Adieu… Agnivesh!

Munawwar Kaungal

This week witnessed the demise of Vepa Shyam Rao, better known as Swami Agnivesh. He had been a visible figure in the various agitations and programmes conducted in India for demands pertaining to justice, civil and political liberties, human rights, etc. In this respect, he was considered by many as a counter for Sangh Parivar from the ranks of Hindu clerics, who generally affiliate themselves with the Sangh – formally or otherwise. He was also the face of the Hindu clerics for the Western media, as he was one of the few amongst them who could be found to be capable of dealing with them reasonably. As such, he had been interviewed by many such an outlet and his opinions well sought by the Western press on subjects pertaining to Hindu practices and developments in India. He was once subjected to physical assault, in Jharkhand, by the goons of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and this had earned him a great deal of sympathy. This was also seen as one of the many indications of the fascist turn of the political ecosystem of the Indian Republic. The news of his demise was met with messages of condolences pouring in from various quarters of civil society and mutually differing political camps.

He had been primarily associated with the Arya Samaj and had founded a political party called Arya Sabha, affiliated to the same, in the 1970s. It was on the panel of this party that he once got elected as a legislator in the Haryana State Assembly. He headed the World Council of Arya Samaj, also called the International Arya Representatives Assembly, for a long period of his life. In this capacity, he is succeeded by Swami Aryavesh.

Born in 1939 in Srikakulam, which was a part of the erstwhile Madras Province, into a Brahmin family associated with one of the states of the Eastern States Agency. He did his education from Raipur and graduated in law from the University of Calcutta. After a brief stint of legal practice, he dedicated to the activities of Arya Samaj. As is traditional with the Arya Samaj, he had involved in religious polemics in this phase of his and had written and spoken against other faiths. During his visit to Durban in 1995, he was scheduled to have a symposium with Ahmed Deedat, though he did not turn up for that. In this respect, it would be worthwhile if we could shed some light on his primary affiliation viz.; Arya Samaj.

Arya Samaj was an organisation founded by a Brahmin named Mul Shankar Tiwari, who later came to be known as Dayanand Saraswati, as part of formalising a newly founded Hindu faith. While Brahmo Samaj and its founder Ram Mohun Roy could be credited for founding a Hindu identity, under the aegis of Fort William College, Tiwari could be credited to giving it a garb of religion and faith. For this purpose, he had to be quite selective about the rites and rituals to be made part of this initiative. This brought about the Arya Samaj – Sanatana Dharma schism, with the latter consisting of more conservative elements who could not come to terms with Tiwari’s selective approach. Arya Samaj’s activities and evangelism was quite caustic towards all other faiths. British Punjab, where this organisation took birth, became a regular stage for heated ideological attacks between Protestant Christian missionaries, Arya Samajists and Muslim clerics. This “religionising” process was furthered by other Bengali Brahmins like Gadadhar Chattopadhyay (Ramakrishna Paramahamsa), Narendranath Dutt (Swami Vivekanand) & Aurobindo Ghosh (though a Kayasth). That it was these two provinces of British India that witnessed bloody “partition” process, as a development of these tendencies, is a point to be noted in this context.

Soon Arya Samajists were an active component of the Brahmo Samajist organisation viz.; Indian National Congress, giving rise to various schisms within that organisation. Parallel to that, they also gave birth to “Hindu Sabha” at various places, all of which were later conglomerated to form Hindu Mahasabha and RSS (HSS outside India). These organisations still maintain quite active links and warm relations between them, inside and outside India. Today, one of the most visible role of the Arya Samaj is to perform conversion rites of non-Hindus which they variably call Shuddhi (purification) & Ghar Wapasi (homecoming). Non-Hindus implied here includes both animist tribal peoples as well as members of other organised faith communities. Ghar Wapasi is also a declared objective of World Hindu Council (VHP) – the RSS affiliate specific for Brahmin clerics. In addition, Arya Samaj had initiated activities for social consolidation and exclusion of privileged castes, exhorting boycott of non-Hindu businesses, relations, etc. This was termed as Sangathan.

Vepa Shyam Rao, mentioned earlier in this article, had associated with Arya Samaj since his youth and has written and spoken extensively for the same. As a token of his that affiliation, he used to regularly quote from Tiwari’s speeches and writings and heap praises on him during his speeches at various fora and in his various writings. His funeral has been conducted by the current Arya Samaj head, viz.; Swami Aryavesh, at its Gurgaon base.

It has been a paradox Rao had been simultaneously associated with opposing poles – with Arya Samaj on one hand and with various movements which resisted the Hindu Raj and its various injustices and exploitations. He had even participated in a protest march against the Zionist entity conducted at its border with Jordan, bearing in mind that the former is a strategic ally of the Sangh Parivar. Was his association with the various causes, an act of genuine conviction? Or was it a part of the dual containment and balancing tactic adopted by various establishments, whereby threads of opposing camps would ultimately remain in the hands of the same super-power. Was he a true, lone sheep or was his work part of Kuttayudha tactics of deception. We may never know the answers to such questions. (Kuttayudha, Asurayudha, etc. are modes of warfare bereft of any legal or moral limits, which is reserved for people outside the fold of Brahministic faith and Aryan race by the privileged castes; while among themselves warfare is limited to Dharmayudha, something comparable in contemporary terminology as “just war”. Such approaches could be seen in various fields.) We could however lament about obsession of Muslim organisations in seeking alliances proactively with anybody who would impress them with verbose. Most of such figures, who are made celebrities, are generally not seen to take any serious efforts to create any fundamental discourse of amity within their own communities. Such an obsession has adversely impacted the credibility of Muslims’ own demands, sharpness of their agendas and self-confidence to work in any cause on their own. We hope that the lofty causes that Vepa Shyam Rao stood with would see light of the day and that his memory remains for many years to come.