Originally Published 2005-06-23 12:43:32 Published on Jun 23, 2005
Amb M Rasgotra, International Affairs Adviser, Observer Research Foundation, and former Foreign Secretary of India, was invited as Chief Guest at the Convocation of the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lnaka, held on June 23, 2005. The complete text of his Convocation Address is reproduced below:
SAARC should focus on higher education
Amb M Rasgotra, International Affairs Adviser, Observer Research Foundation, and former Foreign Secretary of India, was invited as Chief Guest at the Convocation of the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lnaka, held on June 23, 2005. The complete text of his Convocation Address is reproduced below:

Most Reverend Chancellor, Respected Vice-Chancellor, Honourable members of the Council and the Senate, Learned members of the Faculties, Graduands, Ladies & gentlemen,

I am honoured by the University's invitation to be the Chief Guest at this convocation. A university convocation is an auspicious occasion for the launching of a new generation of young men and women into life's arena of action and responsibility. I feel privileged to be a witness to this happy ceremony.

Not many universities in South Asia combine modern teaching with revival of studies in the region's ancient lores. In this respect Kelaniya University is a leader. While imparting modern education in science, linguistics, mass-communications, social sciences, industrial and business management, the university's curricula and activities nurture in its alumni the awareness of Sri Lanka's history and tradition and its multi-cultural perspective.

Its Ayurveda Institute and the Post-Graduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies are living symbols of the common heritage of Sri Lanka and India in social ethic, in religion and philosophy and in medical science. Renewal of this heritage through specialization in modern developments in these and other traditional disciplines is necessary for re-invigorating the Asian spirit and our ethos of tolerance and synthesis. Exchanges and interaction between Kelaniya and like-minded educational centers in India, such as the Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning at Prasanthinilayam will help strengthen the ancient bonds between our two countries.

Universities in our two countries can derive much mutual benefit from collaboration in modern branches of learning also, especially, in knowledge sciences, technology and the modern methods of managing business and capital investments, which are driving the globalization of world's trade and economy. The inauguration next month of an MBA degree course here, with the cooperation of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow will open a new vista for India-Sri Lanka cooperation in the all-important field of modern education. The modest role that the India-Sri Lanka Foundation has played in bringing this about is a source of much satisfaction to the Foundation's Board of Management.

But much more needs to be done in South Asian countries by governments and by entrepreneurs to bring higher education within the reach of our growing young generations. In India, for example, while we take pride in having 300 and more universities and deemed universities, these facilities are woefully inadequate for the needs of a developing country of a billion people. No more than 7% of our youth can find places in these institutions. In contrast, in advanced countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA there is a noticeable trend to make higher education available to their young on a mass scale.

Britain, a much smaller country than India, has 104 universities and 231 degree-awarding autonomous Institutes. The United States with a population of less than 300 million has a total of 2364 universities, 1752 of them private. Japan, the most progressive country in Asia, has 684 universities including 512 private ones.

A large number of these institutions in advanced countries are engaged in high level research, innovation and development of new technologies, which is not the case in our universities. There is a pressing need for many more institutions of higher learning in our region. 

All this is not to downgrade the importance of universal primary education, without which modernization of our societies would not be possible. Besides, primary education is a vital need for the proper functioning of the democratic system of governance. I highlight the importance of higher education because of its indispensability to the development of our countries and to preparing them for self-reliant participation in the on-going globalization process. For both these tasks South-Asian countries should have to pool their resources, develop mechanism for learning from one another's experiences in higher education, formulate uniform standards for the study of disciplines of global or regional relevance and, where necessary or appropriate, allocate roles for specialization in areas of study suited to the genius and circumstances of each country.

India and Sri Lanka, in my view, are best suited to undertake joint programmes on these lines. Perhaps, an initiative in the matter could be deployed by our somnolent regional organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The SAARC summit in November this year should consider convening a conference of the leaders of our region's burgeoning corporate sector and other wealthy philanthropists to play their proper role in providing facilities of higher education.

We are living in times of astonishing advances in the fields of transport and communication and in other branches of science and technology. The necessities of distance and time are no more, and day by day the world becomes a smaller and a more complex place! Far away happenings affect our lives in unpredictable ways and old notions of nationhood and sovereignty are loosing some of their meaning. The horizons of knowledge are being pushed ever deeper into the far recesses of the vast unknown. Every now and then there is news of a new scientific invention or technological innovation presaging wondrous new advances in medicine, genetic manipulation and space travel. Nanotechnology, the latest discovery of science is revolutionizing medicine, chemistry and electronics. Every fresh breakthrough opens doors to new breakthroughs, unfolding before us realms of knowledge and visions of life unimagined before. It is a world of great opportunities and formidable challenges. 

Interestingly, scientific enquiry is also engaging in the search of answers to timeless questions about the nature and origin of the universe and of man, and there emerges the prospect of bridging the gap between science and spirituality. By demonstrating that through our molecules, we are all physically connected, science is pushing empirical understanding closer to recognition of the transcendental reality of integral unity of all life. Humanity's rise to a higher state of civilization, free from violence and strife, depends on man's ability to grasp this truth of the unity of all life and to mould his social and political behaviour to accord with it.

But the irony of it is that each scientific invention, while opening up fresh prospects of civilization's progress, also brings new perils to human security in the shape of ever more lethal tools of violence. Inequitable distribution of the fruits material progress and great disparities in living standards cause injury to the human spirit. While unprecedented levels of prosperity and wealth generated by advances in science and technology breed their own discontents in affluent societies, abject poverty degrades human existence in poor countries where deprivation breeds its own brands of frustration and violence.

In our own region, we see humanity splintered and wounded by irrational hatreds and violence spurred by vain ambitions and dreams of aggrandizement of un-elected leaders. Even religion, which is man's quest for the divine, and cultures whose intermingling should enhance human bonds, have become pretexts for confrontation and conflict. Terrorists roam the region with singular objective of killing innocent people in the name of religion or parochial nationalism and freedom! At places, even access to democratic freedoms seems only to lead to separatist ambition and armed struggle. A great deficit of love and compassion ails our world. It is not the ideal of 'Vasudhaive Kutumbkam', of the world as one human family contemplated by our sages and seers of yore. To reshape it in that mould is the main task that awaits the young new generation.

And this task has to begin right here in South Asia. For though our countries were one integrated unit not so long ago, now our attempts falter even at economic cooperation to lift the pall of poverty from over our people. SAARC has remained a moribund organization ever since its birth. For all its activity of summitry and its hectic, officially-sponsored tourism by our ministers and bureaucrats, it has little to show by way of solid achievement on the ground.

To rid our region of its debilitating poverty and backwardness and to enable it to cope with the challenges of globalization, SAARC must be isolated from politics and bilateral quarrels of its members and given new life as an area of free, unfettered movement, across open borders, of men and women, of goods and services and of new ideas and plans for cooperation and progress.

Europe, for centuries the scene of devastating wars, is at peace today and is making rapid strides precisely because it gave primacy to economics over politics. The other element in Europe's strength is the commitment of each member of the European Union to Democracy. Economy and democracy are the glue that binds Europe and enables it to set aside, or transcend, serious differences over important foreign policy issues and other matters pertaining to politics and security.

Here in South Asia, in contrast, trade and economic interaction are held hostage to politics and the uniting substance of democracy, which brings nations closer to one another is absent in some countries where autocratic, monarchial or military rule prevails.

Democracy with all its flaws and failings, is the most stable and humane of all systems of governance : "Ruin comes", said Plato in 347 BC, "when a general uses his army to establish a military dictatorship". Mindful of democracy's weaknesses, he added : "though democracy does the least good of all forms of constitution, it also does the least harm". Experience however shows that democracy does, in fact, do a lot of good in the long run; and in multi-ethnic, multicultural societies, democracy is the only viable option, and there can be no real progress without it.

There is no problem, no grievance that cannot be peacefully addressed and resolved in a democracy. There is no hurt, no deprivation or division that cannot be healed by the democratic processes of consultation and compromise. Both in Sri Lanka and India, we have our problems but these can be addressed, and are being addressed in a spirit of conciliation, compromise and mutual accommodation. Autocratic regimes are in far deeper trouble everywhere.

The world's political landscape has undergone a radical change in the last decade and a half. The Soviet Union is no more: a new Russia is in the process of finding its feet as a democracy. Several new states have arisen in central Asia adding to the complexity of Asian politics. The United States of America is present in strength in the region where China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, also have vital economic, commercial and security interests. Its enormous energy resources are inviting competing bids and could become a source of future rivalry and contention among great powers.

The steady rise of China as a great economic and military power is the most striking feature of a resurgent Asia. India too has achieved notable advances in political stability, economic dynamism and military strength. Russia and Japan are acknowledged Asian powers. And the world's pre-eminent military and economic power, the United States, has emerged as an Asian power in a very real sense. Our continent is host to five of the world's known nuclear weapon countries and two potential ones, which in a sense is a guarantee against any major conflagration but also a source, among others, of continuing tensions. Understandably, therefore, the centre of gravity of world affairs has shifted from the Euro-Atlantic region to Asia, where these powers are redefining their regional and global roles.

During this time of transition in Asia the task before statesmen is one of managing the continent's politics and security in a way to create an equilibrium of power and interests in which war is ruled out, no country feels surrounded by hostile forces and none feels tempted to threaten another's security and well-being. Steps, even tentative ones, towards the creation of an Asian free trade area or an Asian Common Market will, I believe, help in restructuring an Asian equilibrium of security and peace.

In this context also SAARC could have had an important role and its failure to mobilize the region's economic potential is one of the sad stories of our time. Perhaps, the India-Sri Lanka comprehensive economic cooperation arrangements may yet act as a catalyst for the revival and activation of SAARC.

India-Sri Lanka relationship is a model of good neighbourliness, our past mistakes and failures notwithstanding. Sri Lankan friends often ask me why India does not help resolve the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. India's reluctance, as a likely mediator, in dealing with a secessionist movement headed by a leadership wedded to the cult of violence and murder should not be hard to understand. But there should be no doubt in any quarter that India's commitment to and respect for Sri Lanka's independence and sovereignty, unity and integrity are unshakeable.

Before concluding, I should like to offer my warm felicitations to the graduates who receive their degrees today and to winners of awards and distinctions. I pray for their success in all their future undertakings in a world of change and challenge. Change is the fundamental law of life: it is not to be feared. Without change, there is neither life, nor liberation. Action is man's destiny and its essence lies in harnessing change and converting challenges into opportunities through right conduct informed by truth, love, compassion and the spirit of service as taught by the radiant Prince Gautama, the Buddha. That teaching of the Enlightened One is as relevant today as it was in his time on earth.

May you prosper in the service of your nation, and your work brings peace and harmony to Sri Lanka and the world!

I shall close with a poem from the Pali Canon which is both a prayer and a benediction:

Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born--may they all be entirely happy!

Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere.

May nobody wish harm to any single creature, out of anger or hatred!

Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child!

May our loving thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across--without limit; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity!

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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