The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Obituary: Remembering Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

By Nadira Khan

“Our pluralism is our secularism; in India among the two major communities­­­ – Hindus and Muslims – those who fought for power and thought our community should be in so much of power, they are longest communalist; those who stood by secular democracy, that is India will be one nation and we will follow parliamentary system in which all communities will be represented; they are called secular or nationalist and others were called communalists.”  – Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer.

I saw Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer (10 March 1939 – 14 May 2013) for the first time at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) where I went to attend a fifteen day workshop in 2008 on human development. Dr. Engineer came to deliver a guest lecture on the last day of the programme. After about four years when I was about to conduct my field work in 2012, the co-supervisor of my dissertation advised me to try to converse with him. I knew of him as an Indian Muslim, a reformist-writer, and an activist.

Internationally known for his work on liberation theology in Islam, Asghar Ali Engineer led the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement. His work focused on countering communalism and communal and ethnic violence in India and South Asia. He is an advocate of a culture of peace, non-violence and communal harmony, and has lectured around the world, in addition to authoring several books. At the time of his death, he was the head of the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, both of which he founded in 1980 and 1993 respectively. He also contributed to ‘The God Contention,’ a website comparing and contrasting various worldviews. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer’s autobiography, A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change was released in New Delhi on 20 July, 2011 by the Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari.

In December 2012, I got a call from Mosarrap Hossain Khan, the co-Editor of Café Dissensus, to conduct an exclusive video interview with him. At that time, I didn’t have any clue about how to contact him. I checked the website of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and took a chance calling up the listed number. After hearing out my brief, the lady at the reception connected the line to Dr. Asgar Ali Engineer. I spoke to him over phone regarding my work and the purpose of the interview and got an appointment for the interview. I was surprised that I could manage an appointment for the interview so easily. He suggested that I reconfirm the appointment on the previous day of the interview. And I did that. [You can watch the INTERVIEW here.]

On the day of the interview, I was accompanied by Saptarshi Kundu (my husband) and we reached CSSS with the necessary equipment to video record the interview. Saptarshi came along to help me do the video recording while I was busy asking questions. Once in his personal room, I saw him wearing a red Kurta, sitting on his chair in the middle of a pile of books on his table. The room adorned a variety of medals and awards garnered over a lifetime. I introduced myself, Saptarshi, Café Dissensus and, of course, my Ph.D. work once again. With a sense of history, he began the interview by situating the Assam riots in the larger history of Asaam and its people. He went on to speak about the internal reasons for the clash between Bodo community and Bengali speaking Muslims; how the state is equally responsible for the riots; and, finally, the historical reasons for Muslims being poor. He emphasized the importance of education among the Muslim community.

After completing the audio-visual interview for Café Dissensus, I started another round of interview for my Ph.D. He never seemed tired with the long conversation we had that day, barring the persistent cough he had. Since I was doing only an audio interview for my dissertation, Saptarshi went out of the room. He spoke of the contribution of Hindus and Muslims in early Hindi film industry, the influence of Urdu in Hindi films even today, and the composite culture of Hindi film industry. He believed that the representation of Muslim characters in Hindi cinema was partly stereotypical but partly it was true, too. He also expressed his anxiety over the wrong interpretation of the word ‘talak’ in Muslim society; the problem of multiple marriages in the community; and the wrong and convenient interpretation of the Quran in those matters. He felt that the Hindi films were portraying those social realities.

I will remember Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer as a very supportive person. He remembered one of his friends in the US, who also worked on the minority communities in films and he took pains to find out his friend’s contact details from his record. He also gave me the contact number of an eminent film director for conducting an interview. He gave me two articles that he wrote on Assam Riots. While coming back, I took his autograph and he is the first person who I have asked for an autograph till date. May his soul rest in peace!

[Nadira Khan is a doctoral student in the Department of Social Science, Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. Currently she is working on her doctoral dissertation, titled “Imagining ‘Muslim’ Identity: A Study of Hindi Cinema and its Audience”. Email:]

Photo credit: Here

[Cafe Dissensus Blog is the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]

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