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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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Contemporary India, Challenges and Opportunities "

Lecture at Zayed Centre for Co-ordination & Follow-Up, Abu Dhabi, on 15th December 2002

Your Highness

Mr. Chairman


Learned Friends

Ladies and Gentlemen: 

It is a distinct honour for me that the prestigious Zayed Centre for Coordination and Follow-up has invited me to deliver this lecture.  I am doubly honoured by the presence of such a distinguished gathering this evening. 

 Mr. Chairman, I am conscious that learned scholars in this distinguished audience have known India’s history and civilization very intimately.  For several decades the intellectuals and academics in the Arab world have been studying the thoughts and philosophies of the vast lands of South Asia.  These scholarly interactions have left a deep impact on our respective cultures and ways of life.

 Learned friends,                                       

           As you would know, the concept of the Modern nation state is recent and was conceived in Europe in the seventeenth Century as an outcome of the Thirty Years War and the subsequent Peace of Westphalia. It took another century of revolutions and civil wars before the polity of Britain and France began to recognize the basic concepts of human rights, and the liberating principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, as basic values of governance. Democracy was born of this violence but even the home soil of Europe did not prove entirely conducive to its spread. It remained the exception rather than the rule till early Twentieth Century Europe. Two bloody world wars were fought and millions of human lives sacrificed, before democracy became the norm and civilizational landmark of what we now term the contemporary western world.

            It is no surprise that war and conflict came to be regarded by many enlightened observers as part and parcel of the human evolutionary process.  The Marxists, who were on the ascendant till the last decade of the Twentieth Century justified violent class conflict as the locomotive power driving a country from feudalism to progressive modernity.

           The prospects facing the architects of India’s Independence, were far from promising. For India, when she became independent, lacked even the most basic prerequisites for a viable nation. The British had ruled India, via the East India Company, and later the Viceregality, through a haphazard network of Provincial Governments. Their boundaries were the product of historical accident rather than any administrative logic. This territory was further broken up by 560 or so Indian Princely States who were nominally independent, and so beyond the pale of the Indian administrative system.

           A regressive feudal order presided over this patchwork of geography undermining any notion of Indian identity. Primitive communications and a population that lived by narrow ties of caste and locality compounded this problem. The British would not lament that they were leaving behind a country which lacked any real sense of nationhood. ‘‘There is not and never was an India,’’ wrote Sir Robert Strachey, a senior Indian administrator. Winston Churchill had pungently dismissed India as no more a nation than a purely geographical entity such as the equator. 

           The problems of unity, serious enough in itself, were further compounded by the impoverished situation in which the country found itself after two centuries of colonial rule. An average Indian’s life expectancy in 1947, was merely thirty-two years. Less than ten percent of the population was literate, and the average per capita income, at about USD 80 per annum, was barely enough for survival. The vast majority of the people were subsistence farmers who after constant, merciless subjugation at the hands of the colonial system, were reduced to abject penury. 

           This was the unpromising raw material left with India to attempt constructing a modern, democratic nation. Few were convinced that it would succeed. Leading British conservatives such as Churchill were the most vocal about Indians’ inability to govern themselves.  Some Indians had similar doubts. I recall a speech before the United Nations, when an eminent Indian referred to the country’s governance as an ‘‘experiment with democracy.’’

          The skeptics however were to be proven wrong. For India was to show that there was a peaceful path to nationalism and modernity. It would prove that a society could be mobilized without anger, reformed without vengeance, and revolutionized without violence. India’s democracy became a vehicle of radical yet peaceful social change; a unique yet universally valid model before the violence ridden politics of today. 

           I would not deny that our Republic has had to face many difficult trials.  Drought led to famine in the mid sixties, compelling us to seek emergency food assistance abroad.  Language riots and counter riots also erupted at this time threatening to tear the country apart.  Four major wars were forced upon us during these difficult decades.  The Emergency of 1975-1977, during which constitutional rights were denied, seemed to confirm worst fears that dictatorship was at hand.

           Indian democracy was also tested in dealing with four major wars and domestic insurgencies, in Southern India first and the North East, then in Punjab and most recently in Kashmir. The people’s grievances in these vulnerable border states should not have been neglected by us as they were. This allowed hostile neighbours to feed the fires. They manipulated domestic discontent into vicious proxy wars that had to be fought on our home turf, not under the rules of war, but within the legal constraints of democratic governance.

           For all these trials, democracy in India is stronger and more resilient today than ever before. It has become a way of life now; a liberal republican outlook determines national policies of course, more importantly for the common man are the shapes the structure of local grassroots organizations such as municipalities, panchayats, professional guilds and associations.   An independent judiciary, a Human Rights’ Commission, a free and vibrant media, a professional army, an accountable administration are all part and parcel of the democratic package.

  President de Gaulle once famously said that it was difficult to rule a country that produced twenty-two different types of cheese. I wonder what he would say if he knew of the Election Commission of India that presides over elections in which over 600 million citizens are eligible to cast their vote. The Panchayati Raj (local self rule) system has over two and a half million elected representatives sitting in district and village councils, out of whom one third, or nearly eight hundred thousand are women.  Our capital city publishes nineteen newspapers everyday while readers in the country get nearly six thousand daily newspapers in various languages.  Along with a much larger number of periodicals.

           It would be fair to say that post Independence India is alone amongst the developing countries in maintaining an unbroken history of democratic rule. All too often, democracy has proven to be a delicate plant, not easy to transplant in alien soil. Why then, it may be asked was India such a fortunate exception?  What prevented India from sliding into dictatorship and chaos?

           The answer, I believe lies in uniqueness of our non-violent struggle for liberation with two extraordinary men at the helm.  Their deep moral convictions has left an indelible imprint on the character of our people. Mahatma Gandhi, who is venerated as the Father of the Nation, was a saint who ventured into the field of politics.

 He was no ordinary political activist. His struggle was against social injustice wherever he saw it. Traditional Hindu society, which had sanctioned the retrograde treatment of its so-called lower castes and its womenfolk, in Gandhi’s view, was no less guilty of evil and injustice. India had to rid itself of the evil within, if it sought genuine riddance from the alien oppressor.

 Moral regeneration, social progress and political freedom were all part and parcel of the same struggle. Gandhiji’s push to reform the society inevitably led him to clash with the forces of  reaction. If in British eyes Gandhi was a dangerous radical, the Hindu orthodoxy saw him as no better. Gandhiji’s life long dedication to Hindu-Muslim brotherhood, his conviction that Hindus and Muslims were equal partners in the building of a new India, enraged the conservatives yet further. Ultimately Gandhiji paid for his convictions with his life when he was assassinated by a Hindu zealot.

 With Gandhiji’s death, the baton of India’s moral leadership passed on to Jawaharlal Nehru.  A disciple of the Mahatma and a committed democrat, India was fortunate to have him at the helm in the turbulent early years of Independence.  Nehru is well known around the world for his dynamic foreign policy of Non-Alignment and his vision of Afro Asian solidarity. His domestic agenda although less widely spoken of was, if anything, even more successful in forging a modern, progressive Indian identity.

Nehru continued the reformist, modernizing tradition of the Mahatma. He introduced reforms in the Hindu civil code to improve the status of women and grant them equal legal rights. Another vital and far reaching piece of legislation, adopted over the opposition of the landholding classes, enabled the abolition of zamindari (landlordism) and land redistribution in favour of the cultivating peasantry. Such progressive social measures were vital for bringing Indian society out of its time warp and into the modern age.  Another key initiative was the States Reorganization Act mandating the reconstitution of the Indian States on a linguistic basis that has strengthened the federal State, reinforcing rather than undermining the Indian identity. 

 The ‘scientific temper’ is what Nehru campaigned for and enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Only science and technology would enable India to overcome its endemic poverty, lift itself by its bootstraps and march on the road to progress. If India of today occupies a vanguard position in the world of science and technology and has a very large scientifically trained manpower, it is due to that vision. 

           Industrial modernization required an active Governmental role involving large public investments and so Nehru mooted the growth of a mixed economy in which the public and private sectors would both have an important role. The Indian mixed economy has evolved, it requires modifications but no drastic surgery to keep it relevant to the changing times.

           Nehru and Gandhi, as this brief account reveals, were committed reformers who recognized the internal ills in traditional Indian society that had to be rectified, whatever the objections, and howsoever strenuous, of domestic reactionaries. They were modernizers, each in his own distinct way, who foresaw the need to keep Indian society abreast with global trends. Both were visionaries who dreamt of rescuing Indian civilization from the degradation into which it had fallen and restoring its dignity. 

           These are some of the essential Indian characteristics that derive from this heritage. Firstly, that India will always remain a secular state. Secularism in India is not anti religion, it cannot be so in a country where religious beliefs run as deep as they do. Our secularism is the embodiment of the ancient Indian concept of sarva dharma sambhava, which is to say that all religions are free and equal, while the State itself stays religion neutral in character. If there ever was a chance that India would go the theocratic way, it was at the time of partition when Pakistan was carved out of the country on religious lines, and a murderous wave of violence and counter violence raged across the sub-continent.  But Gandhiji, by his life’s work, and eventually in his death, ensured that the India’s secular tradition would strengthen rather than die.

           I know that some would question India’s secular credentials today, given the reprehensible happenings in Gujarat. The Gujarat violence was a most tragic failure of governance, and has been loudly condemned as such by mainstream Indian society. It is unfortunate, but true, that in every country there are short sighted politicians who, for narrow ends, set human beings against fellow human beings.

           Distressed as I am by the Gujarat violence, I remain optimistic about the future. The secular, modernizing tendency of India, as I mentioned earlier, has always prevailed over the forces of obscurantism. Incidents of communal violence have invariably been localized and contained. Our linguistic, cultural and religious minorities have been able to express themselves through the mechanisms of democracy and advance their interests. A noted commentator of the New York Times told me recently that while in Afghanistan he had come across extremist elements – the Jihadis, from many nations, yet not any  Muslim from India was, or had been involved in the dreaded Al Qaeda network. As this distinguished audience would know that after Indonesia, India has the largest Muslim population in the world. This striking omission should be pointer enough to the fact that India’s secularism is not hollow, that the composite culture, the pluralist society and democratic outlook have struck deep root in India.

 Distinguished friends,

           Some of you would have heard of Mr. Azim Premji, the Muslim owner manager of India’s largest public software firm listed both on the Bombay and New York stock exchanges and is capitalized at nearly five billion dollars. This makes Azim Premji the richest citizen of India.

 Equally interesting is what he had to say recently. Asked in New York if he felt any discrimination as a Muslim, Mr. Premji replied that he had felt discriminated against in the United States, but in India he was never made to feel conscious about his religion, and he saw no discrimination at all.

   The President of India, Mr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is another outstanding example of the contributions that our Muslim citizens have made to national life. President Kalam was one of India’s preeminent scientists who played a key role in the success of India’s space and defence programmes, before being elected to the highest office in the land. As President, he has been communicating his vision of India as a fully developed nation by the year 2020, a technological and economic power that remains firmly anchored in its traditional values. As he describes it, and I quote:

 ‘‘Our great strength is our pluralistic tradition and our civilizational heritage of three thousand years. I have always been asking myself what the strength of our heritage is. A unique fusion has taken place with multiple cultures, religions and the way of life of many parts of the world and that has become the foundation of the Indian way of life.’’

 Mr. Chairman,  learned friends:

 I am sure you will agree that the worth of any society lies in the manner it treats with its most vulnerable people. A just governance is that which is in the service of the poor, the weakest person, those who stand last in the queue. India, to its everlasting credit, has always tried to follow such an approach. Witness, for example, India’s treatment of one its most vulnerable minorities, the tribal populations who predominate in some of India’s remotest areas, particularly in the North East.  Nehru had personally dictated five principles that would guide Government of India’s policies in its dealings with these minorities. He decreed that the culture and traditional rights of the tribals were to be protected; they should be encouraged to develop along the lines of their own genius; and the work of civil administration and development should be undertaken by building up local agencies and individuals rather than outsiders.

 This humane and enlightened approach has been followed in

our dealings with ethnic and religious tensions elsewhere in the

country as well, and I would venture to add, its merits stand

proven by the fact that no secessionist movement has ever

succeeded in captivating the affected population. In every case,

a resolution to the problems has been found possible within the

framework of the Indian Constitution.

           The people of Jammu and Kashmir have shown the same faith in India’s democratic institutions. The J&K Assembly elections held in the autumn of this year were a watershed event. The militant groups, avoiding to test their popularity in open elections, called for a boycott and threatened citizens at the point of the gun against casting their votes. Despite every effort to bully and cajole them, large numbers of voters turned out, braving bullets but insistent on their democratic right of franchise. The result of the free and open democratic exercise has been wholly cathartic.

 There is every hope today that that a new and promising chapter in the history of Jammu and Kashmir has been opened. As the process of normalization continues, I am optimistic that the Union Government will reach out to initiate talks with a wide cross section of the States’ polity. It is realized that in doing so, it is dealing with its own people whose unmet aspirations and frustrations have left a trail of doubt and suspicion.  I believe that the nation’s heart is big enough, and the Indian Constitution is flexible enough to accommodate legitimate aspirations of the people of Jammu and  Kashmir. Given the trust and goodwill that is so apparent today, a humane solution to the vexed problems of this sensitive border state should be within reach.

 Mr. Chairman,

 The constraints of time do not permit me to comment at any length on the socio-political churnings in the Pakistani polity, though I must say that every incident or turn of events in India or in Pakistan affects the neighbouring country.  Such are the imperatives of the geographical proximity and a shared history.  The recent polls in Pakistan, despite the projected deficiencies, opens a window of opportunity for amity between the estranged neighbours.  I do hope that the new regime in Islamabad would appreciate the futility of pursing the ‘proxy War’ that has taken heavy toll of life and property in the two neigbhouring countries.

It may be useful here to recall that there has never been an Indo-Pak war when Pakistan was ruled by democratically elected Governments.  I believe that one such occasion has come again.  We must know that the destinies of the countries of South Asia are inseparable and the SAARC is an important instrument for the regional cooperation. I feel that recent decision to put off the SAARC Summits is unpropitious.  Of course the cause of cooperation would be well served if the specter of terrorism is finally laid to rest.  It is time to realize that violence is a double-edged sword that is harming the Pakistani society as much as the people on our side of the  border.  It is encouraging to see that writers and the enlightened scribes in Pakistan are raising their voice for ending of the era of terror that parades in the name of Jihad. The Indian civil society – I include myself in it – is keen on early restoration of the snapped lines of communication and travel to revive and invigorate  the people-to-people relationships. That would pave the way to the official cum political bonhomie.

 Let me recall the Male SAARC summit of 1997, which I had the privilege of chairing, had envisioned the formation of a South Asia Economic Community by the year 2020. This was modeled on the lines of the European Community. A preferential trade area (SAPTA) and a free trade area (SAFTA) were identified as the intermediate stages to this goal. The countries of South Asia, who significantly were all, at that point of time represented by elected Heads of Government had put their stamp of approval on this road map.

 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan had enthusiastically shared this vision. During our talks we were also agreed that only through dialogue and discussion would it be possible to resolve all outstanding issues. Subsequently, our Foreign Secretaries had agreed that all contentious issues, including Kashmir, could be discussed simultaneously. The same approach was reflected in the joint Indo-Pak Lahore Declaration of 1999. It was at this critical juncture that the Kargil war was precipitated.

            But all that must be put behind.  We cannot remain shackled to the past.  All types of terrorisms have been outlawed by the World community though this diabolical specter continues to haunt all countries of the sub-continent with sole exception of Maldives.

           Clearly, what is required now is a new compact amongst the nations of the world that includes our region, to fight and eradicate terrorism, wherever and whatever form it may raise its head. At the same time, it would be very unwise to link terrorism to any one religion, or region of the world. In South Asia alone, we who have witnessed the horrors perpetrated by the LTTE of Sri Lanka, or the Maoists of Nepal, can vouchsafe for the fact that terrorists stand for no religion but the very negation of every humanistic faith.

 Mr. Chairman, Excellencies,

           There is yet another deadly shadow hanging over the world today.  I am referring to the threat of war in Iraq, which I hope and pray will somehow be averted.  For one thing, any war with Iraq will divert the much needed attention and resources way from the war against global terror, which should remain the first priority. There is no credible evidence linking the Iraqi Government in any way with the global terror network. And as to weapons of mass destruction this is best proven or dis-proven on the ground, now that international inspection teams are in Iraq and by all accounts carrying out their tasks unhindered. Finally, no one seems to have an idea as to what the post war scenario will be, and how the stability of the region will be ensured. 

           What is very saddening about the current Anglo-American campaign is that a war psychosis has been built up, without adducing any convincing material evidence against Iraq. The Security Council resolution must not  be under cut by any power – bet it the U.S.A or the Government of Iraq. Its candid implementation  will secure peace and stability of the world.

           It is no secret that the Anglo-American agenda is intent on securing a regime change in Iraq, by whatever means possible. This would be an unacceptable intervention in the sovereignty of the Iraqi people who alone have the right to decide the form and system of their Govt. It seems that the ultimate goal of some mighty powers is to gain control over the oil wealth of the country, and dictating the flow of oil in world markets. This has long been the underlying objective of American diplomacy in oil rich West Asia. I recall my talks with the US Secretary of State during the Iraq-Kuwait crisis of 1990-91. He minced no words when he told me, ‘‘Mr. Minister, oil is our civilization, and we will never permit any demon to sit over it.’’ We may recall the Iranian Prime Minister,  Mossadeghs fate who paid a heavy price for no other crime than  nationalization of Iran’s own oil. What followed was the surge of ultra nationalistic cum religious regimes. I apprehend the emergence of a similar intifada in the post Saddam era should this come to pass.

           With all this in mind we – in India, have been consistent in our view that any resolution to the Iraq crisis must be found through the mechanisms of the United Nations.  

 Worthy Friends,

        India has a deep and abiding interest in the peace and stability of the Gulf and the Middle East. Support to the Palestine cause remains an unaltered pillar of India’s foreign policy.  Apart from backing UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, India has in recent times rendered its full support to the vision postulated in Security Council Resolution 1397 of two States, Israel and Palestine living side by side within secure and recognized borders. 

           We are gravely concerned by the serious deterioration of the security situation in West Asia and have repeatedly called for de-escalation.  We are deeply disturbed by a situation that has brought great sufferings on the two peoples and has adversely affected regional stability. The Security Council Resolutions 1402 and 1403 that have asked  both the parties to move to a meaningful cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities. This is the only route to peace and co-living – an essential must  for stability of the region.

 Excellencies, distinguished friends,

           With the passage of time, India’s interests in the Gulf and Middle East region have deepened and acquired added dimensions.  Millions of my compatriots reside and work here as loyal, law abiding and productive members of the community. There is a large and growing volume of bilateral trade. Over 60% of India’s oil needs are  sourced from the Gulf. The Indian economy – as you would know, is growing at about 6% per annum and is set to accelerate in the years to come. This will entail yet greater economic interaction, commerce and people to people exchanges between India and the countries of the Gulf.

           It is said that a one percent growth in a country’s GNP requires a three percent increase in energy inputs. Given India’s current and future rates of growth, energy demands are set to grow exponentially. India’s capacity to import and consume ever-growing volumes of oil and natural gas will be matched only by the Gulf regions capacity to supply them. I visualize the construction of many new pipelines and gas and oil terminals in the Gulf States and Central Asia to meet our requirements. A host of fresh economic opportunities will be generated here  by the rapid growth the world’s fourth largest economy.

           Apart from economics, the Gulf is part of India’s extended neighborhood, a region with which India has enjoyed a rich and fruitful history of social and cultural contact for over two thousand years. In the precolonial era when India was a great trading nation, our merchants and ships traversed the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean, establishing Indian communities and trading posts in far flung countries all across the vast arc of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. In the fullness of time, Arab traders from the Gulf and the Middle East visited our shores. This vast complex of trading routes transported not only men and materials, but also culture, ideas and philosophies.

 Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

  As I approach the conclusion of this discourse let me briefly touch upon some global issues.

 The end of the bipolar world, in the view of some experts, has led to the advent of a unipolar world, headed by the world’s solitary superpower. There is no doubt that the US is the preeminent power of the age, its technology and economy dominate the world and its sheer might is irresistible. The apprehension is that this ‘hyperpower’, acting unilaterally and alone, may impose its own form of global order, enforcing its values and shaping the world accordingly. These apprehensions are not allayed by some recent references to preemptive war and unilateral military action.

 I for one do not believe that this scenario would suit anyone’s interests, least of all that of the United States itself. Nor for that matter is it feasible. The world today is too complex, too volatile and too interdependent to be governed from a single center. Interventions in the name of peace and security will always require global solutions and global coalitions. Such cooperation would be impossible to obtain when a country chooses to operate beyond the pale of international law and sanctity. The only viable option therefore is a multipolar world order. I believe that the principal centers of this order will be the USA of course, a newly assertive European Union, resurgent Russia and from Asia, the rising economic powers of China and India. Consultation and cooperation amongst these powers will be central to maintaining the stability of this order.

 I am no chauvinist but it seems inevitable to me that India, in this scenario, would be called upon, more than ever before to make its contribution to the cause of peace, security and the welfare of the world. India’s prime qualifications are the fact that she is the world’s largest democracy, a model for scientific and technological progress in the developing world, and her benign, secular, peaceful institutions. All these features confirm her credentials as a stabilizing entity.

 Mr. Chairman, worthy friends,

  With your permission, may I conclude on a somewhat personal note? As Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister of India it was my privilege to steer the course of Indian foreign policy during some critical years. The basic parameters of Indian foreign policy are set in consensus and tradition and the job of the Foreign Minister was really to understand the fundamentals and attune them to the changing currents of time.

 The ‘Gujral Doctrine’ that it came to be called, was a simple good neighbour policy. The novelty lay in one small but crucial clause which said that India would go more than half the way in meeting the concerns of its neighbours. We would not stand on mechanical notions of reciprocity to implement initiatives for the common benefit of our partners in the region. This policy was instrumental in building mutual trust, confidence and cooperation amongst our neighbours and creating an environment conducive to the progress of the subcontinent as a whole. The philosophy behind this doctrine was that the larger nation has the greater stake in the welfare of its region, and has more to lose should things go wrong. 

 The world today is rife with anxieties, deprivations and insecurities. Some new threats to peace and well-being seem to emerge every day.  In today’s uncertain world, the approach I suggested would seem to have a larger relevance. For unless the world’s larger and more affluent countries see their interest in the welfare of their smaller partners, peace and security will surely unravel. The strong will pounce on the weak, the lion will turn upon the lamb, and the world will slowly but surely devour itself.  Let us move to a new and better ethic, what our scriptures commend as follows:

Ahimsa hi param dharma, sarva pranam bhritam smrita Non-violence is foremost duty; treat all living beings equally. 

          I thank you all 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