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Goodbye Dr Abdul ‘Strangelove’ Kalam


They say one should not speak ill of the dead. And yet I propose to do precisely that about Dr Abdul Kalam, the `Austere, Hardworking, Diligent’ and now recently departed ‘Missile Man’.

I am willing to break convention on this occasion for several reasons.

The first one is a very simple and practical one. I have always found it very safe to speak ill of the dead. For, not only do dead men ‘tell no tales’, they also ‘pull no triggers’. And since neither me nor Dr Kalam (as far as I know) have ever believed in ghosts I doubt he is coming back to haunt my house anytime soon.

Secondly, I find it difficult to subscribe to the popular media fiction that Dr Kalam rose from a modest background to the highest positions in the country merely through dint of learning, commitment and a burning passion for great achievements in his heart. While there are many good, sincere, hard-working scientists in the variousinstitutions Dr Kalam was part of,mostof themwill not rise to any big administrative or political positions as only afew know howto play the game of ‘patriotism’ to promote their own careers.

Yes, as has been suggested by at least a few other commentators in the past[1] Kalam, despite the mediocre performance of the institution or missions he headed, rose to the top mainly because of his enthusiastic advocacy of making India a ‘superpower’ – matching the public rhetoric of his political masters. Whether the missiles he helped develop fly anywhere in reality or not the myths surrounding the endeavour certainly have been sufficient to carry him to lofty heights.  As for the  goal of becoming a truly developed nation, the fact is that India, remains even today a very poor, Third World country hiding behind shining weapons of dubious quality – like a beggar waving a fake pistol.

Thirdly, to eulogize Dr Kalam as a ‘People’s President’ is disingenuous as his enthusiastic role in developing the Indian nuclear and missile programs was always part of the deadly arms race with Pakistan or China, one that threatens some day to be the nemesis of the entire subcontinent. In a region with the world’s largest number of poor, malnourished citizens –denied even basic needs like food, healthcare or safe drinking water – to prioritizeprecious resources to development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is not exactly ‘people friendly’.

Ironically, one of Dr Kalam’s great regrets in life apparently was that he could not organise the provision of 24 hour power supply to hisparents in Rameshwaram before they died[2]! For a man who constantly exhorted everyone to uphold their ‘mother, father and teacher’ it was indeed strange he spent much of his life trying to do everything except solve the basic problems of the poor family he came from or the millions of other such families in the country.

And lastly, I am a bit upset with the way Dr Kalam, finally left Planet Earth – not on the frontlines of the imaginary or real battlefields he built all his bombs and missiles for butin the safe confines of a lecture hall in Shillong delivering a pious sermon on ‘youth empowerment’ and ‘innovation’. Of course, bydying in this way Dr Kalam maintained a golden rule of our age– that, men of science and technology are never supposed to meet their end in any actual war anywhere- whatever their personal contribution to its lethality and loss of life. (Formal degrees in science and engineering, may well be among the most potent antidotes to violent death for those who hold them.)

Which brings me to the larger story of how in country after country around the globe today  ‘scientists’ like Dr Kalam have become public icons – largely because of their willingness to promote the militarist fantasies of ruling elites – irrespective of the human costs involved. While peace activists and common citizens often rail against politicians, generals, capitalists, lobbyists and journalists for profiting from war, ‘scientists’ – the people who make modern warfare so deadly – are too often spared much scrutiny. Shielded as they are by rings of charming adjectives like ‘Austere, Hardworking, Diligent’it is technocrats like Dr Kalam, who are the real brains behind both the making and unmaking of all the world’s WMDs.

For tell me, how does any country anywhere-whether it is the United States, Iraq, India or Pakistan- acquire a WMD without the voluntary contribution of scientists, engineers and technicians of all kinds to the production of these demonic devices? Away from the dreaded ‘spotlight’ there are thousands of them all over the world today, feverishly working on the concept and design of an entire arsenal of diabolical products – that range from ethno-bombs that targets victims according to their race to the so called `army ants ‘- small, almost invisible nanotech robots that can be sent to assassinate political opponents, dissidents and the usual ‘terrorists’.

Of course, this is not a new story at all. The story of science without moral or social scruples is as old as the history ofhuman knowledge itself. But never has specialized technical knowledge been as decisive an influence on warfare as in the past few hundred years.

Was not all of European colonialism underpinned by their ‘superior’ science, technology and ways of organization? The rise of modern science and that of the imperial West are tightly entwined trends in modern history. And this terrible collaboration between ‘men of knowledge’ and ruling elites continues globally, even in countries like India and Pakistan, which were themselves victims of brutal colonisation in the past.

This is because; in modern times, the ability to master and apply science or technology to warfare is what decides the difference between colonizers and the colonized, victors and victims. For what otherwise accounts for the varying fates of a George Bush Jr. versus Saddam Hussein or an Obama versus Osama other than the quality of scientists and engineers at their command?Aware of this source of power, many developing countries in the world today seek to acquire WMDs with the help of theirown scientific/engineering community – if nothing else – to be able to ‘bargain’ with the big guys out there.

Over the years, the role of science in the crimes of war and the creation of WMDs has not gone unquestioned or unchallenged. At least since the Jewish Holocaust and the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima the debate has been – to what extent do scientists bear responsibility for the casualties of war? Were not the German engineers who designed and constructed the gas chambers as guilty as a Hitler who ordered the killing of Jews in them?

There have also been courageous members of the scientific or engineering profession, who have rallied for a safer and better world- horrified by their own powers of destruction. The campaigns for nuclear disarmament, the opposition to development of biological and chemical weapons – all have seen concerned scientists speak out and call for change. And yet these brave souls are but a minority. A majority of scientific personnel today are involved in research on products that could well destroy our planet forever.Worse still, despite the often disastrous implications of their work, everywhere the scientific community continues to enjoy both high privilege and access to national resources way beyond proportioneverywhere.

So how exactly does any scientist end up working on the development or construction of a WMD? What really motivates these fellows? Are such scientists exceptions or is it the case that WMDs are the product of very normal and routine activity undertaken by vast numbers of scientists – who simply don’t care about the social consequences of what they produce?

To my mind there are three broad reasons why scientists have become so implicated today in the global military-corporate complex and the pursuit of WMDs.

As always the first reason is money. World military expenditure in 2014 was an estimated US$1776 billion, equivalent to 2.3 per cent of world GDP[3]. The global war industry is where the big bucks really are. And since, despite their playing God, scientists too have all the weaknesses of flesh and blood human beings- they end up selling their souls to the service of the highest bidder.

Even scientists who are not directly employed by the war industry contribute to it through their work for large corporations that market their products wherever the money comes from. If it sells well in the civilian, commercial sector well and good. But if the same product can be sold to mass murderers – too bad- that’s how the market economy works.

Many scientists like to pretend that they have nothing to do with the death and destruction of war as they are only pursuing ‘knowledge’ in a disinterested way. The fact is they have become willing spinners in the deadly web of vested corporate/state interests that seeks to profit from the destruction of our planet.

For those from the science and engineering professions not particularly interested in making money, the lure is often in the form of power and status.

No politician after all can put together a nuclear bomb on his/her own whatever the degree of jingoist patriotism they spout in public. A politician can order a WMD to be made, a general can deploy it and a banker can finance it but without the active cooperation of these ‘men of knowledge’ it is impossible to get one that actually works.

Unlike workers in an arms factory, who may be there for earning a basic livelihood, the highly educated and supposedly clever scientist or engineer also chooses to develop WMDs for reasons that have nothing to do with feeding his/her family.

The history of the Indian nuclear program is a good example of how the politics of the WMD industry works vis a vis the scientific community. It may not be very well known that in the early seventies when India tested its first nuclear bomb- the event was really the result of intense rivalries within the Indian nuclear establishment over resources, prestige, power and political clout.

Promising the bomb to politicians was simply a means that ambitious scientists like Homi Sethna or Raja Ramanna found for boosting their own importance in national affairs, getting scarce resources allocated to the nuclear industry and getting their own careers going upwards. (They were the real mentors of Dr Abdul Kalam and not whom he used to claim as his ‘gurus’ – Dr Vikram Sarabhai or Dr Satish Dhawan- who were both strongly opposed to the weaponsiation of the space and nuclear sectors)

In this process it is the scientist/engineer who emerges as the most despicable and dangerous political player of our age- hidden from public view and immune to all human laws.In that sense, technocrats like Dr Kalam, are the real ‘establishment’ in most modern nation-states often wielding more influence and commanding more respect thanpoliticians, army generals, media moghuls or even moneybag capitalists.

For those few scientists/engineers who are not after money, power or status – (like Dr Kalam ‘the bachelor’ perhaps) the ultimate dream is that of achieving ‘sainthood’ – to be loved and revered as great ‘achievers’, men of knowledge and wisdom.It suits them well that for many members of the public the image of the ‘scientist’ is by and large that of a gentle, noble soul, immersed in ‘seeking the Truth’. Despite their crucial role in bringing the world to the brink of annihilation with their WMDs the association of the scientific community with a Dr No or a Dr Strangelove is still largely an aberration in the public imagination.

A great ‘teacher’ and ‘man of knowledge’ – that’s what the media tells us Dr Kalam was – almost a rishistraight from the annals of Indian mythology. These are key phrases worth examining closely. Ever since the European Enlightenment ‘scientists’ have displaced the medieval clergy as our globe’s official ‘seekers of truth’ and become the new theologians of our times. Nobody else comes anywhere close in competition. Nothing can pass muster in our age without being certified ‘scientific’. For too long now the stamp of science has become the primary sales pitch of everyone from millenarian messiahs to multinational junk food vendors.

It is indeed true that there are many of those with an insatiable quest for the ‘knowledge’ and moved by the notion that disinterested pursuit of science purifies and liberates the soul. A vast number of scientists involved, even in the war industry, probably see themselves as professional ‘seekers of truth’ about the world we live in – with the consequences of their ‘discoveries’ to be blamed on less noble creatures from other professions.

But ‘seeker of truth’ is simplya pompous title for the world’s scientists, engineers and technocrats today irrespective of the technological spectacles that they have managed to trot out in front of the masses. How broad really is the scope of the so called ‘truth’ the scientist is supposed to be seeking and are there not more than one ‘truth’ associated with every phenomenon?

Is it not pretentious to call the solving of narrow technical puzzles- like how to fire a WMD at your neighbouring country- the very ‘pursuit of truth’? Can the ‘scientific’ truth about the flight path of a missile, themanipulation of our genes and the composition of killer chemicals be equated to the social or moral truth of a child running, burning at the end of a napalm raid in the Vietnam war? How far are these puzzles of science really from the puddles of blood they often end up creating? When will the scientists of the world take responsibility for their role in the devastation and indeed genocide carried out with the use of their knowledge?

It is becoming increasingly clear that just as politics is too important to be left to politicians scienceand its consequences should not be left to scientists alone. For scientists are no longer the innocent amateur astronomers of yore who fell into wells while gazing at the stars nor are most of them carrying out research for the betterment of humankind. And certainly today they are also no Galileos who suffer for courageously challenging the prejudices of those in power.

Instead, they have become the brainpower behind the workings of the modern nation-state, the military-industrial complex and an unjust global financial architecture. Surely, if M.K.Gandhi had still been around he would have surely renamed Dr Kalam- despite the latter’s vegetarianism- nothing less thanMr ‘Kalamity’.

Satya Sagar is a public health worker and journalist who can be reached at [email protected]




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Comments (2)

  1. Sankara Narayanan

    Where is the guest post by Satya Sagar?

  2. Shruti Tambe

    I cannot read this article.

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