Vinod Mubayi


Asghar Ali Engineer was a very unique individual in many ways.  His breadth of interests was extremely wide as was his knowledge.  In trying to recover from mourning his death, I have tried to reflect on our 43 years of deep and abiding friendship and association that began in 1969 and lasted until a few days before he passed away when I spoke to him last in the fervent hope that he would recover.


I first met him in 1969 shortly after I came to Mumbai (then Bombay) to join TIFR.  A friend invited me to a function at the Bombay Union of Journalists hall celebrating the 15th anniversary of the uprising in Cuba that had sparked the Cuban revolution.  Since I had spent a good part of the 1960s in the U.S. where I had become involved in the antiwar movement and Cuba was one of the main thorns in the flesh of U.S. imperialism I was asked to say a few words on the subject.  Needless to say, Asgharbhai was there reflecting his lifelong interest in progressive, anti-imperialist struggles.  After the event, we adjourned for tea to some Irani restaurant nearby and spent several hours there, beginning our life long association. We first discovered our deep shared interest in communal harmony.


As a young boy migrating from Lahore to Amritsar in late August 1947, I had seen the horrors of communal massacres on both sides of the border. Asgharbhai had reflected on evils of communalism after the Jabalpur riots of 1961 and the Ahmedabad riots of 1968 that were still fresh when we met.  We decided along with the late Jagmohan Bhatnagar, formerly of the undivided CPI, to set up the Anti-Communal Youth Front in Bombay in 1970, and persuaded the late, great, film personality Balraj Sahni to be its President.  This organization was active in providing succor to victims, many of them textile loom workers who suffered at the hands of the thugs of Shiv Sena, during the first Bhiwandi communal riot of 1970 and Asgharbhai was tireless in this effort, holding public meetings, running relief efforts, and raising a voice of sanity in a charged atmosphere.


During this time, Asgharbhai was holding his job at the Bombay Municipal Corporation.  One afternoon I was supposed to meet him in his office but when I got there he was not at his desk so I walked down a hallway and discovered he was giving a lecture in a conference room. I slipped in at the back of the room unobtrusively and was soon listening to an erudite talk on the critical path method in engineering project management! As I said he was a man of very wide knowledge.  Despite that he was also one of the most humble and simple persons I have known in my life.


We often used to meet several times a week and soon discovered our common interests in Urdu literature.  Asgharbhai introduced to several famous poets and writers like Kaifi Azmi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and Krishan Chander.  Kaifi Sahib in particular helped us a lot in the aftermath of the Bhiwandi riots by lending his voice and person to mushairas  (recital by Urdu poets) in support of communal peace and harmony.


It was at this time, that Asgharbhai began his lifelong struggle for democratic reform within his own community, a stupendous effort given the obstacles he confronted and for which he incurred great personal risks as many persons gathered here are well aware.


After the vicissitudes of life took me back to the U.S. in the mid-1970s and Asgharbhai left the municipal corporation and became a full-time writer, activist, and fighter for communal harmony, we kept in touch regularly, meeting once a year usually and sometimes more.  On his inspiration, we began several activities in North America to counter the communal virus that spread among the Indian and wider South Asian community here especially after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.  Asgharbhai’s presence on several occasions was a great help to us when we organized speaking tours for him to spread awareness of the cause of communal harmony and also to try and raise some resources for his Centre that was then in the process of getting established.


He was a deeply believing person and I am not religious but this difference did not divide us in the least; instead it led to many stimulating philosophical discussions as we respected each other’s views greatly.  Asgharbhai had a very inquisitive spirit always searching for new knowledge in the excellent spirit of the holy Quran and he was patience personified in discussing any subject with anyone even if there was a fundamental difference in opinions.  One thing, however, we closely shared was a repugnance for the hypocrisies of conventional religiosity that were exhibited by the votaries of all religions for political or money making ends


On my annual visits to India, we would sometimes meet in Mumbai and I would stay a day or two with him, or we would meet in Delhi at my late mother’s house if he happened to be visiting there.  We last met on January 13 this year in Mumbai and after he fell sick and was hospitalized we talked on the phone whenever he was able to.  Little did I realize that I would hear his voice no more, that somehow I would have to fill a gaping hole in my life.


A simple nazm (poem) illustrates his life for me:


Jo apne gham se pehle doosron ka gham samajhta hai

Lagakar dil sabhi chhote bade jo kaam karta hai

Sitamgaron ke beech bhi insaniyat ki raah chalta hai

Wohi insaan sachcha hai jo sachchi baat karta hai.


Alvidah Asgharbhai, aapne sari zindagi sachchi baat kari.


English translation:

One who feels the sorrow of others before one’s own

Who does big and small things with full devotion

Follows a humane path midst difficulties

The one who speaks the truth is truly human

Goodbye brother Asghar! You  spoke the truth all your life!

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