Asghar Ali Engineer’s life and work

Book: A Living Faith, My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change, An Autobiography
Author: Asghar Ali Engineer
Publisher: Orient Blackswan, New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2011
Pages: 345
Price: Not Mentioned
ISBN: 978 81 250 4197 9   Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander 

The end of British colonial rule left behind many legacies which are still evident in the Subcontinent. Kashmir issue, Communal riots, Corruption, Religion- and Caste-based politics are a few of this never ending legacy. Muslims, who remained in India after the creation of Pakistan, were held hostage to pseudo-secularism and democracy by politicians and Hindu fascists. Every now and then their loyalty to the nation was brought under question, as their patriotism and love for democracy and harmony was always held under suspicion.

Few Muslims tried to fight the structural prejudices and the ill-founded biases present in the minds of majority community against Muslims, and tried to educate fellow compatriots about their community and religion. Fewer still tried their hand at reforming the society through active participation. Very rarely, Muslims opted for change through pen. Asghar Ali Engineer is one such soul who tried his hand at all the three.

His autobiography under review is a living testimony of his struggle on all these fronts. The autobiography carries a foreword by the noted historian Mushirul Hasan who is all praises for the life struggle of Dr Engineer but laments that the fact that there is no support for liberal initiatives from politicians and till now no award has been conferred on him for his exemplary work, though Engineer is least bothered about awards being a Sufi who initiated reforms within the tradition he inherited. He concludes his foreword with these words, “Asghar Ali Engineer will be remembered as a creative interpreter of Islam and as a champion of the liberal and secular values enshrined in the Indian constitution. His life clearly demonstrates that it is possible to be wedded to one’s tradition and at the same time be a quintessential liberal. There is no conflict of visions in Asghar Ali’s public life or writings”. The whole autobiography bears a testimony to these words.

The autobiography is divided into three parts; Part One is titled as My Life, My Struggle, which contains five chapters, which deal with his early life, education, upbringing, marriage and his engagement with the reformist movement among his Bohra sub-community. Bohras are a small closely-knit sect of Shias, who are headed by a dictatorial head-priest who has imposed suffocating and discriminatory policies on his flock by using his authority and is filling his coffers at the cost of innocent Bohras.

Engineer’s father was an Amil (local priest or agent) of Bohras, but he was different and the repressive system of Bohra chief repelled him, hence he wanted his son to become a doctor or engineer, so that he would be able to liberate himself from stifling tradition.

Engineer describes the non-communal atmosphere of Wardha and contrasts it with communal and sectarian atmosphere of the Dewas where he spent his childhood; Hindu-Muslim, Shia-Sunni divide was apparent but the teachers never discriminated against their students. Engineer describes his father as progressive as he used to have dialogue and held discussions with Hindu priests at his home despite being an Amil, a habit deeply abhorred by orthodox Bohras.

Engineer describes his upbringing in a religious atmosphere though contradictory elements were pulling him in different directions, and he experienced a sea-change from orthodoxy to liberalism thanks to his being a voracious reader. While he was an engineering student at Indore during 1961 when the Jabalpur riots took place, which had a profound effect on the tender mind of Engineer, and he decided to investigate, work out and write about communal riots and communal problem and this goal he still vehemently pursues.

Engineer further describes his tryst with an engineering job and how time and again he felt suffocated in the corrupt system and describes various incidents when he was offered bribes which he declined. There are many incidents related about his fight against corruption, nepotism, favouritism, red tapism and struggle for justice though he worked only for a brief period of time and ultimately, “came to the conclusion that it is not possible for any honest officer to work smoothly in a corrupt atmosphere. One either has to compromise or quit” (p. 29), and Engineer opted for the latter.

Engineer then describes his work related to communal harmony and his relationship with various Urdu poets and writers with whom he worked to restore communal harmony in society. He then describes the 1969 Ahmadabad riots and 1970 Bhiwandi riots and his campaign and movement for diffusing the prevailing tensions among the majority and minority communities together with writers like Khawaja Ahmad Abbas, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Kishen Chander, poets like Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sardar Jafri and even film personalities like Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar were concerned and played their roles, but Sahni’s death came as a personal loss for Engineer, as he lost one of the ardent champions of communal harmony and Hindu-Muslim unity.

The totalitarian regime of Syedna and his exploitation of religion for achieving vested interests were always repulsive and revolting which prompted Engineer to intensify reform movement within Bohras which resulted in Baraat (social boycott initiated by Bohra Chief against those who don’t give in to his whims), a surprising step in the enlightened 21st century. The impact of Baraat was disastrous for Engineer. His mother had to suffer heavily for her son’s stance and everybody taunted Engineer for stand as his mother was forced to abandon him, but Engineer survived the criticism and came out more stronger and firm in his belief in reform.

Engineer then depicts the influence and power of Syedna and the persecution of reformist Bohras at his hands by stating that even the towering personality of Indira Gandhi couldn’t stand up to rescue the reformist Bohras. Engineer describes how Tarkunde-Nathwani Commission was constituted to look into the human rights violations suffered by reformists at the hands of Syedna during Janta Party rule, but nothing substantial came out of it and even religious leaders like Shahi Imam and Syed Shahabuddin did nothing to support them. Politicians like Chandra Shekhar too were fearful of Syedna’s influence. Engineer states that Vasantdada Patil who was Chief Minister of Maharastra at one point promised to introduce a bill against social boycott (baraat) in the legislative assembly, but next day he backed out. “Even Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, who had appointed the Nathwani Commission, came under tremendous pressure from Muslim leaders and was forced to sign a statement saying he did not appoint any commission. S.M Joshi and Justice Tarkunde pointed out that he did in fact do so and the whole world knew about it” (p. 60). The Nathwani Commission’s report was finally published with two recommendations: To enact a law against Baraat and to enact a law to control the priesthood’s financial income on the lines of Ajmer dargah. But these recommendations were never implemented despite his indefatigable struggle. Yet Engineer isn’t cowed down. He says, “I came to the conclusion that real success does not lie in achieving the desired goal but in not giving up despite heavy odds. It is in continuing the struggle, in keeping with one’s conviction” (p. 67). These lines sum up the whole life and struggle of Engineer.

For his resistance against Syedna, a number of murderous attacks were attempted against Engineer. Once in Egypt, he was attacked by Bohras until he lost his consciousness and, as a result, developed traumatic cataract in his eyes. Politicians Najma Heptulla and Sibte Razi, who accompanied him during the trip, gave no statements condemning the attack, and he is still aghast at the hypocrisy of the politicians. His house and office were ransacked, books torn and thrown out on streets because of the false rumour of slapping Syedna. He cautions social reformers about the price they will have to pay for reform. “Fighting for social reforms and change is an extremely challenging task. When we want to bring about social change the status quo is disturbed and those who benefit from it will use all means, fair or foul, to prevent change. False propaganda and violence are usual tools used by them. But how can one give up?” (p. 73).

Engineer describes his efforts of reform, including his organisation of All World Dawoodi Bohra Conferences every few years which bring together the reformists of the whole world, and he is all praise for the role that writers played during the initial stages of Bohra reformist struggle.

Engineer moves on to describe his stance during the Emergency (1975-1977) imposed by Indira Gandhi and laments the hypocrisy of writers like Krishen Chander, K.A Abbas and Sardar Jafri who welcomed the Emergency but in the post-Emergency India changed their stance. Engineer is surprised at the fact that despite speaking and writing against Emergency, he was never harassed or arrested.

He then goes on to state about communal riots which took place during the Janta Party rule and how Indira Gandhi developed a pro-Hindu slant in her politics in the post-Emergency period as she lost the Muslim support, thereby further communalizing the atmosphere. Engineer is deeply hurt by the fact that there was no sane and conscious voice among Muslims who could deal with the volatile and rapidly changing events. He acknowledges the fact that, “Unfortunately after the death of Dr Zakir Hussain who was elevated to the post President of India, no Muslim leader who had wisdom and foresight appeared on the scene. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad died in 1958 and Dr Zakir Hussain in 1969. Both were highly dedicated leaders who had fought for freedom and had made sacrifices for the nation and were not driven by selfish motives. After them, there was no leader on the scene who could rise above power politics to lead Muslims with wisdom and foresight” (p. 82).

Engineer further describes the role of Police during the communal riots which has become communalized and his efforts by organizing police workshops in order to decommunalize their minds by educating and making them understand what secularism and constitution demands from them and what the real pristine teachings of Islam are. Engineer also recalls the series of riots which took place in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and how his opinion regarding Babri Masjid was ignored, which could have thwarted the innocent slaughter of human beings and the destruction of property worth billions. He was of the opinion that, “Let secular Hindus, I told Muslim leaders and intellectuals, fight it out with the BJP and let Muslims remain in the background. This way the BJP would not benefit politically. When, on the other hand, Muslim leaders confront BJP leaders on this issue, the BJP benefits immensely, politically. If Muslim leaders had remained in the background, I am sure, the Babri Masjid would not have been demolished and ultimately the BJP would not have come to power at the end of 1990s” (p. 82).

Engineer upholds 3Ds (Democracy, Diversity and Dialogue) which are essential for any meaningful politics. He is concerned about the arrests of innocent youth in the bomb blasts, many of which have been executed by the Hindutva outfits. He is sad and bruised about the fact that, “After communal violence stopped, most of those who had worked with us so enthusiastically disappeared and our resolve to work to prevent further outbreak of communal violence could not be carried out. This is something that has saddened me throughout my career as a peace activist, that those who believe in communal harmony and secular values do not work consistently. It is only when violence and bloodshed beckons, that their concern finds a voice. The communal forces on the other hand, have a sense of deep concern and motivation. Secularists on the other hand have no such inspiration. Reason and secular values after all do not have such emotional appeal” (p. 91). Hence steadfastness and perseverance is absent and missing among secularists and peace activists and if rectified would help root out communalism from India.

‘Beyond Boundaries: My Travels Abroad’ is the title of the second part of the autobiography which deals with his travels to various countries. These chapters mostly cover the conferences he attended in these countries and describe the culture, people and Muslim community of the visited country alongwith the purpose of the visit, and also contains some nostalgic memories plus sour ones too like his humiliation and harassment by Immigration officers on various occasions on the basis of stereotypical unfounded suspicion attributed to a Muslim. This part also offers invaluable information about various countries too.

The last part is titled “The Journey So Far”. It contains a single chapter, “Looking  back, Looking Ahead” in which he describes his decision of giving up engineering in favour of theology and philosophy as right  and he says that “real education results in rejection of what is and developing what should be. It is this tension in what is and what should be, that leads to the creation of a new world.” Engineer has been busy his whole life in this and will remain so in the future too.

Overall the book is an inspiring read. It prompts its readers to struggle for humane qualities of truth, justice, peace and fraternity. and provides an authentic account of the journey of Engineer as an activist, but he is not an activist only, he is a profound scholar too who has written and edited more than fifty books but this autobiography fails to shed light on this aspect of his life, which is also an embodiment of love for pen, paper and books. Hope this flaw would be compensated in future.

Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is a writer-activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir