My first meeting with our beloved late president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is firmly etched in my memory. He had called me when I was attorney general for consultation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. When I entered his room, there was no atmosphere of formality, much less pomposity. He heartily greeted me and said with disarming simplicity, “I am a nuclear scientist, not a constitutional expert, so I want to learn from you my exact role as president. Am I bound to act in every matter according to ministerial advice? Have I no independent judgment or discretion?” But he insisted that before I gave my views I should have the coffee and snacks which were ordered for me. “Food is important for food for thought,” he said with an endearing smile.
I explained to him that the law on the subject was laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of Shamsher Singh, according to which if the president was not in agreement with ministerial advice, he was entitled to ask the government to reconsider the matter. He interjected, “What happens if the matter is not reconsidered?” I told him that in that case he is bound to act according to ministerial advice. With a twinkle in his eye he asked, “If I don’t, what happens? Am I then guilty of constitutional impropriety?” I skirted the issue and replied that the question was hypothetical and I was sure he would abide by the discipline of the Constitution. He nodded his head in agreement and said, “As president of India, I am not concerned with the ideology of the ruling party or of the opposition. My paramount concern is to ensure justice to our people and their welfare,” by observing constitutional norms. The meeting ended on that note.
After a few weeks, I was again called to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In this meeting, the president expressed his anguish at the phenomenon of under-trial prisoners languishing in jails for periods longer than the maximum period of punishment they would receive upon conviction. He added, “How can we let this happen in our country? Tell me the next time we meet what I can do to alleviate the suffering of these unfortunate persons.”
After this meeting, APJ demitted office and the next meeting at the Rashtrapati Bhavan did not take place. But I met him at a function when Atalji was conferred the Bharat Ratna by President Pranab Mukherjee. After the ceremony was over, he called me and said, “I am no longer the president, but what can I do as a human being to remove the sufferings of fellow human beings?” I was struck by the genuineness of his concern. I promised to give him a note in the matter. Alas, before I could do that, India’s most respected, liked and admired president departed from our midst without any warning.
APJ was a man of integrity, genuine simplicity with an abiding concern for the well-being of fellow human beings. He shunned pomp and publicity. He was most happy in the company of children, which is testimony to his childlike nature. I am not aware of any political or public personality who has found a place in the hearts of millions of our people as APJ has.
He greatly enhanced the stature of his office by adhering to constitutional norms. He gave respectability to our country in the world. APJ was a president and a human being par excellence.
Good night, beloved Abdul Kalam, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Sorabjee is former attorney general of India.