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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Striving for Peace and Harmony Tribute Volume for Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer
At a time when secularism is being sought to be redefined in India, in the wake of Narendra Modi’s unprecedented electoral victory, it’s perhaps pertinent to recall the life and struggle of someone like Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013).

Dr. Engineer dedicated his life to ensuring minority human rights are acknowledged, respected and ensured in a state that while it pledged secularism publicly was not always fully committed to its implementation.

A social reformer who waged a war on theocracy within his Dawoodi Bohra community, Dr. Engineer’s work encompasses diverse areas and includes, among other subjects, the understanding religious violence in India, the role of religion in democratic societies, the role and place of women in Islam, the study of Indian history from a secular, non-sectarian perspective.

(Dawoodi Bohras are Shia Muslims, spread across India. Read about the community here: Dawoodi Bohra)

A prolific writer, Dr. Engineer has authored over 70 books, and has been the recipient of the alternate Nobel Prize in 2004. He started the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, which has emerged as a premier institution for spreading awareness on secular issues. After his demise last year, the centre is run by Dr. Ram Punyani and Advocate Irfan Engineer.

Last year, the centre published a tribute volume – Striving for Peace and Harmony Tribute Volume for Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer. It contains short tributes by Dr. Engineer’s many associates, friends and admirers. 

The volume is edited by Ram Puniyani and Irfan Engineer. Pickering, Ontario, based artist Farida Ali has done the cover portrait of the book (see image).  

The contributors to the volume include: Ram Puniyani, Irfan Engineer, Vinod Mubayi, Harsh Mander, Hilal Ahmed, Uday Mehta, Shaukat Ajmeri, Javed Anand, Dr. Ranu Jain, Prof. M Hasan, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, Zakia Soman, LS Herdenia, Anand Patwardhan, Sumanto Al Qurtuby, Jyoti Punwani, Swami Agnivesh, Mazher Hussain, Meena Menon, Qutub Jahan, Syed Ali Mujtaba, Pritam K. Rohila, Zahir Janmohammed, Maqbool Ahmed Siraj, Seema Chisti, Zarina Patel, Asad Bin Saif, Farzane Versey, Ramu Ramanathan and Neha Dabhade.

Here’s an extract from the book – a piece by veteran journalist and activist Jyoti Punwani, which encapsulates the sentiments of many who knew the man.

There will never be another Asghar Ali

The political establishment, all the way up to Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee, stood solidly behind the Syedna. Yet, Engineer remained a Reformist throughout, and not just in his personal life. Under his guidance, the Reformists became a force to reckon with, with women at the forefront of the movement. He showed the same courage in openly organizing support for the Shahbano judgement when the Muslim establishment mounted a campaign against it.

For me, Ashgar Ali Engineer was many things – a fount of knowledge and a guru, yet one so devoid of arrogance that I was able to, over the past 20 years, interact with him as a friend. I first met him as a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, of which he was both founder and vice-president. In the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, CPDR members used to demonstrate holding placards in a narrow lane across the road from Badri Mahal, Fort – that was as close to the Bohra headquarters as the police would allow us to get, Yes this insignificant bunch of youngsters, led by Engineer and a few other Reformists, would be considered enough of a threat to be stoned by orthodox Bohras. I used to be terrified, but not the much older Engineer.

As a novice in journalism, I turned to Engineer for everything concerning Muslims – be it history, the freedom movement, communal politics. Always ready to share his immense knowledge, he never grew impatient at my endless questions. I would interview others too, but no one had his rounded, secular, yet scholarly perspective.

In 1984, after seeing the partisan conduct of the police towards the Shiv Sena, during the riots that broke out in Bhiwandi, Thane and Mumbai, I told him I supported those young Muslims who felt revenge was the only solution. “No, never,” was his immediate response. “Revenge will only set off an endless cycle of violence, which will help no one, Muslims least of all.”

His way was to change minds. But that will take forever, I replied. Yes that’s what he never stopped trying to do through his writings and interactions with youngsters, policemen and IAS trainees. Every communal riot was investigated by him personally, or by his team, to trace the root causes, for as he said, religion was not the cause of conflict, its political use was.

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