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Rebel with a cause

Last updated on March 2, 2019

Sant Aatmabodhanand has taken it upon himself to continue the hunger strike started by the late Sant Sanand to ensure the free flow of the Ganga

Like most people in their early 20s figuring out the direction to take in life, a young man studying computer science in Kerala had one of those dilemmas. In 2014, the 22-year-old, left his home and family to journey towards the Himalayas to find some spiritual connect.

Now, at 26, he is called Brahmachari Aatmabodhanand, and is on hunger strike, demanding free flow of the Ganga. He began his protest on October 24, days after Sant Sanand passed away after fasting for 111 days for the very same cause.

Speaking to Patriot over the phone from Haridwar, Aatmabodhanand seems confident of carrying on. While his physical condition is declining, he claims with a slight laugh, “My aatmik (soul) and mental strength have only become stronger”. He consumes only lemonade and honey and is on the 128th day
of his fast.

Days just pass by, he says. Waking up by 5:30 am, he lies in bed, till the warm sun makes rising bearable. By 8:30 am he’s out in the garden where people come and meet him. He also spends his time reading on “the environment and something spiritual” and keeps himself updated with
the news.

When asked till how long he would carry on the hunger strike, he answered that another sanyasi is training to take over. This is his preparation, Aatmabodhanand says for “when my body passes away, he will carry on the fast”.

This act would be in line with what he has done after the passing away of Sant Sanand who was backed by Matri Sadan — an ashram with a long history of opposing government or public actions which are against the environment, through protests and also litigation. Headed by Swami Shivanand, the promise was made that if anything were to happen to Sanand, someone from the Ashram would take up the responsibility.

According to a long-standing member of the Ashram, Aatmabodhanand requested to be allowed to protest, putting forth his case that people in the South of India revered the Ganga as much as people in the North.

The main demands are to stop construction of the under-construction dams on the Ganges, namely: Singoli-Bhatwari, Tapovan-Vishnugad and Vishnugad-Peepkotti.

This is Aatmabodhanand’s 10th hunger strike. Before this he had fasted protesting the mining in the Kumbh region and against the expansion of the Kumbh area in Haridwar. He has also fasted for the compliance of orders received from courts through Matri Sadan.

But litigation has been a failure, Aatmabodhanand says. “There has been irreversible damage to Gangaji, the government wants to seem concerned but they are not”, he adds.

The government’s pledge to spend Rs 20,000 crore — of which a little over Rs 6,000 crore has been given —  for the Namami Gange project is all for “building dams and sewage treatment plants”, the young Sant says.

He cites the Haridwar STP which is just 500m from the Ashram, which “emits sewage water into the river”. What he believes is that the money invested for cleaning of the river only reaches the pockets of companies and the politicians, with no benefit to the Ganga or the people who live beside it.

Trying to get a sense of the young priests’ characteristics, we spoke with those who had gathered on February 23 to lead a march from Sansad Marg to Jantar Mantar in the Capital. One of them is Varsha Verma, a resident of Haridwar, who has been part of the Ashram for the past 18 years.  Actively participating in the Ashram’s causes, she has since January 28, along with other members sat at Jantar Mantar to bring to the government’s attention their concern.

But will the government take notice? Sant Sanand died for the very same demands, and history repeating itself seems like a real possibility. Yet, the supporters fully hold on to the right to protest through hunger strike, calling it a “way to take action”.

They believe that the practice, made noble as a non-violent political resistance by Mahatma Gandhi, should have the support of the public. Deboditya Sen, an activist, who only met members of Matri Sadan recently says, he has understood their fight. He wants people to take the protest seriously. “Aatmabodhanand is very young. He saw what was happening, and decided to do something,” Sen says. Visibly encouraged by the protest, he added that the Sant was “sacrificing his life as a young person” and would not gain anything personally.

Aatmabodhanand himself was asked to weigh in his thoughts by Verma a day before he had begun his fast. “He told me it could go two ways. One, the government would listen to our demands and the other was death”, but the prospect of the second outcome did not make him flinch, she adds. Instead he told her that in divine terms, he would achieve a higher status. Verma was “shaken” by this statement she says. But the man was unfazed: 100 days into his fast, she asked the same question and she received the same response.

Aatmabodhanand’s guru

Swami Shivanand was candid while speaking to the small crowd which had gathered at the rally in Jantar Mantar. The guru of the man fasting said the government must not hold the notion that a lone sanyasi, sitting by the river in a small kunj, was not being heard.

Speaking in a strong voice, yet telling of his age and the long taxing day he had had, he accused the government of making several promises for the Ganga, but delivering none. Instead the Swami believed that things were getting worse: “Modi (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) says that Ganga has called him but when you’re not doing anything how can you say this?” He went further and blamed the government of allowing the death of Swami Sanand, and now Aatmabodhanand “ka dhire dhire khoon pi rahin hain” (whose blood they are slowly drinking).

The solution was for the government to leave its ego behind and also remove a minister whom the Swami called a “Ganga dhrohi” and “sant dhrohi”.

On October 9, according to him, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari had told them that “things will be done”, but nothing happened thereafter. Instead Sant Sanand died and Aatma-bodhanand awaits a government who reportedly does not have time to listen.

The protestors have not been able to meet any people’s representatives, nor has the government tried to connect with them, they allege. They are left to fight on, which they will do in court as well. Vikrant, a lawyer who has led the litigation against mining in Ganga, said that a writ petition is currently pending with the National Green Tribunal to ensure the free flow of the Ganga.

For now, Aatmabodhanand’s supporters can only hope the government has some dialogue with them. He told Patriot that no one from the government has come to see him and the opposition party members who have, only do so for “photo-ops”, “they don’t support us”.

Aatmabodhanand waits for someone to stir.