The Man Who Stole Their Fire

Swami Agnivesh is churning up a quiet revolution, this time on television, says NISHITA JHA

SWAMI AGNIVESH is a man on fire. Do not be fooled by his tranquil smile. Some years ago he famously said, “Agnivesh mera naam hai, aag lagana mera kaam hai”. A reminder of this bravado makes his eyes twinkle with mischief even at 70 — “I do want to start fires. I want to burn blind faith, discrimination, illiteracy, poverty, corruption…” The list is endless, a tall order perhaps, even for this swami who is president of the World Council of Arya Samaj (WCAS). But the startling thing about Swami Agnivesh is that in spite of being swathed in saffron from head to toe he seems ordinary compared to the verbose godmen on television. There is no obfuscating talk about the Vedas and Puranas, no Sanskrit terms hurled at you to make you feel like you are negotiating a deal with god’s middleman. He is direct, concise and shockingly logical.

In a relaxed mood after a press conference, he speaks of his latest media venture — Vichar Manthan, a show aired on Lok Sabha TV. The format is fairly standard — Swami Agnivesh moderating an audience full of young students, usually along with an eminent panel, discussing current affairs. But there is nothing standard about the social reform he promotes through his show. Watching him embrace AIDS patients, wash the feet of Dalit scavengers, shake hands with lepers — makes you linger at the remote instead of changing the channel at warp speed upon encountering saffron on screen.

Usually against capital punishment, Agnivesh supports judge Vani Gopal Sharma’s death sentence to the members of Tilawana Khap Panchayat — for the honour- killing of Manoj and Babli, who married within the same gotra. “Often you cannot control who you fall in love with. Then how can your elders decide? This vocabulary of caste makes no sense in the language of love.”

In a similarly radical vein, he holds forth on the Maha Kumbh mela “We have started an awareness campaign at the Kumbh — these ‘holy dips’ will do nothing to purify your soul. It is a fiction created by orthodox elements, funded by a supposedly secular government that has far more serious issues to deal with. Why not utilise all the wealth and manpower for a better cause, like cleaning the holy river?” Additionally, the ex-business management lecturer is planning to launch an RTI against the UP government to explain how the huge amount of public funds spent on the mela were utilised.

WHILE some of his ideas might make conservative stomachs queasy, his belief that the crux of all evil lies in the distribution of narcotics and cheap liquor, is supported by religious heads such as the Dalai Lama, Baba Ramdev and Swami Chidanand. Nationwide prohibition is the next step on Swami Agnivesh’s agenda.

Interviewing an audience of ragpickers, for a Vichar Manthan episode, he asks them what made them poor. A girl finally replies, “Our parents did something that made god upset with us.”

“And all those children who go to school in cars, speak in English — do you believe their parents made god very happy?”

With a simple question, he forces her to examine something she clung to as the explanation for her terrible life. Akin to a similar manthan from a different age, when gods and demons fought over the elixir of life — you begin to wonder if this ordinary man is churning up something truly extraordinary.

WRITER’S EMAIL

nishita@tehelka.com

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 15, Dated April 17, 2010