- Ram Puniyani
We lost Asghar Ali Engineer on 14th May 2013. It is an irreplaceable loss to human rights movement, anti communal struggle, to the movement for preservation of secular values. This is a small tribute to my esteemed, close and very dear friend.
The events of last over three 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, Pandit 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 Dalits 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) Gujaratcarnage 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.
We felt grieved to know that Dr.Asghar Ali Engineer has passed away. As a veteran secularist and valiant fighter for social justice , he was always with us in raising voice , ensuring equality among humans. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer founded Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and was the Editor of the magazine,' Secular Perspective'.
His demise is a great loss for the cause of social harmony, social justice and secularism. We pay our homage to the respectful humanist and convey our heartfelt condolence to his family and fraternity.
- K.Veeramani, President, Dravidar Kazhagam