Vepa Shyam Rao died ten days short of a precise 81 years in the Intensive Care Unit of a Delhi hospital, of the long-term impact of injuries sustained two years ago when the lone unarmed man was surrounded and beaten by armed assailants in Jharkhand. A lynch mob, you could call them.

Even for people who did not read newspapers or did not watch television, it was not difficult to spot Agnivesh, the name that Rao later assumed. If anyone had seen a calendar painting of Swami Vivekananda, they would recognise Agnivesh, by colour, clothes and stance.

As Swami Agnivesh, the global chief of the breakaway denomination of the Arya Samaj, the man from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh fought for more than half a century to reclaim the sanctity and honour of the bhagwa, or ochre-saffron of the ascetic, from charlatans and political opportunists who had used it successfully to propel religious nationalism to power in India. Those were his words to me.

He challenged them on their turf, and defeated them more often than not. They learnt not to confront him face to face, even if they continued to occasionally nip at his heels, or, in later days, troll him in paid packs.

Learned and conscientious

Perhaps it will be said that Agnivesh, in the end, lost what he had set out to achieve as a young management graduate, who later collected degrees in law and commerce, taught in Jesuit institutions, and one day, sort of, gave it up to become an human rights activist and the Hindu version of a Jesuit – learned, conscientious and singular in pursuit.

That is the Swami I encountered early in my reporting days, and grew up with as a friend, occasional colleague and often comrade in activism against communalism and the erosion of civil liberties.

We shared hundreds of platforms in India and in the West, arguing why it was so important not just for us as Indian citizens, but for the world and its peace, that our home land remained secular, democratic, a respecter of human rights, and if possible, an example to the world.

He was absolutely the darling of the international media, world leaders and fellow activists, striding the public platform as a colossal in his ochre kurta-dhoti, and the trademark turban of the same flaming hue adding even more stature to his tall and strong frame.

Little wonder that he could hold his own in Haryana where, for a short while, he fought and won an election to the state assembly and was made a minister. Not for long, but it did give him an insight into the way politics is played in India.

It was in Haryana he discovered a modern form of slavery – the phenomenon of bonded labour. A marginal farmer or a landless laborer would borrow money, sign a paper, and then discover that just to pay off the interest, he and his wife would have to serve the lender for the rest of their life. And then the children would inherit the debt, and the bondage.

Agnivesh devoted his life to eradicate this menace He would expose it in India in meetings and seminars, leading his band of followers to rescue bonded labour from brick kilns in villages and outside towns. It could become a street fight.

Fighting India’s inequities

Agnivesh once led a band of a few score ragged children and adults to raid the Ashoka Hotel, crying out how could seven-star edifices co-exist with people who had no present, and no future. The police and the governments were not amused.

But Agnivesh made the world conscious of this and many other inequities that still beset India – including the inequities of caste, and the worst manifestation of caste, manual scavenging.

We have together been a part of movements against this. And once in the birthplace of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, both of us had the privilege of washing the feet of manual scavengers. Among them was a woman who had vowed to give it up and get everyone else to also do so. Her daughter was a student of law. Agnivesh was in tears. He was not the only one.

At home as much on the street and in demonstrations at one or another of the many offices in Delhi or elsewhere, Agnivesh was in full flow on the global stage. We were at the World Parliament of Religions where once, in Chicago, Swami Vivekanand had spoken of the greatness Hinduism. Agnivesh mounted the stage and cautioned the world what would become of Vivekananda’s words if the communalism gnawed away at the very superstructure of Indian democracy. The many thousands gathered rose in acclamation. Days later, I spoke at the valedictory on the underbelly of South Asia.

As Agnivesh recovered from being attacked in Jharkhand in 2018, he met with Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto, activist John Dayal and Father Felix of the Catholic archdiocese commission for interfaith dialogue. Credit: John Dayal via Facebook

International wards and honorary positions sat easy on his frame. He had been the international chair of one of the United Nation’s committees on Modern Forms of Slavery.

The Swami had his quirks, if I may so call them. A celibate, teetotaler, a vegetarian, he followed an Arya Samaj that did not believe in idols and idol worship, or things others of his faith held sacred. He surprised many audiences greeting them in Urdu and a few words of Arabic he had picked up in his globe-trotting.

He often said, repeating the words of Mahatma Gandhi, that he loved Jesus, but perhaps not some of those who claimed to follow him. He was averse to evangelisation, and opposed conversions. He stuck to his point of view even if one told him opposing conversions – not just to Christianity – also meant that one did not accept that the poor, dispossessed and the so called outcastes had agency in matters of faith, but were doomed to die in bondage both to religion and to caste.

A charasmatic, brave man

I salute one of the most charismatic and bravest men I’ve ever met.

Who else, clad in the dress once worn by Swami Vivekanand, could argue with and answer back everyone from a Shankaracharya down to the knife-wielding thug who said he was protecting India?

Of course they attacked him, more than once, grievously injuring him sometimes. But they got a taste of his whiplash tongue that they would remember.

He once whiplashed the Israeli border guards at the Jordan crossing when they refused us – a small delegation invited by the Palestinians and with proper visas from both Jordan and Israel – permission to enter Israel. The Israeli guards had confiscated our passports and would not return them. The Swami sat on a dharna, screaming at the officials, giving a speech to the motley gathering of refugees, visitors, Israeli nationals and Palestinians crowded in the hall.

The officers did not know what hit them. Interpreters were called, officials and diplomats were mobilised, and we were out on a bus back to Jordan, and back home.

That was my last trip outside India with Agnivesh.

Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented us from paying personal homage to a friend, and a crusader.

John Dayal is a journalist and human rights activist in Delhi.