Today is Teacher’s Day – 5th September, the birthday of the celebrated teacher, globally renowned philosopher and the second President of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishan. His predecessor Dr Rajendra Prasad and successors like Dr Zakir Husain, Dr Shanker Dayal Sharma, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and the present incumbent Pranab Mukherjee have been teachers at sometime or the other.
While discharging their duties as President, the teacher in them often came to the fore and made a lasting impression on those who came in contact with them. Dr Radhakrishnan’s first meeting with the dreaded Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1950 was a memorable event. Dr Radhakrishnan was India’s ambassador to the erstwhile Soviet Union. Meeting Stalin at Kremlin, the philosopher put his arm round the Georgian’s broad shoulder and patted him on his back much like a teacher would do to a student. Stalin, the man of steel, melted by the warmth and grew misty eyed that left onlookers stunned. “No one has reached me with such friendship and warmth before,” the dictator confessed to the smiling teacher.
Dr Kalam was nothing if not a teacher. I had an opportunity to watch and interact with him closely in March 2006 during his six-day visit to Myanmar and Mauritius. He did not don the mantle of the President of the world’s largest democracy but wore the hat of the quintessential teacher that he is. He drew willing listeners wherever he went, from the military leaders of Myanmar to the democratically elected prime minister of Mauritius.
The continued detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was an irritant in the India-Myanmar relations. India must raise the issue of her release, but without hurting the sensitivity of the military junta. Dr Kalam did it in his typical, informal style with Senior General Than Swe.
As his wont, Dr Kalam did a lot of home work on Myanmar before his visit. He found that General Than Swe had once described Aung San Suu Kyi as “my daughter”.
“How is your daughter?” Dr Kalam asked the general at an informal airport lounge chat as he was leaving Yangon. . Swe was surprised but impressed too. “We take care of our daughters, don’t we?” Kalam told Swe. The tough general could not help but smile back at Dr Kalam, clearly getting the message.
And the ice was broken in a pleasant, unoffending way. Suu Kye was released a few years later.
Mukherjee was a college teacher in Calcutta before he plunged into politics. He was passionate about his subjects – economy and politics. In his enthusiasm, he would often overshoot his time, leaving the next lecturer waiting outside the class. When it became a regular happening, the present president suggested that he take the last hour of the day. Mukherjee had his way and went on and on till the cows came home. The students did not complain as they found the lecture absorbing.
Among our Prime Ministers, at least one, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was a teacher. Shastri was not his surname but denoted a university degree and the fact of his being a teacher by qualification
Shastri was one of the few ministers who resigned in 1963 under a Nehru- Kamaraj plan to get them work for the s strengthening of the party which became rather unpopular after the disastrous war with China in the winter of 1962.
On the day Shastri left the government, his then information officer and noted journalist Kuldip Nayar went to his bungalow in the evening as usual. “It was dark at his house, with only the drawing room lit. I thought he was not at home because the one man guard was also not on duty. I found Shastri sitting in the drawing room all by himself, reading a newspaper. I asked him why there was no light outside. He said that from now on he would have to pay the electricity bill for his house himself, and could not afford extravagant lighting,” Nayar writes in his book “Beyond The Lines.”
Witness today the spectacle of scores of former ministers clinging to their official bungalows like limpets even years after they quit office!