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.