I was 13 when I first heard of APJ Abdul Kalam. I was enrolled in a small government school tucked away in the back of beyond, bubbling with all the precociousness of teenage -- the ability to ape opinion and call them one's own.
It was only years later, during an interaction after a university event, that I was hit by his simplicity and humility. I started reading his works and stumbled upon something that bowled me over -- his constant opposition to the death penalty.
As a recent article in Hindustan Times explained, Kalam kept up a long tradition of presidents keeping mercy petitions from death row convicts pending and send back as many as 50 sentences of capital punishment for reconsideration. The only mercy plea he rejected was from Dhananjoy Chatterjee, convicted of rape and killing a young girl in Kolkata, in 2004.
Kalam wasn't the first one. Right down from Rajendra Prasad, presidents have taken their role in deciding mercy pleas very seriously and a number of them have leaned towards abolishing the death penalty, often using delaying tactics to stave off executions.
But what wowed me about Kalam is that he looked beyond his personal opposition to capital punishment. In both his public speeches and book Turning Points, Kalam talked about how those disadvantaged socio-economically were disproportionately sent to the gallows -- a rare break from his mostly mainstream political views.
His views impressed me more as I grew up and started working for the media. Here was a president who understood a majoritarian society tends to oppress those at the bottom of the pyramid: the poor, the Dalits, the religious minorities. He understood our broken system could be extraordinarily pliant for those with the right resources and a bevy of high-profile lawyers--as showcased in the Salman Khan case.
The costs of legal services are often prohibitively high in the country, ensuring only the rich and powerful have access to top lawyers. Kalam understood this, and opposed the death penalty, as recently as July.
It is, therefore, fitting the last rites of this humble but intelligent President is coinciding with the nation deciding the fate of 1993 blasts convict Yakub Memon.
The end appears to be coming swift and fast for Yakub – the Supreme Court rejected his petition on Wednesday. Minutes later, the Maharashtra governor dismissed his mercy plea. As the nation mourned Kalam, it also rejoiced over Yakub inching closer to the gallows. It is now almost certain that Kalam's funeral and the execution will take place the same day.
Hundreds of activists and jurists have come together to demand clemency for Memon, who they say was being unfairly targeted. Articles by top intelligence officials have also suggested a deal leading to Memon's purported arrest by agencies, who appear to have gone back on their word later.
Whatever the case may be, there is no denying Memon's hanging has whipped up national frenzy. The government has moved the court to restrict the number of petitions available to a death row convict as if people behind bars are somehow sub-human and don't deserve the same rights as every Indian citizen.
The nationalistic fervor is comparable to the Afzal Guru hanging some years ago and signals that a collective avenging of the blasts would be gained by Yakub’s execution. Anyone daring to dissent has been violently suppressed as a new, muscular India has added its full-throated approval to the clamour over Yakub's arrest. The people's hero, Salman Khan, hasn't been spared either with thousands abusing him for bringing in religion into the death penalty.
We are increasingly intolerant to dissent and use the threat of death or deportation to prop up our national pride but the hatred towards Yakub almost mirrors the reverence shown for Kalam. It is fitting, maybe, that TV screens have used split images to beam images from both Yakub's hearing and Kalam's funeral - for, in his death, the people's president has given us a chance to honour his legacy.
A lot about Kalam's life suits our idea of a robust India--his work with missiles, his dedication to science, his river-linking project and technocrat lifestyle and his contribution to making our country a nuclear power. But there is also a key part of his legacy--the opposition to death penalty - that makes us uncomfortable and something we have constantly overlooked.
Our wall-to-wall coverage of Kalam's life and death must juxtapose The Missile Man with the Humane Man. The flag may be at half mast but if the nation really honours its former president, it would grant Yakub mercy.
We cannot cherry pick his legacy to select what suits us -- we have to respect his opposition to the death penalty. Yakub’s life is, very literally, at India’s mercy and we all know what one of her favourite sons felt about that. Spare Yakub’s life, Mr President, if all those floral wreaths are to matter.
(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @dhrubo127 )