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Why Kalam’s Ideas Of ‘Development And Progress’ Scared Me

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By Bikash Bhattacharya:

A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own -Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

The ubiquitously popular former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s death has left millions of Indians in a state of mourning. This is quite natural given the luminosity of his character, his contribution to the Indian society, his astute apolitical functioning of the presidential office, his special knack and keenness of initiating dialogue with the youth, and lending ears to their voices in matters of national importance, and particularly his honest and down-to-earth nature. Nevertheless it is also equally important not to forget- in the current of excessive eulogising- that the former president either took controversial stance or, kept mum on several crucial issues of public concern.

I am a humble citizen of this country who regards the late former president as one of the profound personas of our country, and I am also well aware that I have no competence to say anything differing with him. Still, as a citizen of a democratic nation, I think I have the right to speak out what I sincerely believe in, and readers have every right to differ with me.


Everyone would admit that the former president rose through the ranks of the Indian scientific establishment with his firm backing for hawkish causes: he played a pivotal role in the “peaceful nuclear explosion” in Pokhran in the 1990s, as a scientific adviser to the PM, and head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and he was instrumental in missile development and nuclear weaponisation of India, once a leading non-aligned nation that held high moral ground calling for nuclear disarmament. He gave a clean chit to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu despite a massive popular protest against it, and even after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, at a time when the countries like Germany are phasing out nuclear power and turning successfully to renewable sources of energy.

His conviction in ”peace” attained through nuclear armament is what I am scared of. I am afraid this isn’t, and can’t be a genuine lasting peace. One day it will take a toll on the whole human race. It’s time we gave impetus to the green movement to save our ailing planet. I am not convinced that the former president’s rigid positions on nuclearism served that cause in any way, and unfortunately he hardly declared his stand on this.

He was an ardent supporter of the mega hydroelectric projects backing the projects in Assam, situated in a highly vulnerable seismic zone where the entire populace have protested against these ‘big instruments of development’, and hundreds of people that depended on the river for livelihood, have already been harshly impacted, and are made to embrace mendicancy. For tribal communities like Mishing, whose life and culture is primarily based on the river, these mega projects are not only harmful to their livelihoods but an existential threat to their culture itself. An old Mishing woman wept, while being ‘relocated’ for clearing the construction site of the mega dam on the Subansiri river, saying: “The river is our life. We are the sons and daughters of the river. As soon as the river dies we will also die.” I wonder how Dr. Kalam would reply to her. If the former president had something for these local communities, he kept it to himself.
He once said, “We will be remembered only if we give to our younger generation a prosperous and safe India, resulting out of economic prosperity coupled with civilizational heritage.” I am scared of the ‘civilizational heritage‘ our beloved former president advocated for, if it has nothing for the local communities.

He was also a vocal supporter of the controversial Vedanta aluminium project in Odisha, despite opposition to it from NGOs and the local adivasis, who pointed to the threat to the lives of the Dongria Kondh Adivasi people in the Niyamgiri area, as well as the impact on wildlife.

From a scientist of his stature, I expected emphasis on innovative models of development which would accommodate the local knowledge and consider/respect the local needs and aspirations. He showered high praise on the present government’s highly questionable plan of connecting rivers which entails high human cost, let alone the ecological damage. The project would require displacing vast numbers of people, especially Adivasis inhabiting forested lands.

Dr. Kalam’s ‘governance of growth‘ perfectly suited the majoritorian Hindu state’s ”nationalist” agenda, but it had little recognition of the rights of the marginal communities. No acknowledgement of the rights in political terms, and the faulty assumtion of the national leaders that ”growth is the panacea for all woes” is one of the prime causes of the long-persisting conflicts in the country’s northeast.

I am scared of that Kalam whose actions as a scientist was not value-neutral. And I revere that selfless human being in Kalam who strived all his life to unite and uplift the country from its paralysed present.

You must be to comment.
  1. Atin Mehra

    Although, the author has the full independence to raise his concerns regarding Dr. Kalam’s ideology. But, it is immensely distressful that people tend to shade and give religious connotation to a topic which does not have any association with it.

    I don’t know from where does the author gets the feeling of “Nationalist Agenda” of a “Hindu Nation” in Dr. Kalam’s ideology. He has not given any “CONCRETE EXAMPLE” where Dr.kalam advocated the cause of “Hindu Nation”. It is simply some anti-nationals who tend to paint every matter in either black or white without finding the cause and intent of the development agenda of visionaries such as Dr. Kalam.

    These “hardliners” are the primary cause of concern for our society who try to convert the image of a true “Patriotic Indian” into “Nationalistic Indian” with their malafied arguments.

    1. Bikash K Bhattacharya

      Dr. Kalam never advocated the cause of “Hindu nation”, but these facts are also to be taken into account : he got elected as president in July 2002 with the full backing of not only the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government but the Sangh Parivar asa 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. (source: Articles by N. Jayaram, and various media reports)
      While paying tribute to the RSS founder doesn’t imply that the former president endorsed the Hindu nationalist organisation’s view, still it is somewhat an ”advantageous” position. He hardly critiqued them, maitaining his “apoliticalness”.

      Dr. Kalam was a true patriotic Indian. That’s beyond question.
      But his approach to development helped the nationalist narrative of “development” which has so far betrayed the aspirations of the marginalised. He was adhering to,and co-operating in, the state’s colonial approach to development, which is based on the assumption of ‘civilising’ the ‘savage’. For instance in the debates regarding the mega dams in Assam the voice of the local Mishing tribals were not considered worthy of hearing with the assumption that they are not “competent” (or ”civilized” !) enough to have their say.
      For a northeasterner “Hindu” doesn’t just connote to the religion, it has something to do with India’s nation-building process. Hinduism–which is more a cultural framework than a religion–in Northeast has been localised to a large extent and it differs in many ways from its so-called “standardized version” practiced in the other parts of India.
      In the nation-states’ quest for ‘nationalising’ space through this approach to development that difference has been ignored.
      The developmental approach Dr. Kalam advocated for helped the state in promoting what Dr. Sanjib Barua termed as ”the developmental road to nationalising space” in his seminal work “Durable Disroder”.

  2. Niraj Bahadur Pal

    As a citizen of India, everyone has a right to put his/her opinion and ideas what he/she supports to but at the same time when that person is putting his opinion on a broader spectrum, he/she must understand and care for the words, he/she picks to put. Even if I am agree with all the sacredness that you pointed here, you just washed all the effects by quoting a single sentence “Dr. Kalam’s ‘governance of growth‘ perfectly suited the majoritorian Hindu state’s ”nationalist” agenda”. And you did not put a single instance to prove your point? Secondly, what’s the agenda? Do you really know that? Do you have a copy of that particular agenda?
    You have given the right to speak and say doesn’t mean what ever you think k is right and before putting anything on a bigger spectrum think twice. Journalism is a very tough job, don’t play a politician and don’t try to break the immune harmony of the country which we are experiencing since our birth irrespective of all look sheds. Try to bring the positiveness into the reports that you want the readers to read, invoke them to practice it what you say. At least not like above.

  3. Avinesh Saini

    You cannot go on appeasing everybody all the time. In case you manage to do that, you are no more human, you are actually a benevolent God who only loves his children and never punishes them.

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