I met the late activist Swami Agnivesh in May 2018, two months before he was attacked by Bharatiya Janata Party-linked mobs in Jharkhand. Relaxed between travels, he sat sipping tea in his Delhi office in a swelter of saffron. A pot-bellied, clear-skinned man with silver-rimmed glasses and veined hands, he looked and spoke like the kindly head of a university.

His head and ears were covered with a tightly-wound saffron turban; he wore a saffron kurta and a slightly torn saffron dhoti; on his wrist was a watch with a saffron strap. Even the Godrej behind him and the plastic rubbish bin under his desk were shades of saffron. When he put down his cup of green tea, it was on an iPad with a saffron cover.

Agnivesh, who was a sprightly 78 when I met him, spent his life defying the stereotypes encoded in that colour. Though outwardly a “swami”, he was much closer to being a firebrand socialist activist, a dropout from the academy who pursued the rights of workers, particularly bonded labourers. He spoke fluent Telegu, Hindi, and English; and was equally at ease in international conferences and rustic bandhs. But his primary and most cherished identity remained that of...

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