Muslim Presidents and Vice Presidents of India

HAIDER ABBAS examines whether they were mere remote control devices installed to somehow placate Muslims and give them some feel-good-factor.

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HAIDER ABBAS examines whether they were mere remote control devices installed to somehow placate Muslims and give them some feel-good-factor.

Would the outgoing President APJ Abdul Kalam, known more for his locks and early morning recitation of the Gita, ever warrant a 30-page thorough paper from the likes of Raj Mohan Gandhi, who wrote a well studied piece on Zakir Husain – first Muslim President of Independent India in his book Understanding the Muslim Mind,cannot still be said. Nevertheless, Kalam does have many a sobriquet in his cap.
He had already gained the title of being the father of Indian missile system – even before becoming the President and was the Bharat Ratna – the recipient of the highest civilian award too. How history would reckon him of not having become a mere rubber stamp during his tenure – unlike his predecessors – is still unforeseen. However, his books like Wings of Fire: An AutobiographyIndia 2020: A Vision for a New MillenniumIgnited Minds and recently a foreword in Disappearing Daughters, on the rampant female foeticide, has gained him much accolades in the literary world.
An article by Fali S Nariman – one of the nation’s foremost legal minds on Kalam, speaks great of Kalam’s integrity as he was found to have paid, from his salary, the expenses incurred on his visiting family members to the Presidents House! ‘The total expenses debited to his personal account was Rs 35, 49,241. President Kalam has set a high benchmark for rectitude in public office – worthy of emulation. And as a living embodiment of Transparency National (Indian Express, July 23, 2007). It happens still like this. Deservingly, thus, he exemplified how a Muslim head of the state could be as he carried his belongings, in just a suitcase, to pave way for the now President Pratibha Patil.
An engagement from his autobiography gives an opening of an inspiration, which he draws from Tipu Sultan – the lion of Mysore. And he calls the development of Indian rocket system a revival of the 18th century dream of Tipu Sultan. When Tipu was killed, the British captured more than 700 rockets and subsystems of more than 900 rockets in the battle of Turukhanahally in 1799. These rockets had been taken to England by William Congrave and were subjected by the British to what we call ‘reverse engineering’ today. There was of course no GATT, IPR Act or patent regime. With the death of Tipu, Indian rocketry also met its demise – at least for 150 years. (Pp. 42-43 Universities Press 1999) Only to be again revived by our first Prime Minister JL Nehru. Thus, Tipu is the father of the rocketry system in the world.
The Tipu factor carries Kalam into his second book as well. In India 2020 A Vision for the New Millennium he cites a recall of a dinner, which included many Indian guests and the discussion somehow drifted to early history of rocketry. “During the course of discussion I spoke of the effort I made to see Tipu’s rockets in the Rotunda Museum at Woolwich near London which were used in the two battles of Seringapatnam. I pointed out it was the first use of military-powered rockets anywhere in the world and that the British studied these rockets and improved upon them for use in their battles in Europe. A senior Indian immediately concluded that the French had imparted their technology to Tipu.” (Pp 27-28, Penguin Books 1998) Kalam had to politely refute the guest and then showed him a book authenticating his claim. The book, The Origins and International Economics of Space Exploration by Sir Bernard Lovell gives details about William Congrave who studied Tipu’s rockets and later demonstrated a prototype of an improved version of rockets in 1805 to Prime Minister William Pitt and which were used against Napoleon in the occupied Boulogne harbour 1806. Kalam found the Indian guest bemused who flipped through the pages and just remarked ‘interesting.’ Kalam carries on to elaborate, “We don’t even know who Tipu engineers were and how the rockets were manufactured on such a large scale. A crucial task before us is to overcome the defeatist mentality that has crept into our intelligentsia and the powers-that-be, the fatalistic belief that Indians cannot do anything new in India.” (Ibid P. 28)
Kalam, hence, wanted to get the Indians shun the defeatist syndrome, which craves for everything good outside the borders of India and with a very little belief in our own capabilities. Kalam holds in his possession a very glossy German calendar with maps of Europe and Africa based on remote sensing. The satellite, which took the pictures, was Indian but no one believed it unless the credit line was shown.
Now with his tenure gone it is also time to reflect on his entire workmanship, particularly, in context to his concern for Muslims who after all make around one-seventh of the nation. Unfortunately, perhaps, here he was found more to be just parroting the typical official secular lines – drawn earlier by the likes of Dr Zakir Husain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.
On July 28, 2002 Kalam was sworn-in to the highest office of the country, and surprisingly, with a deliberate haste abolished the Roza Iftar organised inside the President’s House and instead directed the money to the orphanages. It is also not very clear that the money was sent to Muslim orphanages only.
Why did our chronic bachelor President do that? Was he trying to save the nation’s economy, which could have been saved only after the Roza Iftar abolition? Or was he not putting up a wrong precedent as who knows Pratibha Patil would now follow suit. Might be he was apprehensive of some on-going gross violation, if not the same money was directed to the orphanages which are of course in dire straits and Indian economy, despite the typical 9% growth rate was in no position to burden the expenses, any more, on Roza Iftars. So, now after the abolition, perhaps, orphanages must have a very smooth ride!
Kalam, no doubt, played into game of the hullabaloo created by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the government sponsored Iftars as akin to Indian secularism. Kalam was after all a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) product. Ironically, now BJP is crying hoarse over the Ram Sethu issue by insisting that Lord Rama had built the bridge to reach Sri Lanka and rubbishing all scientific arguments that it is nothing but centuries of silt deposits. Rama and his bridge are a part of Indian secularism. BJP’s secularism is very much self-defined based primarily on aastha – beliefs! And also make-beliefs.
But-BJP has nothing to worry about as M. Hidayatullah who was once-the-Muslim-Vice President and was so dyed-up in Congress wool that he had willed to be cremated instead of being buried-to hail Indianness! BJP was not even born then!
The two earlier Presidents Dr Zakir Husain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed could not finish their terms as both died while in office. On May 13, 1967 Zakir Husain, an Afridi Pathan from Qaimganj, UP – became the first citizen of the country. His life, prior to it, was very much devoted to the uplift of Muslims. He had canvassed for Urdu to be the second language of the nation and had garnered millions of postcard- signatures for the support. His role in the establishment of Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi is a shining example of his concern for Muslim education but his term in office made him keep mum. He died on May 3, 1969.
Zakir Husain, who had inherited the legacy of Maulana Azad, along with Maulana Azad was extremely instrumental in working out a positive strategy for Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) after 1947 – the place where Khilafat Movement was defeated and later where the support for Muslim League and Pakistan had gained ground. Zakir had to become the Vice Chancellor (VC) of AMU, on the insistence of Maulana Azad, in November 1948 and three years later was reappointed for a six years term. He, once spoke at a gathering chaired by President Rajendra Prasad in 1951 that the place of Muslims in India would be largely determined by the way Aligarh works, the way Aligarh thinks and the way India deals with Aligarh. Ironically, Indira Gandhi was soon to come up with AMU Amendment Bill (1971) which ate into the ‘minority-character’ of AMU and which still hovers on – even after 35 years. Off and on new spanners are thrown to anyhow stifle the ‘minority-character’ of AMU. Much due to the courtesy of our courts too. The AMU saga of meddling with its ‘minority-character’ had begun from early 1951.
Zakir Husain was just back with a fresh PhD, from Berlin, in Britain’s agrarian policy in India and became VC of Jamia Millia Islamia at the age of 29. He also ran an Urdu journal Jamia. He looked for finances and courted Nizam of Hyderabad who came up with help often running into lakhs for the construction of buildings and to meet the recurring expenses too. In Hyderabad Sir Ismail Mirza – the premier once invited him for a lunch and presented him with a cheque of Rs 5 lakh. Tata Trusts helped gracefully towards technical education at Jamia. MK Gandhi also helped but discreetly.
His stint to another high office came as the Governor of Bihar, at the behest of Nehru. In Bihar, he spoke at official functions with a lot of Sanskrit affiliated words in Hindi speeches and this understandably brought his ratings to sour amongst Muslims of Bihar. Perhaps, he was trying to channel himself according to the new political reality. But then where was his own campaign for Urdu! He was further recommended to become the Vice-President, again on Nehru’s insistence, in the place of Sarvpalli Radhakrishnan in 1962. It was during this tenure when he was humiliated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who talked past him to an ICS officer! ZA Bhutto had come to India along with Pakistan President Ayub Khan shortly before the Indo-Pak war of 1965. Zakir Husain could never enjoy any personal or formal rapport with MA Jinnah who later became the founder of Pakistan.
Zakir Husain’s position inside AMU is very much contested even today. The students union perceived him as nothing but an establishment’s agenda. It was, of course, during his time when AMU Act 1951 had come and which made the religious education as ‘optional’ and also signalled for the first time the inclusion of non-Muslim members in AMU court. This was done to evade the government’s grant to AMU from being snapped. Zakir Husain died of a heart attack leaving one of the most palatial houses inside Zakir Nagar, New Delhi where today his grandson Salman Khurshid makes an outlandish living.
The second Muslim President was Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, as Assamese by origin, who got into office on August 24, 1974 on the directives of Indira Gandhi. Very soon Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was to sign, while in the bathing room, the implementation of emergency and which carried on for almost two years. Thus, making himself the most controversial president yet.
FA Ahmed could not find any prominent place, amongst the Muslims of India. It is also barely known if he might have provided any lucrative grants to institutions run by Muslims in India or had done anything for the riot victims. Perhaps, he was very utterly, subdued by Indira Gandhi, who was so drenched with power, after the success in Bangladesh, that he could never become self-emphasising and lived just as a protégé to Indira’s mechanism.
In popular political jargon it is often said that when FA died he was put with three questions by the two angels. Who is your Lord, what is your religion and which community did you belong to. FA Ahmed answered- Indira Gandhi, Congress and Sanjay Gandhi! The two angles were perplexed and reported to Almighty. Allah called him from his grave in Delhi and there he answered that his Lord is Allah, and his religion is Islam and that he belonged to the community of Prophet Muhammad and the reason why he did not answer properly was due to the emergency and also due to the fright of Sanjay Gandhi! (Swakch Sandesh, August 1-15, 2007) Wonder whether he was a mere robot even after his death! FA died on February 11, 1977.
To be a President and also flaunt a concern for Muslims, even if by an iota, is therefore, contradictory and the legacy continues. Interestingly, what is also true about APJ Abdul Kalam is that he was – during all the five years – was invited by the Saudi Arabian government to perform Hajj but Kalam did not oblige. Why? This is the question, which needs some scrutiny, as a pilgrimage to Makkah is incumbent on every Muslim. Did his NDA bosses refuse him a leave?
He went to Gujarat only once during his whole span and did not condemn the massacre of Muslims of Gujarat 2002 with the same sharp vibes like those from his immediate predecessor KR Narayanan. There are still more than 5000 displaced citizens yet to return to their homes in Gujarat!
Ironically, now after six decades of experience it can be said that Presidents with a Muslim denomination, have been nothing more than remote control devices. This was done as a part of establishment’s strategy to somehow placate Muslim constituency too, and thereby, also to make Muslims have some feel-good-factor-but with nothing substantial. Symbolism has worked well (sic).
What fate beholds the latest candidate Hamid Ansari – a former diplomat to Iran and Iraq, and now as Vice President is still very speculative. He had been also VC of AMU and Chairman of Minority Commission of India. It is very keenly awaited as to how he would deal with AMU, even if by a smack of a false pretence, and then, later towards the Muslims at large.