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‘Intolerance is damaging to human spirit, soul’, says director

I would never have started to work on the subject (physics) if I was not a Muslim.

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Abdus Salam docu

The baffling and paradoxical life of Dr. Abdus Salam, the first Pakistani and Muslim to win a Nobel Prize for Physics, is a subject of a compelling documentary by New York-based Indian American filmmaker Anand Kamalakar.

Salam (1926-1996) is a dichotomous figure in the world of science. He once said: “I would never have started to work on the subject (physics) if I was not a Muslim.” Yet, in his lifetime, not only was he shunned by Pakistan, the place of his birth, because he belonged to the outlawed Ahmadiyya sect, but had the misfortune of standing up for science in a country that had no particular interest in it.

He received his Ph.D in quantum electrodynamics at 24 and went on to do pioneering work in physics. It was only because of Pakistan’s strategic interest in developing nuclear weapons, in whose early development Dr. Salam played a crucial role, that he had a brief period of official patronage.

The documentary Salam’ — produced by Omar Vandal, a doctorate in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenes, and Zakir Thaver, a science/education media producer — was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival on January 29. Kamalakar answered email questions from IANS. Excerpts:

Q: What prompted you to chronicle the life of Dr. Abdus Salam?

A: The producers Zakir and Omar have always been troubled by the fact that Abdus Salam was not given his rightful place in Pakistan’s history because of his religious beliefs. They have been attempting to make a film to shine a light on his illustrious career since their youth. After almost 10 years of collecting archival material they approached me through an acquaintance and I was taken by their commitment and the layered story of Salam.

Q: When did you discover that science, particularly physics, and Islam were not necessarily adversarial in Dr. Salam’s estimation but, in fact, complementary?

A: I discovered this while viewing the archival interviews. This aspect always fascinated me about his story. Salam went through a complicated evolution on this subject. We have tried to reveal the best we can on where he stood on this at various stages in his life. He was contradictory and controversial on this subject at many stages in his life.

Q: I ask specifically because that is at the core of his ironic and even somewhat tragic life. Here was a man who considered himself devout Muslim and precisely for that reason, chose to pursue physics, but his own country and culture, revolving around Islam, rejected him so thoroughly. How did you approach that strange dichotomy?

A: This aspect is what drew me to make this film. How did Salam reconcile working in an area of physics, which essentially attempts to prove the absence of god, and here he is, a devout Muslim who attributes his talents to his belief in Islam and god� In this sense, Salam was a bit ambivalent but found a way to rationalise this approach. We reveal this duality in many instances in the film� But we wanted to respect his position and give it credence as he was able to walk that line and be a man of science and religion at the same time.

Q: Were you surprised to discover that he saw no contradiction between a pure physicist and a devout Muslim?

A: More than surprised I was fascinated. One of the reasons the producers and I found common ground is because we are all rationalists. We subscribe to the logic of science more than anything. So when we found that Salam saw no contradiction but in fact believed that the religious text in fact encouraged science and informed his explorations, and reality did not reflect that, it was an intriguing area to explore, especially in a time when Islam is often viewed as a regressive religion in the mainstream.

Q: Since you were dealing with a very sensitive theme, what kind of challenges did you face in obtaining archival audio-visual material as well as interviews?

A: We really did not face any great difficulty in procuring archival material as such. We did face difficulty though in interviewing people with the extreme point of view on the Ahmadi issue. We ended up using clips from YouTube to show the extremist view. I was denied a visa to visit Lahore. I had to hire a cameraman there and manage the shoot remotely. We never received a clear answer why I was denied a visa, even though I am a US citizen. We concluded probably because this issue is still controversial there and I am of Indian origin.

Q: Have you been able to resolve the extent of Salam’s involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear bomb? Journalist and author Tariq Ali says it is not clear whether Salam was involved in Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Both sides — the Ahmadiyya and the Pakistan establishment — have their own reasons to deny it.

A: I think this is answered in the film quite succinctly. He definitely was involved in the initial stages but then changed his mind.

Q: In the light of the way Salam was treated how do you think it impacted the future of science in Pakistan?

A: We address this is in the film with great emphasis. I think this is the greatest tragedy of his life. The younger generation of Pakistan has suffered the most and science in general has taken a back seat as a result of Salam being exiled. The casualty of any kind of intolerance towards knowledge, intelligence and brilliance are the young. Pakistan has suffered irreparable damage by distancing Salam and his legacy. At its core, this is what the message of our film is. Any kind of intolerance is damaging to the human spirit and soul.

By : Mayank Chhaya

(Mayank Chhaya is a senior journalist of Indian origin. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Giant Colossus

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Atal Behari Vajpayee

In passing away away of Atal Behari Vajpayee, India lost its one of the tallest leader and a statesman. He was a democrat and nationalist to the core apart from being an orator par excellence and a poet. Vajpayee was for BJP what Pandit Nehru was for the Indian National Congress. Vajpayee’s only sin was that he moulded the early BJP as a secular and a socialist legatee of the Janata party which came into existence in 1977 to oppose Mrs Indira Gandhi.

He had also opposed the Ram Mandir movement and it was Advani who was the RSS’s first choice for Prime Minister for the 1996 elections. But it was Advani who in November 1995 in Bombay announced Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate – to the astonishment of those present on the stage. It also took RSS by surprise but from then on, Vajpayee never turned back becoming Prime Minister in 1996, 1998, and in 1999 – while Advani withdrew to being his deputy.

The close friends and family members used to call him “Baap ji” and the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once addressed him as the “Bhishm Pitamah” of Indian politics. Vajpayee was a gentle colossus among the contemporary politicians and there were few among Indian leaders who attained the respect which he did. Journalists and newsmen all over the world do without salutations in addressing a politician but Vajpayee Ji was an exception and “Ji” became an integral part of his name.

“This young man would one day become the Prime Minister of India” said Pandit Nehru about Vajpayee. Nehru’s prophecy did come true decades later in 1996 when Vajpayee occupied the coveted post. Vajpayee was elected 11 times for Loksabha and twice for the Rajya Sabha and remained a Member of Parliament for 47 years.

In 1977, he became the External Affairs Minister under Morarji Desai and when he entered the office of Ministry of External Affairs in the South Block, he found the usual portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru missing from its spot in the ministerial chamber, removed in an excess of zeal by functionaries to please the new rulers. Though a lifelong critic of Congress, he wanted it back on its original spot. That was the persona of Vajpayee – a great heartedness as he embraced even those with whom he disagreed.

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Pro-India; anti-Indira: (From left) Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai, Ashok Mehta, Chandrasekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee | Pramod Pushkarna. “

According to a popular legend, once Henry Kissinger asked Chou-en-Lai in 1972 what he thought of the impact of French Revolution on Western civilization. Apparently, Chou thought about it for a minute and then turned to Kissinger and said: “It is too soon to tell.” Something like that could well be said about the legacy of Vajpayee, India’s first BJP Prime Minister and also the first non Congress leader to complete a full tenure.

He had the distinction of being the first head of nation to address the United Nations in Hindi. He ran a coalition Govt of 24 parties in one of the most chaotic times in the country and provided not just stable but very efficient governance. His coalition partners in ideology were as diverse as chalk and cheese but it was to his credit that he kept his flock together despite extreme provocations.

When Jayalalitha pulled the carpet under his feet, he refused to opt for the customary horse trading and lost the confidence motion by just 1 vote. He took integrity and probity to a level which was unheard of in the Indian politics. He was also the best performing parliamentarian for over 5 decades and was a true Bharat Ratna on all counts.

His stewardship of economic reform and his skilled management of unruly coalition made his 6 year tenure as a Prime Minister a memorable one. But more than these accomplishments, Vajpayee should be remembered for the way in which he achieved them. Judged on most parameters, Vajpayee was a great Prime Minister.

He continued the policies of economic liberalisation initiated by Narsimha Rao and as a result economy flourished during his reign. He took the historic trip to Lahore by Bus to break the ice with Pakistan but unfortunately it was followed by their usual betrayal in the form of Kargil war. His summit with President Musharraf at Agra also ended in a fiasco but Vajpayee improved India’s relations with US, Russia, China and most of other important nations.

He was a great consensus-builder and worked closely with the opposition, avoided political invectives and endeavoured to bring all Indians and not just Hindus to bring them together in harmony. After the Pokhran-II nuclear test of May 1998 and the victory in Kargil, India began to be taken seriously as an emerging Asian power. It was under Prime Minister Vajpayee that the old hyphenation of India-Pakistan ended and a new one like India-China emerged on the global scene.

Vajpayee’s legacy remains in doubt as people forget that for all his charisma, he began his career as a hard-core Sanghi and made his reputation in the great Hindi debates of the Sixties, demanding that all of India should embrace Hindi, his mother tongue.

Vajpayee only began to mellow in the Seventies when experience convinced him that there is no place for divisive politics in India. From then on, he lost interest in the agitation for Hindi language and more significantly also moved away from the hardliner Hindus-first politics of Jan Sangh. By doing this, he alienated most of his old colleagues and earned the ire of the RSS.

After the BJP was almost wiped out during Congress landslide victory of 1984, the RSS looked around for alternatives and it found one in Vajpayee’s old lieutenant LK Advani, who abandoned the liberal approach that he too had once espoused, and pushed the concept of RSS. Advani undertook a Rath yatra through most of North India in an effort to whip up the communal tensions and weaponise Hinduism.

Vajpayee had no option but to distance himself altogether from his protege Advani’s movement. But when the BJP seemed like it had a chance of finally coming to power, the RSS also conceded that it was only Vajpayee who could attract the potential allies.

We think of Vajpayee as a strong Prime minister but that was only because he always remained calm and composed and seldom let the tensions show. RSS continued to push its own agenda and was not happy with Vajpayee’s politics and propped up Advani as a rival power centre. The allies in coalition Govt were difficult to handle but somehow, Vajpayee made it all seem easy.

From then on, the BJP should have continued as a centre-right party as even Advani suddenly turned into a liberal and visited Pakistan to sing paeans in support of MA Jinnah. But that was not to be and the BJP went back to her Hindu-centric ideology that Advani had once espoused much to the delight of RSS. Only, this time around, the shift to a muscular Hindutva was so extreme that even a hardliner like Advani began to seem like a lily-livered secularist in comparison.

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Lal Krishan Advani lays a flower wreath at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah

From BJP’s point of view, Vajpayee’s greatest achievement was that he took a party that had once been a political pariah, brought it into the mainstream and acceptable to the electorates.

In many ways, it is as if the Vajpayee Prime minister ship with its consensus-building and taking everyone in confidence never happened. Sometimes it seems that the BJP moved directly from the destruction of the Babri Masjid to the dominance of the ideology that celebrated the demolition. So, it will be pertinent to say, Vajpayee was a great Prime Minister. But what will India remember as his legacy? As Chou-en-Lai might have said, “It’s too soon to tell”.

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‘Who’s going to listen to the voice of sanity?’

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Atal Behari Atal

It was the summer of 1996. The Congress government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had lost the general election and, for the first time, there was an opportunity for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by the moderate and well-liked Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to take power.

He lacked parliamentary majority but nevertheless made the bid to form a government and become Prime Minister — an ambition that he had long nurtured but which seemed elusive despite being in public life as a popular leader for long.

The moment it became clear that Vajpayee would be the man to lead the next government in India, I made a beeline to his house at 5 Raisina Road which was almost a stone’s throw from the Press Club of India. Vajpayee was a people’s man and security was light around him those days. I and a colleague, Mayank Chhaya, opened the gates of his bungalow and walked in to his secretary’s office. I asked his aides if he was busy. One of them pointed outside the window.

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There, standing all by himself, in an inconspicuous corner of the bungalow, seemingly staring into space, was the man of the moment — in his trademark starched white dhoti and collarless kurta — who would be the Prime Minister of India in a few days.

We congratulated him. He smiled and ushered us in. Vajpayee had often wondered aloud whether he would forever remain prime minister-in-waiting as the BJP, with its hardline Hindu nationalist ideology, was not a popular favourite of the country then.

But Vajpayee, with his affable personality, riveting oratory, an image of moderation and with friends across parties was one name that was being talked about as an acceptable alternative for those who were getting increasingly disillusioned with the corruption-tainted Congress.

Vajpayee, then 71, and the BJP, did form the government, but it lasted only 13 days in his first stint at governance. He never had the numbers and made his resignation announcement almost offhandedly after two days of divisive debate on a confidence motion. The motion was never put to vote as its result was foregone.

Even the BJP’s opponents then paid tribute to the party for not attempting any horse-trading. The voluntary resignation improved the BJP’s, and Vajpayee’s, stock among the people and the party returned to power in 1998 for a longer term of 13 months, but with some non-BJP support, its first shot at forming a coalition government with parties whose ideologies were not necessarily aligned with the BJP’s.

“If you want to form a government leaving us out, I don’t see any signs of its stability,” Vajpayee told Parliament presciently. “The birth is difficult, and after the birth, survival is difficult. For everything, you have to run to the Congress.”

But in the short 13-month term of the second Vajpayee government, he made his mark by making India a declared nuclear weapon power, authorising a series of five nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert of Rajasthan, a shock event that was followed by tit-for-tat tests by Pakistan.

Vajpayee’s best years were no doubt his third government of 1999-2004, when he formed the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, carrying parties with disparate ideologies along under the umbrella of a progressive, market-oriented, pro-US, politically moderate agenda that the party hardliners did not like but which made its mark internationally and raised India’s stock in the global order.

Image result for atal bihari vajpayee

I made several trips with Vajpayee, as part of his media delegation, from the Caribbean to China, from the US to Pakistan, and he always found time to meet leading editors in his cabin on board Air India One and get feedback on his trip and on his policies.

But the most unforgettable experience with Vajpayee would be, no doubt, in the winter of 1992, a few days after the apocalyptic Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu zealots in Ayodhya.

Sitting in an inner room of his Raisina Road residence, a visibly anguished Vajpayee, in one of his life’s most candid interviews, called the Ayodhya action as the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure” and conceded that voices of moderation were overruled by hardliners.

Vajpayee admitted — much against the claims of his own party — that the BJP had failed to honour “solemn assurances” to the Supreme Court, Parliament and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that the mosque would not be touched during the December 6 “kar seva” by Hindu activists.

“Moderates have no place,” he lamented to IANS, adding with a resigned air, “Who’s going to listen to the voice of sanity?” However, he ruled out quitting the party, saying he had a lifelong association with it and “when the ship is facing a storm, you don’t desert”.

Asked how, despite having been projected as a prime ministerial candidate as far back then, he had chosen to compromise on his convictions, Vajpayee replied, “I have waited too long (to be Prime Minister).”

Many of his party people, and even journalists, had decried the headline-grabbing interview and had even slyly suggested that it may have been contrived. But Vajpayee kept a dignified silence on the issue and, when I confronted him at the party’s National Executive meet in Kolkata some weeks later about what people were saying, he cryptically shot back: “Have I said anything?”

That said it all.

Vajpayee was a man of values, who decried the divisive ideology of sections of his partymen; he had a vision for the country and sought its rightful place in the comity of nations; but he remained till the end — as his opponents often taunted — the right man in the wrong party for India.

(Tarun Basu can be contacted at [email protected])

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Vajpayee: A man of moderation who raised India’s global stature

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Atal Behari Vajpayee

New Delhi, Aug 16: He was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.

Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.

In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion. In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.

He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.

After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.

His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach and sanctions.

Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.

When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.

The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.

Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.

He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.

His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.

The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party. In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.

Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India. Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.

He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.

Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.

His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”

In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.

While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.

A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognise.

IANS

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