Swami Agnivesh, Crusader Against Labor Abuses in India, Dies at 80

Swami Agnivesh, a venerated longtime activist against child labor and indentured servitude in India, died on September 11th in New Delhi. He was 80 years old.

His death in a hospital was confirmed by a staff member, Zayauddin Jawed, who said the cause was multiple organ failure.

As a pacifist Hindu monk who renounced worldly possessions and relationships at a young age, Mr. Agnivesh led a decades-long crusade against moneylenders, landowners and brick kiln owners who forced landless, indebted peasants to do forced labor or indented servitude.

In 1981 he founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha or the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, which he led until his death. From 1994 to 2004 he was Chairman of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

“His death will make the country smaller,” wrote Shashi Tharoor, one of India’s most influential opposition politicians, on Twitter.

Mr. Agnivesh was a prominent advocate of many social justice concerns and a trusted mediator when conflict arose. He fought for tribal communities who had few land ownership rights, even though they populated much of the country’s forests. In the 1980s, when environmentalists objected to the settlement of forced laborers on protected woodland, he helped defuse the situation and worked out a compromise that would allow much of the forest to be preserved.

After Maoist rebels kidnapped five police officers in 2011, which led to an 18-day hostage crisis in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, he helped negotiate their release.

“He had steely courage and tremendous compassion,” said Ramachandra Guha, an eminent Indian historian who had known Mr. Agnivesh for three decades.

In recent years, as Hindu nationalism continued to rise in India, Mr. Agnivesh was one of its greatest critics, saying the core values ​​on which the republic was founded have come under pressure. He wrote last year: “The democratic space – in which these values ​​are supposed to prevail – is communalized, polarized and poisoned with hatred.”

John Dayal, another human rights activist, said of Mr. Agnivesh, “His greatest challenge has been the fundamentalist Hindu.”

“The politicization of Hinduism and the kidnapping of sacred symbols for political achievement – it detested everything,” Dayal said.

Mr. Guha said he admired Mr. Agnivesh’s “willingness to risk his life to defend the inclusive and pluralistic beliefs that he himself practiced”.

Mr. Agnivesh was beaten many times; In one case, a crowd of Hindu nationalists stripped him, kicked and beat him, and accused him of inciting tribal groups to fight the government. He later said that he was convinced that they had intended to kill him.

Swami Agnivesh was born as Vepa Shyam Rao on September 21, 1939 into an orthodox Hindu brahmin family in the Srikakulam district in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

His father, Vepa Laxmi Narsinham, a farmer, died when Mr Agnivesh was 4 years old. His mother, Sita Devi, a housewife, died a year later. After losing his parents, he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He left no immediate survivors.

Mr. Agnivesh studied law and commerce at the University of Calcutta and, upon graduation, became a professor of management studies at St. Xavier’s College, West Bengal, India.

He briefly practiced as a lawyer, but soon moved to the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, both of which were notorious for their forced labor. For his work against child labor, he received the Right Livelihood Award for humanitarian work from a Swedish foundation in 2004.

Mr Agnivesh served 14 months in prison after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency in 1975 and detained political opponents and activists.

He fought against the Indian National Congress Party of Ms. Gandhi, was elected to the legislative assembly of the state in Haryana and appointed cabinet minister in Haryana. But he only served four months, was evicted after protesting his own government and calling for an investigation into the murder of 10 workers in an industrial town in a clash with police.

This episode prompted him to devote his life to fighting forced labor.