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Swami Agnivesh, Crusader Against Labor Abuses in India, Dies at 80

Swami Agnivesh, a revered longtime campaigner against child labor and indentured servitude in India, died on Sept. 11 in New Delhi. He was 80.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by an associate, Zayauddin Jawed, who said the cause was multiple organ failure.

A pacifist Hindu monk who renounced worldly possessions and relations at a young age, Mr. Agnivesh led a decades-long crusade against village moneylenders, landlords and brick kiln owners who forced landless, debt-ridden farmers into bonded labor, or indentured servitude.

In 1981 he founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, or the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which he headed until his death. From 1994 to 2004, he was chairman of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

“The country is diminished by his passing,” Shashi Tharoor, one of India’s most influential opposition politicians, wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Agnivesh was a prominent champion of many social justice causes and a trusted mediator when conflicts arose. He fought on behalf of tribal communities that had few rights to land ownership even though they populated much of the country’s forests. In the 1980s, when environmentalists objected to settling bonded laborers on protected forest land, he helped defuse the situation, working out a compromise whereby much of the forest would continue to be preserved.

In 2011, after Maoist rebels abducted five police officers, leading to an 18-day hostage crisis in Chhattisgarh state, in central India, he helped negotiate their release.

“He had a steely courage, and enormous compassion,” said Ramachandra Guha, a pre-eminent Indian historian who knew Mr. Agnivesh for over three decades.

In recent years, as Hindu nationalism continued to rise in India, Mr. Agnivesh was one of its biggest critics, saying the core values on which the republic was founded were under strain. He wrote last year, “The democratic space — where these values are meant to prevail — is communalized, polarized and poisoned with hate.”

John Dayal, a fellow human-rights activist, said of Mr. Agnivesh: “His main challenge was the fundamentalist Hindu.”

“The politicalizing of Hinduism and the hijacking of sacred symbolisms for political gains — he abhorred it all,” Mr. Dayal said.

Mr. Guha said he had admired Mr. Agnivesh’s “willingness to put his life on the line in defense of the inclusive and plural faith he himself practiced.”

Mr. Agnivesh was beaten many times; in one incident a mob of Hindu nationalists stripped, kicked and punched him, accusing him of inciting tribal groups to fight the government. He was convinced, he said later, that they had intended to kill him.

Swami Agnivesh was born Vepa Shyam Rao on Sep. 21, 1939, into an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family in the Srikakulam district of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

His father, Vepa Laxmi Narsinham, a farmer, died when Mr. Agnivesh was 4 years old. His mother, Sita Devi, a homemaker, died a year later. After he lost his parents, he was brought up by his maternal grandfather. He left no immediate survivors.

Mr. Agnivesh studied law and commerce at the University of Calcutta and, after graduating, became a professor of management studies at St. Xavier’s College in the Indian state of West Bengal.

He briefly practiced law, but soon left to work in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, both of them notorious for bonded labor. For his work against child labor there he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for humanitarian work in 2004, given by a Swedish-based foundation.

Mr. Agnivesh spent 14 months in jail after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency in 1975, jailing political opponents and activists.

He fought against Mrs. Gandhi’s Indian National Congress party, was elected to the state Legislative Assembly in Haryana and was named a cabinet minister in Haryana. But he served just four months, pushed out after he protested against his own government, demanding an inquiry into the killing of 10 workers in an industrial township in a clash with police.

That episode led him to devote his life to fighting bonded labor.

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