A global citizen

 The Nation - Sunday, February 15, 2004

India's Karan Singh, appearing in Bangkok as part of the World Peace Foundation series of talks, foresees a brotherhood of shared responsibility.
  Dr Karan Singh is not an individual you can define in a hurry. How can you encapsulate a man who was the maharaja of India's beleaguered Kashmir state, a cabinet minister and an ambassador and remains a writer, a philosopher, an educator and a peace advocate?

It was in the last role that the renowned Indian statesman came to Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University as a guest speaker for the World Peace Foundation, whose series of illuminating talks continue.

Sharing the foundation's rotating podium with Nobel prize-winners, Singh rose to the occasion with articulate observations on peace and spirituality.

Clad in his trademark cap and trouser suit, he drew on insights from an illustrious four-decade career that, if rumours are to be believed, could well culminate in his becoming India's next president.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Dr Singh.

What is the role of the International Peace Foundation in this period of political and social turbulence?

Any organisation which seeks to contribute to peace is welcome today. This is the first time that the foundation is holding a forum like this. At this particular period of time, when fundamentalism is growing in every religion, the importance of peace as a prerequisite for harmony is more important. The foundation does not have placards like the "peaceniks" wave, but works on a more sophisticated level.

Are you worried by the slow but sure degradation of peace processes all over the world?

After the Cold War, there was an uneasy peace, but the peace dividend has not been great. However Europe was never so peaceful and united as it is now. But there are conflicts in Bosnia, Africa, western Asia, not to mention my own home-state of Kashmir in India. International terrorism has spread its tentacles everywhere. There is a concern for peace everywhere, but I won't take a doomsday view.

Are you upset by the political turmoil in Kashmir?

 It's a complicated issue and not easy to define. However, after the recent South Asian summit, the prerequisites seem to have been set for a breakthrough. I left Kashmir as the Crown Prince when I was 18 years old, so I'm not unduly sentimental about it. I've been living in New Delhi for more than three decades now. I moved to national politics and am now a global citizen. I never look back at the past and am very positive about the future. After all, Asia is totally "free" for the first time, after nearly 500 years.

Can you comment on the links between India and Thailand?

We have a lot of historical, religious, cultural links. The recent free-trade agreement has brought the two countries closer on the economic and business fronts. India can learn a lot from Thailand, which has controlled its population very well, and also curbed Aids. And then, of course, there's the field of tourism, where they have excelled.

You were India's first tourism minister, weren't you?

Yes, in 1967. Tourism is today the largest industry in the world, linking the world and promoting global understanding. What I love most are the outstanding temples in both countries, which have attracted tourists from around the world. I'm particularly proud of the three temples I myself built in Kashmir, Pondicherry in southern India and Virginia in the US. I'm a devotee of Shiva, and these temples portray Shiva in his cosmic dance pose, as Nataraja. The Pondicherry temple has Shiva in a pyramid, which is a unique amalgam of two cultures.

You are also noted as an educator.

I'm the vice chancellor of Delhi's well-known Jawaharlal Nehru University, which I enjoy. In fact I'm very happy that on this trip to Thailand, I'm speaking at two prestigious universities - Chulalangkorn and Khon Kaen. I feel that our greatest challenge today is to develop our youth as integrated human beings in a harmonious society. The inward sadhana [growth] and outward integration with society must combine. Information, knowledge and wisdom are what our youth must strive for. The former two qualities can help to put the youngsters on top, but the latter are rare to achieve.

Is it rare because of the worldwide religious unrest?

Possibly. A churning is going on everywhere. In India, the biggest debate is about the "saffronisation" of religion and the rewriting of history. Faith and religion are important if they are interpreted in a universalist manner.

Tell us about your writer's side.

I've been writing for four decades - poetry, philosophy, fiction. One of my novels, "Mountain of Shiva", was made into a TV series. My autobiography is well knowm, as also is my book on Hindusim.

What are your other interests?

I practise Hindustani classical music, but also enjoy rock music! I like everyone, from Billy Joel to Abba, the Dire Straits, Pet Shop Boys, Enigma. I read a lot, especially books on philosophy. I also enjoy my new role of speaker and communicator, where I travel around the world and meet people from different cultures and environments. I talk on everything, from the holy Vedantas to world peace to the environment.

What role has your family played in your growth?

A sizeable role. My wife [a member of tragedy-stricken Nepalese royal family] has many social-welfare projects, especially with handicapped children. She has accompanied me everywhere. She was 13 years old and I 19 when we married! We celebrated our golden wedding anniversary recently. Our daughter Jyotsana has a doctorate in philosophy, and our two sons, Vikramaditya and Ajatshatru, manage two palace hotels in Himachal Pradesh.

If you looked back at your life, what would you change and of what are you most proud?

One can't change anything, which is why I only look forward. I'm proud of the three Nataraja temples I built, and also of my museum of paintings and [nearly 20,000] books in Kashmir.

As someone who has been at the helm of affairs for so many years, what is your recipe for keeping the world together?

Whether it's a world bonded by strife or peace, there's no "recipe". Both are real, both make an impact, and everyone has a role to play. If we want a world of peace, every person has to work hard at creating it.

And the future?

As an elected member of parliament for so many years, I have an active role to play even today. I have my plate full, believe me.


Lekha J Shankar

The Nation