PUDR mourns the passing away of Swami Agnivesh on September 11, 2020. Like many civil rights organizations which came into being in the post-Emergency phase in Delhi, PUDR shared a warm and comradely relation with Swami Agnivesh as he participated in a wide variety of democratic rights activities in the city.
Besides being a fellow traveller in the country’s civil rights movement, Swami Agnivesh’s Bandhua Mukti Morcha which was founded in 1981, shared a particularly important relation with PUDR. The BMM 1984 judgment in which the Supreme Court reiterated that all labourers who are denied common minimum wages should be presumed as bonded labourers was preceded by PUDR’s 1982 judgment in which the apex court had held the right against forced labour included the right to minimum wages. Both petitions shared a common goal of emancipation of working people by upholding the right to live with human dignity and the state’s responsibility in ensuring the protection of fundamental rights. More importantly, the then President of PUDR, Mr Gobinda Mukhoty argued many of the BMM petitions in court.
In 2011, Swami Agnivesh was part of a joint team which included members of PUDR in Bastar asking for the release of 5 security men who had been held hostage for 18 days by the Maoists. Swami Agnivesh had hoped that the State would reciprocate this unconditional release. Instead, he was attacked by Salwa Judum goons in Chintalnar in South Chhattisgarh, where he had gone for relief distribution following the burning down of houses by the security forces in March 2011. His opposition to the anti-Muslim rhetoric led to him being severely attacked by a mob allegedly belonging to the Bharatiya Yuva Morcha in Pakur, Jharkhand, in 2018. The ire of vigilante groups was visited again, a month later in Delhi, when he was on his way to pay tribute to the former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Unlike the typical saffron robed faith healer, Swami Agnivesh was an activist at heart. Besides being a committed believer in democratic rights, he was a staunch advocate of peace and harmony and he led several interfaith initiatives in strife-torn Kashmir. Consequently, he paid a heavy price for raising these issues. His friends and aides have maintained that his health began to slide especially after the repeated attacks and assaults in 2018.
The passing away of Swami Agnivesh is a big loss to the democratic rights movement in India, as the movement has lost a friend, a comrade and a fellow activist.
Radhika Chitkara and Vikas Kumar