Exemplifying Courage — A Tribute to India’s Exceptional Office Holders


Acts of courage by public servants are not as rare as one may perceive them to be. They are not only a testament to the indomitable national spirit, but a celebration of the most noble of human virtues. It is not just stories of the past but a source of hope and confidence for the future. It reminds us of the strength of the human spirit to deliver justice in testing times, in situations of crisis and to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves. The act of dissent becomes the voice of reason for the future generations to look up to. We need not look far to find those profiles in courage, many of them can be found at home.

These people have shown us that there are many ways to be of public service and to serve is their greatest aspiration. They find strength in themselves to lead when others have fallen prey. Their acts, recorded in history for inspiration and reference, should guide the people of our nation to follow in their footsteps. Their historic effort has withstood the test of time and resisted the temptation of complicity and compliance.

President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam

President Kalam, also known as the Missile Man, exemplified tremendous courage and unique qualification and capacity for his office. Dr. Kalam was a pioneer in the mission of development of India’s first indigenous missile capability and nuclear weapons. His commitment to national unity and security led to the successful nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998. In 2002, Kalam was unanimously nominated as the Presidential candidate by both the Congress and the NDA including the BJP, a rare occurence.  Dr. Kalam was an embodiment of love and he was called the ‘People’s President’ for his popular appeal. However, he was criticised for his inaction to decide the fate of 20 mercy petitions out of 21, including that of Kashmiri terrorist Afzal Guru, who was convicted for the parliament attacks in 2001. President Kalam, in his autobiography, remembers the days of religious harmony and peace where Hindus and Muslims co-existed peacefully:

“The famous Shiva temple, which made Rameswaram so sacred to pilgrims, was about a ten-minute walk from our house. Our locality was predominantly Muslim, but there were quite a few Hindu families too, living amicably with their Muslim neighbors.”

The high priest of Rameswaram temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, was a very close friend of my father’s. One of the most vivid memories of my early childhood is of the two men, each in his traditional attire, discussing spiritual matters.”

Justice H.R. Khanna

If India ever finds its way back to the freedom and democracy that were proud hallmarks of its first eighteen years as an independent nation, someone will surely erect a monument to Justice HR Khanna of the Supreme Court. It was Justice Khanna who spoke out fearlessly and eloquently for freedom this week in dissenting from the Court’s decision upholding the right of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Government to imprison political opponents at will and without court hearings… The submission of an independent judiciary to absolutist government is virtually the last step in the destruction of a democratic society; and the Indian Supreme Court’s decision appears close to utter surrender.”

– The New York Times, on April 30, 1976

Justice H.R. Khanna is regarded as the lone dissenter in the ADM Jabalpur case that cost him the chair of the Chief Justice of India (CJI). The four judges of the bench- Justice Beg, Justice Bhagwati, Justice Chandrachud and Justice Ray ruled in favour of the governemnt thereby suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus. Justice Khanna, the lone crussader of democracy, objected and delivered the opposing judgment. He upheld the sanctity of his office in order to preserve and protect the propriety and dignity of the institution and the constitution he was sworn to uphold. He exhibited a great many virtues during his life that set a class apart and an indication of the finest class of professionals.

These men in public service have exhibited political courage to make difficult and risky choices in the face of adversity, choices between conscience and public sentiment, between moral principles and electoral success. Though unpopular and undervalued at the time, they have set themselves apart for years to follow.

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