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Atanu Dey on India's Development | The Passing of Former President Mr APJ Abdul Kalam| Marathi stories | Hindi Stories | Gujarati Stories

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The Passing of Former President Mr APJ Abdul Kalam

MWSnap0442Former President of India, Mr APJ Abdul Kalam, passed away on 27th July, 2015. He was 83 years old. It is indeed a sad day for India and the millions of Indians who hold him in high regard and genuine affection. He is celebrated for his many professional accomplishments and admired for his character, his sincere dedication to improving India his beloved motherland. He perhaps deserved to be the head of state — a position he held from July 2002 through July 2007 — more than many others who have held or will hold that position. May his soul rest in peace.

A Sad Day

I got to know of Mr Kalam’s passing via twitter. I was saddened at his passing. I read the sentiments of those on my twitter time-line. Many were figuring out how to properly honor the memory of that remarkable man. I agreed with the sentiments of my friend Amit Malviya but also corrected him that the former president should not be addressed at “Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.”

Mr Kalam, I Presume

What was the need for me to stress that correction? This piece is by way of an explanation. It appears to be a churlish thing to do. I assure you that I am not motivated by meanness of spirit. I recognize that I am perhaps the only person who would at this time bring up something so frivolous as whether it is proper to address Mr Kalam as Dr Kalam. Here I explain that the matter is not as trivial as it appears because it has much larger implications for India. So let me begin by explaining why I object to the “Dr.”

These are the bare facts. First, Mr APJ Abdul Kalam was educated but his education did not extend to earning a doctorate in any branch of study. That is, he did not enroll in a program of study that led to the doctorate diploma, he did not sit for examinations, submit a thesis of original academic work, etc. In other words, he did not earn a Ph.D, for whatever that is worth.

Second, he was awarded several honorary (Honoris Causa) doctorate or Ph.D. degrees by universities in India and abroad: Doctor of Science (Edinburgh Univ, UK; Aligarh Muslim Univ.), Doctor of Law (Simon Fraser Univ), Doctor of Engineering (University of Waterloo; Nanyang Univr, Singapore), Honorary Doctorate (Oakland Univ.), Honorary Doctor of Science and Technology (Carnegie Mellon Univ.), and Honorary Doctor of Science (Univ of Wolverhampton).

Third, he received numerous honors, among them: Hoover Medal (ASME Foundation, USA), King Charles II Medal (Royal Society, UK), Ramanujan Award, and Veer Savarkar Award. He was awarded the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna, not to mention the lesser ones such as Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan.

Clearly, Mr Kalam was no stranger to awards, honors and felicitations. Very few get so well recognized as he. All those honors pale in significance to the honor of the position he attained as the President of the Republic of India. Only a handful occupied that exalted position, although some of the recent incumbents whom we don’t have to name have been persons of questionable character and accomplishments.

Protocol & Convention

Given the fact that he was widely recognized for his remarkable contributions, and his many honorary doctorates, one may ask why would anyone object to him being referred to as “Dr APJ Abdul Kalam”? There are two reasons. First, it is a matter of protocol and convention.

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.”

(For more on honorary degrees, please read this short piece “How to Address Those With Honorary Degrees” by Robert Hickey. Everything you ever wanted to know about “honorary degrees” you will find on the wiki. Did you know that some prestigious American universities — MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Rice, etc — do not award honorary degrees as a matter of policy?)

I am not making up this rule or convention. It is what it is, and if we freely choose to use that convention, then we have to follow it all the way. It is like language. We are not required to use any specific language but if we do choose, we have to adhere to the conventions of that language. We don’t have to use the English convention of “Mr” and “Miss”. But if we do, then it would be silly to ditch the convention half-way and decide that we would randomly use “Mr” or “Miss” without regard to whether the person is a male or a female.

We have the freedom to follow or not follow the Western academic title convention. But having chosen to follow it, we are not free to disregard the convention. Mr Kalam, however else you may want to refer to him — Shri Kalam, Mr Kalam, Vaidya Kalam, Hakim Kalam, Pandit Kalam, Ustad Kalam, Monsieur Kalam, Herr Kalam, etc — you don’t have the freedom to refer to him as “Dr Kalam” because he did not earn a Ph.D.

Dignity & Pride

As I said above, my objection is based on two factors. I am done with the first: protocol and convention. You may say, “Convention be damned. He was a great man, and we must call him Dr Kalam.” My response to that objection is that it is a matter of dignity and pride.

Mr Kalam was the President of India. Even without that rare honor, his accomplishments were widely acknowledged. So pinning fake peacock feathers on him only makes him look ridiculous, not more respectable. The president of some failed banana republic may strut around calling himself “Dr Magobuto Idiam” but it is undignified for a person of Mr Kalam’s stature to use a fake title.

That the common person on the street does not know of this “Dr” convention is pardonable. What is unforgivable is the ignorance of those journalists who hold forth on radio, TV and newspapers. They just regurgitate falsehoods shamelessly. Message to them: Stop in the name of decency and dignity.

One can gain from faking something but only at the high cost of dignity and pride. It’s like petty thievery: it does not enrich oneself but only results in loss of dignity.

“Sincerely Yours, Richard P. Feynman”

To conclude this bit, let me tell you about my hero, Richard Feynman, and his attitude towards honorary degrees. Feynman was impatient with honors and awards and positions and titles and being a member of this or that high-sounding society. For nearly a decade in the 1960s he corresponded back and forth with the National Academy of Sciences (the preeminent organization that recognizes the best among scientists by electing them as members) to get them to drop his membership.

A few years ago, I read a collection of his letters. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s called “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.” [2005]. One of the letters in that collection was in reply to a letter from Dr George Beadle of the University of Chicago offering him an honorary degree. This was following his 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Dear George,

Yours is the first honorary degree that I have been offered, and I thank you for considering me for such an honor.

However, I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work—and felt an “honorary degree” was a debasement of the idea of a “degree which confirms certain work has been accomplished.” It is like giving an “honorary electricians license.” I swore then that if by chance I was ever offered one I would not accept it.

Now at last (twenty-five years later) you have given me a chance to carry out my vow.

So thank you, but I do not wish to accept the honorary degree you offered.

Sincerely yours,
Richard P. Feynman

Feynman was one of the finest minds of the 20th century; he was also abashedly plainspoken. His was not the mealymouthed bullshit we get from the so-called leaders of academia, politics and journalism.

Auntie Saggy

Talking of mealymouthed journalists spouting bullshit, I am reminded of Auntie Saggy. See these tweets (Reference):



Auntie Saggy is a weather vane, spewing crap all across the landscape, depending on the wind.

Dr Kermit, I Presume

MWSnap0441 But I don’t want to end on that dismal note. So here for your delectation is part of the acceptance speech that Kermit the Frog gave when he was awarded a honorary Ph.D. in “Amphibious Letters.”

First, of course, I want to thank you for bestowing upon me this Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters. To tell you the truth, I never even knew there was such a thing as “Amphibious” Letters. After all those years on Sesame Street, you’d think I’d know my alphabet. It just goes to show that you can teach an old frog new tricks.
. . .
It’s great to have an honorary doctorate. I have spoken with my fellow honorees — Professor Merton, Ms. Meaker, Mr. Gambling — and as honorary doctors we promise to have regular office hours, put new magazines in our waiting room, and to make late night house calls regardless of your health plan coverage. On behalf of all of us, thank you sincerely.

Note that Kermit the Frog never called himself Dr Kermit, and neither did he start practicing medicine — although he did mention that he’d have regular office hours and make house calls.

Anyway, I have much to write about Mr Kalam but that will have to wait for another piece. It will be a more substantial topic — his vision and my take on it.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch.

Atanu Dey on India's Development

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