The Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial public lecture was organized by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and delivered by eminent historian Romila Thapar on 26th October 2015 at KC College Auditorium in Mumbai. The lecture was chaired by prominent academician, Prof. Jairus Banaji. This lecture on the topic of “Indian Society and the Secular” was delivered by Romila Thapar also at Jamia Milia Islamia University at Delhi in August 2015. The previous lectures were delivered by internationally renowned academicians like Imitiaz Yusuf, Monirul Hussain, Wajahat Habbibullah and Faizan Mustafa. These memorial lectures are organized to continue discussions and debates on the questions related to secularism in the memory of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer who dedicated over five decades of his life for this vexing issue and is celebrated for his mammoth contribution in this area.
The turnout for the lecture was overwhelming with the hall being occupied full to its capacity of 600 persons and 100 odds people returning from the gate of the venue without attending the lecture since the police denied them entry citing security reasons. The audience constituted of diverse groups. Some were students, some academicians, teachers and professors working at prestigious universities and other educational institutions, writers, prominent film makers, politicians, cultural activists, political activists across the range of socialists, left and liberals working in peoples’ movements. The audience came from different cities like Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, some even from other countries. This awe inspiring response from such cross sections of society was encouraging. The audience heard the lecture in a spellbound manner and asked very relevant and thought provoking questions indicating the critical reflection the lecture ignited in the audience. The profound scholarship and sharp wit of the speaker enthralled one and all. This resonated very strongly in the feedback given by the audience. The feedback and response of the audience was humbling. They found the lecture very insightful offering a historical perspective which helps understand the present socio political scenario in the country. The audience hoped for more such lectures on contemporary issues having ramifications on secularism and democracy.
The significance of the lecture needs to be underlined given the attacks on secular writers- murder of M.M Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar and intellectuals and other voices of dissent. The unconstitutional acts like lynching of innocent over personal choices like food or marriage, hate speeches which aim at spreading hatred and myths against particular religious communities and caste atrocities have culminated in an atmosphere of fear and suppression. The resounding response and enthusiastic participation of the audience was their way of creating democratic space for a voice of dissent or independent thinking which wants to differ than the political and social discourse encouraged by the current dispensation. The huge presence of audience in otherwise commercial city of Mumbai was to reinforce that cross sections of the society are still unmoved by politics of hate and authoritarianism and such sane voices like that of Romila Thapar and Jairus Banaji must be celebrated and highlighted. Romila Thapar with her characteristic witty humor and formidable knowledge provided that confidence. She located the history of India in a liberal narrative replete with examples of shared culture and composite culture and dispelled the colonial perspective of viewing religions in India as monolithic binaries. She not only put secularism and the blatant attacks on it today in a scholarly structure but also suggested the way forth to counter obstacles to secularism. She urged citizenry to voice up their disagreements and work in two important areas of education and civil laws. The audience demonstrated its affirmation to the idea of India defined by secular peaceful space to all its citizens. By showing up on a working day in such great strength, they gave a real tribute to the memory of Dr. Engineer who always bravely stood up against entrenched institutions and its abuse and underscored the intellectual acumen of a veteran like Romila Thapar. This for any organizer was very inspiring and encourages CSSS to continuously engage with society through such initiatives.
This report attempts at presenting the substance of the lecture. Dr. Ram Puniyani, Chairperson of CSSS and renowned activist- writer introduced Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer and pointed out to the broad four areas of work marked by significant contribution of Dr Engineer. These four areas are- Rights of women in Islam, Bohra reforms, Secularism and chronicling communal violence in India. He emphasized that his work and ideas are all the more relevant and important in the current social context vitiated with hatred and intolerance. Adv Irfan Engineer welcomed everyone to the lecture and introduced the Speaker and the Chair. After Dr. Ram Puniyani presented both with memento as a token of appreciation, Jairus Banaji, Research Professor, School of African and Oriental Studies, said that the BJP’s victory in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 had ushered in an unprecedented attack on India’s democracy and injected new elements of intolerance and authoritarianism in the lives of people living in the country. Behind the mask of a developmental regime promising rapid industrial expansion and millions of jobs for the mass of unemployed youth, we’ve seen instead a hideous explosion of the cultural politics of the Extreme Right, overt acclamations of a Hindu rashtra; a wide-ranging takeover of educational and cultural institutions by the RSS; a rampant culture of violence targeting freedom of expression, freedom of religion, intellectual freedoms, even the freedom of the young to love; a calculated drive to communalise voters in North India with hate campaigns that have led to the horrid lynchings at Dadri and Udhampur; a shocking subversion of the judicial system through a concerted drive to secure the release of elements indicted on fake encounter and terrorism charges; fabrication of evidence to crush a handful of individuals who have campaigned for justice for the victims of the Gujarat violence; and of course the brazen murder of anti-superstition crusaders. He further said that the fabric of India’s democracy was today being torn to shreds.
After his succinct contextualization of the current threats to secular democracy in India, he invited Prof. Romila Thapar to deliver the lecture. Prof. Romila Thapar stated that a secular society and polity did not mean abandoning religion. It meant that the religious identity of the Indian had to give way to the primary secular identity of an Indian citizen. She further said that the State would have to ensure social justice, provide and protect human rights that came with the secular identity of Indian citizen. Such an identity would be governed by a secular code of laws applicable to all.
Prof. Thapar further stated that secularism involved questioning the control that religious organizations had over social institutions. Secularism in her view did not deny the presence of religion in society but the social institutions over which religion could or could not exercise control had to be demarcated.Some people opposed Secularism, Prof. Thapar said, on the ground that it was a western concept. But then, she said, nationhood and democracy too were new to post colonial India, and the neoliberal market economy was a far stronger imprint of the west.
Quoting Eric Hobsbawm, Prof Thapar said that history was to nationalisms what poppy was to the opium addict – the source.
Though the anti colonial nationalism tried to be broad based and inclusive, bringing in a range of opinion and drawing from shared history, it did not question the idea of the monolithic religious communities. Instead, she said, it focused more on denying their antagonisms, preferred to project just their co-existence. Prof. Thapar said that in pre-Islamic times there were no references to any monolithic type of Hinduism. There were two broad categories of sects that propagated their distinctive ideas; these were referred to as the Brahmanic and the Shramanic. Brahmana referred to Brahmanic belief and rituals. The early phase in Vedic Bhramanism focused on the ritual of sacrifice, the yajana, invoking many deities and especially Indra and Agni and performed by upper castes. While Shramana referred to shramanas or Buddhists, Jainas, monks of other heterodox orders, the nastika / non believers and their followers and many others such as the Charvaka and Ajivika. The Shramana sects rejected the Vedas, divine sanctions, the concept of the soul and were associated with more rational explanations of the universe and human society. There was a range of distinct sects in both these broad categories.
Prof. Thapar further said that throughout the second millennium AD, the period described by religious extremists and politicians as the age when ‘we were slaves’, there were scholarly Sanskrit commentaries being composed on Brahmanical religious texts from the Vedas onwards from Kashmir to Kerala. Such scholarship was not without patronage. The exegesis on these texts illustrated high levels of scholarship being widely practiced and exchanged in many centres of that time. Sayana’s explanation of the Rig Veda and Kulluka’s extensive commentary on the Manu Dharmashastra are examples of such learned scholarship.
Prof. Thapar said that the cultural interaction between what we today call Hinduism and Islam took the form of mutual borrowing of various facets of cultural expressions. Where does one place the poetry of Sayyad, Mohammed Jayasi’s Padmavat or the dohas of the devotee of Krishna, Sayyad Ibrahim Ras Khan, she asked. Brahmana scholars who wrote in Sanskrit had close scholarly relations with the Mughals. Classical Hindustani and Carnatic music was patronised by courts of Maharajas, Sultans and Mughals. The Sarvadarshana-samgraha of Madhavacharya written in 14th century provided a summary of ongoing debates on schools of philosophy. The bhajans of Mira and Surdas and of Tyagaraja and the bandishes of the Dhrupad ragas were not compositions of an enslaved people, she opined.
In conclusion, Prof. Thapar said that the process of secularizing society would have to address both religion and caste. She said, a beginning could be made by ensuring that education and civil laws were secular. Secular education meant to her, availability of all branches of knowledge to all without discrimination and training young people to use and understand what was meant by critical inquiry.
The lecture was followed by opening the floor for some questions from the audience. The questions directed at the speaker sought to understand the role of media in promoting secularism, the pitfalls of rewriting NCERT textbooks and role of education in the sustenance of a secular polity, the myths propagated about history especially cultural aggression of Muslims in Indi and the strategies to be adopted by citizenry to a watch guard of secularism. The crowning glory of the lecture was the wide media attention it received and reportage carried out in different newspapers- one even from Pakistan!