Focus is on Institutions of Excellence

In the media The Statesman, New Delhi - 5th December 2009

Interview by Simran Sodhi, Foreign Editor, with UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh

Madanjeet Singh was born in 1924 in Lahore. He is the author of several books on art and other subjects and served as India’s Ambassador in Asia, South America, Africa and Europe. In the early 80’s, he was director of the cultural sector of UNESCO, Paris. In 1995, in recognition of his lifelong devotion to the cause of communal harmony and peace, the UNESCO executive board created the biennial UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. 
In 2000, Madanjeet Singh was designated a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. Shortly afterwards, he founded the South Asia Foundation (SAF) to promote cultural, educational and economic development throughout the SAARC region. Two years ago, he declined to accept the Padma award as he believes that his reward is the work he is doing in the field of education, sustainable economic development and to promote regional cooperation. In an interview with SIMRAN SODHI, Madanjeet Singh shares his vision for South Asia.

Can you share some information on the award created in your name by UNESCO?

In 1995, the 52-member UNESCO Executive Board unanimously voted to create the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. The decision was adopted at meetings in Paris and Fez (16 May to 4 June), to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi that inspired me to fund the Prize. Being a civil servant, it was not easy for me to spare $ 40,000 but later on, when I got a bonanza from the equity of my son’s IT company based in Boston, I was able to increase the Prize amount to $100,000. This year the Prize has been shared by Francis Houtart from Belgium and Abdul Sattar Edhi from Pakistan and they both received $50,000 each.

What are the activities of SAF when something like SAARC already exists. Are you trying to achieve the same goals as SAARC?

SAF’s activities are perfectly in tune with SAARC’s programmes, principles and ideals. However, as SAARC is an inter-governmental organization it cannot act as swiftly as SAF, an NGO. When any worthwhile proposal is made by SAARC, it gets bogged down because one or the other country obstructs it. For example, the very laudable South Asian University project (SAU) has not made much progress because they are still discussing its structure; even the logo has not been formally approved by all the countries. On the other hand, SAF trustees and the governing council can take immediate decisions and expeditiously implement projects.

Can you give one example of where SAF took the initiative over SAARC?

SAF can well take credit for having taken the initiative for the admission of Afghanistan into SAARC. In 2002, the SAF governing council adopted a resolution that Afghanistan should be a SAARC member as it is a South Asian country. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh supported this proposal and during a subsequent visit to Kabul, President Karzai agreed to join SAARC as its eighth member. SAF would also like Myanmar to become a SAARC member, should Aung San Suu Kyi, the 2002 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize laureate, democratically decide that her country belongs to the South Asian family rather than ASEAN relatives.

May I also mention that Afghanistan was the first country where SAF began the programme of building a number of institutions of excellence. Shortly after the destruction of the 5th century statues of Bamiyan Buddhas by Taliban gangsters, President Karzai invited me to visit Afghanistan as I offered one million US dollars for restoration of the idols. However, in Kabul it was decided that this amount could be used more effectively by establishing a Madanjeet Singh Institute of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. Hence, a tripartite MoU was signed between UNESCO, the government of Afghanistan and myself and since 2008 the courses at the institute have started to train students for restoration of the monuments. 

What is the latest project undertaken by SAF?

As with Afghanistan, SAF is now concentrating on establishing institutions of excellence in all SAARC countries at which students are offered group scholarships, based on gender equality. So far, ten institutions have been established or are in the process of formation. The latest two MoU were signed during the annual SAF governing council meeting in New Delhi on 21 November 2009 — one with the University of Pondicherry and the other to upgrade the School of Visual Arts at the Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Lahore, Pakistan.

How successful has SAF’s Pakistan chapter been?

The SAF chapter in Pakistan is headed by Professor Salima Hashmi, daughter of the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was my senior college mate at the Government College in Lahore. Like her father, she is bravely upholding secular ideals against Islamic fundamentalism. The students there have passed out with flying colours and many of them have made a name for themselves in the art world. The MoU that the vice-chancellor of BNU, Professor Sartaj Aziz, and Salima Hashmi signed in Delhi, has upgraded the School of Visual Arts in Lahore to be called Madanjeet Institute of South Asian Arts.

You have been pushing for the creation of a common currency for South Asia?
As with European economic and regional cooperation, SAARC will benefit from the centripetal force created by a common currency (called ‘Sasia’ in my UNESCO book, The Sasia Story). It will, like the Euro, become the anchor of economic stability, security and accelerate trade and commerce between the SAARC countries. That is why it is essential to participate in the "peace pipeline'' project that would carry natural gas from Iran and Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian subcontinent. It would benefit both the small as well as the larger SAARC countries. The Maldivian President Nasheed is very keen on a common currency as he told me last month in Mal�, as the President of Sri Lanka, Mr Rajapaksa formally proposed at the last SAARC summit. He is the current chairman of SAARC.

Where do you place religion in today’s society, as an individual and in your organisation?

Religion plays no part whatsoever in my life and SAF is a secular organization. Nevertheless, I am fortunate to be born a Sikh as Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539) invoked the traditional secular culture of India’s multicultural civilization at the grassroots, emphasizing “duties and devotion” in the conduct of daily life. He preached against discrimination and prejudices at a time when slavery and race discrimination was customarily practiced worldwide. He decried the caste system, empty religious rituals, pilgrimages, miracles, urging people to “conquer their minds of these evil practices”. He promoted equality of women and condemned the ritual of Sati some 5000 years ago, prior to the Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s initiative which succeeded in the enactment of the law that prohibits this gruesome Hindu custom. Guru Nanak’s shining legacy is the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the foundation stone of which was laid in December 1588, by Hazrat Mian Mir, an eminent Muslim Sufi saint of Lahore.