Social activist and veteran Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh died on Friday, September 11 at the age of 81 in the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS) in New Delhi for treatment of liver damage and died of multi-organ failure.
He devoted his life to India’s most insignificant and peripheral group and vigorously supported their rights.
Always covered in saffron, Swami Agnivesh rejected idol worship as an ardent follower of Arya Samaj principles. But it was his work to free bonded laborers for which he will be always remembered.
Born in Andhra Pradesh, Srikakulam, Agnivesh’s original name was Vepa Shyam Rao. He gave up the identity of being Brahmin, he left his family and moved to Haryana to join the Arya Samaj in the late 1960s. He fought for more than half a century to reclaim the holiness and honor of the saffron, from political opportunities.
Agnivesh collected his degrees in law and commerce, taught in Jesuit institutions, later he chose to become a human rights activist. In 1981, he founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM), where he would not just register a police complaint but also pursue the case to a conclusion and fight for the rights of laborers. The BMM played a significant role in the release of thousands of bonded workers from industrial units, brick kilns, and construction sites in and around Delhi.
Agnivesh also fought for the rights and dignity of India’s marginalized. In 1987 he led a march against the Sati system. He made several efforts to secure entry of untouchables into temples and was one of the first attestant to the campaign to repeal Section 377 of the IPC. Under the Modi government, he spoke up against mob lynchings.
In 2018, he was attacked in Pakur, Jharkhand, by a mob, which knocked off his turban and kicked and punched him. He blamed the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, associated with the BJP, that had earlier called a protest against him for being a ‘Naxal sympathizer’.
His body will be placed in BMM on Saturday, for people to pay their tributes before his last rites at an ashram in Gurgaon.