Invisible hijack

THE HINDU, Sunday, March 12, 2000

Society is being hijacked every day by those who take the law into their own hands in the name of religion. And our system surrenders to these hijackers. The silence of political parties over the assault on Bohra reformist Asghar Ali Engineer is deafening, writes ANAND PATWARDHAN

The physical assault in broad daylight on Bohra reformist Asghar Ali Engineer by the entourage of Syedna Burhanuddin at the Bombay airport, immediately followed by a coordinated breaking and entering and smashing of Asghar All’s residence and office speaks volumes of the official Bohra regime. With millions of followers all over the world paying him a religious tax, the Syedna commands such tremendous power and influence that few have dared criticise him or the religious establishment he heads.

These are the undigestible facts. Asghar Ali, an Islamic scholar and a tireless campaigner for secularism and democracy, has been lighting Bohra fundamentalism for decades. His challenge to the Bohra dictatorship has been rewarded on several occasions in the past by murderous attacks and abuse. Those from the fold who associate with people like him in any way face excommunication and worse. Isolated by most of his own coreligionists, Asghar Ali has earned the wrath of fundamentalists from all religions because of his staunch defence of secularism. Prior to boarding the flight that landed in Bombay where he was assaulted, Asghar had delivered alecture in Bhopal against both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. Following the latest attack, mainstream political parties barring the left have refused to condemn the Syedna and his followers. The BJP, Congress, Samajwadi and Shiv Sena silence is deafening. The Shiv Sena normally prone to spot Muslim fundamentalism in every Muslim, is mindful of its open tie-up with the Syedna. In the Bombay riots of ’92-93, Thackeray is reported to have given his followers instructions to spare the properties of Bohra Muslims. Many suspected that a financial arrangement was the cause. That this friendship has continued beyond the riots is evidenced by the fact that at Thackeray’s recent 73rd birthday celebrations, the Syedna was not only in attendance, but publicly touched the Shiv Sena leader’s feet.

With these connections it is hardly surprising that the police arrested only three persons amongst the Syedna’s follower and filed no charges against the one who should have been the prime suspect in all three incidents. After all it is no use catching those who carry out an edict if he who issues the edict or condones his followers going berserk in his cause, goes unpunished and unreprimanded.

As for the press, some leading city newspapers not only underplayed the incident but despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary, gave credence to the Syedna’s counter claim that it was Asghar Ali who had assaulted the Syedna! Anyone who has witnessed the fact that the Syedna never moves anywhere without a heavily armed group of bodyguards knows how preposterous the claim is. It is probably this completely twisted story that can account for the rage that was spread.

So far there have been no public demonstrations condemning the attack. Lest the depression of those with an instinct for fair play mounts further it should be pointed out that many concerned citizens of Bombay were preparing to mount a peaceful protest outside the Syedna’s office when they were prevailed upon by the police to withdraw their plans in the interest of keeping peace. The police cited earlier incidents when the Syedna’s followers wreaked havoc by throwing stones and bottles at protesters.

In view of immediate tension, plans for a street level action were postponed. But no Indian citizen can be unaware that our society is being hijacked every day by those who take the law of the land into their own hands in the name of religion. And daily our system surrenders to the hijackers. So those who illegally hijacked the Babri Mosque won a government as their ransom. Those who murdered Sikhs in the streets of Delhi and Muslims in the streets of Bombay went unpunished, and some were even rewarded. Those whose ideology murdered Staines and his children are on the winning trail in Orissa. And daily the national newspapers bring us stories of one more battle for secularism lost. Fire, Water, rain or shine, the hijackers grow bolder by the day knowing that they just have to stick to their guns, the ransom will come.

If we believe the State will intervene on our behalf we are living in never never land. If the hostages of secularism and democracy are to be freed we will have to become our own storm troopers, our own rapid action force, our own anti fundamentalist squad. But we cannot be armed with the weapons of their choice but with our own weapons of love, non-violence and the spirit to fight fascism in all its myriad forms.

The author is an independent film-maker and social activist.