The former President was true Indian Muslim, rooted in his Bharatiya culture and faithful to his Islamic beliefs. This was unpalatable to those pushing an exclusive Muslim identity that undermines Indian heritage
There are people who love and live to share knowledge and wisdom. And those who die in the act of doing so are especially priviledged. In fact, that is a gift given to very few people. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam was one such exceptionally gifted person. This was evident in his life’s work and in the crowds that lined up to bid him farewell.
Selections for the top position at Rashtrapati Bhavan are confined to the players of the political and diplomatic circus in New Delhi. The country’s second President, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, was an exception for he was an academic. Another President, KR Narayanan, was also an academic though he rose to through the diplomatic ranks. Abdul Kalam’s appointment to the top post, by the previous BJP Government, therefore, had been described as a surprise choice.
There is a great lesson here, not only on who is chosen as President but also on makes that choice. In Abdul Kalam’s case, the Prime Minister was Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He and his BJP-led Government had been tagged as communal by the Left-liberal. However, the Government knocked the bottom out of this charge by indicating that its first choice for President was former Maharashtra Governor PC Alexander, a Christian. The Left-liberals did not expect this from a so-called communal party.
But who shot down this Christian choice, made by an avowedly Hindutva party? It was the self-styled champion of secularism, Congress president Sonia Gandhi. This was despite the fact that Mr Alexander had served as Principal Secretary to three Congress Prime Ministers — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao.
After Mr Alexander’s candidature was rejected by the Congress, the NDA Government suggested Abdul Kalam — after retiring from the Defence Research and Development Organisation as the chief defence technology adviser to the Government, he was then teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.
Mr Vajpayee had picked Abdul Kalam. The Prime Minister possibly recalled that it was Abdul Kalam (and Mr Rajagopalan Chidambaram of the Atomic Energy Department) who were entrusted the super secret task of carrying out the Pokhran II tests in 1998, soon after the NDA had come to power. This was so secret a test that even Mr Vajpayee’s closest colleagues were not aware of it.
The Congress had not reacted to Pokhran-II with any enthusiasm. However, the sutradhaar of that event had become a national hero and Ms Gandhi could not say reject him for the President’s post. But neither did she or her party applaud the choice. They simply went along.
Abdul Kalam went on to become the people’s President. He was an expert in Karnatak and Hindustani musical systems and a regular veena player. He was a scholar with a broad vision of Bharat, a voracious reader who was knew well the Bhagvad Gita. His personality compelled young and old alike to bow before him and touch his feet in reverence.
Abdul Kalam’s presidency also raised several critical questions: Why were the supposedly great champions of Indian secularism strongly opposed to giving him a second term? Even the first term was a concession, as they did not want to be seen opposing Abdul Kalam’s candidature. In 2007, when the Congress had to decide on the next President, it stated that it was against giving a second term to anyone in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Abdul Kalam withdrew from the race despite the fact that the BJP, the Telugu Desam Party and others in the Opposition were supporting him.
Obviously, after having been elected the first time with wide support from all political parties on both side of the political divide, Abdul Kalam did not want to be seen as contesting with an attenuated political support. The Congress’ claim that it was not against Abdul Kalam but in principle opposed a second term for anyone at Rashtrapati Bhavan wears thin. To understand Ms Gandhi’s opposition to a second term for Abdul Kalam one needs to look at the successor she picked.
Ms Pratibha Patil’s family was deeply involved in several political events of disrepute and the new President was, therefore, expected to be a puppet on the strings of the Congress. She brought much disrepute to the office of the President but served the purpose of the Congress, which was heading a coalition and needed a pliant President.
The countrywide admiration for Abdul Kalam, demonstrated so tellingly in the outpouring of support for him after his death, had one curious absentee: The hardened orthodox Muslim leadership and the masses it leads. Notably, a list of honours awarded to him by various institutions does not have one single award from a major Islamic institution.
It is not just about Abdul Kalam, who as the presidential choice of a BJP-led Government was a refutation of the communal label stuck on the ‘saffron party’. This is more about Abdul Kalam as a person, a standing example of the exclusivity of this leadership and its claim, often made by the Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, that it was the arrival of Islam that taught civilisation to the people of India.
This is now being rubbed in by the Muslim League and other organisations like the one led by Hyderabad-based Owaisi brothers. They urge Muslims to shed any symbolism of Bharatiya ‘contamination’ — such as the lighting of lamps, Hindustani music, and Kathak. Because Abdul Kalam was a true Indian while remaining loyal to his Muslim traditions, these outfits never acknowledged him as a Muslim worthy of being followed.
There is nothing surprising in this. To rub in exclusivity, this Muslim leadership has been acting in a manner so as to claim that civilisation in India began with Islamic conquest. In pre-independence days, it encouraged Muslim masses to abjure a deeply religious Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad in favour of a MA Jinnah, who didn’t even practice Islamic tenets, but was a powerful advocate of separatism.
Zakir Hussain was yet another Islamic scholar and political leader who professed the secular approach even while being a deeply Islamic practitioner. So many of the great leaders of the performing arts world, be it from cinema, music, dance, are Muslims. But they do not figure in madarssa icon lists. The one teaching of pre-independence history is that exclusivism is the parent of separatism.