Reflections of a Crusader
For 38 years, since way back in 1961 when he was a student of engineering, Asghar Ali Engineer has been waging a two–pronged battle — against the divisive forces of communalism and the gross human rights violations of ordinary Bohra Muslims by an oppressive and corrupt priesthood under the head–priest — Syedna Burhanuddin.
Turning 60 in March, the crusader for peace and amity typically spent his birthday at yet another seminar on ethnic conflict in the entire South Asian region in New Delhi. Reflecting on 38 years of struggle against bigotry and unreason, Engineer travelled down memory lane with Communalism Combat, from the time when the Awaaz–e–Biradaran (Voice of Brotherhood) was born after the first, post–partition communal riot at Jabalpur in 1961 to the threat of communalism in South Asia in 1999, at the turn of this century.
How and when did you take the first step into the movement that became your life mission?
I remember being badly shaken by the Jabalpur riot in 1961. I was a student in Indore at that time, doing my engineering. The riot was so terrible. Even Nehru was shaken by the sheer scale of the violence. That riot had shaken the whole nation.
So young people like us, then, who desired harmony in society decided to do something about the menace of communalism. Soon after my graduation in civil engineering, I came over to Bombay and joined the Bombay Municipal Corporation.
What followed was a series of riots in Durgapur and Jamshedpur, followed by Ranchi, all in the sixties. That propelled us into setting up an organisation of young people called Awaaz–e–Biradaran (Voice of Brotherhood).
Apart from myself, journalists belonging to various newspapers, some social activists and college teachers formed part of this organisation, holding regular meetings.
I remain as convinced now as I was then that common people are not communal, with no evil intentions to kill others. They are just misinformed by wrong and vicious propaganda. Communal forces know that this kind of misinformation campaign is highly productive for them, which is why they carry on relentlessly.
Where is the anti–communal movement, in your assessment, after all these years?
Where are we after all these years? There is no simple answer. The situation has worsened, there have been ups and downs. The main reason for communal violence is political, so it is very much tied with the political fortunes within the country and the maturing of a democracy.
After a peaceful period between 1971 and 1977, during Janata rule, there were a series of riots. My analysis is that these major riots took place because the RSS was not happy with the Jan Sangh becoming a "secular Gandhian" party. They wanted to give the message, that "we still stand by our ideology". Hence the violence. This is evident because in all these bouts of violence, RSS ideologues were named publicly to be responsible for the violent crimes.
Then again, we have a series of major riots from the eighties beginning with Muradabad in 1980 and ending with the Bombay riots in 1992–93. The eighties was the most dangerous decade in terms of communal violence. But why was this turmoil taking place?
One explanation I have is that this violence was the result of the maturing of Indian democracy. People had by then become more and more aware of their rights and this awareness meant that people of all communities had begun asserting these rights. Therefore, upper caste Hindus, with their positions of privilege threatened, began to retaliate. There is a very close parallel here between what happened in the pre–partition period and what happened in the eighties.
During the pre–partition period, what we saw was aggression by the Muslim elite and in the eighties what we witnessed was aggression by the Hindu elite. The UP–based Muslim elite became aggressive and carved out Pakistan because they feared that they would lose out in independent India, over–represented as they were in the services.
When this kind of insecurity seizes a privileged section, aggression results. The same thing happened with the Hindu elite in the eighties.
All the talk of implementation of the Mandal commission recommendations, coupled with the Muslim response during the Shah Bano agitation and the Sikh agitation guaranteed their violent reaction. I can clearly recall a columnist who is also a gay activist writing a letter to The Indian Express in the early eighties, urging that all minorities in India should be disenfranchised for ten years because they had become so aggressive!
Post–1992, the situation is qualitatively different. The demolition of the Babri Masjid has opened people’s eyes. But today the target of communal forces is the Christians, the method used to target them is different.
Communalism and communal violence are two different phases. Just because there is no communal violence, does not mean that there is no communalism. Secular forces often make the mistake of ignoring the implications of communalism when there is no evidence of riots or violence. Communal forces are very active even when there is no communal violence. Communal violence will take place only when these forces assess that creating such violence will be politically beneficial.
What is the response to your consistent work in this field? Do you feel that in the last 38 years there has been any positive change in the response of people and organisations?
There have been different phases in people’s responses, too. The impact that we had before the eighties was washed out in the face of aggressive communal propaganda by communalists in that decade. We could not be very effective during that phase. But again, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid people were shocked into a response.
Specifically because history has become very important, a contentious issue. When I talk about the proper interpretation of history in the workshops that we hold, this subject has the maximum impact. My work is mainly with the middle class because I feel that the middle class is the main culprit in spreading communal views. If their ideas change, if they don’t get influenced by communal propaganda, they will not propagate that cause, they will not talk about it in the classrooms, in newspaper articles. The poison will not spread.
After your work with Awaaz–e–Biaradaran how did you proceed?
Following the brutality of the Ahmedabad riots in 1969, we formed the Anti–Communal Youth Front and organised a number of activities in Bombay, Thane and Bhiwandi. We joined hands and networked with Subhadra Joshi and D. R. Goyal who had formed the Sampradayik Vidrohi Committee. Goyal, with the RSS in his youth, had quit to join the CPI and later became a Congress–man. He had authored several pamphlets on the RSS at the time. We had the great support of a friend, Balraj Sahni, the prominent artist, at the time. I recall an incident. I called him up after the Bhiwandi riots took place in 1970, urging him to do something with us since things were critical there. He was on the verge of a long–overdue holiday in Kashmir. But he gave it up and we spent 14 days touring neighbouring villages around Bhiwandi where violence had been fomented by the Shiv Sena aided by the police.
In 1970–71 came the campaign for Bangladesh when we used to hold programmes for communal peace and in support of the campaign for Bangladesh.
When the nineties round of rioting started, we formed the EKTA samiti. We had always been investigating riots in any case, now we started doing this through EKTA. We organised peace marches from Delhi to Meerut, from Mumbai to Azad Maidan.
Your other single–minded campaign has been against the oppressive conditions within the Bohra community controlled by a corrupt and dictatorial priesthood…
The more our resistance and work gets strong, the activities of the communalists will become more visible and repressive. On the Bohra reformist movement, too, I believe that it was because we posed such a challenge to the priesthood that they became much more oppressive out of their own insecurity.
Personal suffering, oh yes, one has to suffer. There were physical attacks, a social boycott against me, since 1973, which still continues. I am totally out of touch with my close relatives, my cousins with whom I used to play and study as I grew. They don’t talk to me, nor come to meet me out of fear.
People often ask me a rather ridiculous question — how far have I been successful in the Bohra reformist campaign? How can you quantitatively assess these things? These are battles of/for ideas. If the forces of evil were to go unchallenged, can you imagine what might happen?
Does this mean that the hold of the Syedna on the community is still very strong?
Very strong. It is very difficult to shake his influence off. But the mere fact that we, a handful of people, without any means, could shake them, is a positive point.
My mother was staying with me when she was summoned by the Syedna and ordered to stay separately, not with her shaitaan (devil–like) son. She earnestly asked of the high priest who would house her if not me? Not only did the high priest take great offence at this but ordered her to hang a curtain between us and cook separately.
She agreed, but life was a living hell. Women spies would be sent to our home, sometimes in the middle of the night, to check that the priest’s dictates were being carried out. Finally things became so unbearable that I sold some ancestral property I had in Ratlam and put her up in a small flat at Kurla. I see her now, infrequently and always furtively.
My children, Irfan and Seema suffered tremendously, growing up to abhor what the Bohras stood for. They would be visiting their Nani and if another Bohra also came, would be forced to hide under the bed!
I was not allowed to join the funeral procession of my elder brother who had been my support. They threatened to throw away his body if I did not leave. What could I do? I left the cemetery weeping. My maternal uncle and my father–in–law came and consoled me. Even that was reported. They had to pay a fine of Rs.10,000 each for that ‘misdemeanor’.
I have campaigned relentlessly among Muslims for which I have been dubbed an RSS agent, even a communist agent let loose to destroy the disciplined community of Bohra Muslims! Muslim leaders would argue with me,"Bhai saheb, yeh ek hi disciplined community hai, isko bhi aap tod rahe hai?"(This is the only disciplined community among Muslims, why are you bent on breaking that?) To which I would reply, "Kya aapko Hitler ka discipline chahiye kya?" (Do you want the discipline of a Hitler?). This is the discipline of a cemetery where none can speak out. Those who protest are thrown out or killed!
They tried to kill me four times but did not succeed. Muslim leaders have always been terrified of taking a stand against the Syedna, be it Najma Heptullah or others. Najma Heptullah and I were part of the same delegation visiting Egypt when I was assaulted. She did not speak up, believing that since the high priest was very close to Indira Gandhi, she would disapprove of their involvement with a reformist!
It is because all politicians have refused to take action against the human rights violations being perpetrated by the high priest and his apparatus against ordinary Bohras that there is this impression within the community that the high priest is invincible.
Where does the Bohra reformist struggle stand today?
Today the high priest has had to change his strategy. The earlier approach was to terrorise. Soon, he realised that the reformists would not be cowed down by that. Now he is attempting co–option of many within the movement. But he has not succeeded.
And they are a significant number?
There are about 20,000, all over the world. There are many youngsters, particularly in Udaipur. We had our 10th world conference this February in Udaipur that was widely attended.
What I must emphasise is the women’s participation in the reformist movement. I salute their grit and determination. But for the militancy of the women within the reformist movement, the men would have surrendered!
What is the reason for this?
Theirs is a strong reaction against the shabby fashion in which they were humiliated, insulted and molested by Bohras simply because they were part of the reform movement. When they went to visit Kaliakot, the holy place for Bohras (one of our saints is buried there), they were molested there right in the presence of the high priest, the Syedna in 1972!
That was the turning point for the movement. Women became determined. When I sat on an indefinite fast in 1989 against the high priest’s refusal to allow us to go to Kaliakot, hundreds of women would gather each morning after completing their chores, sit in solidarity the whole day, returning home only at night.
After the government, a Congress government, intervened and assured us that we would be allowed to visit the shrine, I broke my fast. But the government played a treacherous role backing down from allowing us to visit the shrine, twice. On both occasions, it was the determined militancy of the women that forced the authorities. But still they stopped us short of reaching the shrine. On the second occasion that the government let us down, I was extremely worried that this kind of ending to the agitation may prove to be some sort of anti–climax for the whole movement and womens’ participation in it.
So I just went around asking all of them, "Is wakt kya mehsus kar rahe ho aap. Bahut maayusi ho rahi hogi?" (You must be experiencing great disappointment). I cannot, ever, forget their reply. "Kya aap samajhte ho ke ham pathar chhoone ja rahe the. Hum to apni rights ki ladaai lad rahe the." (You think we were going to prostrate before the shrine? We were going only to assert our rights!)
The machinery of the Bohra priesthood has tried every trick in the book to spread rumours, and to discredit the movement. The response of the women among the reformists is testimony to how futile these efforts have been.
Under the current regime with its unashamed allegiance to Hindutva, which envisages a state drastically different in character from its democratic one, what does the future hold?
In India, democratic traditions, however lopsided, have taken deep roots. BJP ke liye aasaan nahin hai (It is not that easy even for the BJP to violate these completely.)
The real task ahead is for people to make what they will of a democratic and secular state. The Constitution is an idea which gives us the character of the state. But what the state in practice will be is determined by political parties.
What is needed is a peoples’ movement to extract an accountable behaviour, secular and democratic, from the political parties and the state.
(Interviewed by Teesta Setalvad)