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True colours
By Francois Gautier
August 20 2003

If you are looking for the right type of Hindu - one who is neither too fanatical nor too ritualistic, but is liberal minded, speaks good English, is able to interact with westerners; in short, a secular Hindu - then here is one: His Holiness Swami Agnivesh, chairperson of the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery; chairperson, Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front); and, general secretary, Bharatiya Arya Pratinidhi Sabha 

Indeed, if you conduct a search with his name on the Internet, you will come up with exactly 4,345 hits - all to his credit. Swami Agnivesh is fighting on every front: For the Dalits, against bonded labour, for the underprivileged, against child labour, for oppressed women, against big dams, for minorities, for the holy cow... He is networking with various religious leaders of all major faiths, women's organisations and social-political activists in their effort to carry out anti-liquor movements throughout India; he is strengthening the Arya Samaj movement to fight against various forms of casteism, communalism, religious obscurantism and other social evils. He has been actively involved in assisting women's movement with a view to ensuring their equal participation in all walks of life... 

Indeed, Swami Agnivesh's official biography reads like a virtual who's who. He has, to his credit, various published books like Vedic Socialism, Religion, Revolution and Marxism, and has published various articles on national, social and political issues in leading newspapers and magazines. He was the chief editor of Rajdharma, a fortnightly magazine, and Kranti Dharma, a monthly magazine. He has been awarded the Anti-Slavery International Award, London, 1990, and Freedom and Human Rights Award, Berne, Switzerland, 1994. He has been striving to establish a liberal, egalitarian society based on tolerance and mutual accommodation and coordinating efforts under the banner of 'Religions for Social Justice'. 

Try to find a counterpoint to his stands, an article adverse to him, any piece of criticism... it would be impossible: There are none. Swami Agnivesh is a beacon of virtue, he is the West's ultimate answer to all the problems afflicting India, and this is why he strides all over the world, giving talks to rapt audiences on the evils of Indian society in New York, Manila, Paris, Tokyo, Montreal, Geneva... you name it. The trouble is that whenever you see someone who projects himself or herself as perfect, seek out the shadows, because nobody can be that good. 

If you look a little closely at Swami Agnivesh's actions and words, you will quickly realise that his first target is what he calls "Hindu fundamentalism". He has, for instance, undoubtedly with good reasons, very strong opinions about the Sangh parivar: "Even if we forget the Mahatma's ideals, we should never forget who killed the Mahatma." Or, "It is a medical analogy that explains the present convulsions (within the Sangh parivar) best - that of de-worming - when the worms in their final twitch of desperation release their poison." Strong words, indeed. 

The unforgivable rioting by Hindus against Muslims in Gujarat went a long way in supporting Swami Agnivesh's theories on the Sangh parivar (except that there seemed to have been a lot of middle class, even Dalit Hindus). Subsequently, in a book written in collaboration with Reverend Valson Thampu, Harvest of Hate: Gujarat Under Siege, he makes a deserving attempt at recording in exacting details the plight of Muslims at the hands of raging Hindus during the violence. 

However, it is not exactly balanced: The first mention of the burning of the Sabarmati Express, which after all triggered the whole thing, only comes on page 37, merely giving the Muslim version of the story: "The so-called kar-sevaks ordered tea from the Muslim vendors and forced them to shout 'Jai Shri Ram', before serving the tea; and those who refused to oblige would be roughed-up." Why does the good Swami not mention that in 1991, in a Godhra madarsa, all the Hindu teachers who were voluntarily tutoring the children, were massacred? Or that today the Electricity Board is afraid to go in Muslim areas of Godhra, where 80 per cent of electricity is illegally tapped? 

If you continue to scrutinise Swami Agnivesh's deeds, you will discover that he has strange bedfellows. True, he chooses his allies in secular spirit: Christians, Dalits, Muslims... all of this is wonderful, except that many of them are avowed enemies of India and often work abroad to belittle its image. Indeed, Swami Agnivesh is often quoted in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, or on the website of the very aggressive Christian Mission Frontiers, where he says: "The appropriate terminology, therefore (to designate these Hindus), is 'Hindu fascists' or 'fascist Hindus'." You will also find him in the now defunct tehelka.com, which declares this about him: "Gujarat does not symbolise Nazi Germany, though Swami Agnivesh in a recent TV discussion was not too far wrong in suggesting that it now emerges as a laboratory for the Sangh parivar's governance experiments with human, and human rights, violation of minority communities." 

It is good that Swami Agnivesh seems to have taken up the cause of the Muslims: Indeed, he is widely quoted by Islam on Line, or Islamic Relief about his views on Hindu fascism. But does he have to go as far as saying: "It is incredibly sad, how the Muslim community seems almost wholly abandoned by the rest of the country?" Or: "Can we really blame the Muslims of Gujarat if they come to prefer Dawood Ibrahim to Narendra Modi?" Ultimately, such statements will only strengthen Muslim extremists, incite moderate Muslims to become jihadis; his words are so anti-Hindu that they might even prompt moderate Hindus to support the Bajrang Dal, a most counter-productive result, which we are sure, is not the good Swami's intention. 

At the end of the day, we would like to think that Swami Agnivesh is a misguided activist who overreacts in his enthusiasm. But nevertheless, he really seems to be too good to be true. There is an element of negativity in him, a total lack of positivism, which make us slightly uneasy. We all know there are unforgivable aspects of Indian society, such as untouchability, child marriage, poverty, or child labour... But what about the wonderful sides of this ancient and great civilisation, which still harbours one of the most tolerant and liberal spirituality of the world, which has given refuge to all the persecuted minorities in the world, from the Jews to the Parsis, from the Armenians to the Tibetans? 

There are today's saints such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who are trying to reform Indian society, but with love and practical tools, not by hammering at it and lowering its image in the eyes of the world. Are then Swami Agnivesh's orange robes and turban a disguise, a lure with which he can hit out more freely at his own culture? Will the real Swami Agnivesh please stand up and show us his true colours?


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