JOURNAL


Had it not been for Sardar Patel

November 12th, 2013

From the Indian Express 11 November 2013

In view of the recent burst of interest in the media, I would like to recall the association that I was privileged to have, over six decades ago, with the great Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In fact, had it not been for the Sardar, I would have spent the rest of my life in a wheelchair. In my youth I had developed a problem in my hip and had been confined to a wheelchair for many months. When Gandhiji visited my father in August 1947, I insisted on sitting in at the meeting and my chair was wheeled in under the chinar tree at Gulab Bhavan Palace with its magnificent view of the Dal Lake.

When towards the end of October, after the Pakistani tribal invasion, we moved to Jammu on the advice of V.P. Menon, my chair was brought down in a station wagon. In November 1947, Sardar Patel visited Jammu and came to see us. When he learnt that I had been confined to a wheelchair for six months, he told my father that I should immediately be sent to America for treatment. Since I was an only child, my mother, of course, was very reluctant for me to go abroad. But my father realised that Sardar’s wise advice needed to be followed. As a result, arrangements were made to send me to New York for medical treatment, and it was due to surgery and prolonged treatment in the United States that I was able to walk again and finally resume a normal life, including playing tennis (doubles), badminton and golf. I, therefore, owe an undying debt of gratitude to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, without whose intervention I would certainly have spent my whole life under a severe handicap.

In 1949, relations between Sheikh Abdullah and my father, Maharaja Hari Singh, had become so estranged that it was no longer possible for both of them to continue to function in the state. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel finally took the decision to ask my father to leave the state “for a while” and appoint me as his regent, although in fact he never returned to the state. In this context, the Sardar invited us to come to Delhi, and at a meeting with my parents, broke the news to them. Sheikh Abdullah had insisted that my mother should also leave the state because she was active in helping the tens of thousand of refugees who were streaming into Jammu from the areas occupied by the Pakistani incursion, including Mirpur and almost all of the erstwhile Poonch Jagir, except the town.

This came as a severe blow to my parents, who were shocked that after acceding to India they were now being virtually exiled from the state. However, they had no option but to accept, and it was decided that my father would issue a proclamation appointing me as regent on June 20, 1949, soon after I had turned 18. Before then, while we were still in Delhi, Sardar Patel graciously invited me to spend a fortnight with him in May at the Dehra Dun circuit house. He was keeping poor health and was nursed with great affection by his daughter Maniben Patel. He would call for me from time to time, and I had the privilege of hearing his views on various matters, including, of course, Jammu and Kashmir, where he did not share Nehru’s very close and trusting relationship with Sheikh Abdullah.

Of late, Sardar Patel has come back into the political discourse. There is no question that among the amazing galaxy of leaders in his team, the Sardar and Nehru were the two closest political associates of Mahatma Gandhi. However, it is also clear that the decision to choose Nehru as the first prime minister was taken by Mahatma Gandhi himself. It was not as if it was a party decision; it was Gandhiji who, as the unquestioned leader of the freedom movement, took all the major decisions. He rightly realised that although the Sardar was senior in age and experience, he was much older and did not have the vitality, charisma and international prestige that the younger man enjoyed. Prescient as he was, he had decided well before Independence that Nehru was the one who would take over as prime minister when the British left, which was why Nehru became the head of the first interim government in coalition with the Muslim League in 1946, and remained prime minister from 1947 for 17 years until 1964, while the Sardar passed away in 1950.

The fact that Gandhiji chose Jawaharlal Nehru, first over Subhas Chandra Bose and later over Sardar Patel, in no way detracts from the stature of those two great leaders. Netaji’s heroic role in raising the Indian National Army and infusing a new revolutionary spirit into the freedom movement will always be remembered with pride. As far as the Sardar is concerned, he achieved a task the like of which had never before been attempted in world history. He succeeded in integrating over 500 Indian states and principalities into a united India with the consent and cooperation of the princes themselves, except in the cases of Hyderabad and Junagarh. The peaceful transition from feudalism to democracy laid the solid foundation of Indian unity, and this is an achievement for which the entire nation, regardless of party affiliation, will remain eternally indebted to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, rightly called the Iron Man of India.

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A film on my Vision and Beliefs

October 19th, 2013

A film on my vision and beliefs by filmmaker Raja Chouhury entitled “I Believe: Universal Values for a Global Society” can now be seen free online at Youtube.com and watched here as well.

I Believe: Universal Values for a Global Society

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Bollywood, Take Three

October 19th, 2013

‘Ship of Theseus’, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ and ‘The Light’ offer new ways of seeing.

From Indian Express 19 Sep 2013

I am not a frequent film goer and, in fact, see most of my films during long international flights. However, recently I had occasion to see three quite remarkable films in Delhi theatres. The first was the Ship of Theseus. This is a triptych of three apparently unconnected episodes, one dealing with a blind girl who has her eyes replaced; the other with a Jain monk who, on the verge of starvation, finally agrees to a liver transplant; and the third of a kidney transplant patient and his efforts to find the donor. All three episodes are beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted by a largely unknown cast. There are some striking aerial scenic shots, including some taken in Sweden. The blind girl, who, despite her disability, had taken to photography, finds herself disoriented when her sight is restored. The Jain monk goes through terrible suffering and deprivation because he refuses to take medicine based on animal-testing. The third episode deals with the response of a kidney transplant patient to the challenges he faces. It is only in the last five minutes that we learn the connection between these three episodes.

Incidentally, the Ship of Theseus refers to an ancient Greek paradox. If all the planks of Theseus’ ship are removed and replaced with new ones, and a new ship built out of the old planks, which one would be the original Ship of Theseus? This is a thought-provoking, nuanced film, and it is good to see that such previously niche films are now getting a national and even international audience.

The second film that I saw was Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a superb film that is more or less our version of Chariots of Fire. It presents the story of a great athlete, Milkha Singh, from his childhood to his final triumph in Pakistan. On the way, it gives us fascinating and often disturbing glimpses into the various episodes of his life, including the massacre in his village at the time of Partition, his short spell as a minor criminal, his joining the armed forces and subsequent training and, of course, his many brilliant running achievements in India and abroad. There is a fascinating interlude during which the Indian team visits Australia, including a memorable nightclub scene and a one-night fling with an attractive young Australian girl. The most amazing element is the brilliant acting of Farhan Akhtar. His performance is particularly remarkable because it seems that he trained for 18 months for this film. When he first appears, his physique is good but not extraordinary, and in the course of the film we can see his muscles growing and his entire body becoming that of a world-class athlete. He has recreated the character of Milkha Singh so realistically that Milkha himself is said to have been astonished. Although the film lasts three hours, it does not drag and, as in Ship of Theseus, the photography is excellent. The musical score is also effective, including lots of rock and country tunes from the West, which, being a rock addict myself, I particularly enjoyed.

The third film, though made on a more modest scale and panned by the critics, is also a gem. Called The Light., it is about one of my heroes, Swami Vivekananda. Beautifully portrayed by a handsome young man who looks strikingly like the Swami, it delivers the story of how, through the blessings of Sri Ramakrishna, Narendranath Dutta is finally transformed into Swami Vivekananda. The actor portraying Sri Ramakrishna is also outstanding, and the scenes between the two of them are memorable and full of spiritual resonance. Perhaps the most moving scene is in the court of the Raja of Khetri, where Vivekananda first walks out of the durbar hall in a huff where a dancing girl was performing. Then, when she sings the famous Surdas bhajan “Prabhuji mere avaguna chitt na dharo, Samdarshi hai naam teharo, chaho to paar karo (Lord, do not look upon my shortcomings because you are Samdarshi, one who looks upon good and evil, saint and sinner with an equal eye)”, hearing this, Vivekananda realises that he had acted in an unbecoming manner, and hastens back to the hall where the dancer has just finished the song. He blesses her, calls her “Mata” and asks forgiveness with folded hands for his earlier unthinking behaviour, at which point she falls at his feet sobbing uncontrollably.

The whole Chicago event has been very well recreated, including his famous first address “Sisters and Brothers of America”. His return and his passing away at the young age of 39 have also been shown, as well as his earlier travels on foot as a penniless sanyasi throughout the length and breadth of India, including the famous swim to the rock off Kanyakumari, where his massive statue now stands. The music in this film is particularly good, and whoever has sung for Vivekananda’s part has excelled.

The film reflects Vivekananda’s deep social commitment to the alleviation of poverty that pained him intensely, and his rejection of regressive social taboos.

The important point to note is that, in all these three films, there are no famous billionaire actors or actresses, no Michael Jackson-style ensemble dances now known by the generic term Bollywood dances; no gratuitous violence, except in the Partition scene, and no ridiculous episodes that are becoming increasingly common in our cinema. It is a delight after many years to have been able to see three such films in a row; the last time I recall doing so was with Dosti, Pyaasa and Bandini several decades ago.

The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP

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Rajya Sabha remains relevant

October 19th, 2013

I was shocked to see the article “Down with the Upper House” (Sep 10) by NV Krishnakumar….read full text here:

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A Colonial Hangover: some thoughts on “Section 377”

July 8th, 2009

“The Indian Penal Code as it criminalizes consensual sexual acts of adults in private is violative of Article 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.”  These words in the Delhi High Court judgment of 1st July, 2009 have put the whole position clearly and unambiguously.  Indeed, it is surprising that an outmoded colonial law introduced during Victorian times should have remained on our Statute Book for so many years since independence.   The motivation for the law by our former colonial masters was clearly to prevent any physical contact between the young British civil and military officers who came out to administer India and the ‘natives’, and it was repealed in the United Kingdom decades ago.  We   are perhaps the last democratic country in the world to have decriminalized gay sex, and now join 126 countries around the world that have already done so. This will come as a long awaited relief to a particularly vulnerable section of society which, even if it is pegged at 2% of our population against the generally accepted figure of 10%, would involve over 20 million people.

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The judgment has sparked off a lively debate on television which, along with the printed media, has been largely supportive.  Some points need to be clarified.  The judgment in no way propagates gay sex; all it does is to ensure the fundamental right of equality, non-discrimination and personal liberty guaranteed to every Indian citizen under our Constitution.  It is also important to note that it does not decriminalize non-consensual sex or pedophilia, which will remain cognizable offence subject to severe punishment.

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The argument that some religious leaders are against the judgment cannot become a deciding factor.  I recall that when in the early 50s, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar piloted the Hindu Court Bill through Parliament, there were a large number of Hindu leaders including some Shankaracharyas who were strongly opposed to it, as was the then President.  Nonetheless, they pushed it through, thereby ensuring that 800 million Hindus in India today live in a much more equitable and fair society than heretofore.  Similarly, all Christian denominations are not against gay sex.  The Roman Catholic Church certainly is, and it is also against contraception, but that does not mean that we should stop our family welfare and condom distribution programmes. As far as the Muslim community is concerned, the conservative leaders will certainly take a rigid attitude, but younger people are likely to be less dogmatic, and if one looks at the great Sufi tradition within Islam, we find that they celebrated love, both human and divine, in all its multifaceted glory.

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The argument that this is against nature is also not viable.  To begin with, for the gay or LGBT community, their particular lifestyle is apparently as natural as heterosexual relationships are to the rest of society.  Also this argument of nature can be pushed to extremes.  It is not ‘natural’ to wear clothes; or to eat cooked food. Nature is much more varied and inclusive than many realize, and alternative sexuality has been found in almost all cultures, ancient and modern, around the world.

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It is often forgotten that some of the greatest artists and musicians, rulers and conquerors, philosophers and poets in history have been gay or bisexual.  Same-sex love formed the basis of the ancient Greek civilization that produced such great thinkers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who laid the philosophical foundations of Western civilization.  In India also, the Kama Sutra clearly mentions same-sex love in a very matter of fact manner, and the Khajuraho sculptures depict it graphically. In our magnificent iconography, the ultimate integration of the masculine and feminine archetypes is found in the great concept of Shiva Ardhanareshwara, while in the broader philosophical context, the Vedanta believes that the divine resides in all human beings, in which case discrimination on any basis including sexual preference is unacceptable.
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To conclude, therefore, one can say that the historic judgment of the Delhi High Court marks a positive step in widening the scope of our inclusive democratic structure, and rescuing millions of citizens from the shadow of an archaic and outmoded colonial legacy.

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Till fire doth us part

July 8th, 2009

The Bhagavadgita has a very cool and unsentimental approach to death.  In chapter two, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna - “For one who is born death is assured; for one who dies rebirth is assured; therefore, for what is inevitable, you should not grieve”.  However, human relations are not as simple as this advice may sound.  In life we go through multiple experiences with varying degree of intimacy.  The husband and wife relationship is the closest physically, emotionally and spiritually, in a way symbolizing the union of male and female as in the unique figure of Shiva Ardhanarishwara.  Recently my wife departed during the 60th year of our marriage.  Having wedded when we were teenagers, we virtually grew up together and had become an integral part of each other’s lives.  As I watched my elder son light the funeral pyre, it struck me sharply that fire defined our relationship 60 years apart.  We were married by walking seven times around sacred fire, which was, as it were, witness to the union.  This time again fire was present and witnessed her departure.

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In the Vedic tradition, fire has always been held to be sacred, and Sri Aurobindo calls his translation of the Vedic verses ‘Hymns to the Sacred Fire’.  In the Vedas themselves there are many hymns directed towards Agni which was considered to be the interlocutor between the human and the divine, and which, through the Yagna, conveyed human aspirations to the higher power.  In several western civilizations also fire has occupied a very special place.  We may recall how the brave Prometheus brought down the fire from heaven to humanity, for which the jealous Gods have punished him with eternal torment and torture.  Also, the Zoroastrians still have their fire temples.  The discovery of fire by early humans in fact marked a major milestone in the evolution of human civilization.

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With its dual quality - benign as well as destructive - fire was always cherished.  To quote a Vedic hymn to Agni from the Rigveda:

“Virtuous Agni, we set thee, a Sage, around us as a fort, thee triumphant in thy colour, day by day, destroyer of the treacherous foe.  Through Agni man finds prosperity, nourishment from day to day, glory and greatest pride in heroes.  To thee, Agni, dispeller of night, we come with prayer day by day, offering thee our obesience.” (Rigveda VI.44)

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Shiva Nataraja carries the fire in one of his hands and is often depicted dancing within a fiery nimbus.  The famous Isha Upanishad closes with the verse - “O Agni, lead us by the fair path that we may reap the good we have sown.  Thou knowest all our deeds.  Lord, destroy all crooked going sin in us.  We salute Thee with our words again and again.”

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Let us also keep in mind that the outer fire is but a symbol of the spiritual flame that burns in the deepest recesses of our hearts, whether or not we are aware of it, and that fanning the spiritual spark into the blazing fire of divine realization is the true, deeper purpose of our existence in this time life dimension.  However, there are lower dimensions of fire also, as in the insatiable desire for worldly possessions, or negative aspects such as emotionally disturbing manifestations of anger and revenge.   Robert Frost has a small but evocative prose entitled Fire & Ice.  It goes like this -

Some say the world will end in fire
some say in ice.
From what i’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
Though if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
to say that for destruction ice
is also great and would suffice.

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On our decision as to which dimension of fire we choose, will depend the contours of our inner life.

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In Memory of our beloved Yasho Rajya Lakshmi

June 8th, 2009

Our Beloved Yasho Rajya Lakshmi Lord Shiva, one of whose appellations is Mahakaleshwar, the Great God of Death, has decreed that my beloved wife Yasho should move on in the sixtieth year of our marriage. We wedded as teenagers and virtually grew up together. It has been a unique blessing for me to have partaken of her love, generosity and compassion. She departed surrounded by her loving family including all six grandchildren. While we mourn her passing, we wish to celebrate her vibrant and luminous life as will her numerous friends and well-wishers around the world. As the Upanishad says “May her journey into light be auspicious”.

Karan Singh

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Mumbai Terror Attacks - Needed: a mature and wise response

January 5th, 2009

29 December, 2008 - Published in The Asian Age

The Prime Minister’s statement that nobody wants war, echoed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani, has come not a day too soon. I have been aghast at the manner in which, over the last few weeks, a virtual war hysteria has been worked up, mainly through television news channels. Our media is certainly one of the most dynamic anywhere in the world, and we are proud of this, but in this particular instance our anchors, many of whom are personal friends, seem to be trying to outdo each other in war like programmes. One of the straw polls purported to show that 70 percent of Indians were in favour of war with Pakistan, while in others, various retired defense personnel have held forth upon the options before us and generally supported ‘surgical strikes’ which could well lead to an all out war.

Nothing can assuage the terrible trauma caused by the fidayeen attack in Mumbai which cost so many precious lives, Indian as well as foreign, and held the nation in horrifying thrall for three days. No words are too strong to condemn this gruesome attack and certainly we have every right to press that the perpetrators and planners of this event, all of whom undisputedly belong to Pakistan, should be brought to book. It is also true that Pakistan’s attempt to deny any responsibility, direct or indirect, for the attack is disappointing and extremely irritating. This said, however, we need to maintain a sense of balance in our response. We should certainly try and mobilize international opinion in our favour, and the UN Resolution has been an important achievement in this regard. The United States, Great Britain, Russia and even China have supported us in our insistence that Pakistan must act to dismantle the terror groups function from its soil. However, talk of an all out war or for “surgical strikes” that could well spark of a massive conflagration, is unwise.

Do the people who talk of war have any idea of the sort of consequences that could flow from an all out conflict between two nuclear and missile armed countries? Do they have any idea of the unimaginable risks of such a conflict which could destroy large parts of both the countries, jeopardize millions of lives and destroy all our efforts for economic growth and poverty eradication? Does the chatterati in Delhi really grasp the outcome of what could result from an all out war between India and Pakistan? Regretfully, it seems to me that the answer to all these questions is in the negative.

The irony is that the terrorist infrastructure has become even more of a threat to Pakistan itself than to India. The situation in that country, particularly in Baluchistan and the Frontier Provinces is spinning out of control and the Taliban are threatening not only Kabul but also Peshawar.  It is they, not India, who are threatening the sovereignty of Pakistan. In such a situation, one should hope that instead of a media war between us, Pakistan would take urgent and effective steps to rein in the terrorists operating from their soil. Without going into details, the UN Resolution specifically names four persons in Pakistan whom it holds responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attack. We should press that these four should be tried in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, so that the broader infrastructural details can be unraveled. If there is no response from Pakistan at all, we could consider a break of diplomatic relations and also some economic sanctions, but the loose talk of war going around needs to be firmly checked.

Finally, it needs to be restated that if India is to attain is full stature as a world power it will have to sort out its problems with its neighbours, particularly Pakistan. As I said in my intervention in the Rajya Sabha debate, the peace process should, under no circumstance, be jettisoned despite a serious set back. In the final analysis, the destiny of India and Pakistan remains intertwined, and it is only if we are able to build up a harmonious and mutually supportive relationship that both countries can hope to flourish in the years and decades ahead.

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26/11: “Resign Mr Patil, said Karan Singh”

December 11th, 2008

From the Indian Express in the past week:

“Senior Congress leader Karan Singh’s combative posture at the recent Congress Working Committee meeting took many of his colleagues by surprise. While many CWC members and those especially invited to the meeting like Union ministers Kamal Nath and Kapil Sibal were training their guns at Shivraj Patil on the plea of accountability, Karan Singh was reportedly blunt: “Mr Shivraj Patil, I think you must resign and leave it to the Prime Minister and the Congress President to decide whether to accept it or not.” While his tough stance did reflect the mood in the party, the style of delivery did take many by surprise.”

You can see this article at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/resign-mr-patil-said-karan-singh/395452/.

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A Historic Election

November 7th, 2008

I have been following the U.S. Presidential Elections now for exactly 60 years. In 1948, as a boy, I was in a New York hospital during the Truman/Dewey’s election, and in Washington for President Truman’s inaugural parade in January 1949. Since then I have followed each American election with much interest. This year’s one has, by far, been the most exciting and one of the most historic in American history. That a man of African descent, Barrak Husein Obama, could overwhelmingly win the election to the highest office in the United States is itself an astounding event, given the appalling history of cruelty and discrimination against blacks for centuries.

Each century produced one outstanding President, George Washington in the eighteenth, Abraham Lincoln in the nineteenth and Franklin Roosevelt in the twentieth. Will Obama be the one in the twentyfirst? Here is a man who comes across not only as an eloquent and mesmerizing speaker but as one possessing maturity, compassion and steadfastness. I was particularly impressed that at the height of the battle he took fortyeight hours off to visit his dying grandmother in Hawaii.  His campaigns, first against Hillary Clinton within the Democratic Party and then with Senator McCain were a model of how such exercises should be organized.  Obama never once lost his temper or raised his voice, and reacted with amazing grace to the often vicious attacks and smear campaigns of the opposite camp. Apart from the racial aspect, which has for so long bedeviled America, there are some other aspects of this campaign that are of special interest.

Firstly, although Senator Obama comfortably outspent his opponent, his funds have been mostly made up of small donations from a very large number of people. Unfortunately in India we have not adopted this practice, as a result of which huge funds for our elections are far from transparent. Indeed this whole question of funding our elections is one that needs closer attention. The Election Commission has tried to make some improvements, but they do not seem to have demonstrably changed the situation on the ground. Perhaps the Obama model could be attempted in India also.

Another point that impressed me was the manner in which, for two whole months, both the candidates crisscrossed the country, speaking directly to people from all walks of life, addressing huge public meetings as well as small Town Hall and village square gatherings. This requires each candidate to answer questions and to spell out clearly the policies that they intend to adopt. Here again, while our MLAs do go virtually from door to door, senior leaders from all parties are confined to large public meetings where they cannot be directly questioned. Perhaps a series of television debates could help fill this gap.

Senator Obama represents a major transition in American leadership in terms of demography, race and public participation. The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, and therefore to see a person of such caliber being elected in these very troubled times is a matter of satisfaction far beyond the boundaries of his own country. Without going in the specifics of Indo-US relations, which will need a separate in-depth analysis, it is worth noting that as a key player in the emerging global society India has a vested interest in the U.S. projecting a progressive and visionary leadership. Obama’s pro-poor, inclusive agenda is in line with our own approach, as is the pattern of a mixed economy that is emerging from the debris of the global financial meltdown.

I recall the thrill that my generation felt when Kennedy was elected President way back in 1960. I was attending a Governors’ Conference at Rashtrapati Bhavan when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru got a message and made the announcement. Now, almost half a century later, there is again a thrill of anticipation and hope generated by Obama’s victory as the President of the second largest democracy in the world. With Indo-American relations having strengthened over the years, including a strategic relationship, one can look forward to a new dimension in which our two nations could together become a major force for peace and harmony in a troubled world. An aggressive unipolarity must give way to a more inclusive and enlightened paradigm that can effectively meet the challenges of climate change, global warming, terrorism and poverty elimination that are faced by the emerging global society.

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© Copyright 2008, Dr. Karan Singh