From right to left: Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, SAF Founder Madanjeet Singh and Vice-Chancellor of IGNOU with a recipient of the SAF Madanjeet Singh Scholarship (16th April 2004).
The event in India was held at the Preet Nagar Cultural Centre, near Amritsar. Some two years ago, I had agreed to the request of Uma, a daughter of Gurbaksh Singh, to fund the construction of the Centre in her father’s memory along with another eminent writer, Nanak Singh.
This rather imposing building, facing a water reservoir, had since been completed. It has two auditoriums, one inside and the other outside, which will be used for cultural performances of folk artists, dancers, singers and dramatists.
SAF Founder; Uma Gurbaksh Singh, Trustee, Gurbaksh Singh Nanak Singh Foundation; Vice-Chancellor IGNOU. It was decide to install more computers at the SAF-IGNOU Distance Learning Centre to enable students in the neighbourhood to come and learn how to use them.
At my suggestion, Indira Gandhi National Open University agreed to cooperate with SAF to establish a SAF-IGNOU Distance Learning Centre on one floor of the building to provide education to the deprived youngsters living in villages along the India-Pakistan border.
My conception of South Asia’s unity in diversity essentially stems from my teenage experiences when I was a student at the Hindu University in Benares (now Varanasi).
The alumnae came from every corner of the subcontinent and among my many friends I counted not only Punjabis and Kashmiris but others hailing from almost all Indian provinces, including present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as from Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Mostly we lived in groups, speaking our own language, wearing our own regional clothes and eating our own food in separate messes. But there was no separation whatsoever as we entered the classrooms or the playgrounds.
I recall the University Training Corps (UTC) drills, the cadets all looking alike in military fatigues. Together we played football, hockey, tennis and especially cricket, interacted with each other and made lifelong friends.
There was even a sort of "barter trade" among the students as clothes and other souvenirs were exchanged when they returned after the summer vacations.
There were no "policy makers" to tell us what to do. It was all so natural, so spontaneous, so inspiring. BHU was truly a micro South Asia before India was partitioned.
As I arrived in Rome on a scholarship in 1950, I was still suffering from the trauma of the gruesome fratricidal carnage I had lived through in both parts of the divided Punjab.
In Europe, too, the havoc caused by the Second World War could be seen everywhere. I was therefore emotionally involved in the efforts being made by a number of European leaders to secure a lasting peace between their countries by uniting them both economically and politically.
The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established on December 8th 1985, and I felt elated that its charter reflected several EU ideas. A similar South Asian Union, I thought, was the answer to many of our problems and I cherished the hope that SAARC would forge ahead like the EU, dealing with subjects of common concern.
I toyed with the idea of creating a South Asian Economic Union and hoped that as with the euro, South Asia, too, would eventually have its own single currency - and even invented a name for it, sasia.
I imagined that as regional cooperation had brought France and Germany together after centuries of devastating wars, the commonality of SAARC would encourage India and Pakistan to transcend their bilateral quarrel over Kashmir. I could not comprehend why the two neighbours did not join hands and, together with the other SAARC countries, make South Asia a major economic world power by effectively using the subcontinent's immense potential and resources.
It was against this background that I founded the South Asia Foundation and basically my vision of South Asia's unity in diversity is still inspired by the twin concept of classroom (education) and playground (creative friendship) — the two legs on which I would like SAF to stand and walk towards regional cooperation.
I am convinced that only a voluntary and secular youth movement, nurtured by cultural diversity and common traditions rooted in centuries-old interaction between the people, can demolish the political hurdles placed by vested interests in the way of peace and progress in South Asia.
In barely three years of existence, the South Asia Foundation has achieved a great deal. I am delighted at the great leap forward that SAF’s programmes and activities in the field of education made during the Foundation’s Third General Conference in New Delhi, on December 14, 2003.
The unprecedented programme of courses jointly designed by the Open Universities in SAARC countries, and the landmark decision taken by the SAF Academic Council to offer 10,000 SAF Madanjeet Singh scholarships in vocational training and higher education, will go a long way towards benefiting the socially and economically marginalized students in all eight South Asian countries.
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador
Founder South Asia Foundation
Beaulieu-sur-Mer, 16th April 2004.