India celebrates anti-slavery pioneer Swami Agnivesh's 'life of rebellion'

by Anuradha Nagaraj | @anuranagaraj | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 September 2020 12:58 GMT

Anti-slavery campaigner Swami Agnivesh addressing a rally on housing rights in New Delhi, India, in 2018. Picture courtsey Bandhua Mukti Morcha

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Anti-slavery activist Swami Agnivesh, who died this month, campaigned tirelessly for human rights

By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -The death of anti-slavery campaigner Swami Agnivesh, who was jailed, beaten and became a reality TV star for his work to help women and the untouchables, is to be marked in India with a fitting tribute - a protest march.

Thousands of workers will take to the streets this month to call for better housing and an end to unemployment as they mourn the passing of Agnivesh, 80, who died in a Delhi hospital on Sept. 11 after battling liver disease.

Supporters believed this was a fitting way to pay tribute to the charismatic man who pushed for legal changes to benefit the under-privileged and was credited for helping to rescue 180,000 people trapped in debt bondage.

"He would have liked that," said Nirmal Gorana, general secretary of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, or Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which Agnivesh founded in 1981 as a frontline organisation to identify and rescue bonded workers in India.

"He may have passed away, but there are thousands of Agniveshs he has inspired who will carry his legacy forward ... the movement he started will continue with renewed vigour to tackle modern forms of slavery."

For more than four decades, Agnivesh campaigned for the rights of bonded workers in quarries, brick kilns and carpet weaving units, and against child labour, filing cases in the public interest that resulted in ground-breaking judgments.

The saffron-clad activist was also a campaigner for women's rights and religious tolerance.

In 2011, he appeared on reality show Bigg Boss, India's version of primetime hit Big Brother, in which contestants are under house arrest for three months with round-the-clock camera surveillance.

In response to critics who labelled it a "publicity stunt", Agnivesh said he saw it as an important medium to fight against exploitation, violence against women and the killing of unborn baby girls.

Trained as a lawyer, he spent years going to police stations, government offices and courts trying to convince officials of the reality of bonded labour, one of the most prevalent forms of slavery in India.

India is home to about 8 million modern-day slaves, according to the Australia-based Walk Free's Global Slavery Index. The government says 300,000 people have been freed since bonded labour was outlawed in 1976 and it aims to free millions more. [nL4N2D21H3]

"It is because of his efforts that courts ruled in favour of workers, saying that if they were paid even 1 Indian rupee  ($0.01) less than the promised minimum wage, it amounted to forced labour," Gorana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.



Born in south India as Vepa Shyam Rao, Agnivesh started out a professor in a management institute before becoming a sanyasi, a Hindu holy man who renounces all possessions and becoming Swami Agnivesh in the process.

He went on to found a political party and was arrested during the 1975-1977 emergency when civil liberties were suspended in India, spending 14 months in jail. He later became a minister in northern Haryana state.

The outspoken activist left politics to focus on social issues, campaigning for land, water and forest rights, and in 2004 won Sweden's alternative Nobel Prize, the Right Livelihood Award.

In interviews he often said that he wanted to use "spirituality as an instrument for social transformation".

In a television interview in 2018, he said that he had "lived a life of rebellion" and would always fight against injustices. 

He marched for days and was jailed for his campaign against sati, the ancient practice of widows burning themselves alive on their husband's funeral pyre, which led to stronger legislation.

He never stopped campaigning despite coming under attack from a violent mob in 2018 in Pakur district in Jharkhand state where he was supporting a tribal communities' campaign against state land acquisition.

He was even fighting for worker rights during India's stringent coronavirus lockdown that was imposed in March and left millions without work. He tweeted frequently about the need for relief grants for those affected.

Among those to issue public condolences was another renowned Indian social reformer, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who tweeted that his "old friend" had been a "crusader" against bonded labour.

 Related links:

Indian slavery survivors swap life of bondage for seat in boardroom at tea plantation

No work, new debt: virus creates perfect storm for slavery in India

Freedom, money, babies: Indian women rescued from slavery count their losses

($1 = 73.6210 Indian rupees)


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