An activist, scholar dedicated to secular values

Last Updated 17 May 2013, 18:03 IST

The events of last over two decades have shown us that communal forces have been a major obstacle to social peace and process of development. 

In India, while the communal violence began with the Jabalpur riot of 1961, it is from last couple of decades, especially from 1980s that the divisive politics has tried to drive a wedge between different communities along religious lines. The regret is that it is only few social workers and scholars who took this issue in all its seriousness and Asghar Ali Engineer can be counted amongst those few. 

Engineer was a student when Jabalpore riots took place. The imprint of this tragedy got reflected in his social engagement with the issues related to communal politics all through.

His work shows that he took a serious interest in understanding the dynamics of communal violence. He can easily be credited with being the major scholar-activist who pioneered in dissecting communal politics.

The communal violence of Jabalpur  shook Engineer very deeply. He was taught that Islam does not preach violence, and no religion teaches violence. This is the point when he decided to devote his life to promote communal harmony.  Godhra witnessed riots on and off during 1980-81. Engineer investigated these riots as a part of a team. The conflict here was mainly between Sindhis and Ghanchi Muslims. While Sindhi immigrants were looked down by other Hindus, for various reasons those Hindu groups supported them against Muslims. The material reasons of poverty of Ghanchi Muslims and growing demands of Sindhis for facilities was the root cause of the trouble.

Engineer also studied the Ahmedabad violence of 1982.Pune and Sholapur were in the grip of violence in 1981-82. These were precipitated in the aftermath of Ahmedabad violence and the VHP had been at the forefront of spreading the communal venom. It was a period when VHP had launched a Jan Jagaran (People’s Awakening) campaign all over India. This campaign was based on demonization of Muslims as foreigners, beef eaters, etc. 

In Sholapur also situation was similar. Here they propagated the myth of rising Muslim population to provoke the people. 

Meerut riots have also been a big sore on our polity. Meerut, a city with great syncretic traditions, also suffered from violence. Here the main goal was to co-opt the dalits, to give them liquor etc and to use them for violence against Muslims. His major observations have been that a small incident is taken advantage of by communal forces, the rumours add havoc to the situation.

Apart from the riots of Mumbai 1992-93, Gujarat carnage has also been studied by him. He focused on overcoming the communal interpretation of history and presented the view of looking at history of kings as battles for power and wealth. He understood lives of people as an ongoing journey of interaction, some frictions and major synthesizing tendencies resulting in syncretic traditions.

Medieval history  In his works, the medieval history is presented not as a battle between Hindu and Muslim kings but as battles between kings for power and wealth. He draws heavily from original sources and from the works of nationalist historians. He takes up the vexed issue of role of Muslim leadership in freedom movement and the role of communalists, Muslims and Hindus both in aggravating the communal violence even in pre-independence India. He handles the issue of partition of the country very delicately to focus that the main responsibility of partition lies on the head of British, while Congress leadership and Jinnah’s obstinate nature added to the issue.

His intervention in social issues began with his concern for communal harmony. His urge to study and understand the communal problem began with the tragedy of Jabalpur violence, later his study led him to intervene and undertake the campaigns and awareness work to promote communal harmony. In Mumbai, he brought together like minded friends to a group, Awaz-e-Biradaran. 

In Mumbai, he also became part of Indo Pak friendship movement. At the same time he came in contact with the Sampradayikta Virodhi Committee (Committee against Communalism) in which doyens like Subhadra Joshi and D R Goyal were associated and Engineer started contributing to their work.

The response of Muslim leadership to the issue of Ramjanmbhoomi disturbed him immensely, he held that Muslim leadership should be in the background, and the issue should primarily be tackled by secular activists and scholars.He was a sincere, honest and committed scholar activist. During the Mumbai violence, his office became a natural place for all the activists to meet. 

He took up the task of formalising the awareness programmes and was instrumental in laying the foundation of Center for Study of Society and Secularism, which has emerged as the premier center for spreading awareness about secular issues. The CSSS, as we refer to it in brief, has also undertaken research on contemporary issues relating to national integration.  

While one is talking on the social contribution of a person of high stature, there are some anecdotes which have been very touching at a personal level.

I cannot help but recount an anecdote, which has left a deep impression on me. One morning we were standing in the Mumbai University campus hall. The seminar was to begin in another 10-15 minutes or so. As we were, waiting one of the speakers came in a taxi and we welcomed him. As we were talking to the speaker, the taxi driver got down, did a respectful namaste (greeting) to Engineer and said, “Sir please continue your work, your writing, it is a source of peace for the society.”

I am sure there must be innumerable persons around the globe with similar sentiments.

(The author is a Mumbai-based human rights activist)

(Published 17 May 2013, 18:03 IST)

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