Asghar Ali Engineer talks to Mohammed Wajihuddin
Oct 7, 2011
Anti-communalism crusader, Dawoodi Bohra reformer and liberal Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer has crossed swords with many within the Muslim community - and outside it. Having analysed and opposed communalism from the 1960s onwards, Engineer spoke with Mohammed Wajihuddin on factors still driving divisiveness:
Q: You have investigated communalism extensively - why aren't we able to get rid of this problem?
A: I first investigated the 1961 Jabalpur riots as an engineering student at Indore. I just couldn't understand why communities who lived cheek-by-jowl would kill each other. My investigations into many subsequent riots confirmed my belief that it is politics, not religion, which causes communal carnage. Amongst many factors that help in creating communal hatred is the doctored history we teach in our schools.
At seminars, I often ask my audience if they have heard of Aurangzeb. Everyone says yes. But when I ask if they have heard of Dara Shikoh, very few say they have. We remember Aurangzeb because he has been presented as a villain - but we have forgotten his brother Dara Shikoh, who championed Hindu-Muslim unity by translating Hindu scriptures into Persian. He also penned a classic called Majma-ul-Bahrain (co-mingling of the rivers). We need to teach our children correct history.
Q: Speaking of history, today's youth doesn't carry the baggage of Partition or communal riots. Do you see hope there?
A section of children who attend elite schools are certainly free from much of the prejudice against people of other faiths. However, a vast majority who attend government-run schools or schools run by communal organisations are imparted skewed knowledge and understandings of social and historical values.
Q: Can the state end communal violence?
A: The state can do a lot - unfortunately, it has continuously failed in its duty to protect vulnerable sections during riots and punish the guilty post-communal carnagea¦I strongly believe no communal riots can last beyond 24 hours if the state government sincerely tackles it. We have the examples of Lalu Prasad as chief minister of Bihar in the 1990s and the Left Front governments in West Bengal. They successfully prevented communal riots when most of India was signed by these.
On the contrary, Narendra Modi looked the other way when Gujarat burnt in 2002.
Q: Today, Modi appears to have softened his attitude towards Muslims, adopting a more secular stance. Will the community forgive him?
A: Modi's reconciliation attempt doesn't seem to be genuine. Slogans of Allah-o-Akbar at his Sadbhavna fast shouldn't be construed as massive Muslim support to him. The fact that he refused a skullcap offered by an imam there shows that he doesn't want to antagonise his hardcore Hindutva base. Unless he says sorry, secularists and Muslims will not forgive him.
Q: Please tell us about your struggle within your own community.
A: My struggle has been two-pronged - one is within my Dawoodi Bohra community and the other is for reforms and change in understanding Islam. The reformist movement in Dawoodi Bohras has met limited success, but we have not given up. I have fought against narrow interpretations of Quranic verses and the Hadiths. I have always maintained that Islam should be understood in a modern context, not with a prism formulated by medieval scholars.
I was among the few scholars who backed the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case. However, political opportunism defeated our efforts and the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government overruled the landmark verdict through an Act in Parliament. It was a gross injustice - which also led to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi