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Historical Context

Though India achieved independence from the British in 1947, the country has been plagued by communal riots, especially between Hindus and Muslims, the seeds of which were sown in the colonial era. India was a principal colony of the British Empire, which had consolidated its control from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, first economically and then through direct, imperial rule. Initially comprised of bourgeois intellectuals loyal to the British, the Indian National Congress (est. 1885) was gradually transformed into a major vehicle of nationalist, anti-colonial resistance, developing a popular following under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi (d. 1948).[1] It would be elitist, however, to reduce the complex history of the South Asian liberation struggle to the activities of the Indian National Congress. As the Bengali historian Ranajit Guha has argued, India never had a ‘national liberation movement’, since upper-class Indians were unable to exert control over mass uprisings that were erupting throughout the country—particularly amongst peasants, workers, and the urban petty bourgeoisie—and to generalize them into a unified, nationalist movement.[2] India’s independence would lead to Partition (1947)—one of the most horrific events in South Asian history and in which almost a million people were killed as Muslims frantically moved to newly-created Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to independent India. It is important to note that the roots of such communal violence, professing solid, hermetically sealed boundaries between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, are to be found in the colonial period. In 1909, for example, the British set up separate electorates based on communal lines,[3] thereby laying the groundwork for religious affiliation as a marker of political identity. Such colonial policies were informed by strategies of divide and rule, seeking to preempt political alignments between Hindus and Muslims against the British, as well as by the deep-seated assumption that communalism was ‘an essential and unchanging feature of Indian society.’[4] Communal violence in contemporary India, then, is a lasting legacy of empire. A series of riots rocked the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in particular in Ahmadabad, in which a thousand people were killed, and in Bhivandi, claiming four hundred lives.[5] Communal conflict reared its ugly face again in the 1980s, culminating in the Mumbai riots of 1992-3. Perhaps the most shocking episode of communal violence, however, was that of Gujarat in 2002, wherein roughly eight hundred Muslims and two hundred Hindus were brutally massacred. This resurgence of sectarian strife is in large part due to the rise of Hindu nationalism (hindutva) since the 1980s, which has ‘sought to establish India as a primarily Hindu nation (rashtra), based on a notion of Hindu ethos, values and religion’, and views Muslims as a threat to Hindus and the nation as a whole.[6]

Raised in a traditional Muslim household, Engineer was an influential, progressive voice in India, writing widely on Islam and communal violence.[7] He was born on 10 March 1939 in Salumbar—a town in the Udaipur district—and brought up as a Dawudi Bohra, a sub-sect of Shi‘a Isma‘ili Islam based primarily in India and with a membership of roughly a million followers.[8] Although he never attended a madrasa, Engineer was exposed to classical Islamic subjects, such as Qur’anic exegesis, jurisprudence, and Muslim history, at an early age, as his father was a traditionally trained Islamic scholar.[9] At the same time, however, Engineer took an avid interest in secular topics like Western philosophy and science.[10] Upon completing his secondary education, he went on to study civil engineering at Vikram University in Indore and eventually settled in Mumbai. While working as an engineer, he continued his readings in religion, literature, and philosophy, and wrote on these topics in Urdu magazines and in English newspapers like The Times of India. With the rise of communal riots between Muslims and Hindus in the late 1960s, Engineer began to write on communal violence and, in particular, how religion could work towards fostering peaceful dialogue between the two communities.[11] Concurrently, he became a prominent voice in the Bohra reform movement,12 rebelling against the conservative and exploitative practices of the religious leadership. Taking an early retirement in 1972, he decided to dedicate himself fully to the task of writing, publishing numerous articles and books on contemporary Islam, social justice, and communal violence. Engineer founded a number of educational and outreach organizations, including the Institute for Islamic Studies (est. 1980) and, in order to further research on communal violence and interfaith harmony, the Center for the Study of Society and Secularism (est. 1993). He passed away on 14 May 2013 in Mumbai.

  • [1] Robert Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: BlackwellPublishing, 2001), 309.
  • [2] Ranajit Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, inSelected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 42-3.
  • [3] Asghar Ali Engineer ed., The Gujarat Carnage (New Delhi: Orient Longman,2003), 5.
  • [4] Anuradha D. Needham and Rajeswari S. Rajan eds., The Crisis of Secularism inIndia (Durham, US: Duke University Press, 2007), 12. For a study of how imperialdiscourses produced and solidified communal identities, see Gyanendra Pandey, TheConstruction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress, 1990).
  • [5] Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘How Secular is India Today?’ Secular Perspective, 16October 2008, available at:, accessed 12 August 2016.
  • [6] Ornit Shani, Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence inGujarat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1.
  • [7] While Engineer uses the terms ‘communalism’ and ‘communal violence’ interchangeably, I prefer to use the latter in my own writing. I avoid the word commu-nalism in describing the historic tensions between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindusbecause, by definition, communalism refers to a very different concept: namely, aform of sociopolitical organization built on fellowship, egalitarianism, and thecommonwealth.
  • [8] Asghar Ali Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam (New Delhi:Sterling Publishers, 2005), 166.
  • [9] Engineer Interview, 2010. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid.
  • [10] 12 The Bohras will be discussed later on in this chapter.
  • [11] 13 Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, 144.
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