Passions of a liberal

Passions of a liberal

Article courtesy: Indian Express, 20 March 1999, Bombay, India

Early this week a letter from Bombay sensitised me to a very different reality, to the activities of a number of individuals and groups who have worked unobtrusively but effectively among the landless labourers, the slum-dwellers, dalits, women, and the tribals. These men and women are not ideologues or revolutionaries claiming to radically transform the world; indeed they have no access to Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto.

Their goals seem 'limited' to political activists or the urban elites, but the poverty-stricken and oppressed sections of our society interpret their role in a positive light. Whether we like it or not, voluntary agencies, as opposed to the left parties, have emerged as the chief instruments of transformation in the rural hinterland. Though little mention is made of their intervention in civil society by the media, print or TV, they have moved into areas where the state has retreated and occupy the spaces they can legitimately claim their own. Their activists are the unsung heroes of our time. Most live and die in anonymity.

Fortunately, this is not the case with Asghar Ali Engineer who has built his reputation as a scholar, journalist, social reformer and public activist. When the world sleeps, he is wide awake writing columns, drafting memoranda on civil rights, or planning his next move against the spiritual head of the Bohras. Anybody stranded in a riot-torn city would have spotted him listening to the woes of affected families, talking to the police, recording the testimony of political and social activists, and detailing his experiences in Bombay's Economic and Political Weekly. So many cities figure in his coverage of communal riots in post-Independence India.

Starting as a crusader for reforms among the Bohras in the last 1970s, he has maintained his hectic pace of life, using his small and sparsely-furnished two-room apartment for his scholarly engagements, his reformist initiatives for which he has been persecuted and physically assaulted, and his public campaigns againstcommunalism. Many of his goals remain unfulfilled: his reformist agenda has yet to get off the ground, though he has time and again reminded us of the excesses committed by the Bohra high priest. The Nathwani Commission recommendations, which would have struck a favourable chord in any civilised society, have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Why should anybody take on the spiritual head of an influential religious minority in western India? The Muslim intelligentsia, too, has been lukewarm in responding to his mission.

And yet Asghar Ali traverses the rough terrain as a lone crusader, firm in his resolve to fight obscurantism, religious bigotry and intolerance. For nearly two decades, he has been on the move. The good news is that he will turn 60 next week, and that scores of scholars, including some from the western hemisphere, would gather in Delhi to celebrate his birthday.

It is true that Asghar Ali's activities, for which he has been ostracised, disturb the status quo. At the same time, hehas not been a threat, except for a while when he flirted with Marxist ideas, to the Muslim establishment, religious or political. Ideally speaking, he should have been appropriated by the sober elements in Muslim society, many of whom feel repressed by the stranglehold of the theologians. His background should go in his favour, for he has studied the language of the Koran at the feet of his father, a traditional maulvi. Whatever his detractors may say, Asghar Ali firmly believes in the egalitarian principles of Islam and, for this reason, invokes the Scriptures to plead for reforms among Muslims.

Why, then, does somebody like him not carry weight with his co-religionists? This is an important question that needs to be situated in the context of the Muslim reform movements triggered by Syed Ahmad Khan in the last quarter of the 19th Century. The more fundamental issue is why our political establishment has repeatedly paid heed to the clamouring of religious fundamentalists and turned a deaf ear to peoplelike Asghar Ali? We know how, during the 1930s and '40s, the "Nationalist Muslims" were sidelined to buy peace with the rank communalists. We also know how the liberal perspective on the Shah Bano affair was wilfully ignored. So that when Poonam Saxena, an English teacher, tells me that liberal Muslims have no influence in their community, I turn around and ask if anybody has ever shown any willingness to hear them and take cognisance of their viewpoint.

It takes me a while to convince her and others that the main problem has been our obsessive engagement with the strident self-styled spokesmen of the Muslims and our blissful ignorance of what the liberal-minded Muslims have stood for.

We cannot test the strength of liberal opinion through conventional yardsticks. Hindu and Muslim reformers had the backing of the colonial government through legislative enactments, but their luck ran out after Independence. Today, the future of social reformers largely depends on the extent to which a democratic regimeis willing to extend its fulsome support to their initiatives. For the moment, I wish one amongst them Mr A.A. Engineer -- a long life and a happy birthday.