“Despite being a Muslim”, APJ Abdul Kalam “was a great nationalist and humanist,” culture minister and senior BJP leader Mahesh Sharma had said in a TV interview.
July 27, 2017 is the second death anniversary of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, arguably India’s most loved president ever. As part of various commemorative activities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a memorial to the scientist-statesman at Peikarumbu in Rameshwaram, his ooru.
The only problem with Modi’s act of appropriation is that when a senior cabinet minister in his government insulted Kalam’s faith as a Muslim and questioned the patriotism and humanity of millions of Indian Muslims, the prime minister remained silent.
The minister was Mahesh Sharma, entrusted by Modi with promoting ‘culture’. This is what our official custodian of Indian culture told India Today TV during the course of an interview:
“Aurangzeb Road ka nam bhi badal kar ek aise mahapursh ke naam par kiya hai jo Musalman hotey hue bhi itna bada rashtravaadi aur manavtavadi insaan tha – APJ Abdul Kalam, unke naam par kiya gaya hai.”
(The name of Aurangzeb Road has been changed to the name of a great human being who, despite being a Muslim, was such a great nationalist and humanist – APJ Abdul Kalam, we have named it after him)
This disgusting comment establishes two things: Mahesh Sharma does not think Indian citizens who are Muslims are naturally inclined towards patriotism or even humanism. And second, that he believes Kalam had to transcend his faith in order to become ‘such a great nationalist and humanist’.
It speaks volumes that the TV channel, in typical fashion, didn’t see anything reprehensible or even newsworthy in the statement the minister had made. There was a brief controversy when The Wire publicised Sharma’s comments but any expectation that he would be asked to resign or be reprimanded ended when the government gave Kalam’s former home in the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone to Sharma as an official residence. It was almost as if the prime minister and his senior colleagues were trying to drive home the point to critics that they had no problem with what Mahesh Sharma had said.
And why would they? Sharma is a man schooled in the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and V.D. Savarkar, which holds that India is a ‘Hindu nation’. Modi too is the product of the same school, though as prime minister he has an obligation to uphold the constitution, which rejects this notion and considers all Indians as equal regardless of their religion.
In a workplace where some employees display their religion or caste on their forehead or wrist or head – as is their right – Kalam, like millions of other Indians of all religions, chose not to do so. He spoke and wrote in Tamil, his mother tongue, which is also the mother tongue of all Tamils, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist, and revelled in the music and culture of his state as Tamils tend to do.
To the Nagpur-trained, north India-oriented parochialists of the Sangh, all of this seemed ‘unIslamic’. They rushed to embrace him as an exemplar of what Indian Muslims ought to be like without realising that Kalam was nothing more or less than a typical Indian Muslim. In their ignorance or prejudice, they failed to see that all the qualities they claimed they saw in Kalam were already present in Muslims across the length and breadth of the country, in the same plus-minus ratio as ordinary Hindus embody the qualities of a ‘model Hindu’ – like, say, Kalam’s scientist, U.R. Rao, the legendary head of the Indian Space Research Organisation who died this week.
Accepting this reality would, of course, puncture the Sangh myth that Muslims are in some sense less Indian than Hindus, an idea that is a foundational principle of the RSS and Bharatiya Janata Party’s politics.
If Modi really wants to honour Kalam and respect the sentiments of millions of Indians who embraced him as the people’s president, he must not only disown and condemn the statement Mahesh Sharma made but make it clear that those who question the patriotism of others on the grounds of their religion have no place in his council of ministers or party. I can’t think of any better way to pay tribute to the memory of the ‘missile man’.