APJ Abdul Kalam (1931-2015)

The news of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s death at the age of 83 on the ill-fated evening of  July 28, of a cardiac arrest while addressing students on ‘Liveable Planet Earth’ at Indian Institute of Management, Shillong (estb.2008) rekindles fond memories in me of a summer morning of May, 2003. Then a student of class 11, Notre Dame Academy (Patna) – I was fortunate enough to be selected among 2000 students across 30 schools of Patna, the capital city of Bihar, to join an ‘interactive session’ with Dr. Kalam, or Kalam as he preferred to be called, the then President of India (2002-2007) at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was even more overwhelming when he asked the mike to be passed on to me to answer his question – ‘What is the secret of success?”. Two words from him, ‘okay, good’ to the answer given and a report of the event in the next day’s newspaper, left me elated for days to come. That was pretty much the state of all the students present there. The humility with which he took each questions from the students and the wit with which he replied to them — whether it was on science, his favourite meal (curd-rice) or his hairstyle (which he said suited him well)’ — struck a chord with one and all. He went on to say that the secret of success lies in “process of learning, creativity, thinking and knowledge’.

By this time readers would have well acknowledged that the life and work of Kalam stands testimony to these four principles, with almost every detail of it flooding the leading national and international news media as well as social media networks. Born on October 15, 1931 in a modest Tamil Muslim family of Rameswaram – a small temple town in Tamil Nadu — to father Jainulabudeen, an oarsman who ferried pilgrims between Rameswaram and now-extinct Dhanushkodi; and mother Ashiamma; a housewife, Kalam completed his schooling from Rameswaram Panchayat Elementary School. A Physics (Honours) graduate from St. Josephs College, Tiruchirappali, Kalam specialised in Aeronautical Engineering from Madras Institute of Technology, Madras. He graphed an illustrious career as scientist between 1960-2001 — occupying top positions at Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation and Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council. As chief of Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme of the Indian government and as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of India – Kalam gave a successful direction to India’s space and missile programmes (he guided the launch of India’s first satellite Launch Vehicles, the PSLV and Agni missiles, Pokhran II nuclear test). His works earned him the title of ‘Missile Man of India’ by the Indian media and won him all three coveted civilian awards among innumerable others — Padma Bhushan (1981), Padma Vibhushan (1990) and the highest civilian award Bharat Ratna (1997). In 2001 Kalam took to teaching and joined Anna University, Chennai as a Professor, Technology & Societal Transformation.

While only an acclaimed scientist till then, Kalam gained popularity among students and youth after winning the 11th Presidential elections of 2002 against Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, a left-nominee and succeeding the former President K.R.Narayanan, and thereafter.  Ironically, it was also a controversial time of his life, when left-leaning intellectuals questioned his presidential candidature proposed by National Democratic Alliance I government.

“Mr Kalam has only two public faces: devotion to militarism, and his image as a Muslim, which fits the stereotype constructed by the Hindu-chauvinist core of India’s present ruling coalition, represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party… Mr Kalam is a vegetarian… plays the rudra verna and reads the Bhagwad-Gita… The Hindu-sectarian BJP is totally militaristic in its outlook, and wants Muslims to “Indianise” themselves, i.e. adopt “Hindu” (read Brahmanical upper-caste) ways. Its anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan ideology is closely connected with its obsession with nuclear weapons and missiles,”

said late journalist Praful Bidwai in an article titled Missile Man as India’s President in the June 23 issue of Antiwar.com, a publication of US-based Randolphe Bourne Institute (a non-profit educational organisation, estb.2001). I recall an interview to a news channel by the then spokesperson of BJP, Rajeev Pratap Rudy who said Kalam is not any Muslim but a ‘Veena Playing Muslim’, though clarifying his statement a second later, a statement that clearly testifies Bidwais’ claims.

Kalam, nonetheless, superseded petty politics and by doing so connected with the new generation of India. Taking the roles and duties of the President too seriously – when in India its actually only a decorative post — he recommended quite a few NDA proposals for reconsideration including Sonia Gandhi’s office for profit issue, as well as petitions from death row prisoners for clemency, citing his reasons for the same (all of these suggestions were naturally rejected). He opened the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the public, invited students to exchange mails with him and rejected VIP privileges. In 2010, to honour the author of bestsellers like Wings of Fire (1999), Ignited Minds: Unleashing the power within India (2002), India 2020:  Vision for the New Millennium (2008), Children Ask Kalam (2006), The Scientific Indian (2010) to name a few, the United Nations marked October 15 as the Worlds’ Students Day. He was nominated for MTV India Youth Icon Award twice in 2003 and 2006 along with popular cricketers, actors and entrepreneurs. Throughout his lifetime, he met educationists, teachers, children from across the country and expressed the need to create an environment of inquiry, creativity, entrepreneurial development in the country’s education system. This is what he said while addressing a conference ‘Idea Exchange 2009’, organised by The Indian Express.

“It’s when children are 15, 16 or 17 that they decide whether they want to be a doctor, an engineer, a politician or go to the Mars or moon. That is the time they start having a dream and that’s the time you can work on them. You can help them shape their dreams. Tomorrow if I address a group of youngsters and talk about the flag flying in my heart and how I will uphold the dignity of the nation, I can get them to dream… Also, the youth have fewer biases about their society as compared to the grown-ups.”

To commemorate his death, the central government announced a seven day that came to an end on Sunday (July 27-August 2). The government at the centre as well as the state have also expressed their desire to rename various educational and vocational training programmes after Kalam. All of this will prove to be only a superficial service to the departed soul – whose last rites at his hometown on July 30 gathered lakhs of people wishing to pay homage — if the current National Democratic Alliance government does not distance itself from irrational viewpoints of its affiliates. With Kalam’s death, the nation has not only lost a great scientist but also a voice of reason – much needed today when there are ways being devised to institutionalise irrationality.