Thursday 1 February 2018

How Kalam's admirers at times do him greater disservice than his critics

In east Rajasthan, there is a folk tradition of Hela Khyal—which has reportedly been going on since before Independence—where political questions are raised in poetry and have to be answered in the same format. Sadly today there is neither the brilliance of witty poetry nor the glint of sharp logic in the nature of so-called debates in this country.
Looking at the response to critiques of India’s former president APJ Abdul Kalam, there is a sense of things—read a healthy tradition of debate—falling apart. Those who adored Kalam say he was people’s president, yet they are not allowing many others to see him as their leader too and question him.
German poet Bertolt Brecht had asked leaders to allow the led the right to doubt, reminding them that they became leaders in the first place because they, too, had once doubted authority. Kalam’s followers are upset by critical appraisals of him, but in expressing this hurt are they following the values which they staunchly state Kalam had—and for which they idolised him?
After his death, one of the many quotes of his being remembered is: “One of the most important characteristics of a student is to question.” Why aren’t his own students, those who fondly say they saw him as their teacher, encouraging others to question?
Scientific enquiry requires that an issue be examined from multiple perspectives. The aim is to achieve an effective result that benefits the populace, not to create paeans around one’s own work. Would a scientific man, a great teacher, want his students to blindly accept the mainstream discourse and to let their impulsive, unfiltered emotions rule their heads and attack the challengers?

Examining flaws is critical

Now to examine why such evaluation and recalling of flaws is important. These dissenters are not celebrating his death but cautioning against all the values and achievements being talked of after his death, because they see the belief in those values and the subsequent actions as having adverse effects upon many in the country.
As far as I am concerned, we have to question Kalam’s staunch support for nuclear weapons. There are some great scientists, including Albert Einstein, who have regretted their role in producing weapons of mass destruction. Why is it that if Einstein could question himself for his role in producing the atomic bomb so many years ago, we are not allowed to criticise the man who played an enthusiastic role in developing the Indian nuclear and missile programmes?
Kalam was also superstitious, despite being a man of science.
In the book Building a New India, Kalam writes of “an extraordinary spiritual experience… The deity of the Brahma Kumaris, Shiva Baba, descended on one of the disciples, Dhadhi Gurzar. Before our eyes, her personality changed. Her face became radiant; her voice became deeper… We… were lucky to be called by her to the dais and blessed. As she blessed us she said, ‘Bharat will become the most beautiful land on earth.’” Should we not question such superstitious practices in a country where anti-superstition activists are killed?
In making someone a hero we distance them from ourselves, not allowing them to be their own selves but seeing them as we want to. After all our praise for them for attaining such heights, we then say we cannot follow the ideals they did because they’re up, up, up there and we are ordinary people, down here. And therefore those on top end up looking down upon people—often with contempt—and maybe in the case of Kalam, who opened his office to the public and said he wanted dialogue, with sadness?

First published in Quartz, 30 Jul 2015.

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