The dawn of 25th July 2002 witnessed a President of a different breed- gentle and courteous, a new man and a people’s maharaja, glowing and jubilant in his new role yet simple and unassuming. India was indeed shining with Dr. Kalam as its first citizen. To him, the responsibility was about winning trust and sacrificing his everything for the sake of nation building.
Shall we recall the day when this endearing man assumed office as the 11th president- an unorthodox choice by the then ruling government, when quotes and sayings echoed from Raisina Hill insinuating that this country belongs to only those who dream, India belongs to those who are in the act of transforming and enriching lives not to those who cheat and swindle, India belongs to those who play fair and hard only to live in harmony not to those who instigate fear, create communal violence and gloat over their self-importance! Though his nomination was viewed with suspicion as a curtain on Gujarat, the dignity, respect and reverence he earned from people belonging to all faiths was essentially because of his success as a good human being. No wonder Dr. Kalam seemed the one and only fitter candidate temperamentally and practically at a time when anti-muslim sentiment was running high.
Be it poetry, religion, politics or his life as such, this gentleman has always remained an avowed critic of the retrogressive talks, beliefs and practices of traditions and a persistent experimenter pioneering a renewal of human understanding of life and nature by assimilating the constructive inheritance of history, morals and values.
When Raisina Hill did a good job, the south block never dared to create any blocks. Who would forget how Dr. Kalam inked a revised order to restore the vertical and horizontal red stripes to the naval ensign? Dr. kalam’s decision implied that the naval ensign superimposed by a saint’s cross was no embarrassment to anybody because millions of Christians enrich the enviable multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural tapestry of our country. Hence, neither was this president a die-hard fundamentalist nor was he reluctant about deconstructing those tricky questions or views of fundamentalism. Moreover, he conveyed that people of this country have arrived at a stage when any attempt to rigidly impose fundamentalist ideas even on a small section is bound to fail.
There were hard times when Dr. kalam carried himself with panache, especially when he was frisked, once at the Indira Gandhi International Airport and another time at JFK airport. Soon after these incidents came to public attention with various terms as ‘mistreatment’, ‘inconvenience’ and ‘inappropriate mechanism’ and an apology was hand-delivered by Charge d’Affaires Ambassador Peter Burleigh, Kalam’s office responded in its usual dignified style that Dr. Kalam co-operated with the ground staff without showing the slightest disapproval or hesitation and took everything in his stride. Nothing could tarnish Kalam Ji’s larger than life image. Plain truth is lesser minds could never get the better of him. But for the ‘Fizzle’ comments he pooh-poohed or his love for Veena, tilak on his forehead or his meeting with Sai Baba, backing BJP’s demand for a uniform civil code, his dignified silences or signing of office of profit bill, Dr. Kalam lived a dream, endearing himself to Indians as such.
The imposition of President’s rule in Bihar in 2005 soon after an election wasn’t a matter of elation because people voted for political parties. To that extent, the denouement went against the spirit of a popular mandate- a fractured one. This episode gave L P Yadav the chance to indulge himself in introspection as to why the state occupy the lower most rung in the economic ladder, the promise of social justice failed and why the state apparatus got enmeshed in criminalized politics. Then, Bihar for that moment got politically distanced from a man who ruled it for 15 long yrs, with kidnapping as the only organized industry. This interregnum did provide some direction to Bihar in terms of social and economic revival though the order was later quashed by the apex court as an unconstitutional one.
In 2004, there was a widespread impassioned debate over the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee as to if a mere execution would set society free or if hanging a rapist would coincide with a high degree of civilization. In spite of the issue getting extremely emotional often taking the shape of protests by human rights’ activists calling a punishment as vengeance stemming from a vindictive spirit, Dr. Kalam made sure that justice would not see the mockery that the law only too often makes of her. That mercy and compassion was also Dr. Kalam’s forte was known to his critics as 14 mercy petitions were left pending, 9 of which were from his predecessor. In addition to this he commuted the death sentence of Kheraj Ram. Abhorrent or otherwise, the idea of capital punishment didn’t go well with Kalam ji because he strongly believed that a place for death by law in a country with aspirations of greatness will not augur well all the time. On account of a horrible harvest of heinous crimes, the rarest of the rare, there can be clangorous demands for extreme and exemplary judicial punishment was Kalam Ji’s contention. If Dr. Kalam didn’t act appropriately on Afzal Guru’s mercy petition, then chances are he probably never got his hands on it.
He absorbed in himself the finest of Islam and Hinduism, thereby laying the foundation of what is termed the composite culture of India. All through his life, he stood for raising the quality of life through God, self realization and social service, in whatever role he adorned. Being largely influenced by vedantas, he embraced people of all religions and respected every other faith. The message of Dr. Kalam infused new life into the human race and gives hope to people groaning under unjust and corrupt systems. Being well versed in quranic traditions and vedantic thoughts, the messages of Dr. Kalam stood out as a philosophical treatise, an intellectual master piece that help devout readers to scale new spiritual heights and bring new fellowships into being. Post presidency when people were simply shocked knowing what his belongings were, I understood he was also a saint who possessed nothing in terms of worldly wealth and whom nothing possessed but the name of God and service of humanity.
The very first time I got to meet him in person at Raj Bhavan, Chennai, I had to pinch myself to make sure, this gentleman was right there in front without any baggage I expected from one of the most important leaders of our times. Few minutes of chat and he becomes part of your emotional psyche if it’s his moral or intellectual integrity or his passion for knowledge or insight, his intuition as a motivator and his certainty about India 2020.
To him faith is the liberator and intellect, a bondage. For his contributions to science, especially the low- weight ortho calipers or the Kalam-Raju stent, country’s first fully indigenized affordable stent for heart patients, we tend to ask ourselves if science is still science and research is still research when it’s less about serving humanity than coddling the self?
During one diwali, Dr. Kalam’s interview to Tamil actor Vivekh proved his candor and humor that was equally thought provoking. I personally was struck for the first time by his openness and impressive mannerisms. Dr. Kalam will be remembered as a leader who is not used to treating fellow beings with lofty disdain and as one who never entertained, encouraged or enjoyed sycophancy of any kind. While thousands of politicians, businessmen, activists and scientists fly around emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases to come to an agreement on emission cuts, we saw Dr. Kalam’s austerity at its best. Without being hailed as the beacon of eco- responsibility he talked and did what’s just about harnessing solar energy and living in harmony with nature.
The Taiwanese poet Yu Hsi who had the wisdom and vision to translate Tirukural and Bharathiyar’s poems in Mandarin had the privilege to dedicate an entire volume of poems to Dr. Kalam, his friend, in which he calls the ‘People’s President’ as the metaphysical traveler. Whether it was PURA (Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas) or ‘What can I give mission’ or his oaths or quotes, Poet Yu Hsi has enough to dwell upon. This poet rightly penned “The bright wheel of the moon quietly moves among the clouds in the sky” as Dr. Kalam emerged as the new face of change as the best academician, leader, scientist and The President with commitment, desire, wisdom and credibility.
In Poet Yu Hsi’s view Dr. Kalam as a poet was a metaphysical being who penetrated to the depth while maintaining solidarity with others. Engaged with the eternal comfort of his identity, freedom and spirituality as a global citizen, Dr. Kalam’s thoughts transcended the immediate national, political and cultural demarcations.
The best lessons from Dr. Kalam have to be drawn from looking at what he actually accomplished by taking end-to-end responsibility of his own life, integrating knowledge with character and staying hungry for perfection.
Dr. Elsa Lycias Joel can be reached @ firstname.lastname@example.org