KS INDIAN EXPRESS INTERVIEW,
AUG 5, 2007
Dr Karan Singh
THE IDEA EXCHANGE, THE INDIAN EXPRESS
Sunday, August 05, 2007
'If Om Namah Shivay is why I didn't become president, then it's certainly a great blessing'
Dr Karan Singh, son of the late Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, has had a long career in academics and politics. He has been associated with the Congress since 1967, when he became a minister in then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's cabinet. A scholar on Hinduism and the founder of the Virat Hindu Sammelan, Karan Singh is also active in promoting inter-faith understanding and heads the Rumi Foundation. He was in the news recently as a likely UPA candidate for the President's post. Karan Singh visited The Indian Express office recently, and in an interaction with staffers, spoke of why he thinks he lost the presidential race and his ideas on the Left and secularism. The discussion was moderated by Senior Editor (Politics) Varghese George
KARAN SINGH: I have a large number of different interests, for example, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), which I head. I have been trying to stress the importance of cultural diplomacy. I think there are three scenes of diplomacy: traditional political diplomacy, the Ganga, as it were; then there's economic diplomacy, the Yamuna; and there's the invisible Saraswati, which is cultural diplomacy. And India is certainly a cultural superpower - whether or not we become a political or economic superpower, we are a cultural superpower.
Another area of interest is the interfaith movement. For 30 years I have been president of what is called the Temple of Understanding, a worldwide interfaith movement, trying to bring people from different faiths and religions in harmonious dialogue. We had a SAARC interfaith conclave in April, which the prime minister inaugurated, and that is something to which I give a good deal of time.
My third area of interest is environment. I head an NGO called People's Commission on Environment & Development.
Then, of course, there is my role in politics. I'm deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha.
Most important of all, for me, is the spiritual quest. I've been talking about Vedanta around the world and I think that in life the inner spiritual quest is the most important single activity one can undertake.
VARGHESE GEORGE: You have been proposed for the president's post so many times but have not yet made it. Would you say you are a politician among philosophers and a philosopher among politicians?
Philosophy is not directly linked to the presidential election. But I've been in public life for 58 years. I started at 18, becoming head of state in J & K for 18 years under three different capacities. Then I joined Indira Gandhi's cabinet and was a minister for 10 years. I've also been in public life and in Parliament for 18 years, in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. I've also been an ambassador. In some ways, my whole career was a preparation, as it were, for presidency. If it had come my way, it was fine. If it hasn't, as you said, I'm a philosopher, and it doesn't really matter. I have all these other interests, none of which is connected to the presidency.
But why didn't I become President? I want to revisit that. Bardhan (CPI general-secretary A.B. Bardhan), a very senior man for whom I have high regard, said the first objection the Left had was that I am the son of a maharaja, and second, that I am the founder of the Virat Hindu Sammelan.
I'm not comparing myself, but Ashoka, too, was the son of a maharaja, Buddha was, Ram was. Second, from the age of 18, I've thrown my lot with democratic politics, spearheading the transition from feudalism to democracy. When the issue of (the abolition of) privy purses came up, I stood by the government in which I was a minister. I'm the son of a maharaja as a result of whose signature J& K is a part of India.
(As to the second objection) I have said I'm interested in Hinduism, I have a PhD on Sri Aurobindo, and I've been lecturing on Vivekananda and Aurobindo across the world. The Viraat Hindu Sammelan was set up during the time of the mass conversions in Meenakshipuram, in South India. So it was a sort of social reform movement to see why the unfinished social revolution in Hinduism has got stuck. The national movement itself flowed from Hindu social reform. Social reform is important, and it was simply a platform for me. I have also been working on the interfaith movement and I needed some organisation for that.
But Bardhan (and the Left) argue otherwise. I respect their mature judgment and I'm grateful to them for saving me from five years in what's by all accounts an extremely uncomfortable building. I stayed there when I was a governor, and I got the prized suite when I was just 21, and it's extremely uncomfortable. So I'm happy to be living in my house.
Lots of names came up, and you know more than I do that in the end just two names were left - Shivraj Patil and me. Then Karunanidhi came, and I understand that in the end he said, 'We prefer Dr Karan Singh.' So I was the last man standing, before the women took over.
D.K. SINGH: Did Mrs Sonia Gandhi speak to you about this?
Yes, on May 27 she said to me, 'I have sent two names - yours and one more.' It was obviously Shivraj Patil.
D.K. SINGH: How is it that after decades of unwavering loyalty to the party, you have been only shifted from one ceremonial post to another?
This time the party backed me till the end, but we counted without the redoubtable Mr Bardhan.
D.K. SINGH: But it was for yet another ceremonial post.
Maybe I'm good at taking ceremonial posts. I've held them all my life. For me influence is more important than power. I'm not interested in how many people I can appoint, how many contracts I can arrange. I'm interested in ideas and concepts. I believe in the power of the mind rather than the power of the file. I've lots of other things going, but I think I'd have made a very good president.
D.K. SINGH: Couldn't the government have involved you more in negotiating the Kashmir issue? All these roundtable conferences . . . but you were nowhere.
First, it's Jammu & Kashmir not Kashmir, remember that. Everyone is using Kashmir as a shorthand for Jammu & Kashmir and in fact many of our problems flow from this mistake. It's like calling U.K. England. England is not U.K. Kashmir is one unit in a five-unit state. I have deliberately avoided getting too much involved in J& K for a variety of reasons. Hitchcock once made a film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. I'm the man who knows too much (about Jammu & Kashmir).
PAMELA PHILIPOSE: In retrospect, do you feel that if your father had acceded to India right in the beginning, rather than waiting and weighing his options, the whole problem of Kashmir could have been avoided?
I don't think it could have been avoided, because in any case Pakistan was all set upon trying to grab Kashmir. You see he was in a very difficult position. It was an 80 per cent Muslim state, a multiregional state. It wasn't an easy decision. Ultimately it was the tribal invasion that forced his hand.
MINI KAPOOR: There is a sense that your father was overtaken by circumstances. Would you consider making his private papers public?
My father wasn't a great correspondent. I have already made public my correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru. Penguin has come out with the book as well, with the papers written between 1949 and 1964. Those papers reveal quite a lot and I have written my own autobiography, in which I have pointed out the situations that my father was facing. I don't think I really have any more state papers with me.
AMITABH SINHA: You mentioned you'd have made a very good president. Would you like to share with us your assessment of the present president?
No, no, I would not. We have to wait and see how she does.
PAMELA PHILIPOSE: On your role as the emissary of the Government of India to the King of Nepal, the criticism was that the Indian government completely misread the Nepal situation.
There should have been no flak. I was given an assignment by the prime minister. He gave me a letter addressed to King Gyanendra and a personal message, which I delivered.
I didn't have any individual diplomacy in that. It was just that they wanted to give a message to the king that it was essential to hand over power immediately to a leader chosen by the seven parties. At that time there was no mention of reviving the Parliament or anything else. That was India's assessment at that time. I took a letter and I had a meeting with the king and I came back and he did make a broadcast. That wasn't enough. Subsequently, he had to make a second broadcast. But I don't see why I should get any flak. In fact I was the only one who could at least get him to move.
PAMELA PHILIPOSE: Isn't it true that the assessment of the Indian government at that time was wrong?
That's another thing and the Government of India should get the flak for that, not me. I was not a minister in the government. I went there as an MP and as an individual.
SHEKHAR GUPTA: You have always been very open about being a practising Hindu. You even wear an Om Namah Shivay bracelet on your wrist. Did that stand in the way of your becoming president, or being considered worthy of the job of president by the Left?
I've never been apologetic about this. If Om Namah Shivay is the reason I didn't become president, then certainly it's a great blessing, because I won't exchange my Om Namah Shivay, as Arjun says in the Bhagwad Gita, "even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, what then for this land."
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Is the Left's position on (irreligious) secularism also the Congress view now?
I don't know. That's really for the party spokesman to answer. I'm not sure if atheism is an essential part of the ideology of the Left in India. But it was in other communist countries. As a guest of (Nikita) Kruschev, I asked, 'Mr General-Secretary, is it possible in your country to be a believer and also a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union?' He said, 'No, it is not. We do respect religion and other faiths but to be a member of the CPSU, you have to be an atheist.'Whether that applies to Left in India or not, I do not know. But once you give the Left the veto . . .
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Do you think the Left could now end up vetoing those who are religious even out of the membership of the Congress Working Committee?
It's the Left which vetoed, not the CWC. Shekhar, I feel relieved with this presidency thing, which has been hovering over my head for 10 years, out of my system. I'm free now. So I'm feeling a sense of relief.
AMITABH SINHA: By bowing to the wishes of the Left, do you not think that the Congress is taking its secularism a bit too far?
I don't think it's a question of secularism so much as it is of numbers. I don't know what you mean by 'too far', but, you know, I think in India secularism has come to mean something quite different from what it means in Europe. Secularism in India should not mean anti-religiousness. Secularism is what Gandhiji preached or what even Sarva Dharma Sambhav says, that is, equal respect for all religions. But the Left still looks at secularism from the absolutist point of view, as either pro- or anti-religion.
But this whole thing (the presidential race) was run by the Left. They first laid down the parameters. Prakash Karat clearly is the most powerful man in India today . . . and I didn't say woman!
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Let's look at the first 15-20 senior-most members of the Congress, those in the Union Cabinet and those in the CWC. How many can actually pass the new criteria of being secular, which is being irreligious. How many of them actually believe in some god in their private and professional lives?
None of them would qualify. I don't know if there is an atheist among them. Even Dr Manmohan Singh is a devout Sikh. And I think all the others have their own religious beliefs. In India 99 per cent of the people are religious. By census figures, people who write 'no religion' or 'agnostic' are less than one per cent. This time it was the question of numbers, which Congress did not have. So the support of the Left was needed. So it laid down the parameters and called the shots. But I don't think that the 'anti-religious' definition of secularism of the Left is sustainable.
VANDITA MISHRA: You spoke of secularism and respecting all religions. What will your party do to counter Narendra Modi in Gujarat?
Violence in the name of religion is something that cannot be accepted. So the party in Gujarat will do all it can. But I believe there is a social rift in the state along religious lines and the Congress must do what it can to bridge that. And then Modi is supposed to be a good administrator, so you have to balance that.
Amar Mahal Museum & Library
Amar Mahal Museum & Library, placed in a picturesque setting of Himalayas is an epitome of royal grandeur and magnificence...
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