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Portrait of an activist 
By Mohd. Zeyaul Haque

The joys and sorrows of Prof. Iqbal A. Ansari, a veteran human rights activist and keen student of emerging discipline of conflict resolution 

Iqbal A Ansari

On a hot April morning, Prof. Iqbal A. Ansari sits at his study table, behind an unruly pile of books, files, notebooks and newspaper clippings. The diminutive professor looks pensive, and tries to extenuate his anguish with a shot at dark, gallows humour. He remarks about how "beautifully" the Gujarat and Central leadership had been observing their rajdharma (state duty) by allowing massacres to continue unabated.

Generous and hospitable to a fault, he does not forget to bring in all kinds of edibles, from fruits to biscuits and cereals. He offers you a range of drinks—from water to sherbet and tea—one by one. However, amid all this the anguish never seems to leave him alone. He says he is waiting for a team from Amnesty International coming to see him on the Gujarat pogrom.

His single-mindedness almost makes you forget that you are talking to someone who, not long ago, was a full professor of English literature. Not once he talks about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, or WB Yeats. Not a word about anything related to literature, English or any other. Every single word is about protecting human lives, freedoms, and human dignity. And it is by failing to protect these values that the Indian state has caused him that enduring anguish.



The professor is very unhappy about core issues of human rights—discrimination, hate speech, for instance—being ignored in media discourse. Even in human rights circles there is an inadequate understanding of the denial of equality of opportunity and equal protection of law.



He knows that things would not change for the better overnight, and the state would not suddenly be sensitised to honour his cherished values. He is not too happy with the citizenry either. A deep feeling of hurt has entered his soul: the intellectual and political elite have let us down. At moments like this he is apt to make a cutting remark about fellow professors of English—they are too busy wrestling with figures of speech and problems of style to spare a thought for things happening in Rwanda, Bosnia or Gujarat.

As one hears him saying all this, one squirms in one’s seat, trying to cope with the sudden attack of conscience offset by his remarks about a general state of apathy for issues of human rights. Looking up close, a thought fleets across one’s mind: how his hairstyle looks like Dilip Kumar’s, and his salt and pepper beard like Chandra Shekhar’s. He presents a dignified visage.

This distracting thought melts away when one focusses more sharply on what he is saying—he had been visiting riot-affected people since he was a young teacher of English at Aligarh Muslim University. Decades of exposure to the worst that human beings can do to other human beings has possibly led to his gradual acquisition of a dark sense of humour. In psychological terms, it is a normal human response, a coping strategy that protects the mind from being overwhelmed with sorrow or shocked into a paralysis of will. The continuous exposure to brutality has also steeled his resolve to soldier on, and his Gandhian belief that violence can never be the answer to violence. No wonder, he can count important Gandhians, socialists and liberals among his friends.

Among his friends he can also count jurists, journalists, intellectuals, rights activists and sundry well-meaning people. However, merely being well meaning is not enough for the professor’s purposes. "The Ram-Rahim theme does not take us too far," he cautions. Then what does it take to improve things? Rule of law, an accountable state machinery, and a society that allows each of its religions and ethnic communities to live in dignity with its beliefs and practices. This may also need a new covenant between Hindus and Muslims (and other communities) to respect each other’s sensitivities and the sorting out of vexed issues that vitiate inter-community relations. That sounds extremely difficult, but is certainly not impossible.

Prof. Ansari is a practising Muslim, but his religious beliefs don’t come in the way of treating all victims of injustice without referring to their religious identity. His broad sympathies are reflected in his life’s work that has taken him from one trouble spot to another all over India, and on seminar circuit from Geneva to London and New York.

One notices a great schism between his speech and writing—the former tending to ramble and meander, the later being precise and crystal clear. His piece on Ayodhya dispute in the Hindustan Times of June 4 is one of the most enlightening and original articles ever written on the issue. The grasp of basics is so clear and the ideas so original that it could very well be a mission statement for all conflict resolution efforts in future.

For people enamoured of the gracious, mellow Prof. Ansari talking as a private person in his study and entertaining visitors in his drawing room, a word of caution. He can be extremely peremptory and dismissive at a seminar, disallowing questions that he thinks can divert (or subvert) the drift of the discourse or introduce an inappropriate idiom into it. And such gains make him soldier on.

The professor is very unhappy about core issues of human rights—discrimination, hate speech, for instance—being ignored in media discourse. Even in human rights circles there is an inadequate understanding of the denial of equality of opportunity and equal protection of law. Virtually, nothing has been done to stop demonisation of Muslims and rampant use of hate language by the Sangh. Suddenly, the professor of English in him surfaces when he quotes a Shakespearean character who refers to a Jew as a "circumcised dog." Hate speech always uses the racial and cultural characteristics of the victim, who is painted as an abominable, dangerous creature.

One is reminded of the hate language used freely against Muslims by Mumbai police during 1993 riots. The conversation on police wireless (published by the New York Times) used the word ‘landhura’ for Muslims, which is quite close to Shakespeare’s "circumcised dog." For human rights activists, like Prof. Ansari, the battle is quite steep.

Meanwhile, all is not lost. He cheers up talking about the Constitution Revision Commission accepting most of the points he and his colleagues had made at different hearings. One feels happy for such small mercies. Even small gains like this come after a great struggle. 
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