Wednesday, May 22, 2013

[Remembering Asghar Ali Engineer] Goodbye Asgharsaab

- Subhash Gatade

Mera azm itna buland hai ki paraye sholon ka darr nahin. Mujhe khauf aatish e gul se hai kaheen yeh chaman ko jala na de. (My intentions are so high that I am not afraid of the unknown blaze I am afraid of the fire of the flowers lest it burn the garden)- Shakil Badauni

I will never forget the sips of tea I shared with Asgharsaab in a tea shop at Wardha more than a year ago. I had hardly any premonition at the time that this would be my last meeting with him.

In fact my meeting him at Wardha was quite incidental. Friends active in the anti-communal movement under the banner of All India Secular Forum had organised a convention to discuss the unfolding situation and were keen that I share with the august gathering my understanding of Hindutva terror. Asghar Ali Engineer and Ram Puniyani were to speak on challenges before pluralism and democracy.

A public meeting at 'Magan Sangrahalay' a day before the convention which was addressed by the duo went well which was followed by cultural performance of a group from Gujarat. Asgharsaab was at his eloquent best, exhorting the audience to understand the dangers of growing communalisation of the polity and society.

It so happened that we three had to start together in the morning for our return journey on the second day of the convention, while I along with Asgharsaab were to return to our respective places, Ram had another meeting scheduled in the city.

I would always cherish fond memories of that little time I spent with him. He told me that before this visit to Wardha he had been to Iran for attending a Conference on Terrorism where he had issued a joint statement there along with other participants, against the attempts to link Islam with Terrorism.

I remembered one of his write-ups in early eighties - where he had described himself as an 'unorthodox Marxist' and was eager to know how he would describe himself today. Ram, who was sitting on the front seat of the car, rather smilingly answered on his behalf, and said Asgharsaab looks to the Prophet as a first Marxist. He dropped mid way and it gave me a good opportunity to discuss things freely with Asgharsaab.

We talked about many things.I was happy to note that he was aware even with my occasional writings about communalism. While having our tea, he unhesitatingly told me that he was a believer. I asked him about his future plans and as expected he had many lined up before him.

In his autobiography ‘The Living Faith’ Asgharsaab has mentioned all the stories how people advocating one Faith had indulged in the massacre of those following other one. The Communal Riots which occurred at Jabalpur in his student days is considered as the bloodiest of first such riots after independence. In a way these riots proved a starting point to his life-long struggle challenging communalism and authoritarianism of all sorts.

Perhaps this lifelong commitment towards communal harmony was the driving force which made it possible for him to attend the 20th anniversary programmes of the 1993 riots at Mumbai despite his illness. In his brief speech he emphasised that these riots should be borne in mind always not in a spirit of revenge but to remind ourselves that there should not be any repetition of them. I think that was quintessential Asghasaab, tremendous belief in the goodness of human being and a passion to weed out ill feelings about each other from their minds.

The various tributes paid to him on his departure mention how he was earnest about removing various wrong ideas about Islam and reestablish communal harmony. One may have a different opinion about his worldview but he sincerely felt that the original Islam speaks about gender equality. According to him, all the good things in the religion were twisted, corrupted by those who came later. It was quite ironic that his unfliching commitment towards the internal reform among the Dawoodi Bohras -a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Islam - a community to which he belonged - and the struggle he waged against it along with like-minded people and the depredations he had to suffer at the hands of the high priest (Sayedna) and the clergy (Kothar) for challenging the elaborate system of control, maintained under the garb of religion did not receive the attention it deserved. Close watchers of the community vouch that the cult of the high priest is so much ingrained in the Bohra psyche that it is literally impossible to say anything against his authoritarian system. A strict regime of cradle to grave taxes, seeking raza (permission) from the Kothar, oath of allegiance - misaaq - which turns a Bohra into a slave of the priest and socio-religious boycott of those who appear deviant, all this ensures a strict compliance from the community members.

Very few people know that when a reformist movement under the umbrella of 'The Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community' coalesced to bring about changes in the community, Asgharsaab - son of a Amil (religious priest) himself - was elected its first general secretary (1977) in a conference in Udaipur, Rajasthan. He came under attack at least six times in his life and one such attack happened in faraway Egypt. Few years back newspapers were awash with pictures of one such attack on his office in Mumbai by elements close to the clergy. The influence of the religious leaders was so profound that when his mother died he had to face difficulties for getting a place to bury her as he was facing a social boycott and doors of the the community burial ground were closed to him.

In fact, my first encounter with him occurred when he was spearheading this struggle and was specially invited by socialist leader Baba Adhav in a study camp (1978) of 'Vishamata Nirmulan Samity' (Committee to Eradicate Inequality), which was a motley coalition of different social-political groups active in Maharashtra then, to state his case. It happened to be a period when a people's commission - which was headed by retd justice Nathwani -was formed to look into complaints of violation of human rights of Bohras. Hundreds of people deposed before the commission and gave testimonies about the anti-democratic and callous behaviour of the Bohra priesthood. The Nathwani Commission report was published in 1979 which underlined the 'large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights of reformist Bohras at the hands of the priestly class and that those who fail to obey the orders of the Sayedna and his 'amils, even in purely secular matters, are subjected to baraat resulting in complete social boycott, mental torture and frequent physical assaults.' and to mitigate the situation it suggested certain legislations. As expected the holding of people's hearing at different places - where people could easily depose - proved to be a difficult job and it faced lot of resistance at the hands of the pro-clergy elements.

As an energetic young man then I had also attended one such hearing held in Pune. It so happened that Justice Nathwani was not able to attend for some reason or the other. Asgharsaab was not supposed to come for the hearing. On the stage were Baba Adhav and few other activists of different groups. Gokhale Hall, which was situated in the centre of city then, was overcrowded with supporters of the clergy occupying all the chairs. They were standing on the chairs and raising the slogan of 'Nathwani Go Back'. When Vithal Gujrathi, a veteran trade union Union leader stood up and appealed to all those who were standing on the chairs to sit down, the crowd turned to him and threw chairs in his direction. Within a flash of a second he was on ground trying in vain to stop this unusual attack.

I was studying in Banaras Hindu University then and on my return to my alma mater I wrote to Asgharsaab immediately to send me all the literature centering on the movement and the situation of the Bohras. I distinctly remember that almost by return post I had received a bundle of papers and brochures.

Newspapers informed us that Asgharsaab was interned not in the cemetery of the Bohras but in that of the Sunni Muslims. It was just another proof that the undeclared social boycott of a great fighter for communal harmony and a renowned scholar of Islam continued even after his death.
Goodbye, Asgharsaab.
Subhash Gatade is a New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist. He is also the author of Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India, and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India


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