Meet Dr. Karan Singh
Photo Courtesy: Amar Mahal Museum and Library, Jammu.
Dignified. Passionate. Intelligent. Knowledgeable. Dr. Karan Singh is all these things and more. He was present at the creation of Project Tiger in 1973 and was among those who forced the world to accept India’s leadership on the issue of tiger protection. It was his faith in Kailash Sankhala that encouraged the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to appoint him the first Director of Project Tiger. He has taken all of life’s honours in his stride including the coveted Padma Vibhushan. Today, with the tiger in even deeper trouble than it was in 1973, Dr. Karan Singh met Bittu Sahgal at the iconic Teen Murti House, New Delhi, where he spoke about his life, vision and desire to see the rebirth of the animal that gave him his nickname: "Tiger".
What makes you tick? What is the source of your youthfulness and purposeful demeanour?
I think it is my inherent belief that my life’s work is not yet done. We fought long and hard to free our country and build it, and I worry now that all those things that made India, well, INDIA, might just be lost to us… our holy rivers, our productive soils, our sparkling seas, our lofty mountains and, of course, our verdant forests, represented by that animal of animals, the tiger.
And who really is Dr. Karan Singh? Ex-royal, historian, scholar, poet, conservationist, nature worshiper or politician?
Well, a bit of all those things I guess! I got involved in active politics when I was appointed the Regent of Jammu and Kashmir at the age of 18 and remained in Indian politics, often serving as a Minister. Even today, I am not far from politics though I must confess that what continues to worry and absorb me is the thought that the tiger might actually be lost to us.
It’s been a long and colourful journey. You were born in Cannes, France I understand?
It’s true, but where did you dig that up from? The Mediterranean was always a favourite haunt of high society – European and Indian, and my father Sir Hari Singh had taken my mother Tara Devi to the famous Cote d’azur. There, in a corner suite of the Hotel Martinez, the young Maharani, my mother, was in an advanced state of pregnancy. The Maharaja’s personal physician Colonel J. H. Hugo and the eminent obstetrician Sir Henry Simson ushered all nine pounds of me into the world on March 9, 1931!
Back home your birth must have led to wild celebrations. After all Shree Yuvaraj Karan Singhji Bahadur, the heir to the throne of Jammu and Kashmir had been born!
Bittu, it was more than just celebrations. On hearing the news, the slaughter of animals, fishing and shooting were prohibited for the next three days, and these were declared public holidays. Offerings were made in temples, mosques and gurdwaras, and all school children were given sweets and asked to pray for the long life of yours truly… the new born Dogra prince!
You must have had an idyllic childhood in Kashmir, one of the most naturally exquisite valleys in the world?
Not all that idyllic. I was an only child, and lonely. The cloak and dagger of the King’s Court did not exactly make for a warm family upbringing. My father was 36 when I was born and had been king for six years. He always took interest in my upbringing but was by nature undemonstrative. My mother, on the other hand, was actually an outgoing, life-loving, simple village girl. It was she who gifted me my lifelong love of nature. I miss her terribly even today.
You became the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir at a much younger age than your father and you seem to have remained a leader all through your life.
I was younger. In 1949, just a couple of years after I finished from Doon School, the responsibility was thrust on me. Until I was 36 I remained the Regent, Sadar-i-Riyasat and Governor of the J&K State. Through those years I was deeply influenced by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who was my political mentor, guide and philosopher. In 1967, I was inducted as a member of the Union Cabinet with the portfolio of Tourism and Civil Aviation. In 1973, I shifted to Health and Family Planning and in 1979 to Education and Culture. It’s been a long and wonderful innings and it’s not by far over.
Unlike most politicians you are a man of letters. Books have been a part of your soul. Do you still get time to read? Write?
Books and research have indeed been the stuff of life for me. This is why I was so happy to be appointed Chancellor of Jammu and Kashmir University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Banaras Hindu University. I did my Master’s in Political Science from Delhi University, with a First Class First and did a doctorate on ‘The Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo’. Honorary degrees and doctorates have generously been presented by the Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University and few other universities in India and abroad. Of course, I still write; both for others and to have conversations with myself.
You are deeply religious and deeply environmental as well.
Religion has become strangely distorted today. As for me, I am an upholder of Interfaith harmony. I chair the Temple of Understanding, a world-wide Interfaith association. I am a member of the Club of Rome as well as the Club of Budapest. I also chair the People’s Commission on Environment and Development India (PCED). In my long years I have served as Chairman of the Indian Board of Wildlife (IBWL) and I am now a member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) chaired by the Prime Minister. I also headed the Steering Committee of ‘Project Tiger’ in its initial years, as you well know. But what good all this learning and caring if we are unable to stop those who do not know and do not care, and, therefore, are pushing even the most charismatic animal such as the tiger over the brink?
PCED in particular must have given you incredible insights into the manner in which the lives of ordinary Indians had been degraded following the destruction of their environment.
Yes, I have led and participated in widespread PCED public hearings, seminars, symposia and gatherings, and have looked through a window into the hearts and minds of ordinary Indians, and how they are directly affected by the issues relating to our burgeoning population, freshwater contamination and depletion, marine pollution and increasing pile of toxic waste. Almost more than any other issue, the relentless degradation of ecosystems has occupied my purpose over the past decade and more. Our planning process must quickly come to grips with this or else all hope of raising the standard of living of ordinary Indians will come to nought.
It is because you are aware of such connections between environmental destruction and the quality of life of the aam aadmi (ordinary man) that I come to you on behalf of over one million Kids for Tigers. We need you to again help guide our nation through its most critical survival crisis as our rivers, soils, coasts and mountains wither.
Bittu, I have seen India pass through so many ups and downs in history – the invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan, Gandhiji’s assassination, the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent Chinese war in 1962, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, the Emergency, Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Bhopal Gas Tragedy and then Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. But I think even these traumas pale into insignificance in the face of the threats posed by the destabilisation of our climate, the loss of ecosystems and the degradation of our rivers, soils, forests, coasts and mountains. Of course, I will join forces with young Indians who wish to fight these threats. You get together a set of Indians willing to put their country before themselves and I am your man. But we must meaningfully engage in our mission. No mere token gestures.
Photo Courtesy: Fabien Khan.
Thank you for your time and for your gift of the fight. May I ask the poet in you to gift Sanctuary readers a poem that might give us pause, to contemplate our own life and times?
A poem? With pleasure. Here it is. I hope Sanctuary readers will enjoy it. I call it ‘The Adventurer’.
For I have gone where men have never been,
And wandered over countries far and near
And crossed great mountains with no trace of fear,
And gazed on many a strange and wondrous scene;
On mighty oceans have I plied my raft
Where monstrous fishes close beneath me played,
And endless water heaved and lurched and swayed,
As tirelessly I hurled my lethal shaft;
And through the great primeval forests tall
I plied the lonely furrow of my life
And slew great monsters, waged untiring strife
With creatures of the darkness, great and small;
And often as I strove with might and main,
And which each victory won for renown,
I thought that I had mown my troubles down
And conquered fear and death, old age and pain;
But ever were my hopes rudely belied
For wander as I might throughout the world
I could not rid me of the terror curled
Somewhere within my being, deep inside;
For over all our mortal hopes and gains
Hovers the constant shadow of the grave,
Of Time, that dims the glory of the brave
And lays at waste our labour and our pains;
And what adventure, what exploit will stay
With us beyond the folded veil of death?
And what, when we have shed our mortal breath,
Will speed us on our far, eternal way.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXX No. 3, June 2010.