Culture, Secularism and Diversity


It gives me great pleasure to participate in this ceremony for the presentation of the Gandhi Peace Prize, 1997, to Mr. Gerhard Fischer. I would like to felicitate Mr. Fischer most heartily for this well-merited recognition. I would also like to compliment the distinguished Jury for the Gandhi Peace Prize for making so apt a choice for the third Gandhi Peace Prize.

Mr. Fischer's life has been marked by a practical compassion, much in the same manner as Mahatma Gandhi's life was. He has brought to his humanitarian work a rare dedication, a vision, as well as a sense of mission. But more than all these, he has brought to it a distinct sense of hope and of confidence in the achievability of his objectives. It is, I believe, important that one works not just with faith in the nobility of the cause, but also with a measure of optimism. Motivation combined with organising skills and technological expertise can make all the difference: the difference between success and unsuccess. Mr. Fischer's work in the field of leprosy and polio control has achieved the success it has, because of this creative combination of the inner and outer dimensions of humanitarian work.

Mahatma Gandhi displayed the same idealism, powered by a forward-looking pragmatism, in South Africa where he volunteered to organise medical relief in war conditions, as well as in peace time. Mahatma Gandhi was once invited by the late Professor T.N. Jagadisan to inaugurate a newly set-up leprosy hospital in the leprosy endemic South Arcot district of the Madras Presidency, as it was then called. Gandhiji with his inimitable originality and optimism responded by saying that that rather than participate in a ceremonial opening, he would like to come to that area when the hospital's work was over, in order to close it and put a lock on its door. That is the spirit of unremitting work combined with unflagging optimism that must characterize such humanitarian work the world over. With his extra-ordinary capacity to relate and integrate every bit of his activity to his central objective of India's independence and the liberation of oppressed peoples of the world, Gandhiji had considered leprosy work as part of his mission in life. Gandhiji once described lepers are part of "the oppressed humanity" and that he was "deliberately introducing the leper as a link in the chain of constructive effort".

Mr. Fisher has joined the distinguished rank of persons like the legendary Father Damien of Molokoi and others who, though born in one part of the world, have made other parts of it the sphere of their socio-medical work, thereby breaking space-barriers even as the bacillus itself does. Even more significantly, he is among those who have broken through the psychological attitude which regards humanitarian work as a form of personal conscience-salving; a peripheral activity which does not affect the main contours of the human condition.

It is believed in many parts of the world and in the so-called developed world particularly, that deprivation, disease and illiteracy in several other parts of the world are the business of those parts of the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As long as the North and the South continue to reflect different levels of human development, so long will peace remain divided. And being divided, it will remain under threat. It would follow therefore that in matters such as medical relief, humanitarian intervention has to be trans-continental; it has to be global.

The theme of the Prize is Peace; it is also a global prize. And so it would be pertinent for me to-day to recall that India has consistently offered to initiate and administer medical relief in other parts of the world. India has participated in UN Peace Keeping Operations in East Asia, South-East Asia, West Asia, and Africa and has long believed that even as war and the threat of war must be eliminated, the sharp edge of military operations can and should be blunted by humanitarian intervention. This is why, ever since the time of Independence, India has traditionally given due importance to UN Peace Keeping Operations as a tool for conflict resolutioon and maintenance of peace.

It is invariably uninvolved innocents, women and children, who suffer when conflicts occur. The world's collective security requires an international consensus against allowing inter-State or internecine conflicts from massacring and brutalising innocent people and shattering the peace of societies. The creation of such a consensus requires those who believe in non-violent resolutions of conflict to be combatants for peace; it requires them to wage peace. If this were to be done on a large and co-ordinated scale, the deaths of millions such as recently witnessed in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola and Zaire could well have been reduced and human suffering vastly mitigated.

I find it a matter of immense satisfaction that unified Germany, in which the wall of exclusion and prejudice has been dismantled, should also present to the world a distinguished son, Gerhard Fischer, to receive the Peace Prize named after one of the world's greatest soldiers of peace. In honouring Gerhard Fischer today, we carry further the great message of hope which was given to the world by one whom we are privileged to call Father of our Nation.

Mahatma Gandhi was an interventionist for peace and reconciliation. He was not a pacifist in the sense of being just anti-war. He was an activist for peace who advocated an approach and a means which could deal with conflicts imposed by political and military might.

Friends, in a few days from now, we will be observing the fiftieth anniversary of Gandhiji's martyrdom. It becomes natural and necessary that we reflect on the meaning of that martyrdom. The Mahatma was a martyr for peace. It is true, in a literal sense, that as he walked towards his prayer ground, he was stopped in his track by three bullets. But perhaps there is another way of looking at that moment. It has been suggested that, obversely, it was Mahatma who stopped three bullets of hatred in their lethal trajectory. Between the origin and the track of hatred and of conflict he placed himself. Let us to-day gratefully remember the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi as a martyrdom for peace and human understanding.

With these words, I once again congratulate Mr. Fischer and wish him continuing fulfilment through human service.

Thank you

Jai Hind