Godfellas III – A series on gurus and their politics

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Swami Agnivesh, 71
Social Activist

Swami Agnivesh
Different breed Swami Agnivesh has become a poster boy for Left libearls
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

IN THE search for spiritual leaders who are now entering the political space, the names that immediately come to mind are Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Gurus who have a mass base and a political voice. But there is another spiritual leader, arguably, at the margins of the political mainstream. Who is a left-liberal activist. And an agnostic. A swami in saffron robes who doesn’t believe in organised religion. And who doesn’t want to be called a Hindu. Swami Agnivesh has no following at all. And he repeatedly says, “Don’t call me a guru.” He stands for some of the same causes as Sri Sri and Ramdev have, but from a different spiritual and political space.

In recent months you have probably seen the saffron-clad swami on Anna Hazare’s dais — he was and is an active part of that movement. He also supported Ramdev’s cause, but from a distance. And denounced the police brutality that resulted in its violent end. While Left liberals have successfully used Agnivesh as their spiritual poster boy, the question is, what does he really represent in the political mainstream? Like the political ideology he stands for, is he caught in a bind, where he is always preaching to the converted? Speaking of decentralised development to people who already believe that? And communal harmony to the ideological Left? Is Agnivesh’s critique of globalisation in a neo-capitalist India really reaching people who don’t agree with him but are willing to listen?

We put all these questions to Agnivesh. But to really understand what he thinks, we urge you to go by not just the plain text of what he says. There is another layer sitting in the subtext for the reader to unravel. Where he talks of why Ramdev was on Aastha TV and he wasn’t. Why Ramdev has a mass following and he doesn’t. And in the dismissal of all things worldly, and also all things Ramdev, a perhaps universal need to be heard and acknowledged, to be a part of the mainstream, to occupy the space that Ramdev has.

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‘I condemn the violence by the Maoists as well’

SHYAM VEPA RAO or Swami Agnivesh was born just as World War II was breaking out, on 21 September 1939. He was brought up in a small village in Chhattisgarh. He studied law and economics in Kolkata and taught at St Xavier’s in the 1960s. It was then that he was influenced both by the Naxalbari movements and the Arya Samaj. His political activism made him an MLA from Haryana in the 1970s and also the state education minister in 1979-82. He is best known for his activism to rid India of bonded labour with the formation of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha. He was elected president of the World Council of Arya Samaj and chairperson of the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Excerpts from an interview

Swami Agnivesh
Eternal bond Religion has failed to free the people from shackles, says Swami Agnivesh

What motivated you to give up an academic life in the 1960s and move to a spiritual quest?
It was 1967, Naxalbari village in North Bengal. Activism had begun. It was an inspiring saga of struggle. I was in Calcutta since 1956 after my matriculation, the first time I was exposed to city life. I would see people sleeping on the street, sharing space with street dogs in the night. I had a simple question in my mind. Why do people who work so hard sleep on the street and people who I never see work at all live in big houses. It was at this time that I was also associated with the Arya Samaj in Calcutta. The so-called religious scholars there gave ready-made justifications saying this is their past-life karma. On the other hand, people who called Mao their chairman, believed revolution grows through the barrel of a gun. I found that violent. But I liked their struggle. So this became a challenge. Who was my chairman? I found it was Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati and also Vivekananda. But they had become brahmacharis and sacrificed worldly needs for their cause. And what was I doing? Practising law and dreaming of going abroad. All these forces challenged me.

You are seen as a guru who is on the side of the Left liberals.
Never call me a guru. I always believe every individual should be his or her own guru.

Ok. A spiritual leader? A Hindu activist?
Don’t call me a Hindu. My total approach is universal.

As a spiritual activist on the side of the liberal Left, how do you marry Marxist thought with what Marx said on religion — that it’s the opiate of the masses?
Marx has been misquoted or it’s an incomplete quote. He has also said somewhere that religion is the mainstay of the masses. The way spirituality has been made into organised religion, superstition, idolatory, then it becomes the opium of the masses.

Unlike Baba Ramdev or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, you don’t have a mass base. So how are you going to effect the change you want?
The owner of Aastha TV had approached me in Haridwar on the same day as Ramdev was getting his trust inaugurated about five years ago. Then he said, I’m going to Haridwar. I’ve got something to discuss with Ramdevji. And thereafter whenever I called him, he’d say, yes, we are thinking, it will take some more time. And so it got stalled. Then I went to Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, who was the Union Information & Broadcasting minister at that time. I said, look there is debate on everything, except religion. And if we don’t allow debate on religion, you will not be able to shake these Hindutva-wallahs who are out to exploit this religiosity in the name of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. He invited me to conduct religious debates on the national channel.

If your voice is pushed to the margins, how will you fight?
This is the challenge. I believe in fighting non-violently. I condemn the violence of the Maoists as well, unlike some of my other colleagues. Arundhati Roy, for instance, is silent on this aspect of the Maoists. I don’t justify violence. But I also equally condemn Operation Green Hunt.

I’m returning to this question of a mass base.
I know, but social change cannot just come by having a political mass base or a ‘gurudom’ type of a following. There is an element of blind faith in the guru. Recently, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and myself, were holding an anti-corruption rally in Goa. Where we were expecting the whole of (Baba Ramdev’s) Bharat Swabhiman Andolan to turn up, only a handful came. When it was put to them, they said unless we get the word from the top, we can’t go. When they were asked, even for a good cause, you need permission? They said yes. Similarly for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also. Unless Sri Sri gives the directive, they will not do so. This way, these people are not getting liberated. Religion is meant to free us from shackles. We barter this away at the altar of our gurus.

People say Swami Agnivesh goes wherever there is a cause to be fought on behalf of the liberals. You were in Gujarat, you were also in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Because you were everywhere, are you also nowhere?
People give me good and friendly advice: Don’t spread yourself too thin. Shabana Azmi said to me, swamiji, you take on so many causes. How will you see the results? This is a dilemma. But at the end of the day, I feel fortunate. To have got the love of so many people. The poor, the underprivileged. Of all faiths.

Coming to the Jan Lokpal movement. There has been criticism of the method of the people in the drafting committee, who gave them the right to draft the Bill and also the association of people like Ramdev has been questioned.
We put the Jan Lokpal Bill draft on the website, invited criticism. There was version after version. We are open to debates on the Lokpal Bill joint drafting committee.

You have talked extensively against globalisation, calling it the glorification of greed as God. What alternative model are you suggesting in its place?
The alternative is spiritual materialism. You can’t deny the material world. But spiritual values should lead.

In the marketplace, either you keep expanding or you die. It’s the nature of markets, historically
Modern economics is based on false premises. The first thing you read in economics is that nature is niggardly and man’s wants are unlimited. This is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, I think. On the other hand, if you have human happiness as the core of your economic model or system, you will not say that. You will say nature is bountiful, but in order to be happy, you have to restrain your desires. You cannot go with unlimited wants. Read Buddhist economics, or Small is Beautiful or Gandhi. These are deep economic theories.

What do you think of Ramdev’s demands for bringing back black money? Are you supporting him?
I fully support him on this issue and many other issues he has brought up. But at the same time, I don’t see how you can go on a fast unto death on issues like this. It may take years to bring the money back. Remove Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, hang the corrupt, these are impractical demands. They are good to create public awareness. The hang the corrupt demand is just good for rhetoric.

Have you ever talked to him about this when Ramdev had joined Hazare’s fast?
No there was no time then. We were in another meeting. And suddenly we got a call that (RSS spokesman) Ram Madhav is on the dais. We sent our people and asked him to leave. Ramdev didn’t like this. This is what we felt. Then the next day, Ramdev made statements about the two Bhushans in the draft panel, etc. I give him full credit for mass awareness without any religious corruption at the back of it. Of course, he has built an empire. I have no such thing. I have nothing to lose.

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Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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