Testimony by Asghar Ali Engineer


Asghar Ali Engineer, Indian Livelihood Award

(Secular Perspective July 16-31, 2012)

Every summer an informal group of writers, poets, intellectuals and activists from France and other (mostly French speaking countries) gather together in Lyon and carry on dialogue on various issues confronting humanity for three days from Friday to Sunday. In the first week of July every year. I was invited fir last two years but could not go as I had other engagements. But this year I decided to go as I was given very advance notice.

It was indeed an intellectual treat to be in dialogue with leading intellectuals, writers and poets of France and French speaking world. There were representatives from all over North Africa i.e. Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Mali, Egypt and several other countries and also people living in France from these countries. Most of them were leading lights from France and French speaking world. There were few delegates from Brazil too. It was indeed a great experience to be there with these greatly concerned souls.

Lyon is a middle sized city and has the distinction of having two rivers flowing through it and thus is semi-island. It was a Roman settlement and still has ruins from that period. It is a city of great beauty and has a huge park - some 700 acres - right in the heart of the city. It was just a few minutes walk from the hotel where I stayed along with many other delegates. The dialogue, quite informal in structure, was held in this park under huge old trees. It was like Tagore's Santiniketan and interestingly Tagore and Pablo Neruda and their universalism was under discussion. In one of the sessions there was focus both on Tagore and Neruda.

Interestingly I was the only non-French speaking person in the entire crowd.

Everyone else spoke French fluently. But there was no problem at all. People were quite eager to help me with translation. I had reached Lyon on the morning of 5th July and was received at the airport by one lady Simone Kunegel. I thought she is just one of the volunteers and would drop me at the hotel and go.

But I was wrong and I am so happy that I was wrong. She spoke English fluently as she had spent several years in Mumbai as part of French Diplomatic mission and lived in Colaba and knew how to cook Indian dishes.

She insisted that I go to her home and she would prepare Indian dishes so that I felt at home. She took also took me around the city on the very first day including old Lyon. I could feel the beauty of the city of Roman times.

There was more surprise awaiting me at her home. There were two guests Mohammad of Egyptian origin and a musicologist who had variety of flutes with him. He was flute player further reminding me of my country India and also reminding me of Maulana Rum whose great Mathnavi (epic poem) known as Mathnavi Maulana Rum and is considered Qur'an in Persian begins with mention of flute which has wounds on its heart (wholes) and a cry of anguish of separation (from the Lord) emanates from it. I told Muhammad about similar instrument Bansari played by Lord Krishna who was so beloved of Sufi saints in India.

His wife (a German lady) Zainab was also there and also a musicologist like her husband. He played flute for me and I was delighted. We had lunch and dinner together that day as Simon insisted that I have dinner also with them and she cooked Dal indeed very much Indian in test. I saw in Simon and her husband a warmth of old friends though we had met just on the same day. This indeed was a beginning of real dialogue for me.

After lunch she again took me for drive around the city and I further saw glimpses of Lyon as it was the only day available for me to see the city.

Next three days were quite busy with dialogues on various subjects. Though we could not obviously go to every place worth seeing especially the mountain where working classes once lived and waged their struggles and it is said that even Marx drew his inspiration from these struggles. But I saw what was possible in a day. I also saw from outside the Museum of cinema as its founders Lumier Brothers were from Lyon and their house has been turned into museum.

The dialogue sessions began from 6th July morning. These dialogues were quite informal as a group of people interested in particular subjects would sit on benches or on ground under the trees and start discussing, anyone volunteering to start. It was about humanity and its plight in the modern day world. This particular group which I joined on the morning of 6th was discussing recent Rio dialogue, the spring revolution in the Arab world and economic injustices.

I was asked to say few words on the Arab revolution. I looked at Siddhartha of Fire Flies Ashram, Bangalore he speaks French fluently as he was educated in Paris and had organized similar dialogue in his ashram also. I looked at him as I had joined the dialogue rather late and was unaware of the discussions going on. He explained to me briefly and asked me to speak on the Arab Democratic Revolution and what I thought of it and its future.

I said revolution was basically political, more than social and cultural and no one could predict its future as politics always depend very much on the context and not merely on ideology. This revolution is political to the core and did not involve socio-cultural and religious issue. Right now in Egypt and Tunisia religious forces have triumphed and secular forces had to contend with only a few seats. But one need not feel pessimistic as religious forces were suppressed under King Zainul Abidin as well as Hosni Mubarak and both were seen as American stooges.

But what gives us hope is that both Ikhwanul Muslimin and Annehda had to assure people of religious moderation and to avoid extremism. Surprisingly in Libya too, tribal and family loyalties proved stronger than religious extremism. For Arab masses tryst with secularism and modernity is not deep enough and would take quite sometime to strike roots. Moderate Islam is the best thing to happen in the given circumstances. The city T.V. Channel also interviewed me on the same question and I said as much in the interview.

I was one of the speakers in the afternoon session on humanity and universal values. As I said there were no formal presentations but a kind of round table discussion without round table.  In this session focus was on Tagore and was expected to say something about it though not necessarily confine to him. Tagore was undoubtedly a great poet, short story writer, painter, a composer and an eminent intellectual. His music is known as Rabindra music and is greatly respected even in Bangla Desh and his music is played daily from Bangla Desh radio.

He believed in universal values and championed these values through his creative works. He was far from narrow view of religion and said in his famous book Geetanjali for which he got Nobel that why do you seek God in temples. I see God in the labourers who break stone on the road in the simmering heat of May. You cannot miss God in them. Such was his sympathy for the poor and marginalized in the society and such was his view of human dignity we are talking about.

It was Tagore who called Gandhi 'Mahatma' and Mahatma in Sanskrit means great soul. And what made Tagore call Gandhi a great soul? He saw in Gandhi, more than himself, reflection of his (Tagore's) ideals. Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence and love has inspired many of our contemporaries Martin Luther King Jr. who, inspired by Gandhi, fought for rights of African Americans.

Gandhi said in his Hind Swaraj (Independence of India) that I fight against British colonialism but do not hate the Britishers. Fight against your enemy but do not hate him as human being. In your enemy you fight what is wrong in him, not against his humanity. He was great friend of British working classes. Gandhi's philosophy was based on deeper inner conviction. You cannot utter these words without such conviction.

Today most of us lack such conviction and without which we cannot change this world. Gandhi fought against narrow religious sectarianism all his life and laid down his life for his openness to other religious minorities, especially the Muslims. This angered a Hindu fanatic who shot him dead. To fight for rights of Muslims when they were being hated all around due to partition riots required nothing short of extraordinary courage of conviction. He was great indeed.

I also talked of Narendra Modi's Gujarat where more than two thousand innocent Muslims were butchered in the land of Gandhi. It is so easy to hate and kill and so difficult to love and save humanity. Everyone was seemed to deeply touched by what I said. A lady from South Africa was inspired to say Gandhi was great indeed and Tagore called him Mahatma as he himself was also a great man.

What we want in modern world was such openness towards all, especially towards minorities as in this globalised world economic immigration and political persecution has created more and more minority groups. Our world could never be better without many more Gandhis. In several other groups many other issues were discussed especially related to marginalized sections of humanity today like street children, education system, media, and economic disparities.

In fact more and more such dialogues are needed in many parts of the world.

An NGO in France has taken up this initiative and should be followed up in other places. The workers of this NGO were highly motivated and did excellent job. The best part of the whole exercise was that it was totally informal and without political heavyweights and no inauguration or concluding session. Everyone could speak without any air of once importance. What was more impressive was presence of large number of women who participated equally competently and with intellectual vigour.




Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


E-mail: csss@mtnl.net.in