Aasha Khosa | October 17, 2015
Sculptures, murals and framed vintage pictures enliven the nooks and the walls of this Delhi house. As I walk by the swimming pool and am ushered into the study, I tell myself that it could not have been different. After all, the owner of this house is no ordinary person – he has weathered many historical storms and also played key roles in most of them. At that moment Dr Karan Singh, member, Rajya Sabha, enters his cozy study, where we would have our casual conversation over a cup of tea.
Scion of Kashmir’s former royal family, Singh’s parliamentary career spans 50 years. He was made ‘regent’ of his father, Maharaja Hari Singh, at the age of 18, during the transition of Kashmir into an Indian territory. He became governor and later minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet. During emergency, a dark period in the history, he was the health and family planning minister. A great exponent of Vedanta and interfaith dialogue, Singh has authored many books on Indian philosophy.
So far, Singh has managed to evade controversy including the one on reckless birth control campaigns launched under the aegis of his ministry during the emergency years. However, today when the Modi government seems to be tampering with the legacy of his mentor Jawaharlal Nehru, Singh is ready to join issues.
A turban-wearing waiter serves us tea and corn cutlets. I begin by asking him as to how he spends his time. The reply from the 84-year-old leader gives me the real meaning of the adage that age is just a number. “This month, I have already delivered nine lectures – on issues as varied as education, interfaith, culture and Vedanta.” He continues, “I love to speak – actually it’s an art taught to me by my guru [former president] Dr S Radhakrishnan. In public speaking, one has to be passionate and brief. Radhakrishnan would say that if one is not able to say what he wants to say in 30 minutes, then he does not have anything worth saying.”
Every day, Singh practises singing (with his own lyrics) and listens to rock music for an hour. He travels out of Delhi once a month, mostly to Punducherry but also to other places for public speaking. “We [along with late wife Yasho Rajya Lakshmi] used to travel very often. But now I have cut down on travel. However, two places which I must visit each year for one or two months each are Kashmir and Paris.”
Interestingly, Singh, the heir apparent, was born in Cannes, France, where his mother Tara Devi was taken for child birth by Maharaja Hari Singh. The childless king wanted to keep his pregnant wife away from the bevy of jealous ‘ranis’.
As we bite into the crunchy cutlets, Singh chuckles, “And just don’t forget, I am a Rajya Sabha MP too. I also attend the house on the days it is allowed to function.” He laughs loudly.
Has the atmosphere changed drastically in parliament over the years? Singh feels that the space for debate has shrunk and level of debate in the parliament has deteriorated. “I remember when I was first elected as a member of Lok Sabha (1967) people used to visit the parliament just to listen to the scholarly speeches of the opposition leaders like Hiren Mukherjee, Somnath Chatterjee and Indrajit Gupta.”
They used to take the wind out of Nehru’s sails with their fine and powerful oratory. Debates were never disrupted and only countered with debates. “Panditji’s speeches on foreign affairs were classic oratory,” Singh says.
The veteran parliamentarian also does not agree with a BJP leader’s recent assertion that disruption of parliament is a legitimate form of protest. “Parliament is meant for debate and this theory is a contradiction in terms,” he says.
Singh makes no bones about his fondness of “Panditji”. He is therefore personally hurt by the NDA government’s efforts to malign the first prime minister’s legacy, particularly the controversy over a premier institution named after him – Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) – of which he is a founding member.
Prodded on the subject, Singh narrates the complete saga of the institution. Nehru passed away in 1964 in the Teen Murti Bhawan. His successors, Gulzari Lal Nanda and Lal Bahadur Shastri, refused to check in into the house, which was meant to be the PM’s residence. So, some like-minded people like Singh, Dr Zakir Hussain and PN Haksar decided to convert the majestic and historic building into a national memorial. It took about 17 years for the building to be expanded and the museum to take shape. “Even from the inception, everything in the museum was not all about Nehru. It showcases India’s freedom movement – right from 1857 (first war of independence) to 1947 – and is one of best libraries on India’s freedom movement in the world.” The NMML is the largest repository of independent research papers on the freedom struggle and modern India.
Singh asserts that it’s wrong to say that since it bears the name of Nehru, the institution is all about India’s first prime minister. The NMML has a unique and rare archival collection on 17 leaders including BJP ideologues like MS Golwarkar, KB Hedgewar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and even socialist leaders like Jayprakash Narayan, Madhu Limaye, Ram Manohar Lohia, etc.
BJP has apparently embarked on a mission to cut down the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s public image in order to create space for its own ideologues. In September, its director Mahesh Rangarajan, appointed in the last months of the UPA regime, chose to step down after minister of state for culture Mahesh Sharma termed his appointment as illegal and irregular.
Explaining it Singh says Rangarajan is one of the leading academicians [environmental history and colonial history of British and contemporary India] who had been associated with the NMML as a consultant for years. When the NMML advertised for a position of the director, he applied. “The files take their own time to move in the government. In this case, it was just a day after the result of general elections was out that the ACC [appointments committee of cabinet] cleared his appointment,” he says.
Though in principle, the government had cleared Rangarajan’s appoitment in April and also communicated the same to the election commission the formal order had to wait. Meanwhile, Rangarajan had left his job with the Delhi university to take up the top position in the NMML. Three days after the BJP’s resounding victory in the election had shaken the Congress, the Manmohan Singh government issued a formal letter of appointment. Singh sees no wrongdoing in this, as in his eyes, issuing of appointment order simply amounted to the execution of a decision already taken. “Rangarajan quit the moment the BJP government questioned his appointment. I feel bad for him as he has now lost this as well as his Delhi university job.”
Singh also feels bad because the institution’s prestige, built painstakingly over the years, is at stake. “BJP leaders should know that building an institution like this takes a huge effort and time, and they should not unfairly denigrate what is one of the finest institutions in the country.” He makes it clear that Rangarajan is an academician of repute and has no political leanings. Beside, the NMML constitution leaves ample scope for the government to bring in people of their own choice on board. Singh says BJP raked up an unwanted controversy. “Bring your own people into it but don’t distort the image of NMML and destroy it,” is his message for the BJP.
We have just finished the tea while discussing an issue closer to my guest’s heart and mind as the waiter arrives with a plate of semolina ladoos.
With the BJP’s rise and the likely assertion of hardcore Hindutva elements, how does he see the future of India, I ask him. His take is: India’s story will not be gloomy in the long run mainly because of the inbuilt vitality of her people and economy. However, as an exponent of the Indian art and culture, Singh feels that some of the utterances of the BJP leaders tend to look at culture with a narrow mind. “Indian culture is so vast and vibrant and reducing it to issuing advisories on what it is like being a good Hindu is most unfortunate.” He is speaking in context of Mahesh Sharma’s recent statement that women going out in night is not part of Indian culture.
These people, he says, know nothing about culture. “Hindu pantheon is so full of feminine power – the Shakti – and how can people impose curbs on women by invoking the culture. They are misinterpreting the Hindu culture and religion?” He says some of the utterances of the BJP leaders were “highly avoidable”.
“Narendrabhai [Modi] himself has not said anything like this. He has come up with his own formula, positive slogans and programmes.” Singh also praises Modi for being very active on foreign affairs. “But at home, Narendrabhai’s performance is not that dramatic,” he adds.
Though there was a rumour of Karan Singh joining BJP, he says, he believes in speaking in a non-partisan manner on national issues.
Why the Modi government is a failure on domestic front? Singh feels that Modi has not been able to focus on key issues hampering India’s growth story: education, agriculture and industrial output. “Unless the agriculture sector booms and industrial output keeps rising, progress will not happen.”
Surprisingly, Karan Singh raises an important issue of – population control – something that is never talked about in officials circles. He wonders why the world’s second most populated nation doesn’t have a population control policy. “Since 1947, India’s population has grown three times and resources remain the same. How can we manage?” Coming as it does from a person, whose ministry was accused of supporting forcible birth control surgeries in the emergency era, it, surely, is a bold statement. “Maybe, in the light of past perceptions, you can give it a new name; call it population stabilising programme, but don’t ignore it,” he adds. “Because without this India’s growth will remain stunted.”
Singh has another idea for policymakers. The new family control programme should be created in a manner that it empowers women. “Today women do not have a say in the number of children a family has and this is the main reason for the unchecked population growth.’’
The taste of ‘asli desi ghee ka ladoo’ lingers on in my mouth as I ask Singh about his political party, Congress. “Today, the Congress seems to be in an unenviable position; hard days ahead, I guess?” The Congress, Singh says, is a 130-year-old party; has gone through many ups and downs in the past too. Therefore it should not be written off so quickly. But isn’t the party facing a leadership crisis as Rahul Gandhi is not able to take over? “My long experience tells me that nobody should be underestimated. When Indira Gandhi took over as prime minister, her detractors called her ‘mom ki gudiya’ [wax doll]. The same ‘doll’ was later called Durga by none other than the then opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee after she achieved the impossible for India – liberation of Bangladesh through a decisive military action in East Pakistan and return of 10 million refugees.
“To be fair to Sonia Gandhi, she had kept herself away from politics for six years after Rajiv Gandhi’s death; confined to the work of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. But when people started leaving the party in droves during the presidency of Sitaram Kesri, she had to step in.
“Didn’t the same Sonia Gandhi lead the Congress from a near gloom to India’s ruling party, first by winning 115 seats, which grew to 145 in the next election? In 2005, Sonia Gandhi achieved a near miracle when the Congress won 205 seats in the Lok Sabha. If Rahul wants to learn before he steps in why should others have a problem?”
Singh was close to Indira Gandhi. Does he enjoy the same equation with Sonia Gandhi? “No, I meet her only on formal occasions – mostly when a foreign dignitary comes to meet her. Being chairperson of the foreign relations committee of AICC, I have to brief and accompany her.”
Dr Singh’s association with interfaith dialouge and Parliament of the world religions brings us to discuss the religion-driven global tension. “Today the Islamic fundamentalist is a real threat to peace in the world. Ironically, these fundamentalists are killing Muslims only, be it in Syria or my state of Kashmir,” Singh says. The Parliament of world religions, which meets each year for a interfaith dialouge, also views Islamic fundamentalism as a serious threat, he said.
Lastly, I ask him about Kashmir, the state which was once ruled by his family. What is his analysis of the problem in Kashmir? I didn’t intend it, but this touched a raw nerve. “My party had never consulted me on Kashmir policy,” he rues. “Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi must have made about 100 visits to Kashmir but not even once did they consult me on this,” he says. “My ancestors have created that state and I have served it first as regent then as sadr-e-riyasat [the title of J&K’s head of state till 1954], governor and now as a legislator. But for some strange reasons they did not trust me on J&K.”
I insist that he must talk about his idea of a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. He says, “When I think of this, a Bollywood song comes to my mind. ‘Ajeeb dastan hai yeh, kahan shuru kahan khatam…’ (It’s a strange tale, don’t know where it begins and where it ends…)”
An hour has passed and it’s time for me to bid goodbye to Dr Karan Singh, who gracefully agrees to pose for camera.
(The interview appears in the October 16-31, 2015 issue)
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