International Affairs


NEW YORK, APRIL 28, 1998

I am deeply grateful to the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for conferring on me the World Statesman Award for 1998. I consider it a gesture of goodwill towards the people of India in the fiftieth year of their independence. It is with much pleasure that I accept the Award in the distinguished presence of the leaders of America's religious, business and public life.

The word 'conscience' has a special resonance in the spiritual and moral history of humanity. It is associated with religious freedom and tolerance, equality and justice, and with human rights and human values. These are among the great principles on which the United States of America and the Republic of India have been founded. I believe, without subscribing to "the end of history" theory, that these are the guiding ideas that would rough-hew, if not shape, the new world order that is emerging hesitantly alongside the oncoming 21st century.

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation is committed to religious freedom and peace throughout the world. Historically it was out of the struggle for religious freedom and religious toleration that political freedom and democracy arose and established themselves in the western world. In India the philosophical base of democracy was broad and its roots were deep, despite the overgrowth of social institutions and practices that came in the way, retarding its development.

True democracy and freedom are the outcome of the idea of a common humanity. Nearly 3000 years ago the Rig Veda, India's oldest religio-philosophic text, proclaimed that "All human beings are of one race". The Upanishads went further and declared that "the whole world is one family". The concept of the brotherhood of man is in fact pervasive in all Indian thought - in Hindusim, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and in the thought and teachings of all the social reformers and the great men and women of India. But lamps burn on sooty wicks. Social practices and economic realities in India have been narrow, harsh and different. And yet breaking through all the distinctions, discriminations, exclusions, oppression and exploitation of a complex and stratified society, there has been in India an underlying humanism, a humanism on which has been built the presentday democracy of India.

A little over a hundred years ago, a great Indian, Swami Vivekananda, came to America and spoke at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. He told the Parliament: "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations on earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnants of the Israelites who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion that has fostered and is still fostering the remnants of the grand Zoroastrian nation". I may add here that Christianity also came to India, soon after the crucifixion, and long before it reached Europe and America.

India has continued this proud tradition even to the present times. We have received, after independence and after the partition of our country, millions of refugees who have found new home, new life, in our society. India is probably unique among the world's victims of invasion in that most of the persecutors and conquerors who came to our country settled down in it as Indians. India metamorphosed them creating a multi-religious, multiracial, multi-lingual, multi-regional, multi-coloured society and a magnificent composite culture. What the world has often missed is the major fact of all these vastly disparate elements living together in peace in our sub-continental nation. There are 130 million Muslims in India to-day, the second largest Islamic population anywhere in the world, and more than the entire population of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. There was, of course, an outburst of the madness of communal violence following the partition of India; but that was a temporary aberration. India has never fought any religious wars like the Crusades, nor has it fought anything like the Thirty Years War as the Catholics and Protestants did in Europe. It is this tradition of tolerance and co-existence of different religions, ideologies, and interests that independent India has pursued in its internal policies and projected as co-operative good neighbourliness in the region and as nonalignment and peace in the wider world. Nevertheless we have had to face attempts at interference in our affairs and are experiencing the menace of international terrorism, the most insidious threat today to democracy and human rights in the world.

President Rabbi Schneier, when the distinguished Jury for this Award selected me as the recipient for this year, I am sure that it had in mind the humanistic tradition of my country and the democracy we have built up during the last 50 years. I am particularly glad about this consideration on your part, for the significance of Indian democracy has not yet been fully realized by the world. It was not a mere gift of the British colonial rule, though every Indian has gracefully acknowledged the role of Britain in it. Mahatma Gandhi has said the roots of Indian democracy lie in our ancient system of village panchayats. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the principal framer of our Constitution, presenting the draft Constitution to the Constituent Assembly, likewise pointed out that "Indian democracy was as old as its ancient village republics. India had political assemblies with elaborate parliamentary rules of procedures at a time when most of the rest of the world suffered under despotism or anarchy". It was this historical heritage combined with the passionate devotion of the Indian nationalist movement to democracy and social justice that determined the choice of a democratic Constitution for India, while most of the other countries, soon after independence, departed from the British model and succumbed to military dictatorship of one kind or another.

The magnitude and the audacity of the Indian democratic experiment ought to be mind-boggling for any objective observer of human affairs. The size of the Indian electorate today is 600 million, the largest in the world. The electoral process is not limited to the central Parliament, but to the legislatures of the States, district and block councils and village panchayats as well as corporations and the municipalities. About three million representatives of the people are elected to the local bodies out of which nearly one million are women, by virtue of a constitutional provision. These elected local bodies constitute a colossal school for democracy and an exercise in the democratic decentralization of State power. It is this pervasive democratic system that has helped in maintaining the unity of this vast country of contrasts, diversities and differences. Some Western political observers have described the system as a functioning anarchy. But there is method, rhythm and meaning in this apparent chaos as there is a popular consensus behind the coalition governments that have emerged from our General Elections. Coalition governments are the products of assertive federalism in Indian polity and a reflection of unity in diversity that is the hall-mark of Indian society. They have not affected the stability of the administration, the development of the economy, the security of the nation, or the faith and confidence of the people in the future of the country.

It has been asked whether India, by adopting the democratic system of government, has not lagged behind other developing countries of Asia in the scale of development. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, had foreseen this problem while he was embarking upon the process of democratic planning in India. He believed that democracy, while it might be slow in producing results, would be, in the long run, the surer way to progress and to the bringing about of enduring changes in society. He also believed that by proper policies and by mobilising the people, the pace of development in a democracy could be speeded up.

Indeed, what India has achieved during the last 50 years is considerable, though it might not always be spectacular. I do not wish to go into the statistics of India's economic and social achievements. Under the impact of our programme of liberalization and economic reforms, the Indian economy has moved into a high trajectory of growth. India offers to the world a dynamic economy and an enormous market for trade and investment. The Indian middle class that has emerged, it may be mentioned, is of the size of the entire population of the United States. And below them are the masses whose living standards and demand for the good things of life, are constantly improving and increasing. The significance of all this is that not only is India a market for a wide variety of goods, but a reservoir of scientific - technological - managerial personnel. It is an entrepreneurial power-house.

It has often been asked : will the Indian economic reforms be slowed down or reversed. We have, in response, explained that the reforms are irreversible, because they are not a temporary tactic or an ideological exercise, but the outcome of the needs of our economy and society and of the compulsions of the stage of development that we have reached.

The world has to-day become technology driven. It is an electro - dynamic - mechanical - electronic world. As Pandit Nehru once remarked, science that has destroyed many a god has itself assumed the pose of a god. A question we must ask is, in this new technological world, what would be the place of the individual and his conscience? Will the human being and the human values that we cherish so much, be of much consequence? And will "the proud, proud man" as William Shakespeare saw with poetic insight, "most ignorant of what he is most assured", be "like an angry ape - playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven - as make the angels weep"? Or will he be even less than this tragi-comic figure, reduced to being an unfeeling cog in the machinery of modern technological society? The prospect of a technological elite emerging in industry, information and in the crucial areas of life is a new possible danger to the independence, initiative, and the identity of the individual human being. It seems thehuman race has to guard against the rise of a high tech hegemonism with the weak and vulnerable sections of world society like the working class, the peasant, the student, the woman, becoming more and more helpless in the face of the apparatus of wealth, power and authority buttressed by a technological elite.

And yet I believe that side by side the increase of the power of the rulers and the economic and technocratic hegemons, the consciousness of the people has also risen. With the spread of democracy this new consciousness has become an even greater force in society. In the great democracies like the United States, for instance, enlightened public opinion has become a force to reckon with. So also in the world's largest democracy, India. This is the greatest safeguard against a techno-financial hegemony and against the mindless armament race that the miracle of technology and the illusion of omnipotence are enticing us into.

Long before Mao Zedong gave expression to his famous phrase that "the atom bomb is a paper tiger", Mahatma Gandhi in a message he sent in 1947 to the women of China, wrote with infinite audacity : "If only the women of the world come together they could display such heroic non-violence as to kick away the atom bomb like a mere ball". I believe that the great powers in their good sense will agree to rid the world of the menace of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise it will devolve upon the people of the world, women and men, to ensure that for the sake of the survival of the human race, these weapons are abolished.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a German novel* about a Nobel Laureate. In it occurs is a passage about the great men of the Jewish race. "Well, first came Moses, illuminated on Mount Sinai, he raised his hands toward the sky to receive the laws. And gave the first great explanation of life: 'Everything comes from the heavens.' Then came the wise man, Solomon. He lowered his hands from the sky to the forehead. 'Everything comes from wisdom, from the life and justice of intelligence. Everything comes from the head.' Christ came along after a few years. He lowered his hands from the head to the heart. 'Everything is love, love thy neighbour as thyself, everything comes from your heart.' That worked well until Marx came around and lowered his hands from his heart to the stomach. 'Here, everything comes from the belly.' But a few years after came Freud. He slid his hands down further, if you will excuse me, down to the amatory, libidinous parts. He explained that the true sense of everything originated there - Eros, Psyche, Folly, Art and Life and Death. 'Everything is summed up there, in sex.' Finally, Einstein leapt to his feet and stopped them all. 'Careful, boys, careful. Everything is relative.' "

One cannot but notice how the sights of even the greatest men have been lowering from the heavens, the mountain tops and the hearts of people to the stomach and the navel in a descending order. May be Einstein has tried to arrest this descent by his theory of relativity. But humankind has to go even beyond relativity to certain eternal verities and listen to the "inner voice" and see things by the inner light. May I recall the words of George Washington : "Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience".

Thank you

*The Head of Alvice by Lina Wertmuller

Jai Hind