The 80-year-old Arya Samaji was assaulted because another group of Hindu men believed his version of Hinduism was too soft, too forgiving.
To see Swami Agnivesh sprawled on the ground Tuesday, his saffron robes climbing up his thighs, his turban thrown off his head, his feet naked, was nothing short of startling.
In 40+ yrs of knowing him since he was Haryana Edu Min & Sushma Swaraj his deputy, I have never seen the elegant arya samaji without his turban. This is heart-breaking. To do this to a man because you disagree with him. Never mind that he’s also saffron-clad pic.twitter.com/bxMAxOSLvD
— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) July 17, 2018
In this particular photo, his head is towards the unseen photographer, so you can’t really see his face. His right arm is raised, and he is being helped by someone who seems to have taken pity on an old man.
His head has been stripped off its familiar turban, the face off its square glasses. You have to peer forward into the photo to recognise the face of Swami Agnivesh. He actually has white hair.
Saffron vs Saffron
The familiar sardonic smile that makes the Swami a household face is now creased with fear. The saffron turban must have been his strength. Now that it lies somewhere, out of sight, knocked off by a man in a saffron bandana, fear rules. This is not Swami Agnivesh. This is an abandoned old man pleading with the young to just let him be.
Saffron Versus Saffron. My Hinduism is greater and better than yours. It’s my time now. Move over, oldie, get out of Jharkhand. That’s what the young man in the photo seems to be telling the distraught old man next to him.
But the facts, first. Swami Agnivesh, the well-known Arya Samaj preacher, had been invited by a tribal group in Pakur district, Jharkhand, to participate in a function. As he emerged from his hotel, a group of young men allegedly from the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) “kicked, punched and showed (him) black flags,” according to The Times of India.
The boys reportedly said that he was there to convert Hindus into Christians. In his defence, Agnivesh said, “I am against any kind of violence. I am 80 years old and this happened to me for the first time. The state government must order a probe and arrest those who attacked me.”
Breaking free from ritualism
Growing up in an Arya Samaj household, I am familiar with Swami Agnivesh and his ilk. The Gayatri mantra rules our lives. Women are equal to men and must be economically independent. Go back to the Vedas, Swami Dayanand who started the Arya Samaj reform movement in the 19th century said, hoping to discount the extreme ritualism that had steeped into the Hindu faith.
My parents, refugees from Pakistan, clung on to the small, familiar practices. The Arya Samaj mandir on Sunday was an integral part of the week. All the siblings went too, to participate in the ‘havan’, to sing bhajans which had references to the Sindhu river (which the refugees had left behind in Pakistan) and end the prayer ceremony with “Jo bole so abhaya/Vaidya dharam ki jai!”
The parents and their friends sometimes talked about “what they had left behind,” but not often. That Arya Samaj had a distinct anti-Islam undertone, I learnt much later. At the time, it was about picking up the pieces, taking pride in living in an independent, secular India, and moving on.
The siblings often teased my mother, “Look at Swami Dayanand’s pink lips in the poster!” It hung near her bedside, an intimate part of her and our growing up lives.
Not going far enough
Like a latter-day Dayanand, walking around the countryside in saffron, Agnivesh became a familiar figure. But having grown up on stories of our grandfather’s celebratory feasts – feeding everyone he worked with, including “Harijans” or Dalits because Arya Samaj said you cannot discriminate between castes – we sometimes felt Agnivesh never went far enough.
There was the time when I travelled with Swami Agnivesh to Nathdwara in Rajasthan in the mid-1980s, hoping he would break the cordon the temple priests had thrown around the temple so as to prevent lower castes from entering. But the district administration instead imposed Section 144 and Agnivesh, quietly, gave in.
Nevertheless, the man in saffron robes went from strength to strength, founding the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, chairing the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery – which is what bonded labour are – and becoming the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj.
Somewhere in the background, the Swami lived his own parallel journey, participating in inter-faith conferences, and even staying in a Big Boss house for three days. Until the attack Tuesday, when he gate-crashed into our universe again. The 80-year-old Arya Samaji was assaulted because another group of Hindu men believed that his version of Hinduism was too soft, too forgiving.
Normalisation of hate
Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das has instituted an inquiry, of course. But it is as clear as the living daylight that the BJP has allowed a normalisation of hate to rule what once was one of the most peaceful parts of the country.
First, they came for the Muslim meat traders, because they didn’t like the fact that the Muslims were eating beef in Jharkhand – they weren’t. Now they are coming for the Hindu Arya Samajis, because they don’t like the fact that they are preaching a Hinduism different from theirs.
Perhaps this is what Swami Dayanand saw in the 19th century – Hindus treating other Hindus in terrible ways – which is why the man from Gujarat set about to reform the faith.
Everyone’s looking to the other man from Gujarat today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to say something and put an end to this horrific violence being wrought in the name of religion.
Even the Supreme Court has spoken, saying “mobocracy” cannot be allowed to become the new normal. But from the Prime Minister’s residence in the heart of Delhi, one can hear only the crashing sounds of silence.
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