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A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism

Mumbai.

India has announced a seven-day mourning for its former president APJ Abdul Kalam. As TV channels paid rich tributes to the “People’s President”, they all but blacked out news of a militant attack in Gurdaspur, Punjab, where four policemen, three civilians, and three terrorists, all ‘people’, were killed a few hours earlier.

On the evening of July 27, as Dr. Kalam was giving a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, he slumped to the floor. He died as he lived, a teacher always. At 84, he remained alert and disarming. His charms left no room for criticism, at least not overtly. De-politicising him has been modern India’s trickery.

Missile Politics

He has been described as a reluctant politician, although there is no record of him refusing to accept the post of President of the Republic of India, for which he was nominated by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2002.

As a scientist and chief of the Defence Research & Development Organisation he did come in touch with politicians, but his elevation to the highest office was a different political move. While this is the norm, despite the chariness in admitting it, the post of the president is not without its bells and whistles. A ruling party will not nominate a person, however accomplished he might otherwise be, unless he fits into its broad ideological stand. The Congress-nominated presidents were notorious for being rubber-stamps, the worst being Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency declaration.

As father of the indigenous missile and planner of the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998, in Kalam the BJP got a man who was seemingly above politics, a benefit they are reaping till date when they want to flash their version of secularism and pugnacious nationalism, especially to the enemy across the border.

He put across his own belief thus: “Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength.” While to his political audience this seemed like a good excuse to justify their opportunism, his young admirers would have subliminally inculcated the message that India could be a world power only on the strength of nuclear capability.

He did use the opportunity to reach out and inculcate the scientific spirit in the young, who he related to so well. However, his position and what the media showcased usually showed him among the relatively elite urban students. On the occasion when a village Muslim orphanage school in Kerala sent 1000 cards to him on the eve of Independence Day, it was to inculcate the spirit of patriotism.

This story would not hold much traction in the effulgent episodes we witness now. Dr. Kalam has became a figure of fables and a Dale Carnegie type wisdom giver. His optimism, necessary and utterly sweet, however seemed to create a hothouse idea of the march towards progress. How could he reconcile his ideas of dreams and peace with the adult toys he created breathing fire and earth with Agni, Prithvi and Brahmos, also part of a godly pantheon?

The Minority Appeased

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor paid tribute by tweeting, “Abdul Kalam ignited minds, inspired young people, and embodied the potential in every Indian. A Muslim steeped in Hindu culture, a complete Indian.”

This statement embodies what the Indian nation expects of a Muslim in a position of power; to be a complete Indian a member of the minority community should be steeped in Hindu culture. No other president had such a burden to bear to effectively prove that he is above reproach. This was insidiously managed by using the apolitical argument, the implication being that a person from a minority community is not supposed to have any opinions about the society in which he was born and towards which he contributes.

To an extent, despite his utterances about spiritualism as opposed to religion, he too projected the image of someone who had made peace with the belong-to-the-mainstream idea by the mainstream, which translates into majoritarian hegemony. He had said once how impressed he was by sadhus “seated around in a trance”.

“In him we found a perfect harmony between science and spirituality,” said BJP leader L K Advani, the man who took out a procession in a Toyota mimicking an ancient chariot to pave the way for a Hindutva renaissance in a secular country. Dr. Kalam was to preside over a state run by this party.

In the initial stages, he was naïve. He went to the riot-affected areas in Gujarat soon after the 2002 pogrom. The then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had famously stated that he stood by the chief minister who is now PM, wasn’t amused. Kalam, as quoted in his memoirs ‘Turning Points – A Journey Through Challenges’, told him, “I consider it an important duty so that I can be of some use to remove the pain, and also accelerate the relief activities, and bring about a unity of minds, which is my mission.”

Kalam had, in fact, unwittingly witnessed the early days of political skulduggery. The home ministry cautioned him. But when he landed there, he was welcomed. “Narendra Modi, the chief minister, was with me throughout the visit. In one way, this helped me, as wherever I went, I received petitions and complaints and as he was with me I was able to suggest to him that action be taken as quickly as possible.”

Neither unity nor relief appeared magically. In fact, 13 years later, activists are being hounded for fighting for the victims of those riots.

When there was a delay in awarding the demanded capital punishment to Afzal Guru for the Parliament attack of 2001, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had sniggered, “His hair is falling over his eyes and blinding him, or perhaps he is seeing stars or the moon before his eyes” referring to Kalam’s long hair. Today, the party condoled his death by stating that he will be remembered as Mahatma Gandhi is.

Dr. Kalam fit into the idea of the yogi for which he was lauded – a bachelor, a vegetarian, and one who read the Hindu scriptures. He was not celebrated for offering the namaaz, or reading the Quran. Those who made him into the brand for secularism have always been selective. They would find any questions about their motive communal, because they wish to hold Dr. Kalam up as an example even if their varnished polite language might choose to call it ‘role model’, which he indeed was to those not in positions of power and pelf.

The political role model is created as an armour against an imagined dystopia. The role model is picked from the imagined avenging group. Innocent of their wily ways perhaps, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam became the message rather than the messenger.

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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