DR. ASGHAR ALI ENGINEER
(Dr.) Ronki Ram
Shaheed Bhagat Singh Professor of Political
ICCR Chair Professor of Contemporary India Studies
Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS)
& International Institute for Asian studies (IIAS)
Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands
Dr Asghar Ali Engineer devoted
his entire life for the cause of peace and communal harmony in our
country. His contribution towards deepening democracy in India and
strengthening the expanding structures of secularism would be remembered
for ever. He was one of a few socially committed organic scholars
who knew very well that the real purpose of scholarship is to help
develop cooperation within diverse sections of a plural society
and to seek ways for the empowerment of the socially left-behind
and the minorities. Despite his high academic standing and social
acceptability across diverse communities and groups, Dr Asghar Ali
Engineer was a man of low profile who hardly ever made efforts to
register his presence during his innumerable presences at diverse
academic, civil society and secular group meetings/gatherings across
India. He used to put across his brilliant view-points in simplest
of words and expressions easily to be understood even by a lay person
with whom he always empathised.
I have had the hour to be in his company many a times during his
frequent visits to Chandigarh, particularly Institute of Development
and Communication, and many other places in the country where he
was frequently invited to deliver talks and hold discussion on secularism,
peace and communal harmony, and development and national integration.
He was a prolific writer whose thoughtful articles and commentaries
on various social concerns in different national dailies were waited
eagerly both in academic and socio-political circles. His demise
is an irreparable loss for the friends of democracy, peace and communal
harmony, and forces of secularism in the country. My sincere sympathies
with the family and vast friendship universe of Dr Asghar Ali Engineer.
Prof (dr.) Ronki Ram
Shaheed Bhagat Singh Professor of Political Science &
ICCR Chair Professor of Contemporary India Studies Leiden Institute
for Area Studies (LIAS) & International Institute for Asian
Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands
Tel: (M) 0031 684574036 (off) 0031 71 527 4071 , Fax: 0031 71 527
4162, E-mail: email@example.com, Web: www.iias.nl
Postal Address: International
Institute for Asian studies (IIAS), P.O. Box 9500, 2300 RA Leiden,
Shaheed Bhagat Singh Professor
of Political Science Arts Block IV, Panjab University, Chandigarh
160 014 (India)
on www.ambedkartimes.com May 16, 2013
untimely demise of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a reputed scholar,
well-wisher of downtrodden and minorities who struggled
throughout his life for civil right movements, minority
rights, democratic transparency, secularism and inter-community
solidarity, is an irreparable loss for all of us. At this
crucial hour, www.ambedkartimes.com sympathizes with the
family and friends of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer and pays floral
tribute to the departed soul.
Prem K. Chumber
Posted on www.ambedkartimes.com
May 15, 2013
ASGHAR ALI ENGINEER’S STRUGGLE
FOR PRESERVATION OF PLURAL ETHOS
The events of last over two decades have shown us, more than before
that the efforts of dividing the nation by 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. He also spent major part of his social efforts
to fight against the ideology and machinations which led to communal
violence and the victimization of minorities, time and over again,
year after year.
Engineer was a student when Jabalpore riots took place. It clearly
left a deep mark on him. The imprint of this tragedy got reflected
in his social engagement with the issues related to communal violence
and communal politics all through. His talks and articles reflect
about the impact of Jabalpur violence, its impact on nation and
its influence on the conscience keeper of the nation, Pundit Jawaharlal
Nehru. Engineer’s work on the issue of communal violence,
communal ideology and communalization of society spans on a vast
canvass and will easily fill volumes.
His work, to be referred below, shows that he took a serious interest
in understanding the dynamics of communal violence, he must have
spent days in and days out, investigating the communal riots,
their aftermath and their impact on the social and political affairs.
He can easily be credited with being the major scholar-activist
who pioneered this area of investigation. He spent enormous energy
to investigate and analyze the communal violence in India. He
can also be regarded as the foremost scholar-activist who not
only commented on the issues related to communalism, but also
gave his forthright opinion on the range of those, against the
heavy odds. He has been criticized by the communalists of both
the religions for his opposition to the politics of violence in
the name of religion.
This article takes an overview of his work in the area of communal
violence investigation and his contribution to campaigns for promotion
of secular values. It is based on understanding his work from
the vantage point of a close working relationship with him as
a friend and associate. I have also tried to take the overview
of his massive contribution from the point of someone who not
only witnessed his work from close quarters, with awe admiration
and some criticism, but also tried to learn from him to give direction
to my own work.
The communal violence of Jablapur (1961) shook Engineer very deeply,
the very concept of violence in the name of religions was anathema
to him as he was steeped in the spirituality of Islam right from
his childhood. He was taught that Islam does not preach violence,
and no religion teaches violence, so why this violence in the
name of religion. This is the point when he decided to devote
his life to promote communal harmony. It was an event which was
to shape the course of life and work. He not only intervened after
the events of communal violence to douse the fire of the violence
but made it a central part of his initial life as an activist
to investigate the acts of violence in depth. Starting from Biharsharif
riots to Gujarat carnage, he spent time in unraveling the truth
of the violence mostly by field studies. His reports on these
events are a landmark in the area of riot investigation, in understanding
the underlying machinations of this phenomenon. Biharsharif was
a stronghold of CPI due to its following amongst the Bidi workers.
Dr Engineer could unravel that RSS in order to spread it hold
in the area, used the dispute between Yadavs and Muslims over
the land for cemetery, to instigate the violence (1981).
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 but 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 which assumed religious
color. The report pointed out that rumors played a lot of role
in this violence.
Engineer also studied the Ahmedabad violence of 1982. Extensive
field investigation was done for this. In this case the poor Muslim
locality of Kalupr and Daryaganj face the brunt of the violence.
An incident over kite flying turned into stone throwing and violence.
Just prior to this VHP had started its work in these areas and
prepared the ground for the skirmishes. VHP virulently talked
against the conversions of Harijans to Islam. The communal forces
resorted to heavy propaganda, especially through distribution
of leaflets in the area. These leaflets used a communal version
of history, demonization of Muslim kings, and emphasis on singing
Vande matram, and opposing those who kill cow. Some people drew
the attention of Gujarat government to this virulent propaganda,
but there was no response to those appeals.
Pune and Sholapur were in the grip of violence in 1981-82. These
were precipitated in the aftermath of Ahmedabad violence and VHP
as usual 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. This
was also a riot which took place in the aftermath of Meenkshipuram
conversion of dalits to Islam in 1981. Dr. Engineer makes a very
pertinent point while relating the communal violence to the core
issue of atrocities on dalits. He points out, “VHP is raising
the hue and cry of conversions of Harijans in Meenakshipuram so
that people do not pay attention to the screams of dalits burning
in the pyre of discrimination.” (Communal Riots in Post
Independence India, P 265)
The aggressive campaign of VHP intimidated the Muslims. VHP took
out a procession with portraits of Golwalkar and Manusmiriti,
along with those of Gandhi and Ambedkar. The procession tore down
the hoardings with Muslim names, including the one of Maulana
Abul Kalam Azad and shouted anti Muslim slogans. The procession
changed its permitted route and entered Muslim locality, attacked
Muslim hotels and shops were stoned.
In Sholapur also situation was similar. Here they propagated the
myth of rising Muslim population to provoke the people. Here also
trouble began with VHP procession on 15th Feb. 1982. The procession
when it came near Punjab Talim Mosque, it started giving anti
Muslim provocative slogans. There was attack on small shops owned
by Muslims after which Muslims were attacked.
Meerut riots have also been a big sore on our polity. Meerut a
city with great syncretic traditions also suffered the violence.
Here the main goal was to co-opt the dalits, to give them liquor
etc and to use them for violence against Muslims. Here the riot
had more political reasons than economic ones. The riot was instigated
on the issue of some piau (where one gets water to drink). One
Muslim advocate and another trust were involved. Tension mounted
in April 1982 and the provocative propaganda was stepped up. Biased
attitude of police and communal slant of newspapers added to fuel
to the fire. Similarly Vadodara Hyderabad and Assam riots were
also studied by him.
His major observations have been that a small incident is taken
advantage of by communal forces, the rumors add havoc to the situation
and communalized state apparatus, police in particular, plays
a partisan role, worsening the plight of minorities.
Apart form these riots of Mumbai 1992-93 (Report of EKTA Samiti,
1993) Gujarat carnage has also been studied by him (Sowing Hate
and Reaping Violence, CSSS 2003). The studies by him have been
used as a base by many a scholars to make interpretations and
conclusions about the phenomenon of communal violence. He does
interpret every riot on its ground and the specificities of the
particular violence are well reflected in his studies and reports.
Another aspect which emerges from his studies and reports is that
gradually the intensity of communal violence is worsening, and
it did peak in Gujarat violence. He has vividly presented the
failure and complicity of police machinery in this violence. It
seems that the deeper process of communalization has been going
up in last three decades. And now even the other minority Christians
have also been brought under the chopping block of communal forces.
He also draws our attention to the fact that these episodes are
not sporadic or spontaneous. There is a deeper motive behind these.
There is a good deal of planning in such episodes. His other studies-reports
show that popular perceptions about minorities lay the base for
violence, the propagation of myths and biases against Muslims
and Christians make the job of the communal group easier. What
is undeniable is that communal forces take advantage of every
conceivable opportunity to strengthen them, first by instigating
the violence, then perpetuating it and in the process they increase
their political power.
Apart from his own book-reports on the violence he has edited
several volumes on the issue Communal Violence in Post Independence
India, Communal Violence after Independence, Bhivandi Riots, and
Communalism and Communal violence to name the few. He continues
to chronicle the communal riots on regular basis and these are
published as Issues in Secular Perspective, the January issue
of this periodical carries his compilation and analysis of Communal
Riots of the year past. (Also posted on CSSS-ISLA.COM)
Activist’s scholars in India have faced a challenging task
of understanding, defining and intervening in the situations related
to communal violence. How does one understand the phenomenon of
communalism in Indian society? Why India is plagued with this
problem? These must have been the issues dogging his mind when
he began his parallel study of Indian history and analysis of
While unraveling the Indian history, the communal interpretation
of which is major component of communalization of social thinking,
he focused on overcoming the communal interpretation of history
and presented the view of looking as history of kings as battles
for power and wealth. He understands lives of people as an ongoing
journey of interaction, some frictions and major synthesizing
tendencies resulting in syncretic traditions. His major book on
this, Communalism in India (Vikas, 1995) gives a good reflection
of his thinking on the issue. He tried to evolve his workshops
with different sections of society on these lines. Later he came
out with many articles and books on this issue. (List appended)
In his work 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 national Historians. The issue of temple destructions,
Jijia, policies of Muslim kings, spread of Islam and other aspect
of social life during that period gives a good reflection of those
times and is an effective tool in breaking the myths and misconceptions
in peoples mind about it. The traditions of Sufis, Bhakti saints
and their emphasis on values of love and amity is brought out
effectively. The mixed traditions of society do convey that Hindus
and Muslims were good companions and religion was not the cause
of discord, the social interests were, and sometime surely these
interests did come in the garb of religion. But communalism as
a political phenomenon was introduced here after the coming of
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. He seems to agree more with
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on this point that partition could have
been prevented had Maulana’s suggestion of sticking to Cripps
Mission proposals been accepted.
As a part of dispelling myths about Muslim minorities he has written
on the ‘Role of Muslims in Freedom struggle’. Fascinated
by the approach of Gandhi in politically uniting different communities
and emphasizing on non-violence and peace he has also compiled
volume on Gandhi and communal harmony. His fascination for Gandhian
approach to communal problems is seen in his work all through.
His sense of Gender justice is very strong and he has shown how
Islam gives equality to women, and highlights how women are the
worst victims of communal violence. The list of his contributions
and web site gives and ample insight into his concerns and how
he has handled them in a humane manner. His regular publication,
Secular Perspective has a good circulation and is reproduced in
many a websites and newspapers across the globe.
It is difficult to decide as to which aspect of Engineer’s
work is more important than other. There is a deeper integration
in different facets of the work and one can see the deeper connection
between different facets of his work.
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 work. In Mumbai from late sixties
he brought together like minded friends in to groups, Awaz-e-Biradaran.
This group started talking about communal problem and raising
the awareness about need for harmony through taks in schools and
colleges. As Engineer had deep interest in Urdu literature also,
he did come in contact with prominent writers who also got involved
in helping in the harmony work. With outbreak of Bhivandi riots,
1970, he camped in Bhivandi, along with Balraj Sahni the renowned
actor, for two weeks, going to villages and talking to the victims
and helping them. His group also involved prominent writers to
issue the message of peace through All India Radio.
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 Ramjanmbhumi
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 also brought to the notice
of Muslim leadership that it is important to agitate on the issues
of Muslim poverty and backwardness. The Gopal Singh Committee
report, which was lying in the cold storage, needs to be implemented.
He himself involved many secular activists to issue appeals for
He took initiative to form EKTA Committee in the wake of Meerut
riots in 1987. This became the platform for trade unions and other
progressive people of Mumbai to campaign for peace and to oppose
the rising tide of communalism.
I witnessed his work directly mainly from 1992-93. During the
Mumbai riots he undertook many a peace marches in troubled areas.
The lasting impression in my mind is that of a sincere, honest
and committed scholar activist. During the Mumbai violence, his
office became a natural place for all the activists to meet and
during those meetings over hundred activists used to throng to
his office, standing in different corners of the small office,
even balcony of the office used to be full to the brim. He used
to sit in the middle, on the floor and used to conduct the meting
and make the plans for action. Most of the planning’s were
peace marches and community work. Behrampada, a area near Bandra
was given special attention for work, peace marches. Peace marches
were also organized in different part of the city.
These marches had important effect on the psyche of society and
these gave lot of hope to the victims. As a peak of these efforts
on 26th January 1993, in the thick of communal violence looming
on the horizon, he organized a Peace march into the main areas
of Mumbai. These activities were supplemented by the investigation
into the Mumbai riots and the report brought out by EKTA Committee
was remarkable for its in-depth work. This brought him face to
face with the reality that police; the arm of the state to control
the violence itself is much communalized. He decided to approach
the police authorities for conducting workshops for communal harmony.
It will be impossible to count the number of these workshops scattered
in different parts of Mumbai, Mahrashtra and all over the country.
He was faced with the challenging questions based on the biases
against Muslims, their food habits, violence nature, Muslim Kings
destroying temples, polygamy and what not. To his credit he has
been conducting this difficult workshop with dignity and modesty
coupled with deep scholarship of the issues.
CENTER FOR STUDY OF SOCIETY AND SECULARISM
Meanwhile he took up the task of formalizing the awareness programs
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 the contemporary
issues relating to the National Integration. On awareness front
CSSS began experimenting with various modules for different sections
of community. Its workshops ranged from half a day affair to seven
day in depth workshops for serious activists and teachers. These
workshops cover the theme starting from History to the contemporary
issues, terrorism, Islam and peace, values of freedom movement.
I can guess that thousands of activists and others must have benefited
from these workshops. CSSS has also set up Institute of Peace
Studies and Conflict Resolution to formalize the training of activists
into secular values. Plans are also foot to initiate the longer
training for activists, teachers and students.
His own engagement with multiple lectures and accepting infinite
invitations from all over the country and globe are another facet
of his work. What needs a mention here is his membership of National
Integration Council during the UPA regime (2004-2009). He forthrightly
raised the issues related to harassment of minorities in the name
of terrorism amongst other issues. His interventions, along with
the similar one’s from other important members and the efforts
of tribunal on the issue, did affect the Government policy. With
these interventions the routine pursed by Police authorities to
arrest large number of innocent Muslims youth in the wake of blasts
anywhere, came to halt.
He has also been a major part of the process to bring together
all the activists working for the cause of secularism. Groups
working for communal harmony all over the country have come together
as a platform from last few years, All India Secular Forum.
While one is talking on the social contribution of a person of
high stature, there are some anecdotes which have been very touching
at personal levels. I have shared lot of meetings and travels
together along the course of our work. The interaction during
these periods has been learning and sharing experience for me.
One is privy to sharing his thoughts and ideas on most of the
I cannot help but recount an anecdote, which has left a deep impression
on me. One of the mornings 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.
Posted on www.ambedkartimes.com May