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Why the late President APJ Abdul Kalam never made an impression on me

By       Message Prakash Kona     Permalink
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Abdul Kalam
(image by youth connect)
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I can't believe so much fuss was made about Abdul Kalam's passing away. Now that some of that fever has reduced I would like to put President Kalam in perspective. In my view, he was neither a phenomenal scientist nor an effectual leader. People are so bored in this country that they will praise or attack anybody without any good reason. The media and the dreadful Indian films bereft of social and ethical content feed into this boredom. India as a nation is starved of heroes. It is also a social order desperately searching for one. A politically impotent public intellectual is the kind of hero that royally fits the Indian bill.

Kalam was critical of nobody and did nothing to come in anybody's way. He was not against capitalism or the corporate lobby and if he thought that they were crooks in his heart of hearts he made sure that he never voiced his feelings on any platform. My own feeling is that he may have been indifferent to the economic dimension of social reality like most engineers, doctors and scientists who do not subscribe to the view that conscience is about responding to the plight of the weak and the downtrodden.

At an important juncture in Indian political history, Abdul Kalam as Muslim filled that space that would have been invented if it did not exist. He became the minority poster boy for the majoritarian discourse that needed Uncle Tom as role model. For all the claims to be a friend of youth for which he is praised, Kalam was never critical of the tyranny of middle class Indian parents or the cruelty of teachers who crush the souls of the young in the name of conventional morality and force them to conform to their own sickly aspirations of success.

In good old days when I was a wage slave teaching English at an engineering college to students who thought learning any language was a waste of time, I had the unpleasant task of having to teach Wings of Fire. It reads like a self-help book which is more or less everything that Kalam wrote and spoke in his lifetime -- a bunch of self-help stuff put together. He has sayings like "When you speak, speak the truth"" - I mean, this is what my moral science teacher would have told me in class V and then too I would be profoundly untouched. I don't think I would be listening. This lack of complexity in a man befuddles the imagination. I won't persist in the point: but, no man lives his life entirely on the surface.

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Somewhere I think Kalam had a certain dimension to his personality that he kept hidden from public gaze. I don't think it was a transparent life though that doesn't bother me much because he is entitled to privacy. It is the transparency that his sayings are meant to inspire in others that I find hypocritical. What the nuclear scientist Homi Sethna said about Abdul Kalam in the 2009 interview actually raises serious questions on whether Kalam was as bright a scientist (the Missile Man of India? -- a missile test that failed in fact?) as he was thought to be by the public or as honest as he was made to look by the same public.

To be an intellectual you need to understand and confront the contradictions of the society you live in. That's what real intellectualism is. As a nation-state and society with a colonial past we are dedicated to contradictions of elephantine proportions. We think and speak in English and feel and live in our native languages and dialects. We live in a country where powerful communities, though numerically small, like the Jains, are officially deemed minorities. Technically that makes the Jains similar to minority groups that actually suffer discrimination and marginalization though that is hardly the case with the former. We live in a country where the majority poor are actually a minority in the deprivation they experience as a group. We watch movies as if that were real life and we look at real life with the disdain of a habitual movie-goer. We want all the advantages that come with modern technology, but we also want the women to be caught up in tradition and accepting their plight with equanimity the way our mothers do. Abdul Kalam either transcended those contradictions or simply came nowhere near them. I think the latter is true.

Martin Luther King: says in "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam": "Now, I've chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal." As a majoritarian intellectual, by being silent about things that mattered, Kalam's silence became a form of betrayal. If Kalam made no enemies in his life time it is because he never befriended any serious social or political cause either. Someone like Gandhi is spoken of with contempt by both the Dalits and the Muslims -- both of whom Gandhi dedicated the best part of his life to. Gandhi felt that the rightness of the cause was more important than either making friends or enemies. As a believer in God, Gandhi was perhaps more Hindu than any Hindu of his generation. Yet he was murdered in cold blood by a Hindu fanatic who did not espouse the non-violent version of Gandhi's Hinduism. That's what not being neutral in times of moral crises is all about! You end up making enemies of the very people whose interests you dedicate your life fighting for.

George Orwell in his "Reflections on Gandhi" makes the following observation: "Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because "friends react on one another" and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true." He ends the essay saying that, while "Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!" "Sin does not mean doing wrong"not to do good -- that's what sin means" is how Pasolini concludes his poem "To a Pope" which is a scathing attack on Pius the XII. Seen simply as a politician, I don't think Abdul Kalam managed to leave behind such a clean smell. Like most people from the educated classes he did not do wrong because he had the restraint that came from upbringing and perhaps the fear of doing wrong. But I am not sure if he did any good either because no one felt transformed by his worldview or his way of life. In other words, he never deviated from the mainstream.

Bertrand Russell points out in his essay, "The harm that good men do" that Bentham viewed "as the basis of morals, 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'." Russell further adds: "A man who acts upon this principle will have a much more arduous life than a man who merely obeys conventional precepts. He will necessarily make himself the champion of the oppressed, and so incur the enmity of the great. He will proclaim facts which the powers that be wish to conceal; he will deny falsehoods designed to alienate sympathy from those who need it. Such a mode of life does not lead to a collapse of genuine morality." None of this ever happened with Abdul Kalam. In fact he was a champion of middle class morality, never incurred the enmity of the "great," and only proclaimed facts that the powers that be loved to hear. Frankly, there was little point in changing the name of Aurangazeb Road to Abdul Kalam Road. Aurangazeb was an emperor whose actions mattered. How can we make these crass cross-historical comparisons unless you actually share in the communal philosophy of the ruling Indian government!

The only thing I personally would like to remember Abdul Kalam for is that he did not allow his relatives to misuse his position as India's President to indulge in corrupt practices or steal from the nation's resources. Relatives of people in political and administrative positions are usually not very different from the people themselves: wholesale thugs. Being a single man probably it was possible for him to keep the family at arm's length. Living in India and with firsthand experience of the tyranny of families I don't think that this is a small achievement though not big enough for someone to be called a great human being.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.


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