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Published in the 16-29 Feb 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Asghar Ali Engineer:
“Identity politics the root cause of communal strife”
By Khalid Azam

Dallas, Texas: Renowned Indian scholar and activist, Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, was recently in Dallas to speak on the issue of ‘Communalism and Identity Politics in India’. A recipient of the 1997 Communal Harmony award by the Government of India, Dr Engineer presented a worrisome picture of the extent to which divisive politics and violence used by Hindutva brigade and other reactionary parties are threatening the secular and plural fabric of India. 

Asghar Ali Engineer

He spoke at a dinner organized by the Indian Muslim Council-USA at Fun Asia on the eve of India’s Republic Day. Dr Engineer currently serves as the chairman of two important peace organizations, the Center for the Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS). He is the author of 45 books and numerous articles on communalism, secularism, Islam and South Asia.

“It was the British who, alarmed by the 1857 uprising, first instilled among the Indian masses the consciousness of separate religious and ethnic identities. They used the instruments of divisive politics such as favored recruitments and introduction of religion in census” stated Dr Engineer while describing the origins of identity politics in India. “The Partition further entrenched the stronghold of communal and identity politics” he added, while delving in detail on the progression of causes that led to the partition.

While blaming the rise of communalism on identity politics, Dr Engineer claimed that the identity politics adopted by the underprivileged sections of the Indian society, such as Dalits, succeeded in providing for their greater representation in the government. At the same time, he stated that the identity politics of the upper castes has become “a great calamity for the weaker sections of the society, particularly the religious minorities”. 

He contended that while the underprivileged communities are positively seeking for greater representation of their interests and issues, the privileged upper castes, predominantly represented by the Sangh Parivar, are seeking to distract the latter from their legitimate grievances of socio-economic inequalities by placing the blame squarely on the “scapegoat minority communities”. This, he explained, is the ploy by which the upper castes retain the reigns of political power while marginalizing the empowerment of the underprivileged castes and classes through the distraction of communal and divisive propaganda. He highlighted the linkage between the recent pogroms organized by the Hindutva brigade in Gujarat as an example of upper caste politics that led to the “BJP walking into power on the bodies of 2000 innocent victims”. At the same time he stressed that the Hindutva ideology is separate from the Hindu religion and Hinduism cannot be blamed for this kind of communal violence.

Dr Engineer was similarly critical of the Muslim leadership, and claimed that their aggressive stance during the Shah Bano incident and the Babri Mosque movement further agitated the Hindu community and became an excuse for the confrontational stance taken by RSS, VHP and other Hindutva groups. He supported the direction taken by some of the current Muslim leadership in focusing more on education and poverty eradication as the means of community empowerment. He criticized the All India Muslim Personal Law Board for its glacial pace and its ineffectiveness in addressing the pressing issues faced by the Indian Muslims.

Dr Engineer also talked about the work being done by his organizations for promoting peace. He informed that workshops on communal harmony were being conducted for teachers and the police force. Intensive training workshops were being organized for peace activists; these would be further developed for creating a “peace force” of peace activists and volunteers in riot and communal violence in sensitive areas.
He concluded the talk and discussion on the optimistic observation that India is too diverse and pluralistic for any extremist ideology to entrench itself for long. 

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