Interview : Dr Karan Singh, President of ICCR
“Ultimately we have to regenerate, we need a spiritual renaissance”
Our guest this week is Dr Karan Singh, an illustrious son on India and torchbearer of Kashmiryat – he is son of the late Maharajah of Kashmir, but he radiates over the whole of India and internationally as scholar, philosopher, political figure (as Minister of Health in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, he visited Mauritius in the 1970s) and he has been President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Chairman of the India International Centre in New Delhi for several years now. He has written extensively on India and her problems, and goes round the world as ambassador of global consciousness, which is grounded in his conviction about the perennial relevance of Vedanta and its potential to bring peace and understanding in this beleaguered world. He gives us his views on a number of issues relevant to India but that can also impact the whole world, given that we are now a global village…
Mauritius Times: These are exciting times, you said in the course of the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the MGI last week. The Mahatma’s teachings, you added, can save humanity from self-destruction. But the socio-economic and political context, whether at the level of one individual country or globally, is different today than what it was during the years leading up to India’s Independence. One may therefore legitimately ask: Is the Mahatma relevant in today’s world?
Yes, a lot of progress has been achieved in the world since the Mahatma passed away 60 years ago. The world has changed tremendously, but of course the dangers are all there and I am not trying in any way to minimize the negative features. I am simply pointing out that, to my mind, Gandhi’s teachings still have relevance to the current human condition. The fear of nuclear conflagration and annihilation has receded somewhat after the Cold War, but there are still lots of nukes hanging around, and we have equally the threat posed by terrorist groups. The danger hasn’t entirely passed.
* Let’s address the issue differently: India, like so many other countries, is beset by acts of violence and terrorism — internally or at its borders. It does not look like the response to that challenge draws its inspiration from the thoughts or teachings of the Mahatma. Is that a mistake?
I do not think that’s a mistake; I personally think that when you are confronted with violence of that nature, the State has to act; otherwise, it would amount to abdicating its responsibility. The State should not initiate such action, but if you are confronted with terrorists and anarchists from outside of India, then they can’t be allowed a free rein. Otherwise, society will crumble.
* Perhaps the Mahatma would have advocated the same methods?
I frankly don’t know what he would have done. His own action took place in a different context, and it was directed against the British who, all said and done, did have certain democratic values. It (Gandhi’s action) worked with them… people often ask if it would have worked with Hitler? I am not sure it would.
* In other words, can we say that the Mahatma did not advocate non-violence in all circumstances?
No, I remember he did say somewhere that non-violence is not the weapon of cowardice. When Kashmir was attacked, he said: “We should repulse the attack.” I do not think he meant that we must remain non-violent in all circumstances. I think that in general his stress during the freedom movement was on non-violence. Let me point out that although we were not violent against the British, we were very violent against each other: millions of people lost their lives during the Partition. In a way Gandhi had a monumental victory over the British, but there was also a monumental failure in keeping the country together.
* But do you think that he would have been happy the way things have been developing in Kashmir?
Nobody is happy with that. People do not realize how it all began… You will have to read my autobiography to understand that. It began with the invasion by Pakistan, which has tried on at least four or five times to seize Kashmir, beginning with the tribal invasion in 1947 that led to a war. Then they did it again with those infiltrators in 1965 that led to a war. Next there was the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, and Pakistan tried it again with Kargil, which almost led to a war… So they keep trying forcibly to prize Kashmir away from India, but that is not acceptable. If only they would take a different tack and be friendly, we would all be much better off.
* If there is anything constant in Pakistan’s objectives, would you say that India is dealing with this matter in the most appropriate manner?
I think we are dealing well with it. At present there is no overt offensive except for the terrorist groups. People do not seem to realize that we have already lost half of the state to Pakistan although constitutionally that was part of my father’s territory. And it has now been divided into three regions: one controlled by India, another big part controlled by Pakistan, and a big part controlled by China, so it is a very complex situation. I would like to point out that we have not used force to get back territory which constitutionally belongs to us whereas Pakistan has continued to try… The present Pakistani government is making friendly noises and saying that it has nothing to do with these terrorists… But if you consider the horrible attack in Mumbai, I do not think it would have been possible without some overt assistance from Pakistan. In fact the Government of India has repeatedly accused Pakistan of waging a proxy war in Kashmir by providing weapons and financial assistance to terrorist groups in the region.
* To come back to the Mahatma: almost the entire world, the 99% as they call it, is not happy with the financial and political elites. At the same time it seems to have become just a ritual for the political elite to remember the Mahatma on his birth anniversary rather than really drawing inspiration from his guiding principles of truth. Do you think the Mahatma would have been comfortable with what obtains in India today, particularly in the Lok Sabha?
I am not a Gandhian, I have my own philosophy based on the Vedanta. So I cannot claim that I am a Gandhian in the sense that I wear Khadi all the time, or that I am vegetarian… We are talking about broad strokes, not specifics…In broad strokes, Gandhi wasn’t happy when India was partitioned. When we raised the independence flag, he was not even there, and I don’t think he would have been terribly happy even now. He was a unique personality. You would have thought that after the independence movement had reached its final climax, Gandhiji would be there, but he did not even attend the ceremony…
* I mentioned the guiding principles of truth of the Mahatma in the belief that you also drew inspiration from them. A brief on your political career indicates that you attempted to resign following an aircraft crash in 1973, but the resignation was not accepted. You finally resigned from a ministerial post and from the Indian National Congress in mid-1980. From where do you draw your inspiration then?
That is a very complex question. There is not really one source, but basically if I have to mention one source of my inspiration, it would be the Vedanta, which means the Upanishad that, to my mind, is the most powerful and evocative scriptures of Hinduism. But I have seen a lot of the world, I have travelled a lot. I am genuinely committed to interfaith… because I come from a Muslim majority state, and we have been worshipping at Muslim shrines ever since I was a child. We were also very close to the Sikhs; our family in fact rose to power because of the Sikhs. And I went to a Christian school first, so I have in fact lived an interfaith life. Secondly, Jawaharlal Nehru was my political guru and therefore his ideas — very significant and important, shaped by the post colonial period and the Cold War — have really moulded a lot of my thinking. We are moving into a new situation and I think that we need a change of consciousness now. I don’t think we can simply hark back to any particular one individual. Buddha was a very great person, so were Vivekananda, Gandhi, Nehru; there are so many iconic figures in the Indian pantheon as it were, and I think we have to be selective and draw what we can from them.
* History books contain the models that we ought to emulate as well as those we shouldn’t, but the elites, in particular the political elite, seem to be looking at the wrong chapters. In these circumstances, one therefore wonders whether Anna Hazare will succeed. What do you think?
Even in India we are going through a crisis, call it a civilisational crisis if you like. We have all these violent movements. We often have these repeated face-downs in Parliament, which is very serious because Parliament is the basis of our democracy. That is a very serious distortion in democracy, but I am not suggesting that everything is hunky-dory; I am saying that we are facing a very difficult situation.
As for Anna Hazare, I don’t think he will succeed. He has sort of tapped into the reservoir of Gandhian thought and so on. He may make some impact on the youth… I understand that his colleague Arvind Kejriwal had said that he is going to form a new political party and fight the next elections, and Hazare has distanced himself from that. This brings to my mind JP Narayan’s movement, which had a great impact at one time, but did not last for very long… Ultimately we have to regenerate, we need a spiritual renaissance in India now. Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Gandhi are figures on whom we can draw upon for that renaissance.
* Would that suggest that in the meantime Indians would have to wait for an implosion that would force society to start anew on a better moral footing?
That could be, but we hope it won’t. But the way things are going with global warming, various natural catastrophes, etc., we can never know, but one hopes one can avoid that. Our effort should in fact be directed towards avoiding any implosion, because if the implosion takes place it can turn out to be very serious.
Even the so-called developed countries are going through a period of turbulence. Look at the crisis Europe is going through. In America all these huge firms that were supposed to be unsinkable suddenly find themselves broke. You see, unbridled rapacious capitalism is certainly not the answer.
* Revving up national confidence, delivering on economic and social policies that are urgent and necessary to bring back the optimism which prevailed in India when growth had hit highs – does that look like a tall order to you in present-day India?
No, I think that it can be done. Of course we will need political stability and a set of policies. The Prime Minister has very recently adopted a new course, shall we say, not really a new course but something similar to the one course that created the first wave of liberalisation and growth. We have to wait and see how it works. There is a lot of opposition in the country to his policies, and we are going through a zone of turbulence at the moment. We hope we will snap out of it. A lot will depend upon the next general elections.
* But getting a standalone government which commands an unswerving majority at the Centre and that will be better able to tackle immediate issues facing India — rather than it being at the mercy of support from regional parties to turn the situation around – that equally seems elusive, doesn’t it?
Yes, certainly, a strong standalone government at the Centre will be a great help, but it’s true that this seems elusive. I think we are therefore destined for coalitions in the foreseeable future; we are in for an era of coalitions; the days of one-party rule are unlikely to return in the near future.
* The global image of the Indian economy has improved dramatically in the past decades. It looks like India is out to project its soft power through institutions like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas worldwide. What does a country like Mauritius get to benefit from that?
First of all, we have programmes of direct bilateral aid to Mauritius. That is a gain, I presume. For example, we have built and supported the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, the Rajiv Gandhi Centre and various other things that India is doing under the bilateral programme. Secondly, because there are so many people of Indian origin in Mauritius, the PIO card facilitates their travel to India for various reasons but also for rediscovering their links and their roots…
I must say that I am very impressed with Mauritius. I did not realise until I came here this time that education is entirely free up to the tertiary level, that transportation for students is also free, and so are your health services. That is a great achievement, and I do not understand why Mauritians are so modest about it. This is what every country is trying to achieve. Mauritius is doing very well on its own. It has deep cultural and economic links with India, and I think our bilateral programmes with Mauritius are very helpful to this country. Both of us will definitely gain from the strengthening of relations between our two countries.
* While it is true that India and Mauritius have maintained the most cordial of relations since long, stress points have emerged such as when India intended on a recent occasion to go back on the 1983 Indo-Mauritius double tax avoidance treaty. It even looked like that India was willing to go the whole hog to throw the baby away with the bathwater instead of dealing with specific abuses, if any…
I am not much of an expert in financial matters, but I understand that we have postponed that matter. Maybe we will rethink the whole thing. I can’t give any commitment regarding this matter as it is not my area of expertise. But I am sure we will come to a mutually acceptable solution.