Swami Agnivesh was born Vepa Shyam Rao on September 21, 1939 in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh. He lost his father at the age of four. He was brought up by his maternal grandfather who in turn was the grandson of the Diwan of a princely state called Shakti, now in Chhattisgarh. He gained degrees in Law and Commerce, became a lecturer in management at the reputed St Xavier's College in Kolkata and for a while practiced law as a junior to Sabyasachi Mukherji for a while who later became the Chief Justice of India. In his student days, he had come in contact with the progressive ideals of the Arya Samaj and began a life-long relationship with it. Restless in leading the life of an academic and lawyer, and impatient at the continuance of social and economic injustice and superstition in the name of faith around him, he finally plunged into political and social activism at a young age, leaving Kolkata for Haryana, that became the platform for his action for decades to come. It was the magnetic pull of Swami Indravesh, a great scholar—activist of Haryana, which brought about a radical transformation within him.
In 1968, he became a full-time worker at the Arya Samaj, and two years later, embraced sanyas, renouncing worldly possessions and relationships and becoming, in the process, Swami Agnivesh. But renunciation never meant escapism for Swamiji. On the day of his sanyas, he co-founded a political party with Swami Indravesh, the Arya Sabha, to work for political order. This party was founded on Arya Samaj principles which, as he spells out in his 1974 book Vaidik Samajvad (Vedic Socialism), rejects the lopsided materialism of both capitalism and communism in favor of "social spirituality". Over the years, Swamiji has been influenced by the thoughts and writings of thinkers as diverse as Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Gandhiji and Karl Marx. Social and economic justice and faith inspired by spirituality as opposed to superstition have 'remained the foundations of his philosophy.
Swamiji's political life started with the struggle for Haryana's fair share as it was emerging as a state separated from Punjab. A fiery orator, he was effective and inspirational right from the beginning, and his style of leading from the front soon brought him the taste of police brutality and landed him behind bars for several short spells. Together with Swami Indravesh, he spearheaded struggles for Total Prohibition in Haryana and for remunerative prices for farmers' produce. Within a few short years, he found himself a part of "Total Revolution"—Jaiprakash Narayan's clarion call against the Indira Gandhi regime.
Swamiji had to go underground when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi_ declared Emergency in 1975 cracking down on opposition parties. Later, he was arrested with some of his colleagues and was jailed for 14 months. After the 1977 elections, which swept Indira Gandhi off from office, Agnivesh was elected to the Haryana State Legislative Assembly, and became the Education Minister in Bhajan Lal's Cabinet. However, it took him less than four months to become disillusioned. There was police firing in the Faridabad industrial township killing around 10 workers. Swamiji protested first in the Cabinet and later publicly demanded a judicial enquiry against his own government. He was asked to resign. He resigned and decided to devote all his energy and time to social justice movements. This is a brief history of Swamiji's direct political career so far as elected office is concerned, though neither his activism since then has been far from political action, nor are his positions apolitical. This has won him admirers across party lines among major politicians of the country.
Parallel to his political journey, Swamiji's tireless social activism became his main area of work after he stepped down from ministership in Haryana. His very early marches through Haryana acquainted him with the havoc that liquor caused to the rural society and its economy, and he began fighting for abolishing liquor outlets early on. True to Gandhiji's principle of Antyodaya—the service of the most deprived—Swamiji took up the cause of bonded labor in the early 1980s, a struggle he is best known and respected for the world over. Destitute and virtually sold to slavery, this was a group of people arguably at the very bottom of India's socio-economic ladder; they did not even exist in public records. Slavery has always been illegal in India and abolition of bonded labor was heralded as a success of Emergency because of the promulgation of the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976. But the distance between "laws in books" and "law in action" has unfortunately been vast in India. The struggle—in courts of justice and dusty stone-quarries—was a long and uphill task. Arun Shourie chronicles this at length in his book Courts and their Judgments. The beginning was ominous enough. When he raised the issue with Haryana's Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, he was threatened with dire consequences, and soon, a case was registered against him as a Naxalite, on the charge of murdering an industrialist two years ago!
Swamiji founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM or the Bonded Labour Liberation Front) in 1981, an organization he still heads as its chairperson. The campaign involved convincing courts and their com-missioners of the status of bonded labor. The Supreme Court gave a landmark-ruling identifying any employee earning less than the statutorily fixed minimum wages as bonded labor. But that was hardly enough. The government failed to implement Supreme Court directives. Quarry-owners unleashed terror on the laborers with murder before the eyes of the police, and effectively shut them from formal inquiries. Swamiji himself was imprisoned at Rohtak in 1985. Years passed in conflicting court orders, repeated inquiry commissions and government inaction. Even now, the struggle continues. Over the years, BMM has secured the release of more than 1,72,000 Indian workers, and has helped create a number of trade unions, including the All India Brick Kiln Workers, the Stone Quarry Workers, and the Construction Workers. Working also at the international level, Swami Agnivesh has thrice been elected as Chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. As Justice P.N. Bhagwati, a former Chief Justice of India and noted Human Rights advocate, points out, "it was entirely (Swami Agnivesh's) initiative which truly brought (the plight of the bonded labor in India) into light."
Decades of tireless struggle by Swamiji has now brought media, public, and political attention to this practically "invisible" underclass in India, visible, indeed easy prey, only to their exploiters. Yet, Swami Agnivesh puts the number of child laborers in India (despite constitutional provisions) at 65 million even today. Some are in debt bondage or have been pledged by parents in return for financial advances; some are lured by procurers who promise bright prospects after training. Debabrata Bandopadhyay, one of the contributors in this volume, puts a quick estimate of the population of bonded labor even today at a staggering 90 million.
Emancipation and rehabilitation of bonded labor, while perhaps the most sustained and prominent of Swamiji's campaigns, is by no means his only campaign. Over the years, he has participated in countless struggles, giving voice to the voiceless, advocating for the oppressed and the victims of injustice whether at the hands of the state or of prejudices and intolerance of sections of society. As Dr Manmohan Singh has aptly said, "There is no endeavor to enlarge social justice within the country and in the wider world in which Swami Agnivesh is not in the forefront..."
Oppression of women remains a stigma in many parts of traditional India. In 1987, Swamiji led an 18-day long padyatra (march on foot) from Delhi to Deorala in Rajasthan to protest against the most gruesome incident of sati (the immolation of widows on their husband's funeral pyres) of a young widow. The march was stopped, and Swamiji was briefly put behind bars, but both received widespread, sympathetic coverage. The Indian Parliament later in that year enacted the Sati Prevention Act. Back in Delhi, he launched a campaign against female foeticide, which also resulted in legislation. Recently, he campaigned against the abortion of female fetuses through Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi—the states with most skewed sex ratios in India.
The plight of the lower castes in India remains an area in need of sustained and intense social action. In 1988-89, Swamiji led a widely-covered movement to secure the traditionally barred entry of "untouchables" into Nathdwara temple, near Udaipur, Rajasthan. Again, he was arrested, but the action had a substantial impact on public opinion.
All his life, Swamiji has fought against communalism and intolerance in the name of religion. In 1989, he led a multi-religious march from Delhi to Meerut to protest against and defuse communal violence that had claimed the lives of 45 Muslim youths. In 1999, concerned about escalating religious fundamentalism and obscurantism, he helped launch a multi-religious forum called Religions for Social Justice, which led a group of 55 religious leaders to the place where the Australian Christian missionary Graham Steines and his two sons were burned to death in their sleep by a group of rightwing Hindu bigots. In the wake of Gujarat riots of 2002, Swamiji organized a group of 72 eminent religious–social leaders who spent five days in the violence-affected areas of Gujarat and denounced the Hindu fundamentalist organizations and sectors responsible for the massacre. Swamiji launched the Adhyatma Jagaran Manch (Movement for Spiritual Awakening) to prevent the repetition of such genocide in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. He was unequivocal in the condemnation of the "Hindutva" ideology, which, according to him, seeks to hijack Hinduism with disastrous prospects for all concerned.
Over the years, Swamiji has participated in countless people's move-ments, namely, All Assam Students' Union (AASU) movement in Assam, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini movement in Bihar, Shetkari Sangathana's and Bhartiya Kisan Union's struggles for farmers, Unorganized Labor struggle in Tamil Nadu, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and campaigned with women's movements against alcohol in both Andhra Pradesh and Haryana, winning total prohibition (though for a short period) in both states.
More recently, he anchored a much-acclaimed multi-part series on television titled "Manthan" that brought together religious teachers from various faiths and debated on major social issues like women's rights and terrorism. It helped dispel several deep-rooted misconceptions of people about other faiths (and often their own) and highlighted the universal humanist aspect of all faiths as well as their relevance to society. He is currently involved in a major initiative, Sarva Dharma Sansad (Parliament of Religions) that seeks to set the stage for an atmosphere of cross-faith dialogue, harmony, and understanding in India based on a Common Minimum Program of Social Action. Time and again, he has raised his voice against the stereotyping of the association of Islam with terrorism. Never at rest, Swamiji has traveled to Kashmir at the peak of trouble in 2008 to counsel peace and dialogue and has been mediating between feuding Sikh groups of Dera Sachcha Sauda and Akal Takht.
In economic matters, Swamiji has campaigned against naked consumerism that has gripped India today and the base form of globalization that uproots local people to reap profits for multinationals. Time and again, he has reminded us thatIndia has always espoused globalization—indeed vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is a family) which is a timeless precept of India. And yet, today's globalization, if it remains a globalization of greed rather than of boundary-less understanding and compassion, is bound to have disastrous consequences.
Recognition has come to him over the years in the form of several national and international awards including the Anti-Slavery International Award in London, 1990, the Freedom and Human Rights Award in Berne, 1994, and the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Communal Harmony and the Right Livelihood Award (the "alternative Nobel Prize") from Sweden, 2004. A listing of campaigns and kudos, however impressive, (and the awards list but a minuscule part of the massive karmakanda Swamiji has been involved with) can hardly provide a glimpse of the person that animates these momentous actions; he is equally active and consistent between the dates and years included in the listing.