Obituaries: Abdul Kalam, India’s ‘people’s president’

28th Aug 2015
Obituaries: Abdul Kalam, India’s ‘people’s president’

(Creative Commons)

Sajeda Momin

“Dream is not that what you see while sleeping it is something that does not let you sleep”

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India, wrote this in his autobiography Wings of Fire and it became the most tweeted quote of the day in India on July 27, 2015 – the day he passed away. Called the ‘People’s President’ because of his love of children and his practise of inviting and engaging with them at the President’s official residence Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam died doing what he loved most, giving a lecture to some of the country’s brightest students at the Indian Institute of Management, a premier teaching institute in Shillong in North-East India. Five minutes into delivering his lecture, ironically on ‘Creating a liveable planet Earth’, the father of India’s nuclear programme, collapsed of a massive cardiac arrest. He was 83-years-old.

Abdul Kalam was born on October 15, 1931 to a Muslim family in the Hindu pilgrimage centre of Rameswaram on Pamban Island, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. His father Jainulabudeen was a boat owner and imam of a local mosque, while his mother, Ashiamma, was a housewife. Kalam was the youngest of four brothers and a sister. Kalam’s ancestors had been wealthy traders and landowners, with numerous properties and large tracts of land. Their business had involved trading groceries between the mainland and the island and to and from Sri Lanka, as well as ferrying pilgrims between the mainland and Pamban. With the opening of the Pamban Bridge to the mainland in 1914, however, the businesses failed and the family fortune and properties were lost over time, except for the ancestral home which they still have.

By his early childhood, Kalam’s family had become poor, and he was forced to sell newspapers to supplement his family’s income.

In school Kalam received average grades but was described as a bright and hardworking student who had a strong desire to learn. He spent hours on his studies, especially mathematics. After school, Kalam graduated in physics from St Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli, in 1954. He then moved to Madras to study aerospace engineering at Madras Institute of Technology. In 1960, Kalam joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as a scientist. He started his career by designing a small helicopter for the Indian Army.

In 1969, Kalam was transferred to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) where he was the project director of India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) which successfully deployed the Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit in July 1980.

In the 1970s, Kalam directed Project Devil and Project Valiant, which sought to develop ballistic missiles from the technology of the successful SLV programme. He also played a major part in developing many missiles for India including Agni, an intermediate range ballistic missile and Prithvi, the tactical surface-to-surface missile, eventually earning him the epitaph ‘missile man’. Kalam served as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of the DRDO from 1992 to 1999 and it was under his tenure that the Pokhran-II nuclear tests were conducted jettisoning India into the elite nuclear club.

Interestingly it was Kalam’s Muslim identity that made him the president of the country. In 2002 the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance Government in Delhi was smarting because of the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat under the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. In order to off-set its anti-Muslim tag, the BJP decided to nominate Kalam to the highest constitutional post in the country. He was the sort of Muslim that the BJP loved. He began his mornings reading the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads and the Gita and played the Indian musical instrument the rudra veena, believed in a uniform civil code and was a strict vegetarian. They projected him as the perfect Indian Muslim – patriotic and pliable. On July 25, 2002, Kalam was sworn in as President of India, the second Muslim to hold the post.

However, Kalam was very much a practising Muslim not missing his prayers or fasting and reading the Qur’an, all instilled into him from childhood by his father. He believed very strongly that his religion was a personal thing and that it did not have to be worn on one’s sleeve. Kalam’s father had also taught him to respect other religions and believed in interfaith dialogue. Moreover, Kalam believed that respect for other faiths was one of the key cornerstones of Islam, and he was fond of saying: “For great men, religion is a way of making friends; small people make religion a fighting tool.”

Once in office Kalam followed his own path and created a niche for himself. By interacting with the public directly bypassing protocol, particularly with the young, he made a place for himself in the hearts of the nation. Though he was only given one term as president as he was seen by all as a BJP-appointee, Kalam came into his own with his inimitable style of being humble and accessible. He spent much of his post-presidential time delivering lectures, writing books and reading. A bachelor till the end, he is survived by one elder brother and the families of his other siblings.

Considered to be one of the most loved presidents Kalam received a full-state funeral and was finally laid to rest back on the island in Rameswaram where he was born.

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