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Down the road and turn right

01 September, 2015

By Jawed Naqvi


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SHOULD anybody be worried at all that Delhi’s luxuriant Aurangzeb Road will be renamed after A.P.J. Abdul Kalam? The former Indian president is credited with crafting the country’s nuclear missiles and warheads programme. To begin with, how does this aspect of Kalam fare with the way Indians saw the destruction of Hiroshima?

An early view of the nuclear threat was captured in a popular film song of the 1950s. ‘Hum laae hain toofaan se kishti nikaal ke/Is desh ko rakhna mere bachho’n sambhaal ke’. (We struggled hard to bring freedom’s boat to anchor. Now, dear children, look after India with care.)

The song reflected a Gandhian sensibility of non-violence, but sample a more direct political message. ‘Atom bamo’n ke zor pe ainthi hai ye duniya/Baarood ke ik dher pe baithi hai ye duniya/Tum har qadam uthana zara dekh bhaal ke/Is desh ko rakhna mere bachho’n sambhaal ke’. (The world is getting arrogant with its acquisition of atomic weapons. It is dangerously squatting on a tinderbox. Therefore, my children, be watchful as you take charge.) The film Jagriti was a huge success, as were its songs.

Today, given the militarist flavour of our times, one is likely to be slammed as a traitor for holding even a Gandhian view about India’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, the Hindutva worldview, shared by an influential group within the Congress, is based on ritual worship of lethal arms. It is not clear what Kalam’s seminal contribution was to nuclear technology nor do we know if or how it was any different from similar weaponry in the far less resourceful and much smaller North Korea, or for that matter Pakistan.

Hindu revivalist historiography regards all Muslim rulers of India as anti-Hindu.
No news channel discusses how countries such as Germany and Japan, Brazil and South Africa have progressed by forsaking their nuclear weapons capabilities. Threat from China is cited for India’s love of the bomb. By that logic Japan, Vietnam and even the Philippines must acquire a nuclear defence? There is no discussion if the Indian people feel more secure with the coming of the doomsday weaponry?

There are other problems with any blind deification of Kalam as a scientist of any merit. One is that it disregards other scientists who may have been of greater calibre with deeper insights in their field. Two nuclear scientists that come to mind are Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai.

In any case, where would Kalam’s celebrated genius be without the cryogenic engines from Russia whose import was stoutly opposed by the United States? So I wouldn’t be too enamoured of the common reasons cited to name a road after Indian science’s whiz kid.

What did appeal to me about him was that he sat on all the files concerning death penalty through his five-year term as president. To my knowledge, in contrast to President Pranab Mukherjee’s penchant for rejecting a record number of mercy petitions, Kalam didn’t endorse a single death sentence.

An equally creditable quality I admired in Kalam was his love for classical music. He was an accomplished veena player in the Carnatic genre of Indian music. That one attribute alone could put him a nose ahead of Aurangzeb in my view. The last of the great Mughal emperors, unlike his forebears, was so steeped in the politics of puritan Muslim clergy he had no time for music.

Of course, Hindu revivalist historiography regards all Muslim rulers of India as anti-Hindu. There is an all too easy belief even among liberal intellectuals that Aurangzeb’s brother Dara Shikoh, who he had killed, was more acceptable if only because he translated the Upanishads into Persian. This is a spurious counterfactual argument. Muslim rulers before Aurangzeb had a running tradition of translating Hindu epics like Mahabharat and Ramayan into Persian, which they distributed to their nobles to understand and promote the local culture. The most notable of these eclectic rulers was Akbar, but is he any less reviled for that by Hindutva ideologues?

I am happy to draw on historian Prof Harbans Mukhia’s insights into the misleading Akbar-Aurangzeb paradigm. Mukhia quotes two leading historians, Iqtidar Alam Khan and late M. Athar Ali, to show that the religious stance of each was guided by — and fluctuated with — the changing demands of political events during their 50-year-long reigns, and that there were ‘phases’ in which each became ‘liberal’ or ‘orthodox’ depending on which crisis they were confronting.

Mukhia cites a paper by Athar Ali in which he had tabulated the number of nobles from different groups who sided with the ‘liberal’ Dara Shikoh and the dogmatic Aurangzeb during the war of succession in 1658-59.

“It turns out 24 Hindus were on Dara’s side and 21 on Aurangzeb’s, including the two highest-ranked Rajputs, Mirza Raja Jai Singh Kacchwaha of Amber and Raja Jaswant Singh Rathore of Jodhpur, who stayed with him till their end,” Prof Mukhia quotes Athar Ali’s paper as saying. “It was Raja Jai Singh who defeated Shivaji and brought him to Aurangzeb’s court seeking peace. It was in 1679, 21 years after his accession to the throne, that Aurangzeb reimposed the jaziya tax on Hindus that Akbar had abolished in 1562, and he did this after the death of Jaswant Singh when tension began with the Rathores.”

Something worse could happen to Delhi than the naming of a road. Delhi has seen two of India’s worst incidents of religious violence, and the massacres of 1947 and 1984 make it a worrying candidate for a Gujarat model of zealotry. Remember that the police participated in the Gujarat and Mumbai pogroms. And the police in Delhi are controlled directly by the same Hindutva ideologues, not by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. He applauded the renaming of Aurangzeb Road but would also do well to ensure that the newly named road doesn’t take Delhi to a frightfully familiar rightward journey.

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