Thirty-four years ago this week, I witnessed for the first time the state-sponsored hate crimes, violence and genocide of thousands of innocent Sikh men, women and children in India. But none of the accused has till this day been brought to justice. It is this denial of justice which gives rise to extremism and terrorism. We need to equally condemn the genocide of innocent Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 when current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state. In 2014, when Modi was campaigning as a prime ministerial candidate, and was asked by media if he is ready to apologise for the carnage in Gujarat, he said, “Yes, if a puppy comes under our car while driving, you feel a little sad.” Sorry, Mr Prime Minister, you have failed our expectations.
I was myself a victim of hate mongering and mob violence twice this year, on July 17 and on August 17. This (mob violence) was done not by Muslims or Christians or Sikhs or Jains or Buddhists, but by the very people of the religion into which I was born.
What I am trying to convey is that I have been a part of the Arya Samaj movement trying to reform the Hindu practices including sati, caste system, and others such as female foeticide. The Arya Samaj was founded by one of the greatest reformers, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, in 1875.
Now you might have seen on the video 150 of these assailants raising slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” while beating me up. Swami Dayanand way back in 1875 gave a clarion call – Back to the Vedas – which meant back from all sectarianism, blind faith, dogmatism, caste system and gender inequality towards universal God of truth, love, compassion and justice. He too had to pay the price – he was poisoned to death by his own people at the age of 59 on that fateful Deepavali day.
Rig Veda says: “Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah.” (Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides.) Swami Dayanand’s life and mission inspired me most. But I took equal inspiration from Gautam Buddha, Mahavir, Jesus of Nazareth, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Gobind Singh, Kabir, Basavanna, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, Karl Marx, Tolstoy, Swami Vivekananda, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Dr Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, Narayana Guru, Albert Einstein, and last but not least, Mahatma Gandhi, who was shot dead by a bigoted Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Godse.
I have myself been sent to jail more than 11 times and there have been more than six attempts on my life. But I refuse to give up.
Inspired as I am by all great reformers and revolutionaries, I got initiated as a monk 50 long years ago, 1968. I dedicated my life to be the voice of the voiceless millions, the poorest of the poor in the world, those who are victims of modern day slavery, called bonded labor and child labor. In these years of our struggle, we have been able to liberate 178,000 victims of modern day slavery including thousands of children. But the struggle goes on. There are a minimum of 500 million victims of bonded labor system in India today, 86% of them being Dalits and indigenous people.
I am also a fierce campaigner against female foeticide. Some 50 million girl children have been killed in India even before they were born because of preference to sons. If the gender of the foetus in the mother’s womb is found out to be a female, it is killed, as they want a son and not a daughter.
Together with hundreds of such great men and women, many of whom I find present within this great Parliament of World Religions, my mission is to fight this hate, violence and war-mongering, capitalism, neo-liberalism, and the present incarnation of fascism in the name of Hindutva.
The real challenge is to fight the forces of untruth, tyranny, unfreedom, with more truth, more love, more compassion and justice unlimited.
This is what our great prophets and messengers of God have inspired us to do. But for that to succeed, we have to clearly identify not just the individuals but the structural forces of hate, violence and the war machine.
The most abominable of these structural forces are the caste system, gender inequality, racism, homophobia, all of which start with the sheer accident of birth. They get reinforced by deliberate and diabolical forces of capitalism, creating a worldwide divide of the rich the poor, where hardly 1% of the people control 99% of the world’s wealth. Where people of First Nations, the Indigenous people, the Adivasis, the Aboriginals, the Maoris, are made victims of murderous exploitation, alienation and cultural genocide by the so-called civilized marauders.
In India, many of our land rights and human rights activists have been imprisoned, maimed, tortured and murdered, and have been called ‘Urban Naxals’ by Right-wing Hindu nationalists.
These very forces are defying landmark Supreme Court judgments, women in thousands are being denied their constitutional, fundamental rights to equality in religious practices in the name of menstrual cycle. Swami Sandeepanand Giri, who is now sitting in front of me, was a victim on the early morning of the October 29, 2018, when his whole Gita ashram was set on fire and vehicles burnt down by these very Hindu nationalist forces.
Two weeks ago, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat released a set of books in which I myself have been called an ‘Urban Naxal’. You should not be surprised if upon my return to India, I too am charged with being an anti-Hindu, anti-national for making this speech in Toronto and sent to jail for the crime of sedition.
These modern day ‘Talibans’, ‘Al Qaeda’ and ‘ISIS’ exist in all our world religions, be they in the form of white supremacists in the US or the people in power denying children their fundamental right to be with their parents across borders, blocking asylum seekers from Central or Latin America; or the ones that have persecuted Myanmarese Rohingyas, Chinese Uighurs, Chechens, Kashmiri Pandits, or Tibetan exiles, to name a few.
Finally, the theme of this parliament, ‘The promise of inclusion’ should mean ‘no’ to exclusivity of religion and ‘yes’ to freedom of expression, freedom to doubt, freedom to debate and, if necessary, freedom to dissent.
Similarly, ‘The power of love’ should mean standing up against those who are brazenly in love of power, the nefarious nexus between greedy corporates and the corrupt politicians, out to commodify everything and to destroy planet Earth.
Is it not ironic that while we are calling for justice in this age of plenty, 21,000 children are dying of starvation every day and cattle and pigs are being fed and overfed in animal agriculture for profit. A billion birds and animals are being slaughtered everyday to satisfy our taste buds. This is unacceptable.
Is it also not ironic that while we are raising our voice for peace, $1700 billion is being spent annually on armaments and war machines?
We the people of the world need to unite and demand a world government and a world parliament based on an Earth constitution. It is high time we stopped preaching to the choir or converting the converted. We should mean business. Politics is too important work to be left in the hands of only the corrupt and criminal politicians, and we should join and take back that power which can bring about transformation.
(Text of Swami Agnivesh’s plenary speech at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, reproduced with the author’s permission. It has been lightly edited for style and length.)
Swami Agnivesh is a social activist known for his campaign against bonded labour through his foundation Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labor Liberation Front).