A Discussion with Swami Agnivesh (South and Central Asia)

With: Swami Agnivesh

February 24, 2011

Background: This discussion preceded the January 2011 consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The interview supplements a conversation in December 2008; it was by video conference between Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski, and Swami Agnivesh followed up during the Dhaka consultation and by email. Swami Agnivesh discusses his involvement in peace processes in India, with the Maoists and in Kashmir; his mediation efforts with the Maoists were ongoing at the time of the interview. Agnivesh highlights the importance of solidarity among religions, including addressing conflicts and fighting corruption, and emphasizes the Parliament of All the Religions and their minimum common program. Religious leaders/institutions, he says, have a responsibility to play leading roles on social issues. He underlines gender issues in South Asia, expressing cautious optimism at recent progress in changing both laws and practical realities.

An article about Agnivesh’s recent peacemaking activities.

You are deeply involved now in trying to resolve conflicts, especially with the Maoists and in Kashmir. Religious roles in conflict resolution, actual and potential, are an important focus of our consultation. What is happening now and what do you conclude about religious involvement in conflicts and peacebuilding?

Regarding the Maoists, the most recent peace process was initiated on May 5, 2010 with a march from Raipur to Dantewada. The march was a symbol of solidarity towards India’s 100 million Tribal people who have been severely exploited, first by the erstwhile British rulers and later after independence by our own rulers. The Peace and Justice March, with veteran Ghandian social and peace activists, was against violence, both by the Maoists and by the state. The Maoists had killed 76 paramilitary personnel in Dantewada on April 6, 2010. Our march was a call for dialogue instead of violence and counter violence. It was at this point, that I was asked by the Home Minister and the Central Government to initiate a search for peace with the Maoists. I had been making progress, but then, one of the main interlocutors for the Maoists (Azad), was brutally gunned down by the police. That completely derailed the entire process.

When that happened, I began to demand an inquiry into the death, which I repeated again and again. I met India’s prime minister, and he himself agreed that an inquiry was necessary, and promised that he would see that it happened. He promised me action within five days; it is now five months and no word.

I did not know what else to do to rectify the situation. Finally, I decided to go to the Supreme Court of India and demand/request a judicial inquiry. The Supreme Court, after listening to me and my petition, might agree. This could, just in itself, help to create confidence among the Maoists, who have already expressed their view, that as soon as an announcement is made by the Government or the Supreme Court, they will come forth to the negotiating table. They want long term peace with a ceasefire for a minimum of six to nine months.

I think that once the inquiry is announced, the peace process will resume. I have made a petition to the Supreme Court to keep the process moving forward.

When did you file the petition with the Supreme Court?

I filed it on the fourteenth of January. The Supreme Court has since then served a notice to government of India and the state of Andhra Pradesh saying “The Republic of India cannot be allowed to kill its own children” and has fixed March 14 for first hearing.

The Maoists are claiming police brutality, and the police are also claiming that they are killing the Maoists and have suffered deaths in their ranks. On both sides, the violence goes on. The use of guns is not going to solve the issue. Both sides need to come to dialogue, a point that both sides themselves continue to say is necessary and important, but they have not been able to reach that point or resolve the most basic contradictions in their positions. At the same time, there is a crisis of credibility on the part of the government. The government itself is seen to be lacking any meaningful response, while the Maoists have responded to requests made to them. We are keeping up with events and putting pressure on various sides, and the media is applying pressure as well. The Maoists are, again and again, repeating that they are ready for peace talks and negotiation, but the government must cooperate and proceed with an inquiry for that to happen.

Who are your allies in this effort, particularly the religious people that share your determination?

The Parliament of All Religions, of which I was the founder, is an important ally in this process. The organization consists of religious leaders, from all different faith traditions in South Asia, who have expressed their interest in this and similar initiatives, and a desire to participate in and assist in facilitating dialogue. Leaders including Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the Dalai Lama, and Muslim leaders have all expressed good wishes and their keenness to make this type of initiative successful.

Around the country, everyone I talk to who knows about these efforts wants to settle the conflict and make peace. The government itself has really damaged the whole process. We don’t know what to do now.

You are a pragmatic person, and it is interesting that you are relying in this case on the judicial process. Do you see allies within the government?

Yes, inside the government there are many people supporting this cause; the case is being handled by the Home Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram. Some, though, think the Maoists are out to destroy the state, that they are rebels, and that they do not believe in peace and are not to be trusted. The Prime Minister himself was very genuine and compassionate in initiating the call for an inquiry, but he could not get through barriers within the government. I also met the young leader, Rahul Gandhi, who is considered to be a possible future prime minister. He listened to me for almost half an hour, and he agreed that an inquiry is necessary. He said that he will also speak with the prime minister to make sure something is done about it. It has been almost three months, however, and still there is no progress.

I met with political leaders as well, including from the ruling party, The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leader of the Women’s Party of India, a leader from the Janata Dal United (JDU), and opposition leaders. They all say that they will raise the question of an inquiry, and directly and indirectly support the cause. The media from time to time as well, approaches me about what can be done. We are keeping the issue alive.

What about Kashmir?

Kashmir is another big issue. It is, though, a different kind of issue. Over the past 60 years it has been a spark for me. In 2008, and then again three months ago, I traveled to Kashmir, and on both occasions I found that the response I received was inspiring.

I was able to reach across to hardliners in the Kashmiri valley, to those that are considered to be pro-Pakistani and even pro-seccession. They welcomed me in their homes, and we had long discussions. One of the top leaders insisted that I stay with him at his residence for the night. I did; he was very friendly. In the morning, I had breakfast with his family. He took a photograph with his children, and he hugged me. I had persuaded him that there should be no violence from the side of the protestors in Kashmir, and if they resorted to throwing stones, it would hamper peaceful developments in the region.

However, following my trip, there was provocation and an escalation of fighting between protestors and police. I again went to Kashmir, along with my colleagues, without any police, security, or government assistance, with five eminent peace activists from the mainland. We visited the injured in hospitals and the families who had lost their young ones in the violence—school boys who had been killed by the police fighting; we also met the state governor and political party leaders. We never felt a negative response. Everyone said that they were ready to talk, that they were ready for dialogue, and that they wanted peace, independence, freedom, etc. We returned home, and we demanded a judicial inquiry into the 80 to 85 youth killed by police in the recent fighting. There was no government response to this violence that has taken place.

At that same time, I received a response from the so called separatist leaders, (though I do not call them separatists; they have a legitimate right to express their views), including one of the top leaders who is quite trusted. Mir Waiz Umer Farooq, that is his name, invited me to give a speech on the occasion of Eid, a great gesture given the auspicious occasion. I was ready and I booked my ticket, but police fighting broke out the day before I was to leave, and the event was canceled at the last moment. Despite recent episodes of violence, overall, there has been a shift in attitudes that is favorable to peace. In 2008, separatist leaders that I had met were in favor of Pakistan. Now, over the past few months, none are talking about siding with or accepting any help from Pakistan. They say now, “we are not taking to guns; at most we have thrown stones, but should not be accused of being agents of Pakistan.” This is a perceptible shift. Up to now there has not been a single case in which these protestors have come out in favor of violence.

Kashmiris have maintained their desire for peace and dialogue, and the government itself says it wants dialogue. In September 2010, the government sent the first parliamentary delegation to Kashmir in over 20 years, and it has appointed a three member, non political committee (which also includes some journalists) that has visited Kashmir twice in two months. Some breakthrough is visible. It is no longer that violent, and I can see a movement towards dialogue, but the issue remains quite intractable. Sadly, to date there are no tangible outcomes.

Let’s see in the next three months what happens, as Kashmir is frozen over during the intense winter. It should be a quiet season. After that, some dialogue or a peace process may start again.

How do you view the religious threads in all of this? You are clearly a public intellectual and activist. Where does the spiritual aspect come into this?

In all of these issues, religion has a very prominent role to play. Religion may not have as significant role to play in the dispute with the Maoists, though there are elements that are religious, including the central demand for justice that religious leaders should advance. There is certainly an important role for religious leaders to play in Kashmir, since there are religious (Muslim and Hindu) elements in the conflict. There is a far more central and direct role on other issues, especially the Ayodhya dispute. There, Hindu Muslim conflicts and narratives are at the very center of this long standing dispute. I see some progress, but overall things are still moving very very slowly.

In the Kashmir Valley, there are almost four to 4.5 million people, and Muslims are the majority (approximately 2.5 million). India is home to the 2nd largest Muslim population in world, next to Indonesia. The mainland Muslim people are near 180 to 200 million strong. There is an obvious need for dialogue.

I was invited as the first non-Muslim to be a main speaker at an Islamic seminary in Northern India, with many members of the Ulema from the biggest Islamic seminary in world. When the organization organized an event in New Delhi, they invited me to be a main speaker as well. I touched upon the subject of peace in the tradition of Islam; they appreciated it immensely. We need to stand firm and strong against all forms of violence. Coming from a non-Islamic person, when I quote the Prophet, and the Qur’an, it has an impact on building bridges between the two communities.

In Kashmir, many minority Hindu pandits in Kashmir have been forced out because of religious tensions. There has been no effort to bring them back—that is a pending issue. Also, about 50 to 60,000 members of the Sikh community living in the valley do not favor of secession or independence. Only a few separatist leaders and anti-government protestors seem to demanding separatist politics.

The political parties are also active in Kashmir. There have been elections that display the success of the democratic process. Even in the midst of snow in the valley, people waited in line in the cold to vote. Sixty-two percent of the total population cast votes. But unfortunately, the government is not performing the full task of governing the people to the best of their ability. The lack of progress from the government has, I think, alienated the people.

Corruption, among other reasons, is a problem for the lack of trust in the government. If only elected elders would reach out to people in these difficult times, I think it would help to dissipate some of the hard feelings; the Chief Minister can help to assuage tensions by personally visiting the people in Kashmir. But they will not do it. Whenever I have been able to visit and empathize with the people, they are amazed and they appreciate the support. They say that we are the only person to have reached out from the mainland. They say that no one visits or comes to their house to talk to them and find out how they feel about the current socio-political problems. Instead, these government officials have passed resolutions to say that Kashmir is part of India, though they say that they support the people of Kashmir.

There are also issues of terrorism in and around Kashmir. All Muslims may not be terrorists, but all the terrorists are Muslims. I reached out and held meeting with thousands of people. I spoke in favor of Islam on all the good things that have been done through the Islamic tradition. This has built confidence within the people. Through our Parliament of All Religions, we are also taking steps to build confidence and trust between communities. The Muslim community came out for the first time, and said that Kashmir is part of India and should not secede from India. These are big and positive political changes that are emerging for the first time.

Where is the Parliament based, what is its structure and how often do you meet?

It is based in a small office, formed by the Arya Samaj. We have meetings in my house. Thus the head office is in Delhi. We also hold conferences in other places with thousands of people coming together to discuss pertinent issues. We call it a common minimum program and address the issues that are affecting all of us because of religion. We discuss the caste system, dowry issues, and other things that are common to all religious communities; participants then return and take up these issues at home

It sounds like an informal structure that responds to the needs of the community.

Yes, you are right. It has not been formalized as of yet. We do not want to formalize it either; we want to have the flexibility to address all the issues that might arise. We welcome all patrons from all religions. We have recently addressed and confronted corruption as part of the Parliament’s Seven Point Charter: (i). Combating Castism,. ii). Opposing Female Foeticide; (iii). Opposing Violence and Communalism; (iv). Combating Drugs and Alcohol and Tobacco; (v). Combating Blind Faith and Obscurantism; (vi). Fighting Corruption; and (vii) Fighting Oppression and Exploitation.

Every day in our society we hear of news of scams and scandals. The religious leaders need to come together more forcefully to discuss these issues.

How do you see the role of religious leaders in fighting corruption, a lively issue in India and the region?

The Archbishop of Delhi spoke with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and other religious leaders; they discussed issues of dignity and public service from all faiths. They mobilized gatherings of thousands of people from all over the country to discuss and take an active role in countering these problems. The issue of corruption has blown up recently and billions of dollars of cases are coming up to the government. The opposition has united for an inquiry in a special committee, insisting that they will not concede to government demands. The whole Parliament has been prevented from working and is stalled because of this issue.

Religious leaders are coming together for the first time to speak against corruption. They are issuing statements and drafting proposals and bills to submit to Parliament. There has been a lot of enthusiasm for religious leaders speaking out about corruption.

In our previous interview you mentioned work you have been involved with on gender issues. Can you expand on that? Is progress being made towards gender equitable development? What about the politics on gender issues?

Since 1987, when I led a march against sati, I have been making the issues of female infanticide, dowry, bride burning, and property rights for women a central concern. It is not enough that you let the girls be born; you then need to give the girls equal rights to get an education and there should be no dowry abuse and no harassment of brides by in-laws after marriage. We are raising the attention that is paid to these issues; there are currently some new laws to protect women under consideration and many cases in the courts. Overall, there has been a positive response to raising awareness, but the results are not as promising as I would like.

I went to speak at a Christian girls’ college on issues of gender equality, and the response was tremendous. Even from Muslim groups with orthodox beliefs, they are changing their attitudes about women’s issues and they are not as radical as they might have been in the past or elsewhere. Girls’ education is supported from government organizations, and even Muslim girls are riding bicycles to school. There is a general increase in demand for girls’ education, even in the Muslim communities.

In the minimum program, you clearly have an anti-alcohol, vegetarianism provision. How does this fit with Christianity and other religions? In Christianity, alcohol is part of ritual and vegetarianism is an option.

You will be surprised and pleased to hear that the Christians in Kerala have a predominant presence in this program. We have churches and bishops who are against alcoholism; although wine is a part of the Communion ritual it is a very small part of the ritual and cannot be equated with drinking and the violence that ensues from being drunk.

Many eminent churches have come out and said they will serve fruit juice instead of wine in the Communion ritual. In fact, they welcome this and other concerns for the community, including smoking, and tobacco chewing. As far as vegetarianism, the Muslim community is not too keen on this idea so we do not push this issue as forcefully. Some communities can take specific issues, but on the whole, solidarity between groups is the most important.

What are the knowledge gaps around faith and development? What issues would you like to see discussed at the consultation in Dhaka?

In Dhaka, we must bring about the concept of a common minimum program among religions and build on issues of social justice. All religions which have a strong presence in South Asia need to come out on a common program of social justice; this will change the face of the problems facing India and the region.

We also need solidarity on other issues that concern the poor and the marginalized. We hear only occasionally and generally at a very governmental level that meetings on these issues are taking place. There needs to be solidarity in South Asia between religion and cultures of all traditions. We need to bind together to discuss problems like mortality rates for women, women suffering from anemia, and other preventable causes. If women and men of South Asia who are religious and religiously motivated can be included in these discussions and if temples, churches, and mosques can become the centers of empowerment for people, there would be a revolution.

Political parties have not been able to deliver on the most pressing development issues. I think that civil society could be strengthened, and develop into a powerful if informal structure across South Asia. We can utilize religious leaders and pool their resources together to bring about long-term social change. That, as far as I am concerned, is the real purpose of religion. It should not be one event but we need to follow up with each other and be monitored to yield and sustain enthusiasm.

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