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Speeches

B. P. Singh: Address to World Summit 2014

Address to World Summit 2014, Seoul, Korea, August 9-13, 2014

In 1929, the Indian poet and the first Asian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore after his visit to Korea wrote an evocative poem as follows:

In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp bearers.
And that lamp is waiting to be lit once again
For the illumination of the East.

South Korea is striving to fulfill that role with earnestness as the world is witnessing a kind of power shift toward Asia from the West.

Today the threat to peace, security and development enumerates from four areas: (i) poverty and inequality; (ii) ecological challenges; (iii) geopolitical ambitions of nation-states and new instruments of warfare in addition to traditional weapons such as nuclear bombs, missiles and robots; and (iv) the phenomenal rise in religious fundamentalism and terrorism.

Poverty and inequality

Poverty and inequality are major threats to peace and social harmony all across the globe. Poverty, in particular, curbs human development.

Fortunately, extreme poverty is being rapidly eradicated from everywhere including sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. I am glad to mention that at the turn of the 20th century, world leaders came together at the United Nations and agreed on a bold vision for the future through the Millennium Declaration. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a pledge to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity, and free the world from extreme poverty.

In 1990, almost half of the population in developing regions lived on less than $1.25 a day. This rate dropped to 22 per cent by 2010, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 700 million. The process of poverty eradication need to be further accelerated to strengthen the peace process.

Inequality despite rapid economic development both in developed and developing countries is on the rise. The inequality of income and power of inherited wealth create divisions among people.

The urge for equality is innate among human beings. Today people no longer blame their fate either for their poverty or for huge inequality in society. I fear that unless urgent steps are taken, the phenomenal civilizational changes that are being ushered in by information and communications technology would generate further inequality as large number of people are being left out at present from mastery over the internet.

It is true that the mobile telephones are rapidly becoming popular but still those who have access to internet and skills of how to use information available with the internet would have advantage over others. This would be a new situation of left out millions and could be a threat to peace.

The trickle-down approach hitherto followed will not serve the purpose. It is being voiced that the best policy is to tax the rich and give good education and skills to the poor. But this area is not receiving the attention as required.

Ecological crisis

The ecological crisis facing humanity is frightening. There is a credible threat to human survival from global warming and climate change – the potential to damage the lives and habitats of billions of people in different parts of the world.

Rapid modernization processes leading to construction of roads, dams, hydro-electric power stations, movement of security forces and migration of people and their movement disturb the ecosystem and leads to disequilibrium. Climate change too has to be viewed in the context of enormous disturbances to ecosystems.

The threat to South Asia is especially more tangible both in the Himalayan region and in the Western Ghats. The Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas constitute the largest ice mass outside the two poles. Four of the world’s ten major rivers have their headwaters on the Plateau particularly the Brahmaputra, the Indus, and the Sutlej. The waters of these rivers give life to more than one billion people living downstream. This region is, therefore, of strategic global significance in regulating and maintaining world climate and in sustaining human life and ecology. This is an area in which I have worked for a long time including as Governor of Sikkim – a Himalayan State.

If glaciers in the Himalayas melt, depleting the supply of water, one cannot continue living as in the past. Forests will be lost at an alarming rate; many birds, mammals, and other species will be on the way to extinction.

Conservation of ecology as an idea and as an ideal have to be maintained as goals in the interest of people everywhere. Fortunately, we have the capability to stop further damage and restore the health of our ecosystems. But this requires both strong will and the help of modern technology.

Geopolitics

In the Summit several distinguished speakers have brought to our notice the threats to peace which are visible in different parts of the world due to geopolitical ambitions. The Russian intervention in Crimea, the march of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the situation in Gaza and in different parts of the world have shown that nationalism is reasserting itself in the old form and expressing itself in terms of territorial gains. There is also greed for access to and control over natural resources particularly gas and oil.

Religious fundamentalism

The world is also witnessing a revival of religions as never before in recent times. Religious resurgence is primarily a reaction to the loss of personal identity and group stability produced by the process of social, economic, and cultural modernization that swept across the world in the second half of the twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century economic and social modernization became global in scope.

Terrorism, including human bombs, is the latest instrument in violent conflicts that are being sanctioned in the name of redressal of religious and ethnic grievances. The story of the Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is the story of eccentric and violent ideas sprouting in the fertile ground of political and social turmoil. The Islamic culture of humiliation is deeply rooted in their sense of history and the game of power politics. Islamists believe that ‘war on terror’ is just a western euphemism for ‘war on Islam.’

The privatization of violence through terrorism poses a major challenge. The invisible nature of the terrorist threat is a factor that is contributing a sense of insecurity and fear particularly among the rich and the middle class.

In addition, we are also witnessing clashes within a religion and unabated use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Today the biggest threat to peace comes from extremists and fundamentalists.

There can be no world peace without peace among religions, and within a religion; no peace among religions and within a religion without dialogue between religions and within a religion.

This Summit constitutes a significant step forward. The Summit must support empathy, self-control, morality and reason to gain the upper hand. In order to support, maintain and strengthen that process, we need dialogue between the world’s leading civilizations.

We need a new vision and a fresh approach to mobilize voice of leaders and nations and to redefine moral and social concepts to meet the challenges of today. I call it the Bahudha approach.

The Bahudha approach

I attach enormous importance to the Bahudha approach as it has greatly contributed to the enrichment of harmonious life in India. It means ‘respect for another person’s view of truth with hope and belief that he or she may be right.’ This is best expressed in the Rigvedic hymn that enjoins:

          Ekam Sad Vipra Bahudha Vadanti

          The Real is one, the learned speak of it variously

Etymologically speaking, the word Bahudha is derived from the word bahu, and dha is suffixed to it to make it an adverb. So, what does Bahudha mean? ‘Bahu’ denotes many ways or parts or forms or directions. It is used to express manifoldness, much, and repeatedly. When the word is used with the root kri, it means to make manifold or multiply. Bahudha is also used as an expression of intermittent continuity in various time frames. It is used to express frequency, as in ‘time and again.’ Bahudha suggests an eternal reality or continuum, a dialogue of harmony, and peaceful living in society.

Pluralism could be the closest equivalent to Bahudha in the English language.

The Bahudha approach does not believe in annexation or transgression of boundaries or assimilation of identities and propagation of a simplistic world view. It merely facilitates dialogue and thereby promotes understanding of the collective good. The realization of one’s own identity may sustain boundaries and yet, at the same time, understanding of other identities may help formulate a public policy or harmony. The Bahudha approach is conscious of the fact that societies without boundaries are not possible.

The culture of Bahudha is deeply rooted in the inculcation of a special attitude from an early age. Dialogue requires a state of mind where one can strongly believe in one’s own way of looking at issues while simultaneously accommodating another’s point of view. It is this mental discipline that makes one willing to consider the validity of other person’s view point.

In short, the Bahudha approach is both a celebration of diversity and an attitude of mind that respects another person’s point of view. Democracy and dialogue are central to this approach.

Diversity celebrates different religions, gods and goddesses and belief systems. It also promotes a feeling that the world would be a dull and over-uniform place if there was only one religion, one god, one language, one folklore and one folktale. The human species cannot be all of one belief or faith or system – humanity is diversity – something we too often forget.

The inculcation of attitude of mind inspired by the Bahudha approach would mean that one hears others in a manner that is akin to our behavior with family members or with our neighbors. This could help us appreciate and even adopt good practices and value systems of others without diminishing our own.

The Bahudha approach could be secured particularly through (i) religious harmony; (ii) educational programming; (iii) strengthening of international political architecture: the United Nations; and (iv) the use of military power in terms of the UN Charter.

Relevance of religion

Religion is a potent force. As an agent for the generation of peace and happiness, it facilitates goodwill among people, and helps them to lead a life of spirituality and fulfillment. In recent years, people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have used it for achieving justice and freedom. Swami Vivekananda and Mother Teresa were inspired by their religious faiths to serve the poor, the derelict, and the discarded.

The re-assertion of religion in public affairs has also revived the traditional belief that ‘my religion is the best.’ Identifying religion with dogmas and beliefs had led to several wars in the past and inflicted sufferings on fellow citizens has begun receding in human consciousness. What lessons need to be drawn from the past?

The well-known Sufi poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi beautifully enunciates the Islamic faith when he writes, “The lamps are different but the light is the same: it comes from beyond.” There are similar expressions in other religions as well.

What we need is a synthesis of these values -- spiritual and moral as well as intellectual -- with the aim of working for a harmonious society.

Education

Education has a central role to play in building a harmonious society. Education must begin at home as it is here that intolerance towards other faiths has its origins. We know that it is not only love and compassion but also hatred and intolerance that are widespread. Just as people can be taught to hate, they can also learn to treat others with love, dignity and respect. In fact, the issue of public policy of harmony is critically linked with education.

There is an urgent need to focus on the educational curriculum in order to purge it of content that spreads hatred and/or distorts history. Effective education also demands the development of a creative mind and academic temperament.

Utilizing education as an instrument of harmony is not an easy task. The educational curriculum, in particular, has become in several countries an ideological battleground. The interpretation of historical events often excites religious and ethnic groups who start taking positions that are not always rational.

United Nations

Globalization has created new types of economic, environmental, and security problems. This calls for effective international political architecture. I believe that an empowered Security Council and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) would take away the present state of policy deficits in these bodies. In fact, it would enable the UN to play a more effective role in peace keeping and in reforming the global economic and financial system, represented by the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.

Use of force

A question is often posed about the role and relevance of the military in the construction of an environment for creative dialogue among civilizations. In the post 9/11 world, it is quite obvious that the ugly face of terrorism has given full justification for a strong military posture by Governments. In fact, the rise of terrorist activities in different parts of the world demands it. It, however, does not mean that military intervention can be taken in an arbitrary fashion.

Simultaneously, we have to discard the ideas like ‘my god is superior to yours,’ ‘teaching hatred can secure national integrity,’ ‘using terrorist groups in pursuit of national goals’ and dismantle infrastructure that ‘breeds hatred and imparts training for terrorist acts.’

Amidst all this, our task is to move collectively as human beings towards peaceful and harmonious living that demands both rationality and love. On our generation rests the responsibility to provide these elements.

I am tempted to recall a few anecdotes on the subject. My advocacy of harmony among civilizations received many responses. In the beginning of 1997 Samuel P. Huntington came to see me in New Delhi as he was not particularly happy at criticism of the approach advanced in his classic work ‘The Clash of Civilizations.’ At that time I was India’s Culture Secretary. Later, he came to see me again in 1998, as I had become India’s Home Secretary, to find out as to whether I have since changed my mind in the light of new experiences. He was disappointed, but it was a pleasant meeting. Another surprise visitor was Francis Fukuyama, who called on me in June 2001 in Washington D.C. when I was an Executive Director of the World Bank. Prof. Huntington did not see my book Bahudha and the Post-9/11 World [1] as he passed away in 2008. His death was a great loss to the world of scholarship.

In other words, at this time in our history we have to choose between ‘clash of civilizations’ and ‘Bahudha.’ The choice is ours.

An interfaith council and UPF

We are not looking for a perfect world, we are also looking for a world without conflicts or natural disasters. But we are certainly looking for augmentation of number of men and women capable of solving problems.

We all have to work for strengthening of open societies where dialogue is primary and where the spirit of understanding another’s point of view is cultivated. Fundamentalism or that my view of the world must prevail is the worst of all values and must be discarded.

Several distinguished speakers have emphasized the need to establish a new organization entitled interfaith council as a new organ of the United Nations. I support this idea. Meanwhile, I would like the Summit to pass a resolution authorizing the President to explore the possibilities of Universal Peace Federation (UPF) acting as an interim body for an interfaith council duties till the creation of this interfaith council as an organ of the United Nations. The fact that the UPF is an NGO under special consultative status with Economic and Social Council of the United Nations would be of help in this behalf.

Concluding remarks

Let us pledge that we will not allow our respective faiths to be used as an instrument of violence.

Let each one of us assembled here take a vow: "I shall be an instrument of peace, living in accordance with teachings of compassion of my religion."

Let us appeal to all people, believers and non-believers, to work for peace and development.

Let me conclude by quoting the last hymn of the Rig Veda, expressed over 3500 years ago:

samgacchadbvam sam vadadhvam, sam so manamsi janatam
samant va akutib, samana brdayani vab
yatba vab susahasati.

Translated from the Sanskrit it reads:

Walk together; speak in concord; let our minds comprehend alike, let our efforts be united; let our hearts be in agreement, let our minds be united, that we may all be happy.


See Balmiki Prasad Singh, Bahduha and the Post-9/11 World, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008.

For more information about the World Summit, click here.