With a view to reflect upon the legacy of Asghar Ali Engineer, Dr. K. R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia organized a one-day seminar on ‘Secularism, Gender Rights and Ethnic Violence with a Focus on Muzaffarnagar Riots’ on Wednesday, 12th March, in the conference hall of FTK-Centre for Information Technology of the varsity.
Dr. Azra Razzack, Director of the Centre started the program by explaining the need for looking at what ails secularism in India, what breeds communal violence and the new face of riots that was witnessed in the form of Muzaffarnagar. This was followed by Dr. Mujibur Rehman from the same Centre speaking about Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, his association with Jamia, his views on secularism and why it was important to take forth his legacy and hence have a seminar of such kind.
According to online sources, Asghar Ali Engineer (10 March 1939 – 14 May 2013) was a prolific Indian reformist-writer and social activist. Internationally known for his work on liberation theology in Islam. He led the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement. The focus of his work was on communal and ethnic violence in India and South Asia. He was a votary of peace and non-violence and lectured all over world on communal harmony.
Prof. S. M. Sajid, Vice Chancellor of the varsity, presided over the inaugural session on ‘Predicament of Dissent and Secularism in India’. Presenting the inaugural remarks, he spoke of how even six decades down the line since the time of independence, the issues of secularism, communalism, gender, ethnic violence etc continue to be key issues in nation building. Focussing on the role of educational institutions, Prof Sajid said, “Educational institutions can play a very significant role in mobilizing public opinion against riots”, though he also expressed sadness over the absence of any conscious professional intervention to facilitate healing in communal riots.
The panelists for the inaugural session were Prof Upendra Baxi, former VC of the University of Delhi, Dr. Ananya Vajpeyi, Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies New Delhi and noted activist John Dayal. In his address, Prof. Baxi shared some of his memories of Asghar Ali Engineer with whom he was like “comrades in arms” and went on to talk about freedom of speech and expression and minority rights. “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi used to say ‘I do not want just FREEDOM, I want JUST freedom’. That is the essence of minority rights, rights that arise out of just freedom. And Asghar Ali believed in such freedom”, Prof. Baxi said.
Talking about freedom of dissent and the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the country, he stated, “Freedom of speech, expression and dissent are vital to elections and elections are vital to democracy. The maximum toleration of freedom of speech must be allowed at the time of election.” Taking up the recent case of a publishing house withdrawing a book on Hinduism by American researcher Wendy Doniger after being threatened by a rightwing Hindutva group, Prof Upendra Baxi said: “Who offends whose religious sentiments is the question. And that question is never asked because most of the times the books are being banned mechanically without due care. Let it be shown that the entire religious community is against the book, as the petitioner argues on behalf of the community. In that case, nothing will be banned.”
Next to speak, Dr. Ananya Vajpeyi carried forth the discussion about Penguin withdrawing Doniger’s book, linking it to the larger issue of freedom and dissent. “The secular voice in India is a ghostly presence, a voice that we recall, a voice that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the living body politic. Our public sphere is increasingly not secular but one where majoritarian, fundamentalist and sectarian forces seem to be gaining ground”, Dr. Vajpeyi said.
Speaking about the online petition she had started to “Reconsider and revise Sections 153 (A) and 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code to protect freedom of expression in India,” [Link to petition] she expressed her dissatisfaction that “the petition gathered 4100 signatures from around the world, but we could have got 40,000. We didn’t get any support from Kashmiris, not from Tibetans, from Dalits etc. This means that minoritized communities don’t see freedom of expression as something that they have a stake in. It’s more a loss of their freedom actually”. About the recent sedition case against some Kashmiri students, Ananya stated, “The same law 153 (A) which was used to threaten Doniger’s publishers was used against the Kashmir students. Clearly, there is nothing in common with Doniger and some Kashmiri students sitting in Meerut. Although this law is designed to protect the freedom of those who are less than free, it can be turned against minorities in ways that are very troubling. And in case of dissent, you have even more trouble using freedom of speech”, Dr. Vajpeyi said. She emphasized on the need to speak for freedom of expression in principle, for it wasn’t just about freedom of the majority to express itself but of minority too.
This was followed by activist John Dayal briefly speaking about his friendship with Asghar Ali Engineer and how he learnt from him carrying forth the fight within one’s religious community and one’s society at the same time. He castigated the Sangh Parivar for its role in riots and focussed specifically on Kandhamal. Speaking about reform almost being invisible within these communities, he said, “Why is the voice for reform so bleak in Muslim and more so in Christian communities? Whenever there have been persecutions, the pressure from Sangh Parivar has such an impact that the voices for reform from within the community are sidelined and the attention is diverted towards other things.”
He went on to express his anguish over the fact that if one speaks for rights especially of citizenship which irks some majorities, he is targeted in what is apparently a secular society. “You speak the truth and you are labelled as an anti national”, he lamented.
The other two sessions respectively focussed on, ‘As If Women Matter’, with Karuna Nundy, Advocate at the Supreme Court; Sonya Fatah, Columnist on South Asian Affairs; and Dr. Rukmini Sen from Ambedkar University being the discussants and ‘New Face Of Ethnic Violence: Muzzafarnagar Riots’ chaired by Dr. Farida Khan, member of National Commission for Minorities, with panelists including noted journalist Sukumar Muralidharan; Dr. Mohan Rao, a professor at JNU, New Delhi; and Sajjad Hassan, Head of Muzzafarnagar Research Unit, Centre for Equity Studies New Delhi.