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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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Mrs. Shiela Gujral

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Global Conference on "Building a Worldwide Movement for Democracy"

Inaugural Address by Mr.I.K. Gujral Former Prime Minister of India New Delhi, February 14, 1999 at 1630 hrs

Mr.Carl Gershman; Mr.Rajesh Shah; Dr.Pai Panandikar
Fellow Democrats, Distinguished Guests Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

May I echo with added warmth, the welcome that the Prime Minister of India has just extended to you. It is indeed a privilege that this global meet is taking place here in Delhi when we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of our Republic, and looking forward to the next millennium with hope and commitment.

Your participation and deliberations, I am sure, will be very helpful in adding such thoughts and ideas as would further strengthen the movement the world over. It is gratifying that this Conference is being co-hosted by the world’s greatest and largest democracies as they have been described. The United States has been a strong pillar of democracy over the past two centuries. In turn, the genius of India, through the millenia has been accommodation of plurality. Despite hiccups such as both societies may have experienced, each has remained steadfast in its ultimate commitment to the democratic ideal.

It is, therefore, not merely with hope but also with confidence that I assert that notwithstanding some distressing aberrations that may have evoked some debate in recent times, India’s heart is sound and it will not deviate from the democratic path.

As we stand on the doorstep of a new millennium, whose first light is now only a few months away, I reflect on the century that is just about to pass. My thoughts invariably go back to the time when over fifty years ago the subjugation and humiliation of many long centuries ended and our country re-discovered the dignity of freedom. This was a moment surcharged with history and emotion, a moment which Jawaharlal in immortal words said, "comes but rarely when an age ends and when the soul of a nation long suppressed, finds utterance."

As this august gathering would recall, end of colonial era in this sub continent contributed to liberation of a vast number of countries and people in Asia, Africa and Latin America from the yokes of imperial powers.

Here, let me share with you the saga of our struggles that had to cope with both political and economic adversities. The ravages of colonialism and feudalism had combined to devastate the land, leaving it an economic basket case, incapable even of feeding itself. We would struggle with famine and starvation for the next two decades, until the Green Revolution took root here. But at that time even agriculture was a sustenance, an hand to mouth affair. Barely five percent out of a total population of 350 million were literate. Most Indians remained entrapped in the ignorance, poverty and mental slavery that came to be ingrained over the past centuries of serfdom. For the vast majority of India’s teeming millions, freedom was experienced, if it was experienced at all, only as a far removed theoretical concept.

From these unpromising beginnings we come to the present time. Over these years we have suffered more than our fair share of misfortune, to which we have generously added our own human blunders and wasted opportunities. Yet, few will deny that the face of democratic India has been transformed in the fifty years since independence. It is true that much more could have been achieved than has, but my purpose here is not to list a catalogue of our successes and failures. The root question is this - Why is it that our India, despite the many burdens and misfortunes that have steadfastly dogged her since her birth. And how is it that this poor, unlettered, calamity prone land has remained a free, democratic and law based society whilst most others amongst our fellow travellers have fallen by the wayside? What is it about us, what great quality or heavenly favour that allows India’s one billion people today the luxury of taking freedom and democracy for granted?

After all, following India’s independence, nearly a hundred other nations also won their freedom, most of them in circumstances which were more promising than those of India. Yet none of these newly independent countries were able to safeguard their democratic freedoms. Whether one considers Nigeria or Ghana or Kenya amongst the larger nations of post colonial Africa, or Indonesia or Burma or North Korea here in Asia; whether it is far away Latin America or our very own neighbourhood of the South Asian subcontinent, the fact of the matter is that virtually every newly independent country in every continent has had to grapple, in some form or another, with extended periods of dictatorship, absolute rule or what in the current fashion was termed as ‘guided democracy’. Very few nations have had the long and relatively faultless record of democracy that India does; certainly none have enjoyed the luxury, as we have begun to do in India today, of taking our democracy and our democratic way of life for granted.

To what do we owe this unique and enviable situation? This is a question to which there can be no unambiguous or categorical answer. This subject, by its very nature, is as much a matter of personal interpretation and conviction as it is of clinical, scientific analysis. Yet if we want to discuss the character and roots of democratic India, this question is a basic one, addressing as it does the very foundations of our nationhood; it is a question which each of us in India has been reflecting upon, particularly while looking at our achievements and short falls during the 50th year of our Republic.

May I share with you my conviction that the strength and durability of India’s democracy has much to do with the principles which steered our freedom struggle and the ideals we followed on the road to our independence. Those of my generation who were privileged enough to participate in it, fondly remember how Ganghiji’s inspiration transformed a fight against colonial domination unto something much larger than a mere political struggle - we felt ourselves drawn into the current of a profound moral crusade whose aim really was to reinstate that timeless and universal justice which is each and every humans’ due.

Under Gandhiji’s stewardship the Indian freedom struggle became part and parcel of a wider social reform movement directed at redressing the cruel injustices of our traditional social order. How could we deny dignity and social justice to millions of our own fellow countrymen, torment our lower castes and inflict cruelty upon cruelty upon our womenfolk, how could we perpetrate the vilest injustice upon our own people and still pretend to seek dignity and equality for ourselves? In whose name after all were we fighting for freedom? Could we ever hope to overthrow the external tyranny while all these internal tyrannies remained untouched? Mahatma Gandhi provided the answers. And so the battle of freedom was joined, not for the sake of the elites, but in the name of the poorest and most deprived of India’s downtrodden masses.

Mahatma Gandhi, as is well known, placed means before ends. The struggle he devised was one that renounced violence and which drew its strength and sustenance from the sheer power of principle. To confront all the might and pomp of the largest and most powerful Empire known to man, Gandhiji summoned, from deep within the heart of the Indian tradition, the moral tenets of Truth and Non-violence. Virtue would be our only weapon. And so we plunged into the struggle, convinced that we were engaged as much in pursuing justice for India, as we were pursuing Justice in the abstract. This idealism would carry power and moral force enough to make the liberation of India a foregone conclusion.

So was it that Independence Day, 1947, brought us something much more than a transient, technical freedom. We learnt, or rather I should say re-learnt, the way of peace, to shun violence, to have regard for the peaceful approach and to keep faith in peaceful means. We learnt that equity in society was a moral imperative and our own enlightened self interest demanded that we practice equality and have special consideration towards the poor and underprivileged. Such a society, one which acts in defence of its weakest, which values equality, which adopts non violence as a way of life, a society which upholds the truth and which acknowledges the supermacy of moral force, such a society will always be blessed as a liberated, open democratic society.

This is why, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this address, India has made a success of its democracy. We hitched our wagon to the star of natural justice and let it take us where it would. It took us, as it always does, to liberation. As long as we in India keep in mind the lessons of our freedom struggle, the wisdom we learnt at the footsteps of Gandhi and Nehru, as long as we hold true to this high tradition, our India will remain a free democratic society.

While looking at the future, our Republic wishes to sustain the humanistic approach. Our own scriptures tells us that entire humanity is but a single family. Therefore we wish to sustain our faith in the idea of a global brotherhood to which all human society belongs. We recognise the equal and inviolate dignity of every human being.

A couple of months back, thanks to the UNDP, some 36 countries of East-Asia and Asia-Pacific had assembled in Seoul to take note of challenges and uncertainties of the coming millennium. We had asked ourselves as to why it was that the advent of the Twenty-First Century was not generating the same excitement as the dawn of the Twentieth Century had? Why is it that the humankind today is not flushed with similar excitement? In the Century that is now about to pass out, we had seen the electricity in the air and the new streams of thought and belief competing for the minds of men and women. The idealism of the age was all the time generating many new and what were regarded then as subversive ideas - socialism, the abolition of slavery, the vote for women. Every day brought in fresh challenges to the established order as thinkers and politicians dreamt of ways to build the perfect society, liberated from divisions of class, creed and even of national boundaries. Meanwhile, the economy too was being revolutionized as inventions such as the railroad, the internal combustion engine, electric power, telegraphy followed one upon another in a steady, unremitting stream. Everyday, the border dividing the humanly possible from the impossible was shifting, and in favour of the former. Everyday some revolutionaries dreamt of transplanting Utopia and bringing it from heaven to earth. The innocence and vigour of the age was such that one could only quote Byron on the French Revolution, "Blessed was it in that dawn to be alive, but to have been young was very heaven."

May I with all respect say that now the prospect of the new millennium appears by comparison, lackluster and full of doubts. There is little in terms of excitement or anticipation. A counter revolution has overtaken the revolution and a drab orthodoxy has come to prevail. Perhaps this fatigue is the result of the stupendous achievements of mankind this century, one in which man has been to the moon and back, human life expectancy has doubled, and the foundations of world government have been laid. Perhaps these are achievements that cannot be repeated every hundred years, and mankind requires some rest and reflection before moving on. Whatever the reason, the imminent arrival of the new millennium has done little to evoke the prospect of a better world, exploring new frontiers of human capability. The new millennium is evoking, if anything, images of depression, conflict, ethnic hatred, fratricide, war.

This sombre mood, to a large extent, is reflected in the economic situation around us. The economic crisis that engulfed some dynamic economies of Asia is today very nearly a year and a half old. Democratic Thailand was the first to catch the flue, when in June 1997 its foreign exchange reserves evaporated, forcing the authorities to abolish the dollar - Baht peg and leave their currency at the tender mercy of the world’s turbulent financial markets. Till this point of time, Thailand had been the fastest growing economy in the world, with average growth rates in excess of 8% per annum for most the previous decade.

Another Democracy - South Korea, had also had to suffer this affliction. Few of us could believe that South Korea, just recently admitted into the OECD, with its huge GDP of US$ 480 billion, and matching foreign exchange reserves was so vulnerable to any such economic decline. All of us know and admire Korea for its stunning economic performance which saw a hungry, war ravaged nation transform itself, in little over a generation, into a full fledged industrialized state. But the force of the economic typhoon was such that in the closing months of 1997, the Korean Government, unable to fully roll over it short term obligations and fend off attacks against the currency, the Won, found itself with no option other than becoming a ward of the IMF.

After striking Korea, the virus rapidly spread to other democracies throughout the East and South East Asia with Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Phillipines most severely affected, by an unstoppable, domino like collapse.

The Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998 is most starkly symbolized by the re-emergence of the first visible signs of hunger and malnutrition seen in Asia after a long time.

While we have assembled here to look at the future of democracy, we cannot avoid asking ourselves the question as to why this has happened and why to the democratic countries alone. Would it be possible to further the cause of democracy in societies which are being pushed back to an era of deprivation and poverty?

In posing these questions I am highlighting issues that I think are important, I have no desire to dishearten or depress you all. I am an optimist at heart. Ultimately, the human situation is governed by the human mind, and there are no boundaries on the mind. Technology, a product of human thought, testifies this fact.

Here I wish to take note of the great contribution of the UNDP has been that it did not fight shy of questioning the received wisdom of the age to lay forth new ideas, approaches and thinking. And may I say that we have never been in greater need of such new thinking than we are today.

The United Nations which has long stood as a symbol of ‘one world’, is, however, failing to give this symbolism any real shape or substance in times of hardship and governance. Perhaps the UN cannot be a world government until there is an all inclusive world community mature enough to feel the need for and will to work for a world government. Hopefully this will come in the 21st century when the world will be woven together.

It is important for us to keep in mind various socio-economic pressures that are confronting the third world countries in getting a fair deal in the new world order. Recently, I had the privilege of addressing a symposium on ‘Human Rights and Poverty’ in France. We collectively took note of the fact massive poverty all over the world is negation of not only the human rights but also of democracy.

We have, therefore, to build upon the foundation of human dignity to stress approaches that address the poorest, most marginalised sections of society and accommodate - in Gandhiji’s words - ‘The Last man’.

Finally, the concept of a democratic world community must be promoted at the level of all inter-governmental agencies and bodies. We will be failing in our task in promoting democracy and human rights at the national level if we overlook these aspects at the global level. There is, in this light great need to reform global structures and agencies such as United Nations Security Council, the World Bank and the IMF to make them truly representative and responsive of the wider world community.

Excellencies & Friends, I do hope and urge that in the subsequent sessions we will focus on these pertinent issues that require attention and guidance.


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Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles