By Karthik Shankar:
The news that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam passed away on Monday night jolted millions of Indians all over the world. The extremely popular former President collapsed due to a heart attack while giving a lecture at IIM-Shillong. Amidst conflicting reports, one of which suggests that the 83 year-old Kalam was immediately shifted to a hospital but passed away in the intensive care unit.
Within minutes of the news my Facebook feed was flooded with friends sharing videos of his or posting some of his classic quotes. Abdul Kalam was the rarest of breeds – a statesman who united people across all political, religious and ethnic lines. He might be the only person in the history of our country’s messy politics who managed to remain apolitical and never had even a whiff of controversy around him.
I remember seeing him in Dubai in 2003 when he had come for an event hosted by the Indian consulate. There were easily more than a thousand people in the auditorium, most of them school students, and when the giant screens showed his car arriving and him getting out, the applause was thunderous. This was the kind of welcome that greets rock stars, not short unassuming politicians who don Nehru suits. As usual he regaled us with his oration that day, and never made us feel like we were children, but co-writers of our future.
Born to a poor Tamil Muslim family in Rameswaram, Abdul Kalam came up through the grit of his teeth. His school years were unremarkable but he excelled in college. He studied aeronautical engineering in Madras Institute of Technology which led to a job with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). After being transferred to ISRO, he presided over its first satellite launch. Later on he headed the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) which led to the successful launch of the missiles Prithvi and Agni. He also took on the role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister between 1992 and 1999. The period that saw the Pokhran-II nuclear tests that cemented India’s status as a nuclear power but also led to short-lived economic sanctions by the international community.
Kalam’s politics didn’t come in the form of incendiary speeches but his technological innovations. In ‘India 2020’, he mentioned India’s nuclear weapons programme as pivotal to India’s status as a superpower. However, he was always clear that it was never the main solution. As he said, “We will be remembered only if we give to our younger generation a prosperous and safe India, resulting out of economic prosperity coupled with civilisational heritage.”
His rags to riches tale, love for science and warmth ensured he had legions of fans. Kalam was both an inspirational and aspirational figure for his ability to remain a grounded public figure. He had a knack for connecting with young people. His zeal for innovation, the way he freely mixed up religious influences and his open-mindedness made him a youth icon; something not even those who were decades younger could lay claim to.
In his inspirational book ‘Ignited Minds‘, Abdul Kalam recounts an eidetic dream he had after being administered a sedative at a hospital. He stood in the midst of a desert, humbled by the presence of five historical behemoths – Mahatma Gandhi, Ashoka, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Caliph Omar. History will declare that there were six great men standing in that desert.