A reformist attacked

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

The attack on Dawoodi Bohra reformist Asghar Ali Engineer puts the spotlight on issues of freedom in a traditional religious context.

DR. ASGHAR ALI ENGINEER, reformist and civil liberties activist, was attacked in Mumbai on February 13 allegedly by members of his own Dawoodi Bohra community for "insulting and attempting to attack" the Syedna, the head priest of the community, Dr. Moha mmed Burhanuddin. A group of people later ransacked his house and office premises.

Three persons attacked Engineer in the security area of the Mumbai airport when he was returning from Bhopal after conducting a workshop on communal harmony for the Madhya Pradesh Police. Engineer said that while one of them was a co-passenger on the All iance Air flight, the others were from among a group of people who had come to receive the Syedna.

Engineer refuted the accusation that he tried to attack, or even insult, the Syedna, saying that it was the pro-Syedna group that first verbally and then physically attacked him. He said: "I was alone when the incident occurred. The Syedna never travels alone. Am I a fool to try and attack a man who is surrounded by more than 10 people?"

The trouble started in Indore, where the flight had a scheduled half-hour stopover. At the scheduled time the pilot announced that the plane was ready to take off, but it had to wait for the Syedna to board. According to the community's representatives, the Syedna was holding a prayer meeting in the airport premises. His supporters claim that they had obtained permission from the Ministry of Civil Aviation to delay the flight.

But Engineer asked: "Couldn't the Syedna's programme be arranged in such a way that it did not interfere with the flight timing?" Engineer said that some passengers noticed "a large number of the Syedna's followers at the (Indore) control tower."

Mumbai airport sources told Frontline that "to the best of our knowledge, the Syedna was not inside the airport during the period of the delay."

A spokesperson for Indian Airlines said that the reason for the delay was an act of proxy check-in, as a result of which the boarding cards of the Syedna and his travelling companions had already been issued but they had not boarded the aircraft. "In suc h a situation we have two alternatives. One is to follow a gate no-show drill, which means checking all the baggage and deplaning the passengers, among other things. The other is to leave the matter to the discretion of the station manager. In this case, the Indore station manager realised that there was a crowd of 3,000-4,000 people waiting for the Syedna and instead of creating a law and order problem he decided to inform the passengers of the delay."

Engineer says that after the plane took off he was subjected to abuse from two priests who were accompanying the Syedna. At the Mumbai airport "two people started dealing blows on my face and head with their fists," he said. Engineer was taken to the Nan avati Hospital after the airport manager telephoned his son, Irfan. Subsequently, two persons were arrested and booked on charges of assault. Engineer was provided police protection.

The pro-Sydena Bohras and Engineer and his supporters met Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh separately on February 15. About 40 Bohras presented a memorandum to Deshmukh seeking "immediate police protection of the highest order" for the Syedna. They accus ed Engineer of trying "to create communal hatred and disharmony in our community in order to earn publicity by exciting religious feelings" and demanded his arrest. They hinted at possible unrest if the Chief Minister did not accede to their demands. One of the Bohras said: "We were quiet only because His Holiness asked us to stay calm. But if this man (Engineer) is not stopped from interfering in our religion then we do not know what will happen."

Deshmukh promised to provide security for the Syedna and initiate an inquiry into the incident.

An hour later, Engineer met the Chief Minister with his supporters, who included film-maker Anand Patwardhan and director Mahesh Bhatt. They demanded the arrest of the Syedna and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the presence of Bohras in the Indore control tower.

A widely circulated petition signed by citizens and civil liberties activists condemned the attack on Engineer, the fifth such attack since 1977. The petition said: "Asghar Ali is known for his secular and progressive views, for his active work for the p reservation of Hindu-Muslim unity, and he is the author of several scholarly books and articles. He is not a violent man, and that is the reason the Syedna thinks he can get away with his attack."

An interesting factor in the whole episode is the role played by Atul Shah and Raj Purohit, Bharatiya Janata Party members of the Legislative Assembly. The MLAs, whose constituencies of Khetwadi and Mumbadevi have a large Bohra population, were approache d by the Bohras to join the delegation that met the Chief Minister. Backing the demand for providing the Syedna with high security, Purohit said: "If the Syedna is attacked then what will the world think of India? This leader of the Muslim community need s the highest security."

Three persons were arrested in connection with the attack and six others for breaking in and causing damage to Engineer's house and office premises. In the statement to the police, two of the three accused claimed that they were the Sydena's followers. H owever, the First Information Report made no mention of the Sydena.

Even more intriguing is the matter of the statement made by Engineer. Immediately after the attack he was taken to the Nanavati Hospital, where the police recorded his statement. According to Engineer's son, Irfan, who is a lawyer, the statement "had all the requisites of an FIR, but yet it was not treated as one. It was given without any undue delay; it pertained to a cognizable offence; it named the accused; it was specific in terms of details. Yet it was not registered as an FIR. Instead, a sub-inspe ctor's FIR was registered the following day (February 14) under CR number 7 of 2000." The normal procedure would have been to enter the gist of Engineer's report in the station diary and use this as the basis for the formal FIR. This was not done. Irfan is considering petitioning the court regarding the failure to use Engineer's statement as an FIR and to seek an inquiry into the matter by an independent agency.

Although the immediate reason for the attack on Engineer was the "insult" inflicted on the Syedna, there is a record of aggression against Engineer who has been fighting for reforms in the Bohra community. The Bohras, believers in the Sunni tradition, a re a small sect of Ismaili Muslims engaged primarily in trade and commerce. The reform movement was launched at the beginning of the 20th century by a few educated Bohras, who defied the dictates of the head priest. Despite persecution, they persisted wi th their efforts. The human rights violations perpetrated on the reformists resulted in the appointment of a commission by the national executive council of the Citizens for Democracy in 1977. Headed by a retired judge, Narendra Nathwani, the commission inquired into three principal issues: the baraat or social boycott, the misaq or right of the religious head to demand obedience from his followers, and the matter of an independent audit of the vast amounts of money paid to the Syedna.

The Nathwani Commission recommended that the practice of social boycott be made a punishable offence. Victims of the social boycott are denied admission to Bohra mosques. They are denied burial rights in Bohra cemeteries. Their marriage rites cannot be s olemnised in the Bohra tradition. Engineer and his family have felt the brunt of these dictates for years. In fact, when his wife died last year, his relatives could not attend the funeral owing to the boycott decreed. Engineer is even unable to meet his mother.

On misaq, the commission said: "The misaq is so far-reaching as to involve unconditional surrender to the Syedna in secular as well as religious matters and that it amounts to a virtual charter of slavery... We recommend that the Syedna sho uld be requested to limit the misaq to obedience of his directions in religious matters. If he refuses to do so, the giving of misaq in its present form should be prohibited by law."

Engineer says: "Misaq is about swearing allegiance to Quranic teachings and to the Prophet. But today it has become more fundamental than the faith itself. It is being used as a tool for promoting authoritarian culture. We reject this."

Elaborating, Engineer says that wedding invitations have to be inscribed with the words "Abde Syedna", which means "Slave of the High Priest".

The third issue between the reformists and the orthodoxy concerns the trusts and funds that the Syedna controls. The commission wanted them to be regulated by suitable legislation. The orthodoxy feels that the Syedna is not accountable to anyone. Enginee r says that "the zakat (tax) must be spent as per the directives of the Holy Quran and not on conspicuous living as the Syedna and his family do."

The reformists have frequently stressed that their quarrel is with the social dictates of the Syedna and not with his religious proclamations. The Syedna's supporters have often suggested that the reformists leave the faith if they did not like its pract ices. But as Engineer has written in a pamphlet entitled "The Reformists and their Religious Beliefs", "the reformists do not believe in inflicting their point of view on anyone, not even on the orthodox Bohras. They accept the right of the orthodox also to believe and practise what they want. Similarly, they do not want others to inflict their viewpoint on them or coerce them to accept their authority on pain of social boycott. The reformists resent it when the orthodox treat them as not being Dawoodi Bohras. The reformists maintain that they are true Dawoodi Bohras and adhere to the doctrine of their faith."

It would seem that even this 'live and let live' attitude is not acceptable to some sections. They prefer to continue with what Engineer refers to as "their stranglehold over the community".

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