January 2010 
Year 16    No.147

A Gandhian with a difference

Iqbal Ahmad Ansari, 1935 – 2009


Professor Iqbal Ahmad Ansari, a researcher and a theoretician as well as a fieldworker of the human rights movement in India, died an activist discussing violations of minority rights on Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) and holding consultations with PUCL activists in the national capital on the evening before his death in Aligarh on October 13, 2009. In December 2007 he was honoured by the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Promotion of Human Rights Teaching and Research for his largely unheralded contributions in the area.

He was a unique Muslim intellectual who spoke with reason and in a language understandable to non-Muslim jurists, secular intellectuals and rights activists, Muslim clerics and even international jihadis. He was a self-confident Muslim writer of substance who was immune to denial and conspiracy theories. He also saw justification in the media hyping of "Islamic terrorism", as, of all the violent groups fighting against oppression worldwide, it was only the Muslims whose war cry was religious, paying no heed to the theology, and axiology, of the use of force in Islam.

"Muslim passivity and the urge to blame the media," he wrote, "should be replaced by an objective assessment of the rise of the cult of violence in the name of armed Islamic jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan and lately in Bangladesh." He discounted Islamic terrorism, which he preferred to call anti-Islamic, on both counts: its legitimacy as well as its strategic viability. While speaking of Islamic terrorism in the wake of 9/11, he counselled Muslims worldwide, "wherever they find themselves oppressed, to explore new techniques of effective peaceful struggle, of passive resistance, which was evolved by, among others, Gandhi."

Ansari was most eloquent in his enunciation of the principles of legitimate violence, a term that he carefully avoided, favouring instead the phrase "use of force", even in the context of non-state actors. Unlike most Muslim writers who emphasised the spiritual jihad, he spoke directly, and most often solely, on armed jihad, which was, as he put it, the legitimate use of force for a specified just cause. He was not one of the many Gandhians who disallowed the use of force for all causes even if just, and even in self-defence. "The pacifists preaching the religious doctrine of absolute non-violence," he maintained, "could not generally remain consistent for any length of time, as was the case with Gandhi on Kashmir in 1947."

He was a Gandhian with a difference. He believed that it was more important, while pursuing the noble quest for a state of everlasting peace in the world, to seek universal observance of humanitarian laws of armed conflict whenever force was used so that all non-combatants, especially women, children, the old and the disabled, enjoyed protection of life and dignity during hostilities. This realistic Koranic position on the legitimacy of force is not only similar to that of Gandhi’s Gita but has also been endorsed by the world community in modern times under the United Nations Charter (1945) and the humanitarian laws of war codified under the four Geneva Conventions (1949).

Whenever he spoke on the issue of legitimate use of force, he invariably addressed the militant groups alongside the governments and "all the militarily powerful nations of the world, led by the United States of America". In fact, Ansari’s discourse of the legitimate use of force has the potential to engage even the Maoist Naxals in a dialogue of reason. "In Islam, peace is accorded a fairly high ranking in the hierarchy of values but so is justice. A kind of militancy defined as a vigorous struggle directed towards establishing a just order was inherent in the ideological orientation of Islam. Internal insurgency and rebellion can enjoy legitimacy if any section or group feels persistently oppressed and other peaceful methods of redressal have been exhausted."

However, the use of force by any such group would be governed by the same principles as a declared war under a unified political command and could seek Islamic legitimacy only under strict conditions both while defining ends as well as means. During any declared hostilities and armed conflict led by a political command, if the destruction of military power and potential of the enemy required any operation wherein death of the attacking soldiers was certain, suicide bombing of purely military targets may be considered permissible but not in situations where civilians could be victims. He also rejected the validity of the contention that civilians were legitimate targets because they were taxpayers and supporters of a tyrannical government.

In this context, he further emphasised the shades within each category of ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ (or ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’) requiring discrimination, that is, tolerable inequality reconciled to larger freedom and tolerable injustice reconciled to pervasive peace and vice versa. "On occasion it will make us choose peace under an order which is not perfectly just while continuing to struggle peacefully for a more just order." That is where intercommunity peace initiatives and intercommunity/state conciliation are to be most relevant.

In his perennial pursuit of conciliation and human rights, he appears to have arrived at his own definition or interpretation of "Islamism" (or what is alternatively called "political Islam") as being a struggle for justice and he urged Islamists worldwide "to engage in research and activism in the area of prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts and in developing effective techniques for peaceful struggles for the right of self-determination and for fighting political and economic injustices that they are faced with". To the question: Will it succeed, his answer was: Has terrorism succeeded?

He noted with satisfaction the fact that in spite of being subjected to recurrent organised violence with state collusion, Indian Muslims were not associated with any international terrorist organisation. On occasion stray Muslim individuals have taken recourse to terrorist acts because, as explained by Justice Srikrishna and others, they despair of ever receiving justice from the system. Ansari however did not think that periodic post-event condemnation of such acts was an adequate response from Indian Muslim leaders, as he was alarmed by the rise of what he called "anti-Islamic terrorism" in India’s neighbourhood.

"Targeting lawyers and judges for administering secular laws instead of Shariah in Bangladesh is the latest example of jihadi acts committed by self-proclaimed Islamic groups," he said, and urged Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals to engage their counterparts in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan and Bangladesh in a community dialogue on the legitimacy of force in Islam (as well as its efficacy) and the ethical and legal code governing armed hostilities.

Born activist that he was, he addressed a ‘Memorandum To PM HM CMs’ (2005), ‘An Open Letter to Muslim Ulema and Intellectuals’ (February 2006) and, in a meeting at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi (February 2007), launched a campaign entitled ‘Shanti Pahal’ for the advocacy of intercommunity peace initiatives. He visited Jammu and Kashmir on several occasions, alone and along with others. During his last visit, in September 2006, he sought the consent of Kashmiri leaders to a ‘Citizens’ Declaration on Protection of Uninvolved Persons During all Situations of Use of Force’. He also visited Islamabad and Karachi in 2008 and, with the help of old Aligarians there, managed to get endorsements from Pakistani ulema and intellectuals for the declaration: ‘Towards a Riot and Terror-Free Indo-Pak Region’.

Ansari was a rare intellectual and a great negotiator of theologico-political issues, combining the best traditions of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Iqbal and Mahatma Gandhi. He held that durable peace in "traditional societies like those in the subcontinent" required basic reform of the police and justice system for the state to uphold the rule of law and also called for intercommunity/interstate conciliation through dialogue, especially on emotive ethno-religious issues like cow slaughter, conversion, Ayodhya and Kashmir. He bracketed Kashmir with the range of Hindu-Muslim issues because, seen from a broader historical perspective, it was part of the history of unresolved Hindu-Muslim conflict leading to partition. "Any overall religio-cultural conciliation between Hindus and Muslims in India may be expected to lead to a qualitative change in the attitude of Kashmiris."

Pursuing a Gandhian insight on cow slaughter and conversion, he urged Muslims to declare a voluntary ban on cow slaughter and hoped that such a voluntary declaration would go a long way in earning the goodwill of the Hindu community, especially its elite. "Banning cow slaughter by a central legislation may come into conflict with the demands of secularism," he argued, "but its coming into effect through a compact will not pose any problem so long as other animals are available for sacrifice and for food. Several Muslim monarchs, ulema and leaders, including Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, adopted such a conciliatory attitude in the past."

He felt that the major source of opposition from the Hindu elite to Muslim-specific affirmative action was their fear of mass religious conversion and emphasised the need to accommodate these concerns about national disintegration through the proposed mechanism of an independent, statutorily empowered Community Relations Commission. He also urged Muslims to voluntarily declare that there was no political design to induce the conversion of weak and vulnerable groups of Hindus. Interestingly, he followed Gandhian wisdom even on the issue of Muslim-specific reservation in the sense that he supported special action in favour of the weakest while, and as a way of, maintaining the unity of the community.

Given the right perspective, he argued, it should not lie beyond the realm of the possible to amicably resolve the Ayodhya issue, if Muslims could be reasonably assured that compromise would yield permanent peace dividends guaranteeing the rule of law, securing their due share in the socio-economic and political life of the nation and ensuring that they fully enjoyed their right to a distinct identity as a religious minority.

However, it is a pity that though his intercommunity peace initiative enjoyed the moral support of large sections of intellectuals from all communities as well as of leading ulema, his effort to prevent Ayodhya II, for which he observed a one-day token fast at Rajghat, New Delhi, in 2001, did not have the desired effect. For this the primary blame, in his own view, attaches to "non-Sangh Hindus who did not come forward with any fair compromise solution and thus allowed the sangh parivar to be the sole spokesmen of the Hindu community".

(Dr Nazeer A. Majeed has worked as literary-cum-administrative assistant, in 1999-2000, for Human Rights Today, the bulletin edited by Iqbal A. Ansari.)


PUCL Bulletin, November 2009.

‘Terror in the name of Islam’, The Times of India, January 6, 2006.

‘Terrorism Cannot Work’, The Times of India, October 17, 2001.

‘Minority rights and responsibilities’, The Hindu, December 31, 2005.

‘Hindu-Muslim conflict – need for conciliation’, The Milli Gazette, January 1-15, 2001.

Position paper: ‘Islam and Use of Force’, 2004, www.wcmir.org/papers.html

‘Human Rights: A Struggle for Justice & Peace’, February 2008,

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