Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer (1939- 2013) is a celebrated name in the world of academics, activism and human rights. Dr. Engineer was a stalwart as a writer and activist who braved many odds to touch the lives of many and uphold peace, secularism and democracy in the country. He was the founder and Chairperson of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. Having travelled many countries where he was invited to speak, he had profound knowledge of the trends in secularism the world over which he conveyed to his readers through his several articles and books. His autobiographyA Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change was released in 2011 by Hamid Ansari, the Vice President of India. His work also won him the Right Livelihood award in 2004. In recognition of his ground breaking work in communal harmony, the government in 1997 awarded him withCommunal Harmony award in 1997. He was also part of the National Advisory Committee which drafted the Communal Violence bill. Having been adorned with such accomplishments in his life, his writings and views will always hold relevance and significance especially in recent times and times to come where communalism takes vicious forms. Thus I would like to sketch Dr. Engineer in words for the readers.
Dr. Ashgar Ali Engineer was born in Salumbar, near Udaipur in Rajasthan in the year 1939. His father was an amil and Dr. Engineer got his early training in Islamic studies from his father. He learnt Arabic and Persian and was an avid reader of literary works in these languages. From his young age, he showed a spark for scholarly pursuits and a rational bent of mind. It’s not surprising that with such training under his belt, he was called in his later years Espinoza of Asia by Dr. Hamid Ansari, the vice President of India. Though always keen to learn more about Islam and the humanitarian values it professed, after finishing his schooling, he got a degree of civil engineer and started his career in the Bombay Municipal Corporation as an engineer. He took voluntary retirement in 20 years into a movement that brought him struggles, physical assaults, hardships but at the same time, accolades, wide recognition and above all, undying admiration, respect and love from all over the world. Since the humanitarian values were imbibed from a very early age through the teachings of Quran, the injustices in the form of discrimination and violence under the pretext of religion and the exploitative practices in the Bohra sect ignited his passion and there was a long struggle followed that he led with formidable courage and determination.
Having studied Islam so deeply, Dr. Engineer would grasp the essence of the religion and thus it pained him when the Bohra community was exploited under the garb of religion. This egged him on to play an active role in the Bohra reform movement that started in 1972. He started organizing the Bohra community and spread awareness amongst them through his writings. He also led organizations and committees like The Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community. His work was undeterred despite several assaults on him by the followers of Syedna, the head priest of the Bohra community. One of the assaults took place in public view on Mumbai Airport with authorities being mere spectator. It takes a man of great courage and resilience to withstand this violence and opposition from powerful establishment. Apart from assaults, they also ransacked and destroyed his house and office which was a meeting place for social activists and thinkers. Dr. Engineer with all his humility, determination and calm, rebuilt his office and an even stronger movement after these assaults.
The two causes close to his heart were communal harmony and rights of Muslim women. Dr. Engineer meticulously visited every place where riot took place for fact finding and wrote about it. He used to try to bring calm and dialogue between the conflicting communities. He explained that all religions have the same message to give its followers and that is of love and peace. Through his study of Islam, he countered the popular misconception and propaganda of extremist nationalists and hate mongers. He explained that Islam teaches peace and abhors violence or Jihad. Thus he was a celebrated voice of liberation theology. This is very same approach he adopted to strive for the rights of Muslim women. When the more conservative section of the Muslim community was opposing the Shahbano judgment, Dr. Engineer supported the judgment and demanded codification of Shariat laws. He argued that Islam is being misinterpreted by the priests for vested interests and the Quran gave women irrefutable rights. Thus inroads to this end must be made by being equipped with correct facts and knowledge of the Quran. With his vast knowledge and passionate views, firm but not rigid, he compelled the other person to think rationally which was him so popular in trainings or lectures. His attitude made dialogue and learning easy for so many youth and women across colleges and communities.
As a colleague and fellow human being, he led by a shining example, I can only hope to emulate even in a tiny part. He was an epitome of discipline, professionalism and commitment. His rigorous routine of writing where he churned out articles after articles despite a punishing travelling schedule was baffling and awe inspiring for all of us. His old laptop which never left his company even in the duration of his hospitalization is one of his cherished belongings which we treasure in the office. Even at his ripe age, he used to climb up six floors to the office every single day after a major surgery he underwent which shows the commitment to his work. The few things that will strike anyone about Dr. Engineer were his humility, his simplicity and his warmth. Inspite of being so high in stature and age, he was accessible to all at any time. Anyone could come to seek help in terms of clarifications or guidance on any scholarly issue or even personal problems. He would always be willing to help.
Undoubtedly Dr. Engineer achieved his in life and career, milestones, only a few can dream of. However, his close ones, colleagues and family will not just remember him for his scholarly acumen but for the human being he was- a very jovial light hearted progressive person who loved music and good food, a very loving father, a doting grandfather, a very caring colleague. He inspired awe and admiration in all capacities.