M A I N   N E W S

Building cross-cultural bridges between SAARC nations
Naveen S. Garewal
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, June 1
He did not become the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador by sheer chance. It was the trauma of India’s Partition and the images of violence engraved in his mind that forced Madanjeet Singh to promote cross-cultural ties among SAARC nations.

His belief that the destruction of culture manifested in violence that Punjab and Kashmir have witnessed has led him to strive hard to restore Bhakti-Sufi-Rishi Culture. This he says “is one sure way to return peace to Kashmir”.

Founded by Madanjeet eight years ago, the cardinal objective of the South Asia Foundation (SAF) was to uphold core values of regional cooperation and peace through education, cultural interaction and sustainable development. SAF is today recognised as the apex body of SAARC and admitted into the official relationship with UNESCO.

In Chandigarh on a visit to meet relatives, the 84-year-old shared some insights into his life and vision that have made his dream of having a forum of South-Asian nations a united force on the pattern of the European Union (EU) with a common currency. “To make this objective a reality, SAF is a secular, non-political organisation comprising eight autonomous chapters in eight SAARC nations. With democracy returning to Nepal and Pakistan, we are hopeful that achieving our objective will become less arduous. He hopes that one day Myanmar would be the ninth member of SAF.”

Madanjeet’s vision for promoting goodwill and peace through people-to-people contact has been endorsed by none other than President Pratibha Patil, who during her recent visit to Kashmir, inaugurated the Institute for Kashmir Studies, established under a memorandum of understanding between SAF and the University of Kashmir. The institute, started with a small personal donation from Madanjeet, has emerged as one of the most important and latest of the eight institutions of excellence established by SAF. It will promote regional cooperation on Bhakti-Sufi-Rishi culture of “Kashmiriyat” in “broader historical and worldwide context”.

“I started Sumitra Foundation, named after my mother in 1995. The objective was to work with hospitals in tribal district of Bastar (Chhattisgarh) for providing them solar energy. But I soon ran out of money. Determined to work at the grassroots, there was a virtual windfall in 2000. My son, a Michigan Institute of Technology graduate, floated an IT company where I held a 10 per cent stake. When NASDAQ shot up, I cashed my shares for $200 million. I had enough money of my own and decided not to do rounds of World Bank and other institutions to borrow,” he recalls, adding “If you have the money, there is nothing stopping you from succeeding.”

Ever since there has been no looking back for SAF that now works with SOS villages and scouts at the grassroots level and has eight institutes of excellence in SAARC countries. The objective is common - promote cross cultural links. SAF promotes group scholarships and offers other fellowships to academics and professionals to undertake research and publish books, etc. In Afghanistan SAF runs the Madanjeet Singh Institute for Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. SAF is in the process of forming a Centre for Research in South Asian Law in Bangladesh. In Bhutan, SAF is upgrading the SAARC Forestry Centre. In Nepal, the foundation is training Assistant Nurse Midwives since 2005. In Pakistan, SAF supports the School of Visual Arts affiliated to Beaconhouse National University and the Institute of South Asian Studies under the Government College University (GCU).

The success of SAF nearer home can be gauged from the fact that 30 students trained by SAF in Kashmir have gone back home to establish 180 schools in rural areas. On May 25, SAF organised a Sufi-rock concert in Srinagar, featuring famous Pakastani band, Junoon, of Salman Ahmed and Madanjeet’s son Jeet’s band The Sings, defying threats by fundamentalists and promoting integration between people of the two nations.

Recognising the power of Madanjeet’s concept of promoting culture and people-to-people contact for reducing violence, Azerbaijan and Chechnya have started similar institutions. To honour Madanjeet for his work in 1995, the UNESCO established an award in his name for the promotion of non-violence and tolerance, fetching the winners $1 lakh. In the past, the award, judged by the likes of Butras Butras Ghali and Desmond Tutu, has gone to people like Aung San Suu Kyi and Taslima Nasrin etc, besides some women’s organisation in India and Pakistan working on human rights.

Living it up with zest, Madanjeet’s life echoes Robert Frost as in Woods on a Snowy Evening, saying “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep”.



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