Former Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur) Professor Guru Das Agrawal, who became an ascetic in 2011 at the age of 79 years and came to be known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, died on 11 October, 2018 on the 112th day of his fast, demanding a law for conservation of river Ganga. Inspired by Professor Agrawal, 40-year-old Sant Gopal Das, a Jain saint, who has fasted earlier for release of encroached grazing land for cows in Haryana, also sat on fast for the same cause two days after Professor Agrawal began his fast, on 24 June, 2018, at Badri Dham temple in Badrinath. Presently he is in the Intensive Care Unit of AIIMS, New Delhi. As a sequel to Professor Agrawal’s fast, 26-year-old Brahmachari Atmabodhanand began his fast on 24 October at Matre Sadan, which Professor Agrawal had chosen as the site of his fast. Even when Professor Agrawal was alive, the head of Matre Sadan, Swami Shivanand, had warned persons belonging to Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party that is now in power both at Delhi and Dehradun, who were visiting him that if anything happened to Swami Sanand, then he and his disciples would continue the unfinished task undertaken by Professor Agrawal. Professor Agrawal’s fast was the 59th fast by a saint associated with Matre Sadan, and Atmabodhanand’s fast is the 60th. 62-year-old Swami Punyanand of Matre Sadan gave up foodgrains and is on fruit diet since Atmabodhanand started his fast on 24 October, and is prepared to shift to a water diet in the event of Atmabodhanand becoming a casualty.
Earlier Swami Nigamanand, then 35 years of age, also associated with Matre Sadan, died on the 115th day of his fast in 2011 demanding curbs on mining in Ganga. Matre Sadan claims that he was actually murdered by a mining mafia associated with the BJP that was in power in Uttarakhand then. Swami Gokulanand, who fasted with Swami Nigamanand from 4 to 16 March, 1998, a year after Matre Sadan was established, is also believed to have been murdered by mining mafia in 2003 while he was living in anonymity at Bamaneshwar temple in Nainital. Baba Nagnath died at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi in 2014 fasting for the same demand as that of Professor Agrawal—to let Ganga flow uninhibited and unpolluted, aviral and nirmal, respectively.
Both Swami Shivanand and Brahmachari Atmabodhanand in their separate letters to the Prime Minister have quoted Srimadbhagwat to say that since Ganga has become polluted with sins, it is the duty of saints to rid her of these sins by sacrificing their lives. But they have not remained content by considering it their duty to fast for Ganga as a religious exercise. They have chosen to criticise the government, its ministers, its policies and also its attitude. Both saints have accused the Prime Minister of adopting consumerism driven development policies which view Ganga as merely water resources to be exploited for profits. They have reserved their harshest criticism for the Minister of Water Resources, River Basin Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Nitin Gadkari. Swami Shivanand has in fact doubted his capacity for appreciating the dignity of Ganga. Atmabodhanand has condemned Gadkari for having lied just before Professor Agrawal’s death that his demands have been met. Both saints have been especially critical of the corporatisation of water—the bottled water industry and the marketing of ‘holy Gangajal.’ Swami Shivanand has come down heavily on Modi for his love for foreign sojourns and attempts to make the cultural city of Varanasi into Kyoto. Atmabodhanand thinks that this government is ‘nationalist’ only for namesake, otherwise it has a western view of development. He has demanded from the PM immediate compliance of two of the four demands raised by Professor G.D. Agrawal—halting of ongoing and proposed hydroelectric projects on Ganga and ban on any mining in it as an expression of homage to Professor Agrawal on behalf of the country. Atmabodhanand has criticised the government for having considered Professor Agrawal’s fast as ‘one man’s intransigence.’ He says that Professor Agrawal represented the pain felt by what he describes as ‘tradition of saints willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Ganga. These saints are all deeply concerned with the deteriorating condition of Ganga, state of global environment, immoral development policies promoting crime and corruption and the irrational man bent upon destroying all living beings, environment and the culture of co-existence. He feels that it is the arrogance of power because of which the government refuses to recognise this concern of saints.
As the number of saints dying while fasting for the sake of Ganga keeps piling up, and resolve of more of them to embark on the same path becomes stronger, it may be difficult for the country and its government to ignore this phenomenon. The BJP, now busy raking up the Ram temple issue in Ayodhya and the Sabrimala issue in Kerala, can ignore the issue of Ganga at its own peril. People haven’t forgotten that the PM claimed that he got a call from Mother Ganga to contest his parliamentary election from Varanasi. There is a high profile Namami Gange project in place with a huge budget that is aimed at cleaning Ganga, but which seems to have achieved little. Ganga has become more polluted as much water has flowed through it since Naremdra Modi won his election from Varanasi. In fact, the issue of Ganga could become Narendra Modi’s and BJP’s achilles heel in the 2019 general elections.