KR to Kalam: Caste, religion and the Indian presidency

"Can you tell me why, in 3000 years of our history, people from all over the world have come and invaded us, captured our land, conquered our minds? From Alexander onwards. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Dutch, all of them came and looted us, took over what was ours. Yet we have not done this to any other nation. We have not invaded anyone. We have not conquered anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, their history and tried to enforce our way of life on them".

APJ Abdul Kalam in an interview to Pritish Nandy, October 1998.

Soon after Abdul Kalam's nomination, a brahmin reporter of a leading Tamil magazine based in Madras read Kalam's autobiography, Wings of Fire, and decided to chat with a colleague. "Tell me, are you an extremist Muslim?" she asked. Shocked and cornered, he replied, "I don't offer namaz even on a Friday". Emboldened by the response, she went on to suggest, "Why don't you all be like Kalam".

When Panchajanya, the Hindu-fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's mouthpiece, of which today's prime minister is a former editor, predictably claimed APJ Abdul Kalam as their man for the Indian presidency, Saeed Naqvi, a senior Indian journalist, sought to locate Kalam in a different tradition: of Sufis and poets who had claimed the mythic god, Ram, as their own. According to Naqvi, "Kalam, for all his devotion to Rama, still has to catch up with Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana's verses in Sanskrit to Dasarath's son".

What is it that forces Naqvi to seek to relocate Kalam's coordinates? On a recent Star News debate with RSS 'intellectual' Seshadri Chari, and in his article for The Indian Express the next day (21 June 2002), Naqvi turned the debate on its head by attempting to reclaim Kalam from the RSS. His Express essay, 'Islam's many children', had the strap: "A salam to Kalam for demolishing the stereotype". Naqvi was glad that Kalam – the Gita-quoting, veena-playing, vegetarian, Ram-bhakt, celibate, teetotaler, non-Urdu speaking technocrat Muslim – will help break the three broad stereotypes of the Indian Muslim: as a butcher "who marries several times, multiplies like a rabbit and bathes only on Fridays…"; as an "Urdu-spewing paan-chewing, hubble-bubble smoking decadent nawab, leaning against a brocade sausage cushion, listening to B-grade Urdu poetry with a mujra dancer in attendance"; and the latest: "bearded, wears a skull cap, his pyjamas pulled above the ankles and his outsized shirt almost touching them. He breeds in madrassas where he plots against the state". (Never mind that in Naqvi's narrative there is no place for Muslim women; the veil remains.)

Such popular perceptions make Naqvi run into the 'syncretic' arms of Kalam. Arguing that there is no such creature as "the real Indian Muslim", Naqvi says, "The Indian Muslim, like any other Indian, is a creature of his village, district, state". Of course. But where does Naqvi – as a journalist with a Muslim-sounding name – place himself while performing this thankless task? And why does Naqvi fail to problematise Kalam's jingoistic nuclear pronouncements? Not once is Pokhran or Kalam's overenthusiastic role in India's nuclearisation mentioned. But who is responsible for a situation that produces Kalams, and the Naqvis who invest them with secular innocence?

Almost anticipating Naqvi's essay, some six months ago, another familiar commentator on 'Muslim/communal issues', Mushirul Hasan, was forced to ask in the columns of the same newspaper: 'The Indian Muslim and the loyalty test: Did I pass or fail?' (14 November 2001, reproduced in Himal, December 2001). Naqvi's essay was an attempt to pass this test. Unwittingly, Hasan, too, was trying to pass it. But unlike Naqvi, Hasan was at his angry and mocking best: "Life goes on with the accusing finger pointed at the Muslims, regardless of whether one is an atheist or a believer, secularist or Islamist, Marxist or Congressman… And our educational institutions – not the Gurukuls and the RSS schools – disseminate 'mischief', and produce unpatriotic men and women like Badruddin Tyabji, Azad, Ajmal Khan, Ansari, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Zakir Husain, Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Begum Akhtar, Azim Premji, Abdul Kalam, Shabana Azmi, and the nawab of Pataudi".

Like the unnamed Muslim journalist-friend from Madras, who like Kalam knows no Urdu, but unlike Kalam cannot quote the Gita, Muslims in India have always been cornered into thinking more about how others (caste Hindus) perceive them. It is very, very difficult being a Muslim, of whatever class-caste-linguistic background, in India: post-partition if you are North Indian, and post-Babri across the nation. (It is after all a nation, where, as former president Zakir Hussain once said: it is easier for a Muslim to become the president than become a clerk.) And, however well Mushirul Hasan is able to intellectualise his predicament – 11 September compounded by the fundamentalist Hindutva and fundamentalist Islamic pressures – he is forced into offering a list of "Muslim achievers". Though it seems to go against the thrust of his own essay, he ends up reminding his readers: "We too have our icons". (Why did his list not feature Yaseen Malik or Mirwaiz Umer Farooq? Such names would perhaps render the list 'anti-national' and make Hasan fail the 'secularism', and also the 'Indian loyalty', tests.) After Kalam's nomination for the post of president by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, it was Naqvi's turn to bear the burden of "secularising Kalam" (and by extension "secularise Islam"). Sadly, though their intentions might be different, there is a lot that binds Naqvi's and the RSS's appropriation of Kalam. Both seem happy with a Gita-quoting Ram-bhakt occupying Rashtrapati Bhawan: a president who will be Muslim, yet an un-Muslim Muslim. Seshadri Chari of the RSS said on Star News that not only Muslims, but also Hindus should emulate Kalam's "bharatiyata". "Even the Hindus do not quote the Gita", he said with regret.

Muslim intelligentsia and caste

To understand the rise of Kalam, and the kind of positions that Naqvi or Hasan are forced to assume, it is necessary to ask why the followers of Islam in India – the second largest religious minority in the nation at 12 percent after the dalit-untouchables who constitute 15 percent – have not produced a comprehensive intellectual-philosophical critique of Hinduism and its core texts. In fact, they have only seriously flirted with it. Even the secular-liberal Muslim elite of the prepartition, pre-independence period, did not produce scholars willing to mount a critique of the vedas, the Gita, dharmasastras or puranas. And when someone like Bhimrao Ambedkar mounted a sustained attack on Hinduism and all that it represented, the Muslim intelligentsia refused to stand by him or even engage with him. This, theoretically, may owe to fears of persecution and reprisals. But one is not talking here of engaging with the RSS or affiliates of the sangh parivar. The 20th century Muslim intelligentsia refused to even appreciate the intellectual challenges posed from dalit-bahujan positions.

I am reminded of a meeting at Urdu Hall on Maqdoom Marg in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. It was 1997, a year after Kancha Ilaiah had written Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. The book raised a furious debate in academic, intellectual and political circles and went into a quick reprint. The Urdu Hall meeting was a discussion of the book by 'progressive writers'. A sizable number of Muslims were in attendance. 'Hindus', in fact, were in a minority at the meeting. (Hyderabad has a tradition of secular-liberal and left-oriented Muslims – that is, it has more than its share of articulate Saeed Naqvis and a Muslim intelligentsia that is tired of Asghar Ali Engineer's Quran-centric 'secularism'.) Most speakers reviewing the book came down heavily on Ilaiah for "attacking everything in Hinduism". Some senior Muslim speakers felt his attack on Hindu scriptures, especially the vedas and the Gita, was simply unacceptable and even scandalous. Here was a scholar who was looking for some solidarity not from a group of mullahs or brahmins, but 'secular' writers and thinkers. All he got was their ire, and refusal to engage with 'anti-Hindu vitriol'.

Ilaiah's book was remarkable for what it sought to achieve in post-Babri Masjid, post-Mandal India, and instead of at least being tacitly supportive, forget taking the cue, the Muslim intelligentsia was extremely hostile. 'Books like these will feed the Hindutva goons', was the sentiment. It is such ostrich-headedness that has resulted in Muslims being increasingly alienated and monolithised in a post-independence India that had been Hindutva-ising much before the BJP came to power or was even born. And not much seems to have changed. The same Ilaiah recently wrote an article in The Hindu (29 May 2002) 'Dalit, OBC and Muslim relations', coming down strongly against the Muslims. Two crucial paragraphs are worth quoting in extenso:

The Muslim intelligentsia must also be held responsible for an indifference to the issues of caste and untouchability… Muslims rulers and scholars did not bother to understand the caste question. A visiting scholar like Alberuni threw a cursory glance at the question but no Indian scholar or poet wrote at length on these issues. Quite surprisingly, they took no social or educational work to the dalit-bahujans. Because of the influence of the brahminic ideology, the Muslim scholars thought that caste system and untouchability were spiritual and that they should not interfere.

Before the Bhakti movement, a few Sufi propagators mingled with the Sudras/Chandalas of that period. But in the modern era, particularly in the post-independence period, no Muslim intellectual worth his name has worked among the dalits, adivasis and OBCs. No Muslim intellectual stood by Ambedkar when he started the liberative struggle of the dalits. Following the Mandal movement no Muslim scholar wrote even one serious book formulating an Islamic understanding of caste and untouchability. How do bridges get built among communities? They get built only when one oppressed community gets the support of another and each relates to the other on a day-to-day basis. For that, a theoretical formulation is very essential.

So far, there has not been one decent response to the article. Many of my 'progressive' friends wondered if this – post-Gujarat – was the time for such an essay. That was the response, if any. We have earned an Abdul Kalam with our long silences on issues that matter – we deserve him. It is not as if Muslim scholars and intelligentsia have been unaware of the situation Ilaiah is referring to. Mushirul Hasan in the article cited earlier: "The Muslim intelligentsia – from the days of Shah Waliullah in the eighteenth century to Iqbal in the 1920s and 30s – dialogued with itself and not with others… Today, it is easy to notice the scholarly inertia in Muslim institutions, and the absence of protest, dissent and political activism. Lamentation rather than self-introspection is the dominant refrain. Not much has been done to interpret Islam and analyse Muslim societies". Even here, Hasan calls only for self-introspection by Muslims, saying nothing about the need to build bridges with oppressed communities such as dalits or Christians.

Perhaps the restricted definition of communalism has something to do with this. The last person to seriously view the dalit question – along with the Muslim question – as 'communal' was Ambedkar, who went to great lengths to try and convince the British, and the likes of Gandhi, that dalit-untouchables were a community separate from the Hindus, as much as the Muslims were. There were no takers for this view, despite the fact that dalit oppression is rooted in the caste system – the bedrock of Hinduism – and, therefore, is carried out in the name of religion. So, when dalits are under attack, neither Muslim nor caste Hindu intellectuals posit this as a 'communal/religious' problem.

In fact, in post-independence India, dalits are the most visible and brutalised victims of a communal violence that is far more crude, sustained and regular than the attacks on Muslims. Around the time of Kalam's elevation, two dalits in Thinniyam, a village in Tamil Nadu's Tiruchi district, were forced to eat shit. There are at least a dozen such reported instances every year. In Melavalavu, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, seven years ago an elected dalit panchayat (village council) president was beheaded along with six others. Till date, the caste Hindus of Melavalavu refuse to employ or socialise with dalits of the village. This is the reason why in Tamil Nadu, since the Meenakshipuram conversions of 1981, dalits have increasingly and regularly sought physical, social and spiritual comfort in Islam to escape Hindu violence.

Internal matter

The Indian government calls the caste and untouchability issue an "internal matter" of the nation. When Christians were under attack from the same Hindutva dispensation in 1998-99 the international (Christian) community was "concerned" and sought assurances from the BW-led government. When Muslims are under attack in Gujarat, there is a diplomatic fallout to think about. But when dalits are subjected to attacks on a daily basis, no one bothers. Forget international reactions, since untouchables and untouchability are exclusively Subcontinental problems, it fails to outrage media-managers, the political class, and intellectuals inside the country. Arundhati Roy periodically publicises her rage on a great many issues. But violence against dalits leaves her cold. Gujarat is outrageous, but the silence on anti-dalit pogroms is equally reprehensible.

It may be asked why dalit intellectuals have not reacted to Muslim issues. The short answer to it is that dalits have not been allowed the kind of institutional backing and public space that Muslims, by virtue of being a recognised minority community, have. How many visible dalit intellectuals have emerged compared to Muslim? In the 'national' Hindi and English-speaking fora one knows only of Chandrabhan Prasad and Udit Raj. And it is worth noting that India does not have a single accredited dalit journalist. Tamil Nadu's thriving dalit intellectuals are relegated to little magazines. Readers of Himal may not know of any at all.

And what is the role and responsibility of Muslims in this active suppression of dalits at the intellectual level? Under Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution of India, religious minorities have special rights to run educational institutions that cater specifically to a particular community. According to a survey by the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), as of 2000, there are 92 major modern Muslim-run colleges in India (Milli Gazette, 1 January 2000) where 50 percent of the intake can be Muslim. The "ratio of non-Muslim teachers in 44 percent of these colleges exceeds that of the Muslims". We were not told, however, of the percentage of dalits here. Perhaps because there exist none.

In November 2001, a member of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (NCSCST) met the AMU authorities to inquire about the implementation of reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the appointment of teachers and employees and admission of students in the university. AMU Vice-Chancellor, Hamid Ansari, and other authorities told him: "there is no scope for the implementation of this policy in this university" (Milli Gazette, 15 November 2001). In 1995-96, of 1280 faculty in AMU, there was not one dalit. In Delhi's Jamia Milia Islamia, of 350 teachers, there was only one adivasi ('Dalit Diary', Pioneer, 30 June 2002). The Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami Viswa Mahavidyalaya, a deemed university run by the Kanchi 'Sankara math' in Tamil Nadu, and the six Indian Institutes of Technology (IlTs) funded by the University Grants Commission, follow a similar dalit-free policy unabashedly. Of some 400-odd faculty members in IIT Madras there are two dalits. In IIT-Bombay, there is none. In the once-left bastion, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, it is the same story. Muslims, and 'secular' and non-secular caste Hindus, all seem to think alike about dalits, their 'merit' and nurturing dalit intellectuals. According to the NCSCST, hardly two of hundred dalits and adivasis avail of the reservation policy, which guarantees them a 22.5 percent quota in jobs and education. How will such a scenario throw up dalit intellectuals?

The few national voices we hear, like Chandrabhan Prasad, will only be irritated by a category he dubs "Mandl House Muslims" – mostly ashrafi Muslims, that is 'noble' Muslims who descend from 'foreigners' or are converts from 'dwija' (twice-born) Hindus – who are content to dialogue with 'liberal-secular' caste-Hindus and keep off 'merit-less' dalits. There are very few ajlaf voices – lower class Muslims, literally 'wretched' or 'mean people' – heard in the media or make it to the mainstream of the Muslim intelligentsia. When there is hardly a dalit voice that can be heard on dalit issues, in what way can 'dalits intellectuals' vocalise support for Muslims-in-distress? Millions of dalits have over the centuries embraced Islam, and continue to do so. But some Muslims, such as Kalam, have converted to brahminism: the rare case of a non-Urdu speaking shudra-ajlaf integrating with the brahmanical order.

It is against such a backdrop that the BJP with one hand did in the Muslims of Gujarat and with the other hand held aloft a Kalam, while snubbing KR Narayanan with a 'no-thanks'. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the replacement of the dalit scholar-diplomat, KR Narayanan by the pseudo-Muslim, faux scientist, Abdul Kalam, has evoked only a muted public response from the dalits. What is surprising, however, is the ease with which the few caste-sensitive subaltern voices who have access to public fora have reconciled themselves to this retrograde change of guard. Ilaiah's rejection of the glorification of Kalam as a missile man is at best oblique. In his view the unfortunate obsession with Kalam's role in India's missile programme detracts from his contributions in "other areas of science". He of course does not illuminate for us these other contributions.

Ilaiah is asking for something that is not there. All that Kalam has done is help put together bombs whose kiloton value is suspect and 'reverse engineer' rockets without much success. Sadly, dalit intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad and OBC intellectuals like Ilaiah have been a little too casual in reconciling to Kalam's. elevation. While Chandrabhan's anger against "Mandi House Muslims" is understandable, this cannot translate into support for a shudra-Muslim who serves the caste-Hindu cause. Forget Kalam's views on Gujarat and the prospect of a nuclear war, we would be better off not knowing what this Ram-bhakt has to say about the Babri Masjid demolition or the VHP's current agenda. Since for Kalam, 'the nation is above the individual', it may logically follow that a temple at Ayodhya would have to considered – in the 'national interest'. In this, Kalam could be abetted by Jayendra Saraswati, the self-imposed 'Sankaracharya' of the nonexistent fifth Kanchipuram math, whose ardent devotee Kalam is. In a recent interview, Saraswati referred to Kalam as a friend and 'soul-mate'. Clearly, Kalam will restore a presidential tradition – broken briefly by KR Narayanan – of the head of state prostrating at the feet of fundamentalist Sankaracharyas.

Communitarianism, Nehru and Kalam

The caste-less, creed-less, nationalist Kalam's proximity to brahmin seers raises interesting questions about the liberal conception of the state and public office in India, particularly in the light of the 'secular' and 'non-secular' irritation with Rafiq Zakaria's communitarian objection to his nomination. Zakaria – to whom the media prefixes the tag 'moderate' – is a Muslim who decided not to take the 'loyalty test'. He argues that there is nothing Muslim about Kalam except the name. "[H]e should not be put in the same category as the two former Muslim Presidents, Dr Zakir Husain and Mr Fakruddin Ali Ahmed. Both of them were as great patriots and Indians to the core as Dr Kalam. But they were also Muslims in the real sense of the word; they believed in the tenets of the Quran and faithfully followed the traditions of the Prophet. They worked for the uplift of the Muslims as much as for the progress of India" (Asian Age, 19 June 2002).

Zakaria does not regret Kalam's imminent elevation. Nor is he too bothered about Kalam's ballistic bombast and his nuclear pro-activism. He only objects to his being called a "Muslim", for he has "kept himself completely away from Muslims; he refused to mix with them and even when invited to participate in their nationalistic activities, he politely declined". So Zakaria, one of "Islam's many children", has a take on Kalam as much as Naqvi does. "His roots are really in Hinduism and he enjoys all the sacred Hindus scriptures. Hence the credit for his elevation, in communal terms, should go to the Hindus; to give it to the Muslims would be wrong. In fact Dr Kalam himself would be happy if he is not described as a Muslim". While seeking to problematise Kalam's intractable 'Muslim identity', Zakaria never once invokes the Gujarat massacres, or how Kalam is the 'dream Muslim' of the sangh parivar. Zakaria seems absolutely rooted in his commitment to his community and religion (irrespective of the language and regional moorings of the person in question), and, unlike Kalam, refuses to 'rise above religion' as the (Indian) 'nationalist' media loves to put it. Zakaria's comments about an unrepentantly unrelentingly un-Islamic Kalam annoyed several Hindu commentators, because Kalam's conscious distancing himself from the Muslims – in food habits and cultural and spiritual moorings – was directly proportional to his proximity to brahminism.

An open airing of such communitarian (not communal) concerns will obviously worry liberals and democrats of the classical mould. In this conception of liberal democracy the 'individual' should not be bound or weighed down by categories of religion, caste and community. But India has never been bound to the principles of liberal democracy in practice. There are only institutions – from parliament to courts – in place. In a Hindu-dominated society that swamps both Christianity and Islam with the vulgarities of the hierarchical caste system, thousands of communities are bound by the specificities of their problems. Individuals who drift away from their communities after tasting success – especially when they come from oppressed, minority groups – are seen as betrayers. Social scientist Gopal Guru has theorised on the dilemma of those dalits who seek the "authentication of modernity on terms set by the twice-born", the dwija. The modernist dalit who develops a detached view of his or her community invites the wrath of the communitarian dalit and earns the tag "dalit-brahmin". But the alienated dalit can never become brahmin, thus being doubly alienated ('Dalits in Pursuit of Modernity' in India: Another Millennium, Ed. Romila Thapar, 2001). In Kalam's case, we might be witnessing the emergence of a new category – the Muslim-brahmin, applauded by 'secularists', communitarian brahmins and shudras alike.

It was not as if Kalam was born in a place and time where there was no social ferment. Kalam, at 71, would have witnessed Tamil Nadu's zealous non-brahmin movement (1920s to 1950s) and the subsequent rule of the shudras by the DMK. As a teenager Kalam must have heard (if not read) Periyar EV Ramasamy, the anti-brahmin activist and ideologue. Most Muslims of the state – who pre-Babri considered themselves as much Tamil as Muslims, and did not feel constantly persecuted like their north Indian counterparts – threw their political weight behind the DMK at crucial times. Yet, we see that the best-known Muslim from Tamil Nadu today has emerged as a brahmin, and is praised by the shudra leader Karunanidhi as the 'ideal candidate' for presidency. Kalam's brahminic success is equally the failure of the anti-brahmin movement and the DMK which inherited its political legacy.

Comparing the brahminical Kalam with the communitarian-dalit Narayanan is inevitable. No dalit grudged Narayanan his pursuit of the good life, a Burmese wife, or the evening scotch. The only expectation was that he should not forget his community and the millions who look up to him. Narayanan never forgot (nor was he allowed to forget his origins by the media). Narayanan's detractors claim that he started talking about 'dalit issues' only after becoming president. But former Mizoram governor A Padmanaban's book, Dalits at the Crossroads: Their Struggle, Past and Present, 1996, which documents Narayanan's speeches much before he became president suggests the contrary. The media saw Narayanan as a dalit first, president next. It never needed to remind S Radhakrishnan, Shankar Dayal Sharma or R Venkatraman about how rooted each was in his caste and religion. Sharma presided over vedic sammelans and more often was found in Tirupati than in New Delhi; RV was an unabashed brahminist whose main worry was the manoeuvres at the Kanchipuram 'Sankara math'; Radhakrishnan was much the same but managed to hide behind the mask of a 'philosopher'. These men were brahmins first, presidents next.

Mayawati as chief minister, reporters from Uttar Pradesh tell us yet again, is making no bones about her preference for dalits in the bureaucracy and the establishment as such (despite her alliance with the BJP). Yet how many reporters have bothered to investigate the number of Kashmiri pandits who benefited during Nehru's premiership? How much was Nehru able to rise above caste? Here's an avowed leftist, Ashok Mitra, fondly remembering Parameswar N Haksar on his death: "The Kashmiri Pandits, the entire tribe, are all related to one another in some manner or other. So it was not difficult for Haksar to come to close to Jawaharlal Nehru… This man, rich in talent, an Allahabad Nehruvian to his fingertips, a song of socialism in his heart, of impeccable Kashmiri Brahmin stockage…" ('The P.N. Haksar story' 12 December 1998 After running amok in the foreign service during Nehru's regime, he became Indira Gandhi's backroom boy. The hold of the Kashmiri brahmin mafia – Kauls, Dhars, Haksars, and Kaos – spread from foreign service (Haksar) to the secret service (Rameshwar Nath Kao, former chief of India's foreign intelligence bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, who died this year) with governorships, plum foreign postings and secretaryships thrown in for good measure.

The paradoxes of liberal political practice in India are much too obvious to be ignored. The privilege of communitarian loyalty is permitted only to caste Hindus, who despite their overt religiosity and their blatant favours to caste members while in public office, are still called secular. Narayanan and Mayawati on the other hand, while being constantly reminded of their caste, are denied the privilege of empathising with their community. It is not very different for the Muslim either. Farooq Abdullah, who for political reasons must assert a mild form of Kashmiri/at and the autonomy of his state, will not be accommodated in the Rashtrapathi Bhawan even as the second man – the vice president. It takes a Kalam who renounces his caste, rejects his religion, embraces the sanathan dharm, denies the social realities of the nation, and cultivates a militant patriotism, to become the head of state. Unflinching loyalty to the majority is the deracinated minority's price for ceremonial recognition.

Kalam's elevation represents the collective failure of Indian polity and society. It is another phase of brahminic revivalism in India – brahminism parading with a Muslim name. Personally, I am dreading the next Republic Day, the day when for five years Narayanan used make stirring, thoughtful speeches. We will now have to put up with schoolboy compositions. And we have earned this: a man who is aware of invasions and colonialisms (see epigraph), but is innocent of the colonisation of his own mind.

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