I met the late activist Swami Agnivesh in May 2018, two months before he was attacked by Bharatiya Janata Party-linked mobs in Jharkhand. Relaxed between travels, he sat sipping tea in his Delhi office in a swelter of saffron. A pot-bellied, clear-skinned man with silver-rimmed glasses and veined hands, he looked and spoke like the kindly head of a university.

His head and ears were covered with a tightly-wound saffron turban; he wore a saffron kurta and a slightly torn saffron dhoti; on his wrist was a watch with a saffron strap. Even the Godrej behind him and the plastic rubbish bin under his desk were shades of saffron. When he put down his cup of green tea, it was on an iPad with a saffron cover.

Agnivesh, who was a sprightly 78 when I met him, spent his life defying the stereotypes encoded in that colour. Though outwardly a “swami”, he was much closer to being a firebrand socialist activist, a dropout from the academy who pursued the rights of workers, particularly bonded labourers. He spoke fluent Telegu, Hindi, and English; and was equally at ease in international conferences and rustic bandhs. But his primary and most cherished identity remained that of an Arya Samaji.

Agnivesh had joined the reformist Arya Samaj as a young man in 1950s Calcutta; he had been enormously taken by its zeal to rid Hinduism of cant. He idolised Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the sect, modeling his attire and truth-seeking attitude on Saraswati’s. But the sect had, over the years, drifted toward the politics of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, leaving Agnivesh stranded on his own little island of saffron idealism.

From there, he relentlessly hectored Hindu fundamentalists while pursuing a slate of liberal and secular causes: communal harmony, Kashmir, the rights of tribals and women.

My conversation with him over two afternoons in his fan-swept office – a set of two small rooms, one roofed with green fibreglass, in a dilapidated and litigation-frozen Lutyens complex – focused largely on the Samaj, which I was researching for a writing project.

During this time, he spoke to me in his low energy-conserving voice, a half-smile playing on his lips, his comments punctuated with small chuckles as he touched his chin. He effortlessly multitasked, stopping now and then to speak to Muslim and Hindu groups on his (saffron) cellphone and earpiece; discussing workers’ rights and politics with fellow activists; receiving a Turkish visitor from an interfaith dialogue group; giving instructions to an employee on a laptop; taking time to say sweet words to a child brought in by a visitor; and then picking up the thread of our conversation wherever we had left it.

“But whatever you are taking down,” he advised me at one point, “you should not agree with what I’m saying. Question, make your own decisions.”

When I instinctively reached down to touch his feet the second time I met him – the training of a good Hindu boy kicking in – Agnivesh stopped me, saying, “I don’t believe in it.” He was not immune to vanity – he was surrounded by prizes and regaled me with tales of his meetings with international activists and politicians – but he had a prodigious, clear memory and a sense of his mistakes. He did not look anywhere near 78.

I was grateful for his time and his honesty. Two months later, I was horrified to learn that while visiting Jharkhand for his work with tribals, Agnivesh was attacked – on camera – by a mob of more than 20 BJP-associated workers, who accused him of being a “Pakistani agent” collaborating with Naxalites. Disheveled and stripped of his turban and robe, he sustained liver and rib injuries. A month after that, he was on a Lutyens street, on his way to offer condolences for the death of Atal Behari Vajpayee, when another mob of BJP-linked youth activists surrounded him and began pushing and shoving him.

Agnivesh was no stranger to confrontation – especially in his work against Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh – but now he was nearly 80. After this, he became weak. On September 11 this year, he passed away from complications arising from his liver and rib injuries. No one was ever charged in Jharkhand and the judiciary declined to let the CBI investigate the assaults.

I was in California when I heard about his death. I had driven there across the US through a landscape of masks and Trump flags. The day before Agnivesh’s death, the Californian sky had been hijacked by a dark, apocalyptic shade of saffron – the sun filtering through a layer of suspended ash from the wildfires. To me, Agnivesh’s death felt like another aspect of this impending apocalypse. I couldn’t help but connect the colour of the sky with him.

A memorial event for Agnivesh on September 18. Credit: Swami Agnivesh Facebook page

An excerpt from our interview – about how Agnivesh came to join the Arya Samaj and how the Samaj itself has changed.

What kind of Hinduism did you grow up with?

I was born in a very orthodox Brahmin family, and brought up with all those rituals. I used to worship gods and goddesses everyday – morning and evening – in my grandfather’s temple room. I believed it wholeheartedly but there was nobody to explain what it meant, metaphorical or otherwise. If Ganesh is there, then Ganesh is there. Even the prime minister is saying he has an elephant head because of plastic surgery [laughs].

If I was going to school and a cat crossed my path or I sneezed, it was inauspicious. Bhooths come at night and pick up children. Who’ll save you from the bhooth? Hanumanji. So I read the Hanuman Chalisa. My own mother would be out of bounds for me for three days every month. I couldn’t touch her or I’d have to bathe.

The caste system was also there. We are Brahmins and those who are working on the fields of my grandfather, definitely belonged to the lowest caste. We used to call them Kamaiya at home but did not realise that they were our bonded laborers. Kamaiya is now the name for the bonded labor system in Chhatisgarh region under the law of 1976. If there was anything left over in my family, I was told as a child to go and give it to them, but specifically told not to touch them, but to throw it at them. So I used to do that and come back.

But when I interacted with Arya Samaj people, read [Dayanand Saraswati’s] Satyarth Prakash –particularly the 11th chapter – where Swami Dayanand boldly criticises his own religion, attacking Brahmanism, my eyes opened immediately.

How did you how did you come to read it? Why were you interested?

One day, when I was going around colleges in Calcutta for my admission, I was returning home when there was a heavy rain. On Chowringhee, I sought protection under the canopy of Metro Cinema. As I got out, I saw that there was a cloth banner saying Arya Samaj Parivarik Satsang. I did not know anything about Arya Samaj, but I assumed “paravarik satsang” must be puja-path and kirtan-bhajan, and so I thought, let me go see it what it is.

I went down a dark alley and up the stairs into a room. An acharya was sitting on little dais and giving a lecture to 40-50 middle-aged people. There was hardly any idol and no worship. So it was a different type of satsang for me. Out of curiosity, I stayed there. But listening to what he was saying was very fascinating. He was explaining the meaning of some Ved mantra and he also just focused his eyes on me because I was the youngest, 17 years old.

When he finished his speech he walked over to me and asked my name. Then immediately he left all other things and took me outside and we sat for one hour on the small islands that are there in between the trams, talking. And there he told me, I should go and meet him next day morning.

The next morning, I went to the Arya Samaj place where he was holding a bal satsang – for children. Out of the kids I was the eldest. The acharya also told me to come to the older people’s satsang. It was complete departure from whatever I used to practice in the name of religion – no ritual, no dogma, nothing. One was encouraged to ask questions. And then I was given this book Satyarth Prakash.

I imbibed these values very fast, as if they were dormant in me. I didn’t put up any resistance, it all came naturally to me. The Vedas saying that God is universal and God is therefore formless and we have been worshipping Gods with all those idols and taking pictures. As they say, the newly converted becomes a strong proponent, so I would also loudly come into my house and fight with my sister, saying, why are you doing all this murthy-puja, this is blind faith, and she’d say, you do what you want to do and let us do what we want to do. I’d also fight with my mother, saying, leave all this, it’s wrong. And she’d say, this is what we believe, it’s our Hindu dharm, it’s what we grew up in.

There was a Kali mandir on College Street where they would slaughter goats. When they would first catch the goat, the goat would be fearful and would cry out. What kind of devi is this that needs the blood of goats? I started questioning all these gods, goddesses, rituals, idol worship, caste system, and also in a way, communalism. It simplified and demystified god and religion for me. It’s more important for me, I realised, to have communion with my god inside of my heart and mind, rather than step outside and go to a temple. So, I saved time, I saved money, everything was saved [laughs].

Agnivesh was attacked in Pakur, Jharkhand, in 2018. Credit: PTI

I can see why Satyarth Prakash was groundbreaking book for its time but parts of it that are outdated. It attacks other major religions, like Islam and Christianity, for example. I can see how followers of Arya Samaj would start looking at the book as fact and say, we also have to attack these religions.

You have to take the spirit of Satyarth Prakash, not go by words or letters. The main spirit is questioning authority and to start with one’s own faith tradition. If you look at the language when he’s attacking other religions – like Islam and Christianity – it is not so strong, but when he attacks his own religion, it’s no-holds-barred. This is what I liked most about Dayanand. Whatever religion you’re born into is not in your hand. But if you want to really grow as a human being, then you have to start questioning those very practices in which you have been initiated as an innocent child.

There are two strands in Arya Samaji history. One is the liberal strand, which was involved in the freedom struggle and was against caste and child marriage. But the other thread has promoted the shudhi movement [the equivalent of “ghar-wapsi”] and anti-Muslim activities. What was your experience of this latter strand when you joined?

I became Arya Samaji in 1956. I was fascinated by everything that the Arya Samaj was preaching. Top leaders would come from Punjab to Arya Samaj Calcutta. I was a student and I would listen to them late into the night.

At that time, I did not question this shudhi movement or anything like that. Later on I started slightly questioning: why is it that in all instances they impute motives against Christianity and also against Islam? I became aware of this but I did not question it very much. In my own zeal to be a good Arya Samaji, I started picking up anti-Christian things from the Samaj. I would collect all the material in which they would tell us that just as Pakistan was demarcated on the basis of Islam, so a day will come when Christians will also demand a separate nation and it will be “Isaistan.”

They would criticise the Nagaland leader [Angami Zapu] Phizo and along with him, Jayprakash Narayan, who would be holding dialogue with all these separatist leaders. They said that Jharkhand is going to become the hotbed of this “Isaistan” as the tribals have been converted into Christianity.

Later on, when I started teaching law in St. Xavier’s, I would go and visit my sister in Rourkela. Very close to her place was a Ved Vyas Ashram. There I would meet with one Swami Brahmananda. I would take a scooter and then drive up to his place in the forest and stay with him for a couple of days. Swami Brahmananda would occasionally come to Calcutta and appeal for donations and blankets to save tribals from getting converted to Christianity. He would get a very good response.

Immediately the rich Marwaris would come up with donations. I was also impressed that he was [apparently] saving our religion and fighting against Christianity like a missionary. And in my heart I had thought a little bit that whenever opportunity comes my way, I will also do this – fight against Christians.

I was a pracharmantri [head of the preachers] in Arya Samaj Calcutta [while teaching at St. Xavier’s] and I would gather old clothes and pots and pans and distribute them in the slums to the poor. Arya Samaj people also liked it: Professor Shyam Rao [Agnivesh’s birth name] goes among the poor to stop the Christians.

Sunday morning I would go out to the churches, which were preparing for their 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock sermons. I used to take printed sheets against Christianity and foreign missionaries and put them inside the Bibles lying on each seat. Then, kneeling down like a faithful Christian in the back, I would watch the whole thing.

When it would be time for the worshippers to come and open the Bible and say the prayer, the paper would fall out, and they would say, what is this? There would be a lot of commotion. Who put it there, what happened? Then I would feel happy. Oh, I’ve done my religious work and feel proud. [chuckle].

St Xavier’s College started around 7.30 am. But I would go there at 6.30, with these big used newspapers which I had written on at home: Foreign missionaries Quit India! Xaviers was being run by foreign missionaries. I would put them up on the blackboards in different rooms, when even the cleaners had not yet started their jobs. Then I would go to my staff room and order some tea-coffee-samosa and sit innocently.

When the college would start, the boys and teachers would go into their room and see, Oh! What is this? Who put it up? Nobody could find out and I used to feel very happy about this work. Then I researched some books from the library. I found out this whole thing [of English education and conversion] was started way back by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Then Frederick Max Muller. In his own words he had said that my task is to translate the Vedas in such a way that it facilitates conversion of a Hindu into Christianity.

I published a small booklet called Max Muller Exposed. It had a yellow cover. In Calcutta there was a big Max Muller Bhavan and they would hold cultural events. One evening there was a Max Muller function in that hall of a Hindi school run by the Birlas. In the night, in the dark under a streetlight, as the Germans and Indian elite entered, I would give them each a copy and they would just take it as if I’m giving them something about the programme. Inside, when they read it, the Germans were particularly angry. By that time I had slipped away. [chuckles]

A week or so later, I got a call from the Max Muller Bhavan inviting me for a dialogue. My name was on the booklet and they had found out that I was teaching in St Xavier’s College.

I was 25 or 26 and had just spent two-three years in Xaviers by then. A big car came to get me. Quite a number of scholars were present. The head of that Max Muller Bhavan Calcutta was a German, a Max Muller scholar. When the discussion started, they took objection to my book. And they said that I should not be doing that type of writing and spreading this as our two countries are friends.

I said all your criticism is well taken, but I’ve given you specific quotations in my book. Take out the book from your own library. Is such a such thing written there or not? If it is true, then you will have to accept my criticism. If it is not true, then I will not only apologise but print another book and distribute it. They were not ready for that. They sort of threatened me that I should know which college I was teaching in. It was a Jesuit college and they thought that once the college gets to know, they’ll sack me.

But that’s another amazing thing about these Christian missionaries – even after they realised that I was doing this propaganda against Christianity, against foreign missionaries, against Max Muller, Macaulay, etc, they never ever said a word or showed any disaffection. That’s a really great thing. Then, one day, I sneaked into the rooms where these Belgian fathers – who were scholars in their respective fields – lived.

These were small rooms on the fourth floor of our building in Park Street, each with a simple bed, washbasin and a solid table lamp. Such spartan living. I went into their canteen and I saw what they ate. Simple food – bread, butter, some eggs. They were dressed in those white robes. Then I asked myself: what is this? I had by then got in touch with a professor from Harvard University, who was in Calcutta as part of World Bank-sponsored Planning Commission of India and government of India study about transport requirements another 20 years hence. I had been appointed, during my free time, as an assistant to this professor.

He was very pleased with my work and sincerity and then when he was going back, he said, “Why don’t you think of coming to the US, to Harvard – I will get a job for you.” I myself was thinking: what’s there in India, crowds and mosquito; I’ll run to America and live nicely.

But then I looked at these Belgian priests, living so simply, and eating such simple food. I asked myself: they left all the comforts of their own country whereas I want to leave India and go settle abroad. What is the reason? The reason I found was: they had a mission, they were missionaries. I asked myself: what’s my mission? I was there without a mission. I was like a mercenary, not a missionary. And then I said to myself: no, I must find my own mission.

And then, this internal debate – with the very Christian priests whom I was opposing – inspired me to change my decision and devote myself to work among the poorest of the poor. And later on, to work on bonded labour.

Agnivesh meets Francis, the pope. Credit: Giulio d'Adamo/WFP

“Isaistan” is a crazy idea, but that kind of thinking has remained and become more mainstream, if anything. Same with the idea that we had aeroplanes and plastic surgery thousands of years ago. How can that be combated? When did you start to realise yourself that these things you were printing and reading were false?

When I was in jail during Emergency I started to reads and reflect. I wrote a small book there inside the jail in 1976 called Arya Samaj: Kya Kare, Kidhar Jaye? After getting out of jail I printed 1,000 copies and distributed them for free in Arya Samaj. The first paragraph deals with Shudhi movement and I questioned Swami Shraddhanand, who initiated the movement.

How can you purify a human being? What is the point of doing that? If you can convince other person about the good things of your approach, let him remain with his own name or whatever. Beard or cap or whatever, let is remain, let the person be a person.

And how come that you only purify the Muslims and Christians – why not Hindus? Most of us came from a Hindu background and are idol worshipers: why were we not purified? Shudhi movement should be ended in the Arya Samaj. Treat everyone equally and move them toward truth and justice.

Has the majority of Arya Samaj adopted Hindutva? Or is there a strand that – like you – is leftist?

I would not say the majority, but the leaders and particularly these Punjabi well-to-do business-class people, they have gone closer to the BJP’s and RSS’s thinking. And that’s another area where I question the Arya Samaj. We struggled and sacrificed so much in the freedom struggle. We were at the forefront with figures like Lala Lajpat Rai and Swami Shraddhanand. From among the great martyrs, we have got Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan, [the latter of who] stayed in Arya Samaj Shahjahanpur. They were brothers and ate from the same plate and stayed in the same room – it’s a great, inspiring story.

The British were very afraid of Arya Samaj. The British asked the Arya Samaj leaders to decide if it was a religious or political body. They drew a line. There was a well-to-do upper-class upper-caste segment of the Samaj and they were very soft towards the British. Their philosophy was: keep doing your work, and be a bhakt of British. In their wisdom, these Arya Samaj members gave it in writing that they were a purely religious body.

That was the betrayal of the rank and file. They disowned Bhagat Singh when he became a revolutionary. He was the real spirit of the Arya Samaj. If only the Arya Samaj had followed on his path! Bhagat Singh was taking revenge for Lala Lajpat Rai’s death from a lathi blow. Lajpat Rai had been exiled to Mandalay in Burma. When he came to Lahore, he was received by mammoth crowds. He was taken on an elephant on a procession, but as the procession passed before Anarkali Arya Samaj in Lahore, immediately the president and secretaries of Arya Samaj got together and said, quickly cut his name from the register and close the gate. Otherwise he’ll come and say I want to go to the Arya Samaj and we’ll be identified and then the British will do so harm.

So immediately they struck off his name with a red ink and they closed the gates. So that’s another part of the Arya Samaj.

Then Arya Samaj started fashioning itself as religious institution with colleges, schools, etc. Even after Independence, because of these institutions, Arya Samaj stuck to this principal of being a religious body, dharmik sanghadan. Meanwhile, the RSS, which was not at all into the freedom struggle – no one was arrested or jailed or sent to gallows – suddenly realised that now that India was free they should have a political wing. They used the premises of Arya Samaj Hanuman Road building. The Bhartiya Jan Sangh was established there in 1952.

The RSS takes Hindus as they are. They encourage obscurantism. They are promoting Kanwar Yatra, Amarnath Yatra, Vaishno Devi. The lowest common denominator was being catered to. It’s doing a lot of disservice to the Hindu community. [The RSS] hasn’t fought casteism; the Muslim we’re fighting were our own Dalits.

What is tribal ghar vapsi? You’ve cut them and thrown them away, now you want them to become Hindus. The RSS has never celebrated the tribals. Even after ghar vapsi they’re saying, you can’t go to our temples. They created swasti ka temple for them.

The Arya Samaj had a great opportunity to come up with a humanitarian movement. But three times they expelled me for life. It was being run by Jan Sangh types. They called me ajivan [a lifelong exile], but I survived.

Karan Mahajan is the author most recently of The Association of Small Bombs.