his statement that there was plastic surgery in Ancient India as seen in the planting of an elephant’s head on a boy’s neck or Kauravas’ being born though stem-cell technology. He went on to criticise Modi for his public pujas in Nepal and Dhaka.

Attacking the Amarnath yatra and idol worship, Agnivesh pointed out that the Barfani baba, the ice shivling, is a natural phenomenon which gets formed due to natural processes of deposits of stalactite and stalagmite. In the same video he points out that one of the years, when the deposits were inadequate to form the ling (the Shiva idol), ice had to be put to give it the shape of linga. Similarly criticising the Kumbh mela, people congregating to wash their sins, he points out that bathing in such polluted water on the contrary can lead to new diseases.

Overall, the Swami has been part of various social movement like the Bandhua Majdoor Mukti Morcha (against bonded labour) for which he has also participated in global eradication of the modern form of bonded labonr, under the aegis of the UN. He has been associated with movements opposing female foeticide and against sati. He has been part of the Arya Samaj organisation for a long time. In recognition of his work he has received various awards like Right to Livelihood (Alternate Nobel) in 2004, apart from the Rajiv Gandhi Sadbhavna Award again in the same year. There are various issues on which one can disagree with him, like his interpretation of Hinduism exclusively to the Vedic period etc., still what is important is his constant engagement with issues related to the downtrodden of the society, to those related to modern forms of bonded labour, to sati, female foeticide, to name a few.

A saffron-clad swami has been targeted by the followers of the Hindu nationalist brigade. This attack on him is in the series which began with murder of Dr Dabholkar, and later took the lives of Com Govind Pansare, Dr Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. As intolerance is growing in the society, those having opinions contrary to ruling dispensation are being targeted. As the culprits are enjoying impunity, appreciation from the leaders of the ruling party, they know they can get away with hate crimes of this dastardly nature. Let’s imagine, a saffron clad Swami is coming to pay last respects to the ex-Prime Minster of India and he is heckled and insulted! These hooligans, drunk on fake nationalism and false pride in things in the name of religion, get encouragement from the powers that be, the real culprits are those who support them, appreciate them, those who in the first place disseminate this ideology which is sectarian and looks down on their opponents or their ideas as anti-national or anti-religion.

What is more surprising is that all this is being done in the name of the Hindu religion, which celebrates diversity to its core. We know that most of the religions have a single founder and single Holy Book, still they develop sects within. Christianity has Catholics, Protestants, born again Pentecostals among others. Muslims have Shias and Sunnis in the main while Sufis and Ahmadiyas are also very much there. Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism also have sects within them. In contrast Hinduism has no single founder, no single Holy Book, and no single pattern of clergy or rituals. It is a collation of diverse traditions like Brahmanism, Tantra, Nath, Siddhanta, Shaiva, Vashanav and Bhakti among others. Diversity is the very core of Hindu religion. Right within the Hindu fold Swami Dayanand Saraswati could form the Arya Samaj and propound his ideology that Hinduism is primarily founded and based on Vedas.

While idol worship is part of some sects of Hinduism, as such Hinduism also encompasses from the animist nature of worship to tritheism, to polytheism to the nastik (atheist) tradition of Charvak as well. The concept of God also varies from the idol worshipers to those who believe in formless God. Swami Agnivesh propounds that Vedas are the base of Hindu religion.

The central focus of Agnivesh has been social reform, and that’s probably his most important engagement with the society. Irrespective of his views and his contribution to the cause of social issues, he has the right to follow his notion of Hinduism. No one can usurp his right of following his own Hinduism. The present attacks on him by the followers of Hindu nationalism are not grounded in the values of tolerance of Hinduism, they are rooted in the politics—they are part of the sectarian interpretation of Hinduism and selective use of Hindu identity for mobilising Hindus for political goals, there is nothing religious about it.

While hoping that the present government will provide security to this social reformer and political activists like him, one hopes that the serial killings of rational thinkers-activists, which began with the killing of Dabholkar, is brought to a halt, and the guilty identified, tried and punished as per the law. The nation should heave a sigh of relief that the two recent attacks by the ideology which killed these social reformers have failed (Agnivesh and Omar Khalid), and should pledge that these killers will not be able to extinguish the voice of dissent.

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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