21 September 1939 |
Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, India
Agnivesh (or Swami Agnivesh; born 21 September 1939) is an Indian politician and a former Member of Legislative Assembly from the Indian state of Haryana, an Arya Samaj scholar, and a social activist. He is best known for his work against bonded labour through the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which he founded in 1981. Agnivesh became president (2004-2014) of the World Council of Arya Samaj, which is the highest international body of the Arya Samaj movement originally established by Swami Dayanand Saraswati in 1875, and served as the chairperson of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 1994 to 2004.
Swami Agnivesh was born Vepa Shyam Rao on 21 September 1939 in an orthodox Hindu family of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh. He lost his father at the age of four. He was brought up by his maternal grandfather who was the Diwan of a princely state called Shakti, now in Chhattisgarh. He gained degrees in Law and Commerce, became a lecturer in management at the reputed St Xavier's College in Kolkata and for a while practiced law as a junior to Sabyasachi Mukherji for a while who later would become Chief Justice of India.
Agnivesh became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Haryana in 1977, and served as a cabinet Minister for Education in 1979 . In 1981, while still a minister, he founded the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which continues to raise issues surrounding bonded labour in India, especially in the quarries in and around Delhi; he remains the chairperson of the organisation. After leaving the Ministry, he was arrested twice, spending a total of 14 months in jail on charges of subversion and murder, of which he was later acquitted.
In March 2011, Maoist forces killed three members of the Chhattisgarh security and police forces; subsequently, the security forces allegedly attacked and burned an alleged Maoist village. When Swami Agnivesh and his organisation attempted to bring relief aid to families in the affected village, they were met by a large group of demonstrators who attacked their cars with stones, claiming that the Maoists were responsible for the deaths of many security force personnel over the last year.
Swami Agnivesh took part in the 2011 anti-corruption protests in India in August of that year. He would later break away from the main group of protesters, claiming that certain protesters had humiliated and conspired against him for political reasons. A video purporting to show Swami Agnivesh speaking to one "Kapil" (ostensibly Kapil Sibal, who was then a minister), suggesting that the government should deal more firmly with "adamant" protesters, was circulated in the Indian media and via the internet. Swami Agnivesh at first claimed another "Kapil" was being referred to in the footage but would later assert that the video itself was doctored.
Swami Agnivesh testified before the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Later, he created a new task for emancipation of womanhood, which was a helpful factor in the Commission of Sati (prevention) Act of 1987.
Agnivesh also argued at a conference on economic development and religion sponsored by the World Bank that people should be allowed full freedom of movement across borders through the elimination of all passports and immigration laws.
In 1968, Agnivesh went to Haryana to join the Arya Samaj and on 25 March 1970, Agnivesh took the sanyas vows. He was expelled from the organisation in August 2008, after 17 of the 19 Arya Samaj Pratinidhi Sabhas in India expressed opposition to him.
In 2008, he addressed a large gathering at the Anti-Terrorism Global Peace Conference, at Ramlila Grounds, organised by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and several Islamic organisations, where he stated, "It is wrong to attribute the wrongdoings of a few individuals to the whole community." He also supported the demand by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind that banned the singing of Vande Mataram by Muslim citizens of India. "I would not mince words to say that the United States is the terrorist number one. To defame the Koran and Islam is the worst form of terrorism. Islam stands for peace and brotherhood and there cannot be a bigger lie than saying that Muslims are terrorists." 
Agnivesh is also a proponent of interfaith dialogue and is a member of the Board of World Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is also a board member of the KAICIID Dialogue Centre established in Vienna in 2012 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, together with the governments of Austria and Spain. In 2015, he opposed Government's plan of separate settlement for Kashmiri Pandits as part of their rehabilitation in the valley.
Criticism from Hindu groups
Agnivesh has been severely criticised by some Hindu groups for statements they view as anti-Hindu. In 2005, Agnivesh stated that the Puri Jagannath Temple should be opened to non-Hindus; this led to the priests of the temple condemning his remarks as "purely anti-Hindu in nature" and burning his effigy. In May 2011, hundreds of Hindu priests protested against Agnivesh's claim that ice stalagmite that they believe resembles Lord Shiva is just a piece of ice; during the protest the priests burnt his effigy. According to the Kashmir Observer, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist political party, offered a 2 million bounty for killing Agnivesh, for negative statements he made about Kashmir and Baba Amarnath. On 8 November 2011, the Supreme Court condemned Agnivesh for hurting the sentiments of Hindu People by commenting on Amarnath Pilgrimage. The apex court bench of Justice H.L. Dattu and Justice C.K. Prasad told Agnivesh that he should weigh his words "many a time before uttering them lest it hurts the sentiments of the people".
Bigg Boss Participation
- Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award – Delhi, India, 2004 (Religious & Communal Harmony Award 2004)
- Right Livelihood Award 2004 – Sweden
- M.A.Thomas National Rights Award 2006, Bangalore, India
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- Governance | KAICIID
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