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...for promoting over many years in South Asia the values of religious and communal co-existence, tolerance and mutual understanding.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
602 & 603, Silver Star
6th Floor, behind BUS Depot
Mumbai - 400 055
Asghar Ali Engineer was born in 1939, and took a BSc. in civil engineering from Vikram University. From 1980 he edited the journal The Islamic Perspective, and during the 1980s he published a string of books on Islam and communal violence in India, the latter based on his field investigations into the communal riots in post-independence India.
By 1987 he was well enough known to receive the Distinguished Service Award from the USA International Student Assembly and the USA Indian Student Assembly. In 1990 he received the Dalmia Award for communal harmony and is the recipient of three honorary doctorate degrees.
1992 saw the destruction of the Babri Mosque and provided the impetus for the foundation by Engineer in 1993 of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), of which Engineer was the Chairman and which became the organisational focus of his work.
The objectives of CSSS are to spread the spirit of communal harmony, to study problems in the area and organise inter-faith dialogues.
To this end CSSS undertakes research, organises seminars, conducts training and mass awareness programs, publishes books and pamphlets and networks with other organisations.
Through CSSS and otherwise Engineer gave many lectures and was involved in many workshops (some abroad, mainly in India, some for the Indian police) promoting communal understanding and harmony.
He published 52 books, many papers and articles, including those for scholarly journals. He edited a journal, Indian Journal of Secularism, and a monthly paper, Islam and Modern Age. He also published Secular Perspective every fortnight. Through the 1990s, Engineer received a number of awards, including the National Communal Harmony Award in 1997, and the USA Award from the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia in 2003.
Engineer was a Bohra Muslim, and an important component of his work was both to promote a better external understanding of Islam and to critique some of its manifestations from the inside (for example, Rethinking Issues in Islam in 1998).
His progressive interpretation of the scriptures often brought him into headlong conflict with the orthodox clergy at a great personal risk. Post-2001 some of Engineer's work addressed the issues of globalisation, Islam and terrorism, but most of his work remained focused on the communal situation in India and, to a lesser extent, its relations with Pakistan.
December 9th, 2004
Mr. Speaker, Recipients of the Right Livelihood Award, Honourable Guests, Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen
I am greatly thankful to the members of the panel of Jury for selecting me for this honour and accept this award in all humility. I have always believed that one should work for a cause, not for any recognition, much less for any award. People in India often ask me how did I feel when I received the news of being selected for this award, my answer was I did feel happy as it brings recognition beyond frontiers of the country. I was almost deluged with the congratulatory messages from all over the world. But it also made me more humble lest I should develop tendency for arrogance. More awards whet our appetite for yet more. Reputation, like wealth, has its own dynamics. Have more and more and more.
When I revolted against certain orthodox practices and beliefs, my father, instead of rebuking me, told me to do what my conscience dictated and not to care for the consequences. I ever feel obliged to my father for his kind words which keep on inspiring me ever since.
I was greatly shaken when I read in newspapers about killing of innocent people in communal riots during my student days in Indore, a city in central India where I studied. I decided to do something to try and stop this madness in the name of religion. Religion to me never could be a source of hatred. It always was a source of compassion and love. I thus began studying causes of communal violence as soon as I could and soon came to the conclusion that it was not religion but misuse of religion and politicising of religion, which was the main culprit.
Also, I did not see any contradiction between religion and secularism in Indian context. Religion becomes a problem only when it becomes an ideology for political power. But religion as a source of moral and spiritual richness does not pose any challenge for a secular political set up. India is politically a secular country but is also home to many religions and Indian culture and civilization is based on spiritual values.
Gandhiji was the main architect of Indian nationalism and he was a deeply religious person. He saw no contradiction in secular nationalism and religion. Also, Maulana Azad, a great Islamic scholar and a great savant fully endorsed harmonious co-existence between political secularism and individual religious faith. I understood this deep spiritual connection between secular political culture and religious morality and made it the mission of my life to strengthen the tie between the two.
I also believe that religious rituals alone do not enrich human life. Rituals are important as means, not as end. Values to me are more central for a truly religious person. To me four Qur'anic values 'adl (justice), ihsan (benevolence), rahmah (compassion) and hikmah (wisdom) are the essence of the Qur'anic teachings and without promoting these values actively one cannot be a good Muslim.
I felt that politics, unless based on these values cannot be a powerful instrument for the welfare of people. When politics becomes an instrument for power, rather than honest governance, all troubles in our society start. Gandhi, Nehru and Azad in modern India stood for value-based politics. But lesser politicians who followed them fell for power politics and it is these politicians who became the source for all our troubles.
Communalism reduces religion to be a powerful instrument of achieving power and thus negates the very spirit of religion. A communalist can never be a truly religious person as for him religion is an instrument for power, not a source of values. I thus decided to make the fight against communalism a mission of my life. I was convinced that in a pluralist society like India only secularism as a political philosophy can be a cementing force for uniting people of diverse religious traditions and cultures.
Secularism in India is the opposite of communalism. Indian secularism while respecting all religions does not prioritise any religion and does not involve any religious laws in governance of the country. It gives equal rights to all citizens whatever their caste or creed. Indian democracy cannot survive without the lifeblood of secularism. Indian people, it is interesting to note, are quite religious and yet equally secular.
They respect all religious traditions but communal forces try to manipulate their religion and religious feelings for their votes. They resort to hate politics, hatred of the other, rejection of the other, thus instrumentalising religion for political ends. To build a healthy democratic society one has to fight such inhuman tendencies. India is a secular democratic nation but the communal forces have tried to bring about division among its people on the basis of religion ever since India came into existence as a modern nation.
It was as a result of such communal politics that India has been witnessing eruption of communal violence repeatedly, and communal violence results in brutal death of innocent people. More than 13,952 communal riots have taken place in post-independence India resulting in the death of 14,686 people. Hundreds of women were raped and thousands of children were orphaned.
I have been constantly struggling against forces of hate and violence through both spoken and written words. I go to the scene of violence and try to restore sanity among people. I also have been conducting workshops for peace and conflict resolution. The response has been very encouraging. This shows people want to live in peace and harmony. It is only a few power hungry politicians and their agents who make them fight by instrumentalising religion for power politics.
There are other ways in which religion is misused by powerful vested interests. They exploit religious beliefs and rituals for amassing wealth and political influence. I saw naked exploitation of religion and religious beliefs at a close quarter being a son of a priest. I was greatly disturbed as what I had studied as a student of religion was quite contrary to this.
I therefore decided to fight for social reforms in my own community. The priesthood has developed strong authoritarian tendencies and enforces on the community what is in its own interests rather than true teachings of religion based on fundamental values. People have been denied their very basic human and democratic rights to freedom of conscience. We have been struggling for democratisation and accountability. We have to face ex-communication and social stigma.
Denial of freedom of conscience is denial of human dignity. Slaves cannot enjoy human dignity. To me human freedom represents the very essence of human existence. It is freedom of choice which makes ones faith meaningful. A blind follower has no appreciation of his faith. He is simply condemned to follow. Blind following is the very negation of ones faith. A living faith is not possible without free choice.
I thus began interpretation of Islam to make it more meaningful to contemporary life, to make it more meaningful to lay people. I have continuously written on Islam and modern challenges so as to make Islam a living and meaningful faith. It also greatly helps in fighting communal and sectarian forces. My two struggles reinforce each other. These struggles have made my life worth living with a humble sense of fulfilment. Life without these struggles will be hardly worth living.
Ashgar Ali Engineer spoke about his background and his opinion on the secularisation in India and how Islam can be interpreted in a modern way opening the path to pluralism and democracy.
For the interview please follow the link.
Interview with Mint, India, September 2011.