A man of sense and sensibility



By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE appears to be more intolerance in Islam because the Muslim world is in the throes of change

Dressed in his white khaddar kurta and pyjamas, sporting a graying stubble for a beard, Mr Asghar Ali Engineer could be any of the countless Bohris that one comes across in Karachi. But behind his simple and unassuming exterior is a sturdy and sharp mind that is fully responsive to the political, social and economic problems faced by the Muslims in India. During his recent visit to Karachi, Mr. Engineer spent a whole forenoon with Dawn taking about a wide range of Issues.

He came across as an enlightened, rational and level-headed scholar whose interpretation of Islam offers hope of some sanity emerging from the bleak scenario that makes the Muslim world today. At a time when the lines between the liberal/secular and the orthodox camps have been sharply drawn, a meeting with Asghar Ali Engineer was most reassuring. He knows the ideology but speaks the language of the secularists. A well-known social scientist (that is how he described himself) from India, Mr Engineer has founded two research institutions in Bombay which he heads. One is the Institute of Islamic Studies which was set up in 1982 and the other is the more recently-established Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (1993).

Before we could comment, he hastened to add that he found no contradiction between the two. “They are actually complementary to each other,” he observed. India is fertile ground for such support of liberal-minded people of all faiths.

The funding for the two institutions comes from philanthropists and secular-minded people of both faiths, many of them expatriates in North America. “You will be surprised but a large number of secular Hindus feel as intimidated by the BJP as the Muslims. They fear that there could be an attempt to impose some form of authoritarianism if the Hindu communal forces come to power,” he says.

Steeped in Islamic traditions and theology from early childhood – he is the son of a Bohra maulvi, Shaikh Qurban Hussain, who taught him the tenets of Islam at home – Mr Engineer says, “Islam is is my blood.” His father never wanted him to become a professional maulvi, so he was sent off to a government school to become a doctor or an engineer. He opted for the latter and worked in the profession for 15 years. “My heart was never in engineering,”  he admits ruefully. Even in those days he was more interested in causes like communal harmony and issues of social concern. He wanted to build bridges of friendship rather than civil engineering projects across rivers.

It was therefore not strange when he walked out of his profession and took to research on Islamic issues. Having imbibed the rational thinking of the sciences, Mr.Asghar Ali finds him-religion. If religion induced fanaticism, then every follower of Islam should have been a fanatic. It all depends on how one has been brought up and what challenges one has had to face in life. I have discovered numerous cases of vested economic interests inciting fanaticism for their personal gains,” he reasons convincingly.

He says that there appears to be more intolerance in Islam because the Muslim because the Muslim world is in the throes of change. “Change brings conflict,” Mr Engineer states emphatically. “Those who loss by change become fanatics. Those who stand to gain become liberal.” According to him the middle classes will benefit from change so they are liberal in their outlook and want relaxation of the rules. The ulema are in danger of losing their privileged position so they incite fanaticism. In the Islamic world the masses have been denied the fruits of change. So they are frustrated and tend to be hidebound traditionalists.

To prove his point, Mr Engineer cites the example of the communal riots he has investigated in India. Sherlock Holmes could not have done it better. Unlike our arm-chair academics who sit comfortably in their drawing rooms and analyze ethnic or sectarian violence from a safe distance, Asghar Ali Engineer goes straight to the heart of the trouble. He arrives on the spot and stays there for days on end to obtain first hand information from the affected people. What flows from his pen and Maratha gangs to control the distribution of illicit liquor (to the tune of Rs.70 Lakhs every day) which precipitated the violence. But outwardly this was not known and the clashes appeared to be of a communal nature: the Marathas organizing the Shiva festival for this first time in Baroda on the tenth of Muharram and the Muslims suddenly changing the route of the tazia procession, leading to a clash between the two communities and the city going up in flames.

Similarly in the Meerut riots in 1987, the provocation was ostensibly the rape of four Muslim/Hindu girls, the Murder of 28 Hindus by the Muslims and the retaliatory reign of terror let loose by the police who shot dead 30 Muslim youth. Mr. Engineer discovered after painstaking and patient investigation that no girls were raped, were raped, and the trouble and been instigated by the vested political and economic interests. The power struggle between the Muslims, who constituted 42 per cent of the population of Meerut district, and the BJP had intensified and found expression in violence.

Mr. Engineer feels deeply concerned about India-Pakistan relations and the misconceptions about India, particularly with regard to the situation of the Indian Muslims, which one comes across in Pakistan. He is unhappy that certain stereotypes have come to be associated in the people’s minds about Indians Pakistanis will really begin to improve. Ours are the only two countries in the world where visits are restricted to specific cities.”

He also speaks of the illegal trade between the two countries amounting to about Rs. 800 crore: “Why benefits from it? Why not legalise it? The governments will get taxes and the people will get cheaper goods. What also is the purpose behind not allowing any cultural exchanges?”

Regarding the Kashmir problem, Mr. Engineer does not believe that there can be any solution other than that of India and Pakistan accepting the LoC as the international border. “Both countries hold some territory, let us respect that. But don’t deprive the Kashmiris of the freedom to meet their fellow Kashmiris on the other side of the border. If there is any fear regarding spies, well, the governments have the means to keep a watch. I have told Dr. Farooq Abdullah that he should not get too agitated about any greater autonomy for Kashmir because no governments in New Delhi can survive by agreeing to anything more than what the Kashmiris already have.

He also believes that the continuing insurgency is helping no one and the Kashmiris generally feel that they have Kashmiris generally feel that they have been ruined as a result of it. The state’s economy is totally in shambles. One no more hears the slogans of “Azadi, azadi,” which one heard when the insurgency started some years ago. The Kashmir dispute should be put in cold storage for some time. In any case, there are no instant solutions to the problem. In his opinion, both countries need to scale down their expenditure on defence, and instead, divert their resources to the people’s real needs, such as education.” He feels that if there can be normalization in the spheres of cultural exchanges, travel, trade etc., the improved atmosphere will be more conductive for dealing with other problems.

Frankly critical of the Quality of Muslim leadership in India, he speaks of an upcoming Ansari leader of Meerut, or the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid who have indulged in provocative rehetorics. The Ansari leader boastfully claimed that he was “the Muslim Bhindrawale.” ( A reference to a fanatical Sikh Sant who holed himself in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1983 – 84 along with his hordes of devotees, provoking Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to launch a military operation to have him and his followers flushed out.)

It was similarly fanatical Muslims who participated in a mammoth rally on February 8, 1987, where Imam Sahib Jama Masjid spoke of “breaking legs” of people who had any evil designs toward the Mosque. Mr Engineer obviously feels that a more coolheaded approach to the Babri Masjid from the fate that it ultimately met.

Mr. Engineer agrees that there are problems faced by the Muslims in India, but not everything can be blamed on the government. India Muslims have failed to take initiatives to improve their status and they lack good leadership. He speaks of “insant leaders” who appear suddenly whenever the Muslims in India have a problem, and says: “Like what happened in 1992 – 93 (following the demolition of Babri Masjid). However, what Muslims had to endure at the time also brought about a perceptible change in their thinking, and the intelligentsia, especially, realized that they must take things in their own hands. A number of institutions have come up since which are of the real service to the Muslims, like those spreading education.”

The Muslim leadership in India has not created an awareness about issues nor kept up pressure in areas where this needs to be done. For instance, the nationalized banks are required to provide for Muslims a certain percentage of the credit that they advance. “However,” again somewhat regretfully, “there are Muslims who do not know about this, and their leaders do not even bother to make them aware of the facilities that are available.”

He recalls that the Muslims did not even pursue the report of the high-powered Gopal Singh Commission for Muslims, which Mrs. Gandhi had set up in 1980 to win over the Muslims. The Commission was distinctly sympathetic to the Muslims and produced an excellent report in 1983. But nothing came of it as a year later Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated. It is a pity that not a single Muslim leader knew about the Gopal Singh Commission report or demanded its implementation. When Mr. Engineer reminded Mr. V.P. Singh about the report in 1990, the prime minister had the repot tabled in parliament within a week. But not much later, his government went out of office.

Now, Mr. Vajpayee has promised to double the grant to the Abul Kalam Azad Foundation, raising it to Rs. 150 crores. The moral of the story is: “if schemes for the Muslims’ betterment go unimplemented, the Muslims themselves should put pressure on the government.” Mr. Engineer feels disappointed that Muslims choose to put pressure only when emotional issues – issues of identity Urdu, etc. – are involved, and not in the case of economic issues which would be of material benefit to them.

However, Mr. Engineer is happy that the Indian Muslims now feel determined not to be treated as a mere ‘vote bank’ for one party or the other. In the latest elections, no Muslim leader issue any statement endorsing any particular party and the community generally voted for secular candidates. He adds: “BJP has promised the Muslims taaleem, tarbiat, tijarat; they should exploit this promise to their advantage.”

Responding to a question about the “regionalization” of politics in India, with the regional parties now having a greater say in governance, he considers this a positive development. “Regionalization will in fact truly federalize India.”

Few Indians would like to concede that India is a multinational state, he observes. India is not a national state in the classical sense, such as the European states are national states. It is in fact a nation is the making, with so many different languages and so many different cultures. This, I feel, should strengthen India’s federalism and lead to greater integration, because the component unit of the federation would enjoy real power.

This should not mean conflicts and clashes, for clashes take place when power is too centralized. In a democracy there is greater attention to real social and economic problems, which indicate that democracy is ‘alive and kicking.’ It is only in dictatorships (an obvious dig at Pakistan) that there are no challenges. Dictatorships throw up their own elites and there is no empowerment of the backward and lower classes, whereas democracy empowers the lower and backward classes.”

Source: Dawn 26 April 1998