Naming “Dr” APJ Abdul Kalam Road: The Administrator

The proposed renaming of “Aurangzeb Road” into “Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road” is doubtless an improvement. It marks a welcome transition from honoring an ancient terrible tyrant to honoring a contemporaneous much-admired administrator who passed away very recently. It could be better but one should be grateful for small mercies in an otherwise merciless world.

I briefly noted in my previous post (“Renaming Aurangzeb Road: The Tyrant“) the tyranny of Aurangzeb. Here I will consider why I believe that we could do better than renaming the road after Mr Kalam. I don’t harbor any illusions that my views will be taken seriously by anybody, least of all the hordes of “Dr” Kalam fans whose first knee-jerk reaction to my characterization of Mr Kalam is name-calling. A thick skin is the first requirement for being a contrarian. I wouldn’t get in the business of calling bullshit if I couldn’t tolerate the reaction from the purveyors of bullshit.

The first minor matter relates to referring to Mr Kalam as “Dr” Kalam. It is inappropriate, wrong, and indicates an ignorance of convention. I made the case at some length in my piece “The Passing of Former President Mr APJ Abdul Kalam” a month ago on July 28th:

Honorary doctorates are honors, not earned degrees. Earned degrees conferred by universities have various requirements such as residence, study, original research, examinations, acceptance of theses, etc. It’s a tradition and comes as a package — if you decide to abide by that tradition, you implicitly agree to adhere by the accepted standards.

This whole business of universities awarding degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level is a Western tradition that many other non-Western countries, such as India, have adopted. Having done that, it becomes incumbent to follow the rules.

The relevant rule here is that people who earn a Ph.D. get the privilege of using “Dr.” in their title if they so desire, and to be addressed by others as “Dr. So and so” on formal occasions. But if the degree is “for the sake of the honor” (honoris causa in Latin), then only in correspondence between the granting institution and the person is the title “Dr” appropriate. The honorary degree does not give leave to anyone else — including the recipient — to refer to the person as “Dr.”

I did not get too much of an adverse reaction but that is primarily because very few people read it. I can imagine that if it had been published in the mass media (no chance of that), there’d be a deluge of outrage. Obscurity is somewhat underrated.

The second point I wish to make relates to referring to Mr Kalam as a scientist. To anyone with even a modicum of knowledge it is clear that he was not a scientist. A scientist does science. What’s doing science? It is when a person investigates scientific matters, makes advances in some scientific field(s), so on and so forth. It is not someone who merely talks about science or reports about science. A science journalist, for example, is not a scientist. Certainly someone who uses scientific jargon inappropriately is no scientist. Case in point, Dr Deepak Chopra (a genuine, qualified medical doctor). He uses scientific jargon like an drug addict uses drugs: compulsively and uncontrollably.

A case can be made that India needs to seriously honor scientists. India has had many scientists of such high caliber that honoring them would be a credit to Indians. There’s absolutely no need to run after pseudo-scientists or non-scientists. Doing so reflects very poorly on India and Indians. It means that Indians are so scientifically backward or so ignorant of what real science is that they cannot even recognize science nor scientists.

Here’s one real scientist: Dr Satyendra Nath Bose (1894 – 1974). He’s a celebrated physicist but sadly not celebrated in India.

He is best known for his work on quantum mechanics in the early 1920s, providing the foundation for Bose–Einstein statistics and the theory of the Bose–Einstein condensate. . . . The class of particles that obey Bose–Einstein statistics, bosons, was named after Bose by Paul Dirac. . . . A self-taught scholar and a polyglot, he had a wide range of interests in varied fields including physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, mineralogy, philosophy, arts, literature, and music. (Wiki).

Dr Bose was interested in music but that didn’t make him a musician, nor his interest in mineralogy make him a mineralogist. Mr Kalam’s interest in science does not make him a scientist. The main reason for him not being a scientist is that he never did science. He made no scientific discoveries, never added to the body of scientific knowledge, never held a position that required scientific expertise.

But wait! Isn’t Kalam widely regarded as a scientist in India? Yes, he certainly is. It’s part of the folklore, or should I say the lore that is taught to children in their government created text books. I wrote about a couple of textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) way back in Oct 2005, “Science and Famous Scientists“:

The science text book for grade six is called “Science Ahead.” . . . Right at the start of the book, they have a page titled “Famous Scientists.” The page has a dozen or so pictures of notables of scientists from around the world. They are, in the order of their appearance on the page, JC Bose, CV Raman, Homi Bhabha, —–, Archimedes, Galileo Galilee, Issac Newton, Michael Faraday, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein, Alexander Fleming. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to fill in the blank Indian world-class scientist.

If I had quoted the entire list, it would have been the easiest “who’s the odd man out” puzzle. The odd man in that list was ex-President of India, Mr APJ Abdul Kalam. He wouldn’t make even the list of great Indian scientists, leave alone a list which has Einstein, Curie, Faraday and Fleming. In a followup post, “Famous Scientist “Dr” APJ Kalam“, Oct 2005, I wrote:

Sycophancy runs deep and broad in Indian society. Part of the feudal system. Even so called “educators” in the public sector are past-masters in brown-nosing. Indeed, when the government gets in the business of writing textbooks, those who get chosen to write them have to reach that point by kow-towing appropriately to the bureaucrats and politicians.

But only part of the inaccurate characterization of President APJ Kalam can be explained by sycophancy. The other bit is plain old-fashioned ignorance. Indeed, I am reasonably sure that the text book writers are not very clear about what precisely is the distinction between science and technology. That they did not even attempt to explain that in the book titled “Science and Technology” is an indication that they perhaps don’t know. So it is ignorance that clubs APJ Kalam with a bunch of scientists. APJ Kalam is perhaps best characterized as an administrator with a technical and scientific background. It is doubtful if he is a technologist, leave alone a scientist. Sure he knows some science and something about technology but by that definition even I can be characterized as a scientist and that would be equally wrong.

I believe that Kalam, with all due respect, cannot be labeled a scientist by any stretch of the definition of a scientist. But could he be called a technologist? Even that is problematic. A technologist makes advances in technology. As in the matter of being a scientist, it’s not my case that one has to have any formal credentials to be a technologist. One can be a scientist without any degrees in science, as long as one has added to scientific knowledge. If you advanced the state of the art in technology — invented a technological product or process — you are worthy of being called a technologist.

The evidence on the ground is very thin for characterizing Kalam as a technologist. I could be wrong. It could be that he made significant contributions to technology — especially to “missile technology” since he is celebrated as the “Missile man”. Unfortunately, I could not find any evidence. I’d be sincerely interested in being proven wrong by any of the three people who read this piece.

Now for the final two points of this piece. First, my claim that Kalam was an administrator of a few government agencies. Therefore he can be best described as an administrator or a bureaucrat. It is not a derogatory characterization and definitely is not meant to disparage him or his work. I stress this because I value accuracy over sloppy categorization. Administrators and bureaucrats do serve an essential function, albeit not the most dignified. Second, Indians need to learn how to evaluate critically those who are held up as shining examples of great achievements.

I am afraid that I will have to continue this in another piece where I will detail what Kalam got wrong and why. I need to explain those because I have got hate mail and hate tweets from his fans merely because I have raised questions about Kalam. That’s par for the course because (and I generalize here) Indians are programmed to uncritically accept authority and are disinclined to question their beliefs.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch.

Post script: My general proposal for a new process of renaming.

5 thoughts on “Naming “Dr” APJ Abdul Kalam Road: The Administrator

  1. I agree that Kalam was neither scientist nor technologist of any great accomplishment. He was administrator of two very important government bodies (DRDO and ISRO). His achievement as an administrator is beyond my judgment as I do not know enough.
    BUT, he is genuinely respected and loved by many people. He is the most loved president among the recent lot (Pratibha patil, Shankar Dayal, Venkat Raman, Narayanan, Zail Singh). What is the harm in naming a road after a fellow who invokes positive vibes in many Indians?


  2. Hi Atanu

    I am against renaming Aurengazeb Road. Whatever are the criticisms against Aurengzeb, and they are a legion, he is part and parcel of India’s history. Putting out of sight unsavoury aspects of history does not make future any better. He is a kind of Ivan the Terrible of Indian history. Putting history where it belongs i.e. the past , is better than getting too worked up about it.

    Apart from that I agree about “Dr.kalam, the scientist” , plain AJP Kalam Road will be enough to honour him




    1. Part of being history does not justify naming major roads, institutions & other publicly funded schemes after blood-thirsty mass murderers.

      Let me use an analogy. Consider a family a member of which was killed by a vicious murderer. Would that family, in order to keep that gruesome episode of the family’s tragic history alive, be motivated to name one of their descendant’s home after the murderer? Surely, that will keep the history alive, wouldn’t it? That’s absurd.

      If the history has to be remembered to draw lessons from it, perhaps there should be memorials to the victims, not the murderer. Name the road, “Hindus Murdered by Aurangzeb Road.”

      Think about that.


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