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There is a terrible feeling of insecurity

Print edition : Sep 26, 2008 T+T-
The only fitting reply to communal forces is Indian diversity, says Asghar Ali Engineer.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

The only fitting reply to communal forces is Indian diversity, says Asghar Ali Engineer.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

Interview with Asghar Ali Engineer, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.

Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar well known for his liberal views. The leader of the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement, Engineer is a very vocal advocate of peace and non-violence. He heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai and is deeply involved in issues concerning the Muslim community.

Events in recent years have led to a near total ghettoisation of minorities, especially the Muslims in Mumbai. More than ever, there seems to be a deepening feeling of separateness between Hindus and Muslims. Could you comment on this?

In the 1970s and 80s, secularists from all religions would live in cosmopolitan areas or mixed community areas. In fact, at that time there were only pockets of community-dominated areas in Mumbai. It was after 1985, during the time of the Shah Bano case and the rise of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, that the polarisation took place. After the 1992-93 riots, there was a big upheaval and Mumbai has never gone back to what it was.

I agree in recent times the polarisation has become worse. You will find very few Muslims in cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in the city. I live in a mixed area and have never faced any rancour or hatred. But I know I am an exception.

Housing and employment are two areas where Muslims feel they face a lot of discrimination. This is felt across income brackets. There are several cases of people sealing a deal to buy or rent a house only to find the deal falling through when their religion is revealed. Your thoughts?

Actually, Shabana Azmi made a very valid point. It is true that Muslims cannot find housing in Mumbai. We all know of cases where they have been denied accommodation due to the small-mindedness of the building society. Actor Naseeruddin Shah came on television and rubbished Shabanas statement. But it is he who is absolutely wrong. This is a huge problem the community is facing.

The Supreme Court made a very unfortunate decision by allowing caste-based housing societies to exist. Under this loophole they keep out minority communities.

Look at Singapore. It is against the law to have a building that houses people of just one community, language or religion. If a building has to be registered, the state checks the profile of buyers and keeps an eye on whom it is rented to. That is how we must now work.

What about employment?

In the late 1980s, we did a survey of Muslims working in the private sector in Mumbai. Except in two companies we found a negligible number of Muslims in the middle management. At the top, there were a few Muslims who obviously came from affluent backgrounds. An excuse that was given was that Muslims are not adequately qualified, so they cannot hold these positions. So we surveyed the shop floor which does not require high qualifications. Only 4 per cent were Muslim.

I can safely say this situation would not have changed in the past 20 years. Maybe the percentage would be a little higher, but definitely not significant enough. Fortunately, the growth of the IT and services sector has given ample opportunity to the youth from the community.

However, there is some perception that those involved in the recent terror attacks are educated and professionals. Several boys I know were picked up from companies during the last serial blasts the police had absolutely no reason to question them. All of them lost their jobs.

After the serial blasts in July 2006, when we interviewed people from blast-affected areas such as Navpada, there was a lot of anger amongst the boys. Many had helped blast victims to hospitals but were later picked up in combing operations. Unfortunately, many suspects are reportedly from these areas. Do you think it is a vicious cycle anger, resentment and frustration leading to boys opting to join jehadi forces?

Most people in the community view jehadi forces as the enemy. In the name of revenge they are causing much more harm to Muslims. Contrary to what the average person thinks, I think this is an opinion most Muslims have. No Muslim will justify these terror attacks.

Yes, there are exceptions. Boys have joined militant groups but those are the exception rather than the rule.

After all these blasts, the police have yet to come up with an answer as to who is responsible for the attacks. They catch a few boys but those are just foot soldiers if at all. They have failed in finding the real culprits.

Furthermore, there is a strong bias in the police and this is because the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has infiltrated the force. They pick up these boys, the media write about it and perceptions are formed. These are now hard to break.

Would you agree that there is a deepening feeling of insecurity in the community?

There is a terrible feeling of insecurity. Every time there is a communal problem or a terror attack, Muslim areas are on alert mode. In the larger picture, with housing and employment being so discriminatory towards the community, people would feel insecure about issues like their income and putting a roof over their familys head.

How would you say the situation has reached this stage?

Ours is a highly fragmented society. The caste system has played an intensive role in this fragmentation. This is a somewhat contradictory thing to say, but as the process of democracy deepened in India, the feeling of insecurity among classes of people has increased. For instance, Dalits today are much more empowered than they were in the 1960s. Now the upper castes feel threatened. They keep challenging reservation because they are threatened.

Similarly, sections of middle-class Hindus are much more prejudiced towards Muslims as the community has progressed a lot in the past few decades. Muslims now make demands such as better education rather than change in personal laws or promotion of Urdu, which they used to do in the 1970s.

More importantly, it is the Sangh Parivar that should be held singularly responsible for making Hindus believe they are being besieged by Muslims. This has been terribly damaging to the community.

Would you say there is a moderate liberal Muslim voice?

Of course, it exists but people choose not to listen. If you pick up some Urdu papers you will see this voice. Its a pity the mainstream English papers do not attend and cover some of the events where you will hear this voice or take opinions from them on certain issues. If they did we would be able to break the stereotype created by the Sangh Parivar.

The scenario looks quite bleak now. Could it get any worse?

The only fitting reply to communal forces is Indian diversity. The strength of Indias secularism and democracy is the diversity of its society. If it were homogenous, than fundamentalists would survive. Look what happened in 2004; the BJP thought it could come back to power. But the country was upset with it and what happened in Gujarat. It was routed and it has not risen again. The only reason the BJP has made inroads into places like Karnataka is because of the opportunism of secular parties.