A President and a Yogi: Abdul Kalam’s Symbolism

(Published in CounterPunch)

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”.

At Akshardham, 2006

"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.


Breastfeeding in Parliament

A woman breastfeeding her child can be a rather sublime sight, that is if she is not stared at. But does sublimity or subtlety even matter when the mother in the act ends up as an "internet hero"? 

Victoria Donda Pérez is an Argentinian MP. She decided to breastfeed her 8-month-old daughter in Parliament, when the session was on. 

Working women have praised her; her critics say it falsely conveys that women can have it all when that is not true.

Was she aware that her pictures were taken and would be in the media?  Assuming she is okay with it, I am not one bit impressed by Ms. Pérez's act on grounds of prudence as well as feminism. 

Breastfeeding is a natural activity as are many others, some of which we might not even have much control over. We control them in a public space anyway. I am not comparing sneezing, breaking wind or picking the nose to nursing, but surely there could not have been such urgency to feed the baby. If anything, this comes across as terribly unprofessional. 

This is not an issue about women's rights over their bodies; it is just that such rights as exercised in this manner convey that the woman has no choice. Even if we excuse the politician for elitism, the larger question is: is the woman a mother on the job? This just sends out the message about the feminised woman as the only one who can have any power, or acceptance.

Why are women applauding the "balancing act"? It isn't news that only a woman can bear a child and nurse babies. But such validation of 'balance' also unburdens the father of responsibility, and he will be the first one to call her superwoman.

Such a public act in a work place (as opposed to a park or even the office canteen) only consolidates the stereotyped role of a mother that deny her the option to make a studied choice — which could be fixed feeding hours at the office creche or collecting the milk for use at intervals. 

Suppose this was not in Parliament, but a regular office conference. Would the response be the same? Unlikely. It only means that in some ways this is sought to be made into a political statement. 

And it is no surprise at all that she has been nicknamed "Dipusex" (sexy MP). It takes a simple, natural activity to make a woman into a fantasy object. Women object to such labels on other occasions when they want to be recognised for their work or talent alone. How is it different this time? Is Ms. Pérez not being reduced to a pair of breasts, even if they are of a mother's? 

The Oedipal implications are too obvious. 

PS: In India, women from the labour class do breastfeed at the workplace on construction sites or in small industries. That is because the child is with them all the time. 

Sunday ka Funda

I don't like this tree, a hybrid tree that bears forty different kinds of fruit and flowers in varied colours.

This "sculpture by grafting", the brainchild of art professor Sam Van Aken of Syracuse University, might be a great scientific experiment and good as curiosity or art installation that it initially was, but a workable green option?

There is something about orchards with trees bearing one sort of fruit; it feels like communion, familiarity, and also to an extent hierarchy when one picks the good ones. The birds too know where to come for what they seek.

A huge tree with different varieties appears to compress nature. It is also demeaning in a way for spoiled for choice, one may either make the wrong move or the one not intended, or just walk away awestruck.

Trees are designed to be resilient, not to multitask. And some of us like our trees and people to just do one thing at a time.

As the Zen teacher told his pupil, “When drinking tea, just drink tea.”


Who is communalising the hanging? Owaisi vs Sakshi Maharaj

There are many people who speak out against capital punishment; there are a good number of Indians who believe that Yakub Memon should not be given the death sentence. He has already spent 20 years in jail and is medically certified as a schizophrenic. The court has rejected his curative petition. He is scheduled to be hanged to death on July 30.

I have already written about the case here, but it is disturbing to watch how the public is being swayed in the name of nationalism. Even those who do not want him to be hanged seem to have a problem with any Muslim "communalising" the issue.

Let us stop fooling others and ourselves. Muslims have not communalised other crimes. This was and is a communal issue. Why is it that only the blasts are seen as communal? Because the culprits were Muslim, and it was said that this was their vengeance for the 1992 riots? Muslims suffered in the blasts too, their businesses were destroyed. Hindus too suffered during the riots, but the main targets were Muslims.

It is a communal issue because the rath yatra of L.K.Advani and the kar sevaks was to reclaim a place of worship. It is communal because a mosque was destroyed (yes, if you like history so much, then we will say that Babar was communal, hope it helps) with hammers and trishuls, a Hindu symbol. It is communal because soon after Muslims were threatened and there was a blood bath in cities far from Ayodhya. It is communal because leaders could use filthy language against a community, could provoke crowds; these leaders got elected. It is communal because there was pressure on the Srikrishna Committee probing into the riots; no one was convicted.

Therefore, when Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) asks questions about the hanging of Yakub Memon how does he become communal whereas others can say the same thing and be 'Indians'?

He did raise questions of discrimination. He also said:

"The killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh have the backing of political parties in Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Which political party is backing Yakub Memon? Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab has gone to the extent of pardoning Balwant Singh Rajoana."

Owaisi is speaking as an Indian; he is referring to law and the Constitution. It is not a law of the high born or the Hindu. It is a law for everybody.

He has every right to speak about Muslims, not because he is a Muslim but this is a human rights issue. In any civilised society capital punishment leads to introspection. It is not about dancing on the rooftop claiming to be more patriotic that the next person.

I watched a TV discussion last night where the above-mentioned incidents were dismissed as individual efforts that were not as much a threat as Pakistan and ISI. When Owaisi pointed out that the LTTE and Khalistani elements could be a threat too, the anchor, good Mr. Arnab Goswami, started screaming about how he was SHOCKED that Owaisi was taking up for the ISI.

So this is not about India. It is about Pakistan. The Indian government is frustrated that it cannot bring back Dawood Ibrahim, and will use any means to get back at that country. Prime time divas thrive on warmongering.

BJP's Sakshi Maharaj responding to Owaisi said:

"People who can't respect Indian system and judiciary can go to Pakistan, door is open."

Sakshi Maharaj is a career sadhu; he has got into Parliament for this reason and not because of any other qualification. Such people have the gumption to abuse others for communalism when their very existence and calling card is communal; he speaks about how Hindu women should produce more children so that Muslims do not overtake them. His commitment to the Indian judiciary is selective, and if the party leadership were strong he would have been shown the door using the same judiciary.

I usually don't like to grant any legitimacy to such utterances, except that this one once again uses the fake nationalism card to discriminate.

While upholding his death sentence, the Supreme Court described Yakub Memon as the "driving spirit" of the blasts. This is clearly a way to wash hands off finding others. And it also makes me wonder about all those "driving spirits" that have inspired riots in different parts of the country as well as the "driving spirits" who continue to occupy positions of power to divide the nation with their bigotry by feeding them with false notions of nationalism.

Waiting for a man to go to the gallows does not prove your patriotism one bit.

End note

"Much is being made of former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief late B. Raman's 2007 piece that has been published now. As an insider, he had explained why Yakub Memon should not be hanged."

He had come to Kathmandu secretly from Karachi to consult a relative and a lawyer on the advisability of some members of the Memon family, including himself, who felt uncomfortable with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, returning to India and surrendering to the Mumbai police. The relative and the lawyer advised him against surrender due to a fear that justice might not be done to them. They advised Yakub to go back to Karachi.

None of this is new and its publication now adds nothing. In fact, it only leads to conspiracy theories about how it is timed to influence the mercy plea.

What will influence the mercy plea is more direct and unethical — the Maharashtra state home department has asked the governor to reject the mercy plea. What is the basis for such intervention?


Received an email from somebody who knows the law better than I do. Regarding my last bit about ethics of state intervention, it is legal:

"The state/centre's Home Ministry is duty bound to give its opinion on a mercy plea. However, it is still being debated- whether the governor is bound by such opinion."


No prayers for terrorists?

The Eid namaaz had just been offered. The maulvis at the Dargah Ala Hazrat in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh issued a fatwa: say no burial prayers for terrorists and their sympathisers.

Mufti Mohammed Salim Noori, general secretary of the Tahreek-e-Tahaffuz Sunniat, said:

"On the pious occasion of Eid, the Sunni Barelvi Markaz send a strong message that no maulana, mufti or other religious leader will read the 'namaz-e-janaza' for anyone associated with terrorism in any form. By this, we want to lodge a strong protest against terrorism."

It is not surprising that this will be hailed among some sections of the intelligentsia, because this segment loves varnish. Also, it cares not for details.

Clerics are not germane to Islam; they are middlemen that have capitalised on the vulnerabilities of the devout. A Muslim does not need a religious leader to recite any prayers; it can be done by anybody — relatives, friends or wayfarers. The maulvis are pushing their own agenda, as they have always done to keep themselves relevant.

If they are so concerned about all that is good, why don't they issue fatwas against those who do not use medical assistance due to superstition? Because this will hit their business of exorcism and other trickery. Will a Sunni or a Shia maulvi issue a fatwa to the faithful not to discriminate on the basis of sect?

While terrorism is a huge problem, it also helps empty rhetoric to sideline more urgent terrors of daily living. The Times of India report spoke about other good fatwas by the seminary quite forgetting its own
report of April this year when this same cleric had objected to a survey finding in which Muslim women wanted equal property rights.

Those who laud 'progressive' edicts should be protesting against the dragging of religion in what is a political matter. They too put the onus on Muslims to deal with terrorism, and ironically the pulpit that is often blamed for provoking violence is the one that gets away for ostensibly sending a message of peace.

How is the general public to recognise a terrorist when the police seem to have difficulty identifying them? Is that not why there are so many undertrial prisoners rounded up on mere suspicion because of their names or what they look like? What if a good Samaritan follows the good cleric's orders and implicates somebody as a terrorist supporter only because of a personal grudge?

Occasionally, the cleric is also a terrorist. If not for real, then by the sheer tactics he uses to promote himself. As for political terrorists, they aren't exactly roaming around in the cities and towns to recruit people who might offer the namaaz upon their death.


Sunday ka Funda

This Eid, in India, belonged to two films that essentially celebrate Hindu mythology.

At a late night show of 'Baahubali' on the day that celebrates the conclusion of Ramzan, we watched a celebration of Lord Shiva. In the audience were quite a few Muslims in identifiable clothes — caps, hijabs, even burqa.

Despite its obvious mythology it does not alienate those who might not follow its precepts. In that sense, it is a truly secular movie, and I say this despite my aversion for standardised norms of secularism, or of the fads surrounding it as well as the slurs it invites by way of spelling. No, it is not sickular! (A review will follow later.)


I have not yet watched 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan', but from what I've read and heard it is also simplistic and guileless. Here, a Hanuman bhakt takes it upon himself to unite a little girl who is Muslim and Pakistani with her family.

This qawwali here is something I've heard from better artistes, but just that moment when the protagonist breaks down as the music soars conveys that faith — religious or otherwise — is essentially about flowing.

Eid Mubarak!


Hanging Yakub Memon

Yakub Memon is to hang. Barely had the announcement been made, and the media started with its, “This will send out a wrong signal to Indian Muslims”. How pathetic and dangerous such analysis is. It assumed that by default all Muslims in India are the products and respondents to the Yakub Memon school of thought, and that is the worst thing to happen to this fair country of ours. The other usage of Indian Muslims is as pop analysis, which is again so limited. That is the reason I felt Black Friday was such a disgusting film.

Even as his curative petition is pending in the Supreme Court, a TADA court in Mumbai has issued a death warrant against 1993 Mumbai serial blast accused Yakub Memon. According to the warrant, Memon is likely to be hanged at the Nagpur Central Jail on July 30 at 7 am.

It seems more like diverting attention and once again some political parties will gain mileage.

The verdict to hang was made first 20 years after the 1993 blasts. The CBI had picked on arrangers and got nowhere near the real culprits. The riots preceding the blasts have never been fully understood.  I had written the following then:

Those were the days of TADA, Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the horrific provision that transformed every suspect into a terrorist. It made the prevalent context of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ redundant. It gave more powers to the police, without any responsibility.

And today as the courts pronounced the verdict, a man who in fact assisted in nailing the real culprits is to be hanged to death. If Yakub Memon had not mentioned Pakistan, our intelligence agencies would be going on their regular spins to Dubai.

Advocate Ujjwal Nikam said that the death sentence for Yakub Memon would send a strong message to Pakistan about the consequences of hiding Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon. He is either an optimistic or a deluded man. He said something similar when Ajmal Kasab was hanged. And things have got no better. Worse, seven years ago he had stated that if Sanjay Dutt had informed the police then the blasts would not have taken place because he “knew that the three AK56 rifles he received from Samir Hingora, Ibrahim Mussa and Abu Salem on Jan 16, 1993, were part of a consignment meant for terrorist acts.”

Three guns were going to cause blasts across the city? And what was the huge consignment in Shiv Sena MLA the late Madhukar Sarpotdar’s house for during the riots that preceded the blasts?

In what is an extremely ironic situation, Sanjay Dutt played the role of a tragic gangster in Vaastav, a film produced by Chhota Rajan. Rajan was the second most important man in D-Company, helmed by Dawood Ibrahim, who was responsible for the 1993 Mumbai blasts. This film was made later. By then, Rajan had split from Dawood because he discovered his patriotism for India, a country he does not live in. He continues to conduct his underworld operations mainly from Bangkok, quite conveniently managing illegal activities in his home country.

Dark comedy aside, the verdict is abuse of law. While Yakub Memon and Sanjay Dutt will be seen as the pivots, we need to take a look at how the process of justice in this case took place.

We have had a long incubation period on the riots report by Justice Liberhan. Where are the accused in that and what is the status of their arrests? There is rarely any talk about the riots; there is no loss of property “worth Rs 27 crore” and therefore useless to an economically-varnished India.

If we want fairplay, then play fair. During the riots cops were assisting in the process and shooting at random, shooting innocents only because they knew who stayed there. And what about the goon ministers who possessed arms? What about recruiting kar sevaks? How do you think people died during the riots – out of fear or did they commit suicide?

The problem is that we have two sets of justices operating always, whether it is on grounds of religion, caste, class, or fame.