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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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Address on behalf of the Civil Society Representatives, at the Inaugural Session of 'Asian Parliamentarians' Conference for Peace and Cooperation', at Dhaka, on September 1, 1999.

Hon’ble Prime Minister
Hon’ble Speakers and Heads of Delegations
Hon’ble Members of Parliament; and
Hon’ble Participants

It is a great honour to have been given the opportunity today to make an opening presentation on behalf of the civil society organisations participating in the Conference.

Thanks to the Hon. Speaker and the Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad. We are assembled here at the threshold of the next millennium to say good bye to a "short century" that has witnessed such mind wobbling events that included two great social Revolutions and many wars. The century also saw two great personalities of heroic dimensions – Mahatma Gandhi and later Mr. Mandela.

This century gave to the man power destroy all that the God had crafted since creation of this universe. Technology enabled the homo-sapiens to explore the Moon and other galaxies. The twin revolutions of biotechnology and information have promised longer and more purposeful life spans for us. This century is also leaving the legacy of a smaller world that is busy restructuring its new political order that looks beyond the narrow grooves of national sovereignties. Though the wars are not yet banished, but the civil societies the world over are now rightly assigning a very high priority to ushering in of an era of peace and cooperation.

Of all the great earthshaking changes that have distinguished this century, the most important from our point of view, and from the point of view of the vast majority of humankind, is the decolonisation revolutions. For the first time since recorded history, the planet is virtually free of colonies. At its outset only 50 nations had signed the Charter of the United Nations. Now the U.N. has close to 200 members each of them is sovereign and equal member of the World Body. Even neocolonialism has changed its colours. It is now the World Market in which there are multinationals from the emerging markets who function as junior actors. We have arrived at a straight junction of Time when people are meshed with people in bonds that are at once exploitive and cooperative. There are now indeed no permanent friends and permanent enemies. Nations who fight each other are also bound together by seen or unseen bonds of cooperation.

At the end of the century, it is time for us to take stock of how far we have succeeded or failed to build our nations. In some of our countries, there were long struggles for independence, violent or non-violent. Some of our peoples fought revolutionary wars to secure their emancipation. To many, power was peacefully transferred by the colonial powers. In South Asia, we experienced several types of decolonisation. India, as is known, struggled non-violently under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Freedom came with the partition of the country that created the new sovereign state of Pakistan. The partition did involve one of the largest displacement of humans in history and millions died. Still, in 1947, well over 400 million people freed themselves from British colonialism.

Nepal and Bhutan had never been made into British colonies though their affairs were directed by British Residents. Sri Lanka belongs to those countries to whose national elite power was transferred by the departing colonisers. Bangladesh fought a liberation war. In our neighbourhood, the Burmese and Indonesians fought their colonial masters with arms, Malaysia and Singapore did not, while the three Indo-China states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia went through Marxist revolutions. Vietnam fought a 25-year-old war to win sovereignty. The Chinese revolution succeeded after forty years of anti-imperialist as well as civil wars making China one of the Big Five Powers after World War II.

I need not recapitulate here the manners in which the 50 countries of Africa, the 20 Arab and non-Arab countries of what is known as the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and the 20 countries of Latin America got their independence. Though study of this varied phenomenon is fascinating.

We who are assembled here for this landmark conference belong to the first or second generation of post-colonial ruling class in what has come to be known as the third world. We had led our respective peoples’ struggles for freedom or represented their nationalist aspirations. We made golden promises when our peoples entrusted us to govern our republics or kingdoms. We emerged as the largest ruling class in the United Nations. How well or badly have we performed? Why have so many of our new nations succumbed to military take-overs? Is our record of peoples’ welfare and uplift something to be proud of? Have the post-colonial ruling elites achieved a satisfying record of human rights? Of frontal attacks on poverty? Have we not been trapped in what is known as enclave development? Why is there so much poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, child mortality, homelessness and joblessness in our societies? Is it because mostly we continued with the colonial systems of government left behind by the colonial masters? Is it because there has been more continuity than change in our systems and styles of governance?

Almost in all the countries that were decolonised since the late forties, the form of government, the jurisprudence, the power structure, the police system were continued by the post-colonial ruling elites that had assigned a very passive role to the civil societies. In the case of India, for instance almost the entire British Parliamentary Government of India Act of 1935 was kept in the new Constitution for governance at the state level. Only recently was an Act of Parliament passed creating a vast network of elected panchayats or village and district councils below the state level whereby some three and a half million elected representatives of people run these grass-root democratic institutions, and among them about forty per cent are women.

With the passage of time, the people in our countries are protesting about the passivity of the civil society. Assigning it an active role is therefore the greatest challenge before us. Without actively functioning civil societies there can be no good governance. This requires extensive decentralisation. People have to govern themselves and then alone do they build civil societies making people aware of what they can themselves do for their own development and betterment. In my short stint as Prime Minister of India, I realised how difficult it is to offer good governance and engineer relevant people-oriented social change without an active civil society.

There are some basic requirements for the creation of civil societies. The first requirement is to build a legal foundation of the State from the top to the bottom and to ensure that the laws of the land are universally and impartially enforced. Secondly, an independent, efficient, honest and uncorrupted judiciary is indispensable for a civic society. Thirdly, government has to be vastly decentralised, with the people given opportunities to govern themselves and take charge of their own affairs. Fourthly, the concept that government is the giver of everything and the sole provider, is inimical to the building of a civil society. The citizen must be educated and enabled to appreciate that in many ways he or she is his or her own master and also responsible for sustenance of a peaceful social order based on cooperative co-existence of different interests in society. There is an urgent need for improvements in health, hygiene and greening of urban sprawls. An enlightened civil society alone can assist in ensuring that every child goes to school, that teachers actually teach and doctors attend regularly on patients at rural health centres. The much needed sense of respect and equality for women in our traditional societies and a climate of tolerance in our lives also requires the public help. Governments alone cannot and need not run human societies nor build nations without a great deal of active and conscious help from the citizens.

The promises and good intentions articulated in directive principles of our constitutions have to be given the status of legally enforceable fundamental rights of the citizens. The rulers must be obligated to fulfil the promises they make. People at the bottom layers of our pyramidal societies must feel and see that their rulers mean what they say and say what they mean. This is where we the post-colonial ruling elites, have failed our people most, and that is why we are losing their trust, confidence and respect. This leads me to suggest that real change in society, both at the national and the international levels, will happen only if citizens agree on the need and the means for change. The challenge is, therefore, to create this social transformation, enabling people to actively participate in the reform process that will replace force with dialogue, arrogance with sympathy, isolation with cooperation, ignorance with knowledge, conflict with peace. We feel obliged to create ways for a better understanding and much deeper tolerance between our nations and peoples. Our task is huge, even gigantic but the prize of this effort is invaluable. Simply it is called peace and justice.

Thank you very much.

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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