Kalam was no great man: Don't let news of death confuse you

The former president rose through the ranks of the Indian scientific establishment with his firm backing for hawkish causes.

 |  4-minute read |   28-07-2015

As is usual when public personalities die, there is much outpouring of tributes after the passing of APJ Abdul Kalam. Newspaper headlines have described him as the "people's president" and "missile man". That a Muslim aerospace scientist fuelled the Hindu majoritarian state's quest for missiles and nuclear weapons obviously went down well with the nationalist crowd. Uncritical media attention and eulogising naturally followed.

Most accounts gloss over the fact that he got elected as president in July 2002 with the full backing of not only the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government but the Sangh Parivar as a whole plus the opposition Congress following his near complete silence over the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat earlier that year.

Last year Kalam visited the Nagpur headquarters of the RSS and paid tributes to its founder KB Hedgewar. Shashi Tharoor has described him as a "Muslim steeped in Hindu culture" who listened to "Carnatic devotional music every day". In other words, Kalam tried to out-mama the Mylapore mama, that quintessential Brahmin attending Tala-vadya-kaccheris in the Brahmin Bhadralok that is Mylapore in Chennai.

Earlier, he rose through the ranks of the Indian scientific establishment with his firm backing for hawkish causes such as nuclear weaponisation and missile development. There was a time when India held the high moral ground as a leading non-aligned country calling for nuclear disarmament. That went out the window when it carried out a nuclear test in 1974 during Indira Gandhi's prime ministership and again in 1998 under Vajpayee. While in 1974 Indian officials came up with the bizarre term "peaceful nuclear explosion", the gloves were off by the 1990s. Kalam was by then scientific adviser to the PM and head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). No wonder he was adopted as a darling of the Hindutva right. He had already been conferred the Bharat Ratna in 1997.

Kalam gave a clean chit to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu despite a massive popular agitation against it and even after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A number of scholars and activists including Achin Vanaik, SP Udayakumar, Arundhati Roy, Kumar Sundaram and the recently deceased Praful Bidwai have been warning against the dangers stemming from nuclear plants, pointing out that countries such as Germany are phasing out nuclear power and turning successfully to renewable sources of energy.

The Narendra Modi government's highly questionable plan for the linking of river waters too won high praise from Kalam, who had first proposed it in 2002. Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), Ashish Kothari of the environmental activist group Kalpavriksh and others have shown why this is a daft idea. Quite apart from the ecological cost in terms of harmful effects on biodiversity, the project carries a massive human cost as well: it would entail the displacement of vast numbers of people, especially Adivasis inhabiting forested lands. Kalam was also a vocal supporter of the Vedanta aluminium project in Odisha, despite opposition to it from NGOs which point to the threat to the lives of the Dongria Kondh Adivasi people in the Niyamgiri area as well as the impact on wildlife.   

Earlier this month, Kalam called for abolition of the death penalty, saying there was a "social and economic bias" in its application. He ought to have applied his mind in the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was hanged during his presidency in 2004. Chatterjee was an impoverished watchman in a building where 18-year-old named Hetal Parekh was found dead in 1990. The watchman was convicted of rape and murder but a new analysis by two scholars with the Indian Statistical Institute that was released in time for the Law Commission's hearing on the death penalty on July 11 and released by the People's Union for Democratic Rights casts serious doubts over his guilt. The scholars, Debashish Sengupta and Prabal Chaudhury say "facts" were created to frame Chatterjee. From the trial courts upwards, including in the Supreme Court and President Kalam's office, no attention was paid to the shoddy investigation that had been carried out. Witnesses and recovered articles said to belong to Chatterjee or stolen by him were never subject to counter-examination. Ditto forensic evidence. The scholars allege police complicity in concocting circumstancial evidence, adding that the family's reasons for blaming Chatterjee were not examined.

If Kalam had any opinion on the hanging of the Kashmiri, Afzal Guru, he kept it to himself. The Supreme Court handed Guru - about whose unfair trial entire books have been written by the likes of Arundhati Roy and philosophy professor Nirmalangshu Mukherji - the death sentence noting it was necessary to satisfy the "collective conscience" of the society. Kalam was equally silent on the moves to hang Yakub Memon.

It is for these reasons that the current excessive eulogising of Kalam comes across as a tad obscene.


N Jayaram N Jayaram @n_jayaram

The writer is a journalist now based in Bangalore. He has worked for the Press Trust of India and Agence France-Presse.