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March  2000

Syedna’s Sena on rampage 
Islamic scholar and Bohra reformist, Asghar Ali Engineer is viciously targeted by the henchmen of the Bohra high priest, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin but the Muslim leadership and the Urdu press choose to stand on the side of the perpetrators of violence 

‘In the name of religion and God,  he (Syedna Burhanuddin, supreme head priest of the Bohra community) has structured an  ungodly, irreligious and inhuman order, the likes of which will shame even the most despotic rulers. That he continues to defy even the minimum norms of free expression and freedom in an open democratic society like India is a slur on the nation and that he does it with impunity is a challenge to every thinking person.’
— From the ‘Report on Violation of Human Rights of Dawoodi Bohras’. Prepared by the two-member inquiry commission comprising of the former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, D.S. Tewatia and the president of the Citizens for Democracy, Kuldip Nayar, in 1993. 
On February 13, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer — Islamic scholar, Bohra reformist, ardent advocate of inter-faith dialogue and communal amity – was viciously attacked inside the Santa Cruz airport on. Over 60-years-old and a diabetic patient, Engineer had to be rushed to the Nanavati Hospital where he bled through the nose for over an hour. Fortunately, there was no serious internal injury and he was discharged a day later. 
“It was good our force was around, otherwise the beating was so bad he could have been killed. He could have been dragged out of the airport where a mob was waiting, armed with stones. He would surely have been brutally beaten up,” senior police inspector GP Ghodiwar, told the press. This, incidentally, was the fifth attempt on Engineer’s life by the Syedna’s henchmen. 
Immediately afterwards, a mob of the Syedna’s riot-squad attacked both his home and office. In less than 20 minutes, Engineer’s home looked no different from the hundreds of Muslim houses which had been targeted by the Shiv Sena during the January 1993 riots. 
Despite this savagery, the mullahs who inspired and instigated the hoodlums wanted the world to believe they are the ambassadors of a Prophet whose principal message for all humanity was peace! 
No less shocking was the complicity of non-Bohra Muslim religious and political leaders in spreading the blatant lies and falsehood that the Syedna and his lieutenants tried to peddle to cover-up the criminal conduct of the high priest’s henchmen. In a brazen attempt at standing facts on their head, Engineer the victim was dubbed the aggressor. It was claimed that his misbehaviour with the high priest had provoked a spontaneous reaction from his devout followers.
The president of the Mumbai unit of the Samajwadi party, Abu Asim Azmi, the national secretary of the all-India Muslim Personal Law Board, Abdul Sattar Shaikh, the big chief of the Muslim League, GM Banatwala, the Urdu press in Mumbai and sundry others insulted people’s intelligence by parroting the disinformation put out by the Syedna’s inner coterie. They conveniently bought the canard that a man like the over 60-year-old Asghar was so senseless as to assault the high priest who remains forever encircled by an impressive contingent of private bodyguards.
The blatant lie has since been exposed by the findings of a two-member inquiry committee set up at the behest of the National Minorities Commission to investigate the Syedna’s complaint that Asghar had misbehaved with the high priest at Indore airport. Following investigations, the committee — comprising of Indore’s district collector, Manoj Shrivastava and police superintendent, Devendra Singh Sengar — said in its report that the alleged incident of insulting or pushing out the Syedna had not taken place at all.
The Hindi daily, Dainik Bhaskar, published from M.P. reported on March 3 that based on the statements of more than eight concerned persons at the airport, the investigation had established that when the Syedna boarded the plane at Indore, Engineer, who had boarded the plane at Bhopal, was already in his seat. The charges levelled against Asghar Ali Engineer were, therefore, false and baseless.
It is, of course, also too much to expect any of the Muslim leaders to be in the least concerned about the fact that the mob that broke into Engineer’s house vent its fury not only on his TV set and washing machine but also books – for him his most precious possession. But the question must be asked why these very people, who will not hesitate to call a countrywide hartal if a hair of the Holy Prophet went missing from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, kept totally mum about the fact that among the books that the marauders desecrated in Engineer’s house were 50 copies of the Holy Quran — in different languages. 
Even a fortnight after Asghar made this complaint before an over-crowded press conference in Mumbai, there was not even a whisper of protest at what would normally be decried as the worst possible provocation for the followers of Islam. 
A welcome exception to this ignominy was the unambiguous condemnation of the “uncivilised incident” at Santa Cruz airport by a group of over 30 Urdu writers who met in Mumbai expressly to “condemn and criticise the unbecoming behaviour of Syedna’s followers and to express “its profound sympathy to Mr. Asghar Ali Engineer. Included among the signatories are Ali Sardar Jafri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Hasan Kamal (former editor of Urdu Blitz) and Fuzail Jaffri (former editor, Inquilab daily). 
The attack on Asghar Ali Engineer, incidentally, had as much to do with the hold up of the Alliance Airlines flight at Indore airport on account of the Syedna’s late arrival as the theme of the all-India conference on ‘Bohra reforms in the 21st century’ that the former had scheduled in Mumbai on March 4. 
But why should a meeting of a relatively small group of intellectuals and Bohra reformists so enrage the Syedna and his coterie? For an answer to the question, please refer back to the observation of the Tewatia Commission at the beginning of this article. The high priest and the henchmen have much to hide and the proposed all-India conference would be yet another occasion for the reformists to bring to the media’s attention countless examples of the inhuman bondage in which the Syedna and his amils hold all Bohras, in India and elsewhere in the world. 
Even the inability to pay one of the numerous ‘taxes’ the high priest imposes on his followers, from birth to death, can invite a cruel ex-communication following which all other Bohras — mother, father, wife/husband, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, close relatives, friends and business associates – are required to snap all ties with the victim of the firman. 
The aftermath of the attack resulted in an interesting polarisation in the city of Mumbai. On one side were the Syedna and his clique, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and his sainiks, BJP MLAs (two BJP MLAs from Mumbai were part of the delegation of the Syedna’s clique that met Maharashtra’s chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, to demand Engineer’s arrest), non-Bohra Muslim religious and political leaders and much of the Urdu press. Rallied in Engineer’s support, on the other side, were human rights groups, progressive Urdu writers. 
A public meeting to show solidarity with Engineer, held in Mumbai on March 1, was attended by several hundred people representing human rights activists, women’s and communal harmony groups and trade unions. Among other things the question was raised whether democracy is best defended through hypocrisy and double-standards: Is it human rights violation when Shiv Sainiks attack Muslims and reduce their homes to rubble (1993), but an acceptable expression of ‘hurt religious sentiments’ when the henchmen of Balasaheb’s ‘good friend’ give an identical treatment to Asghar Ali Engineer? 
Another disturbing fact that emerged in the days following the attack on Engineer was the media’s role. The accompanying article by Sajid Rashid will explain why the Urdu press unabashedly behaves like the Syedna’s slave. But no less shocking was the role of The Times of India whose masthead reminds readers everyday that ‘Let Truth Prevail’ is its motto. Two days after Engineer had been mauled and his house turned to rubble, The Times of India published a large photograph showing thousands of the Syedna’s devotees ‘praying for peace’ in response to the high priest’s call to maintain ‘calm’! Not a word even to suggest to the readers that the drama was nothing short of an attempt by miscreants to mask their own misdeed.
On the other hand, it took several calls before the same national daily took grudging note (a one para report inconspicuously placed on an inside page) of the fact that 30 nationally respected Urdu writers had convened a special meeting to condemn the attack on Engineer. As if to improve on this performance, it completely ignored the March 1 meeting attended by several hundred people to express their outrage at the same incident. The Indian Express and The Asian Age — the two other prominent national dailies also published from Mumbai – which had earlier done a fair job of reporting also carried no mention of the meeting, the Indian Express only a photograph.
Is this how the fourth estate proposes to uphold the rule of law and the freedom of expression? 

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