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Sunday, April 18, 2021

The middle ground

Despite some omissions, an eclectic volume of writings by one of India’s longest-serving politicians.

Written by Harsh Mander |
October 6, 2019 12:16:58 am
Karan Singh, Karan Singh Congress, Karan Singh Book, Harsh Mander book review, Karan Singh autobiography, Karan singh book review, indian express news Front cover of ‘An Examined Life’ by Karan Singh.

Title: An Examined Life
Author: Karan Singh
Publisher: HarperCollins
Page: 416
Price: Rs 799

Dr Karan Singh has long straddled a unique position in Indian public life. Who else could boast of an uninterrupted and distinguished political career of 70 years? He was head of state in Kashmir for 20 years, first as regent from the age of 18 and then as governor; minister in successive Union governments; and member of Parliament for eight terms over 40 years. He worked closely, in one capacity or another, with all of India’s prime ministers. In addition, he is an erudite and sophisticated philosopher, well-versed in ancient Hindu texts.

Therefore, in the wake of his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha at the age of 88, a collection of his writings and interviews is something to savour. His editor Raghav Verma has brought together an eclectic and diverse range of writings and discussions in this volume. It begins with an extensive interview with Verma which illuminates many themes of the book, and includes scholarly essays and a dialogue on Hinduism, memoirs of his political life, his exchange of letters with prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, travelogues, poems (to which I was equivocal), and even a whimsical novella about friendship, betrayal and a chance but tenuous reconciliation.

Given the current upheaval in Kashmir, his accounts of the history of J&K are of greatest topical interest in this anthology. He records his “surprise” about ‘right-wing’ resentment against the special status of J&K. He counsels us to be “large-hearted”, mindful that J&K came into India “under complex and difficult circumstances”. He adds we “should feel so lucky” that “a Muslim-majority state” became “part of India despite the religion-led Partition. Cherish that, relish that, honour that.”

This is wise counsel, which India should take to heart amidst the triumphalism that has gripped many Indians after the special status of the state was withdrawn, and its territory peremptorily bifurcated into two Union Territories. I am perplexed, though, by the far more guarded public comments by Karan Singh following this constitutional coup. He refused to condemn this unequivocally, so contrary to his views in the book.

There is much, though, about Jammu and Kashmir that the book does not speak of. It is silent about the massacre of Muslims in Jammu in 1947, the traumatic expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, and decades of militancy. He describes his own role in the dismissal of an increasingly restive Sheikh Abdullah as Prime Minister of J&K. (He says he did not support Abdullah’s long incarceration after this, although he did nothing to prevent or reverse it). He records his conviction that what he did was for the “national good”, and that “all the risks and dangers were worth taking if it served the country”. But history would require much more searching self-critical introspection with hindsight, of unhealed wounds left by these momentous political decisions, destined to cast their long shadows for decades.

There are significant silences also in his learned and often lyrical interpretations of Hindu texts, such as the Vedas and the Upanishads, and most of all the Gita, which he regards to be the most influential text in the world after the Bible and Quran, and which he believes is a fitting guide for ethical action in the complex and turbulent times in which we live. He speaks fleetingly (and uncritically) of caste, and acknowledges even more passingly the suffering of the out-caste. But he does nothing to address the profound critique of Hinduism by Ambedkar: of the savagery and cruelty of what caste did to millions for millennia. He does not mention, let alone reject, the valorisation of ruthless caste and gender inequity and violence. However, Singh does celebrate the acceptance of same-sex love in the Hindu tradition and welcomes the belated decriminalisation of homosexuality in India.

In a significant essay, he speaks of three approaches to secularism. One junks religion as a burden from the past “hung around the neck of the present”, and, therefore, rejects religious values in both personal and public life. A second, he says, would have liked an India in which everyone follows the Hindu faith, but because that is not a reality, secularism is accepted as a necessary evil. A third approach, to which he subscribes, is that the true sanction of secularism is that all religions are approaches to the same divine. My problem is that although his definition leads us to the idea of equal respect for every faith, it needed to include also equal respect for the absence of faith.

Singh is at his strongest in his affirmation of what is best in our civilisational values, of “respecting different traditions of living, of praying, of any sort of culture however strange it may seem to us.” If there is anything to take away from this assorted volume, it is his celebration of “tolerance, of inclusiveness, of living in religious and cultural harmony with each other”; and, of maintaining “respect for oneself and the other”.

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