Monday, 30th October 2017

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Unlikely allies

Mourning Kalam, hanging Memon

By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 31.07.15

The news of the terrorist attack on a police station in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab last Monday morning was to a very large extent overshadowed by two parallel events: the death of the former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, in Shillong and the legal-cum-political controversy over the execution of Yakub Memon, convicted for his role in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. Both events produced different reactions, but each highlighted the different impulses that are in play and jostling for primacy.

Kalam's death, following a heart attack during a lecture in Shillong's Indian Institute of Management, moved middle-class India deeply. A measure of sadness blended with a heartfelt appreciation of the man and his work. The social media were flooded with photographs and anecdotes posted by ordinary individuals - almost all non-celebrities - of their meetings with the former president and his inspirational role. I can't recall another individual whose death has generated such an outpouring of respect from ordinary people in recent times.

In the coming days, there will be endless discussions on the Kalam magic. That it wasn't remotely political is certain. In the five years he occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam did or said nothing that could be regarded as contentious. He played with a straight bat and on the few occasions he was called upon to exercise his independent judgment, he acted with copybook propriety. There were whispers over his apparent role in ensuring that Sonia Gandhi's "inner voice" prevailed in May 2004, when she turned down the offer to become prime minister. The conspiracy theories were further bolstered when the Congress refused to consider him for a second term in 2007, in favour of someone who turned out to be India's least respected president. However, at no point was there even a remote suggestion that Kalam had any hand in making life difficult for either the Congress president or the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Partisan politics and Kalam were never joined at the hip.

Kalam, in many ways, was a throwback to the traditional Indian scholar - a man who combined his single-minded pursuit of knowledge with an austere lifestyle and selflessness that was the hallmark of nishkama karma. What added to his appeal was his rootedness, so unlike the lofty professors whose cosmopolitanism made them a bit too formidable for Indian tastes. His entry into public life after he moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan was marked by one shift: he moved his gaze from missiles, rockets and bombs to the larger question of nation-building. From the day he became president till the last day of his life, Kalam was a relentless publicist of education, innovation and development. Whether it was the vision of a developed India by 2020 or his dream of extending modern facilities to rural communities, Kalam's fresh approach to nationalism made him a cult figure for a youthful population that sought a place under the sun for India. Kalam's broad concerns may have coincided with the governance strategies of the prime minister, but it was a convergence that was never spelt out explicitly. He was a rajguru who was not concerned with the actual workings of the raj. He entered the space that politics could not permeate.

In the days following his death, rich tributes have come pouring in, some of them sincere, others contrived. The sheer scale of the public appreciation of the man even forced the media to pay attention to a man most journalists loved to treat as either an oddity or, worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party's trophy Muslim. That he didn't blend his Tamil authenticity with the outward symbols of an Islamic identity and steered completely away from all sectarian concerns made him suspect in the eyes of the aggressive promoters of Indian secularism.

One of the facets of the post-July-27 commemoration of Kalam's life that I personally found revealing was the broad lack of convergence between those who recalled the former president with fondness and those who were active in trying to prevent the hanging of Yakub Memon. True, there were occasional references to the fact that Kalam was having his doubts over the efficacy and moral validity of capital punishment - an interesting position, given his contribution to the development of India's indigenous weapons systems. But this was more as an expedient aside. In the main, Kalam represented an Indian dream that had very little in common with those who felt that Memon's death sentence should be commuted, maybe to enable him to get parole after another two or three years in prison.

The debate over the sentence handed out to Memon has centred very nominally over the ethics of capital punishment. There are many Indians who have genuine misgivings over the State playing god and having the power to settle questions of life and death. This objection to State-sponsored executions goes well beyond the nature of the crime or even questions of war and peace, and are grounded in either personal philosophies or attachment to global practices. However, the outcry over the death sentence for a man whose guilt in the massacre of over 250 people has been upheld by the different courts hasn't been based on principles. The plea for clemency sent to the president of India, for example, is, signed, among others, by the leaders of the three Communist parties whose commitment to class war - invariably involving a spectacular degree of violence - has remained undiminished.

The robust, last-minute defence of Memon has, in fact, relied on two sets of people. There are, of course, those who want the death sentence to be either removed from the statutes or kept as a mere decorative item, never applied. Far more vocal are those who wish to locate Memon's involvement in the Mumbai blasts in the larger context of the post-Ayodhya violence that rocked India in 1992-93. Memon's participation in the conspiracy masterminded by Pakistan's ISI, Dawood Ibrahim and his brother, "Tiger" Memon, is being packaged as a political act of retribution. The likes of the Hyderabad MP, Asaduddin Owaisi, have quite openly suggested that Indian justice is discriminatory and targets Muslims while leaving Hindu communalists to escape either unpunished or with lesser sentences. The theme of Muslim victimhood is a recurrent theme of the pro-clemency lobby, to which has been brought the alleged perfidy of the Indian intelligence agencies.

The linkages established between Memon's defence and Muslim identity politics are not going to cease after this particular case is settled. Kalam epitomized one India that saw its future in terms of rapid economic development, national capacity-building and a nationalism where divisive identities were submerged in a larger sense of cultural rootedness, be it regional or pan-Indian. Against this is an alternative vision that emphasizes an Indian future based on a combination of entitlements and a disaggregated sense of nationality. One implicitly advocated a politics where the thrust was on empowerment based on knowledge, opportunity and commitment to values; the other highlighted the virtues of protest, although it glossed over the social costs and the unholy means to secure an end.

In a curious and unintended way, these alternative perceptions were put on display this week. That both Kalam and Memon were Muslims added another (largely unstated) dimension to these alternative quests for a better and more wholesome India. However, while Kalam would have been tickled that his death became an occasion for a larger deliberation on the future of India, Memon (not to mention his erstwhile mentors in safe houses in Karachi or Dubai) may well be genuinely surprised that the retributive rebellion he tried to instigate in 1993 has attracted a clutch of unlikely allies.