Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam: The People’s President – OpEd


Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, ex-president of India, died on July 27 of this year. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him personally but always admired him greatly. He was an extraordinary human being. He was a scientist, aeronautical engineer and writer who became the eleventh President of India, serving from 2002-2007. But above all his achievements, he was a very humble man, a great teacher and a splendid inspirer.

In spite of being a very spiritual Muslim who would often quote the 13th century Sufi Master Mowlana Rumi in his speeches, he became the most beloved president in the history of India whose population is mostly Hindu.

During his decorated 40-year scientific career, Dr. Kalam pioneered India’s space, missile and nuclear programs, earning him the nickname “Missile man of India”. Some of the posts he held include director of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, chief of the guided missile development program and chief scientific adviser to the Prime Minister. He catalyzed India in ways that no one was able to since the days of MK Gandhi.

Born 84 years ago in October 15, 1931 in Dhanushkodi, India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam joined India’s defense department after graduating from the Madras Institute of Technology. He was a central figure in the development of the country’s nuclear capabilities, and was hailed as a national hero after a series of successful tests in 1998.

Despite his modest beginnings – his dad built and rented boats – Kalam was a bright student who showed promise in science and mathematics. He attended St. Joseph’s College, and went on to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Madras Institute of Technology.

His hope of becoming a fighter pilot was dashed when he narrowly missed out on a spot with the Indian Air Force. Kalam instead joined the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) as a senior scientific assistant in 1958. After moving to the newly formed Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in 1969, he was named project director of the SLV-III, the first satellite launch vehicle designed and produced on Indian soil.

Returning to the DRDO as director in 1982, Kalam implemented the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program. He then became the senior scientific adviser to India’s defense minister in 1992, a position he used to campaign for the development of nuclear tests.

Kalam was a key figure in the May 1998 Pokhran-II tests, in which five nuclear devices were detonated in the Rajasthan Desert. Although the tests resulted in condemnation and economic sanctions from other world powers, Kalam was hailed as a national hero for his stanch defense of the country’s security.

Throughout his career as a scientist, one of Dr. Kalam’s goals was to inspire and motivate the youth of India to get excited about science and knowledge. For instance, after his position as chief scientific adviser ended in 1999, Dr. Kalam announced he would personally meet at least 100,000 students in a two year period to help spread the word of science.

In 2002, India’s ruling National Democratic Alliance led by BJP helped Dr. Kalam win an election against Lakshmi Sahgal and he become India’s 11th president, a largely ceremonial post. The opposition Indian National Congress also supported his Presidency.

As a President, Dr. Kalam was different and disregarding his customary ceremonial role, he worked hard to reach out to the youth of India and inspire them. Known as the People’s President, Dr. Kalam set a goal of conducting 500,000 one-on-one meetings with young people over the course of his five-year term. [I doubt if there is a single head of state alive today that even met a tenth of those numbers in his/her entire career.] His immense popularity led to him being nominated by MTV for a Youth Icon of the Year award in 2003 and 2006.

After leaving office in 2007, Dr. Kalam became a visiting professor at several universities. He formed the “What Can I Give Movement” in 2011 with the goal of creating a compassionate society, and in 2012, his efforts to improve healthcare led to the release of a tablet for medical personnel to use in remote areas. Never married, he lived a very simple life who would be waiting patiently for a bus, having breakfast at his favorite teashop, talking to people from backgrounds as humble as that which he had outgrown. In this simplicity lay the secret of his ability to connect with people, across the boundaries of age, class, religion and region.

On July 27, 2015, Dr. Kalam suffered a massive heart attack while lecturing at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong and subsequently died at the age of 83.

Dr. Kalam was a deeply spiritual man who practiced what he preached, shunning material possessions and rewards. The only material goods Dr. Kalam coveted were books, owning over 2500 of them. His only other possessions were a watch, six shirts, four pants, three suits and a pair of shoes. He did not own any property, a fridge, TV, car or air conditioner.

According to his former media advisor, “He [Dr. Kalam] would never accept a gift, save a book, and whenever somebody brought him a packed gift and tried to pass it off as a book, he insisted on examining what was inside. Anything other than the book was politely returned.”

Dr. Kalam was laid to rest on July 30 with full state honors in his native Tamil Nadu. Over 350,000 people attended his funeral in his home town of Rameswaram.

In honor of the scientist and former president, the southeast Indian state government of Tamil Nadu created a “Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Award,” which recognizes exceptional individuals who promote the sciences, students and humanities. The government has also established Dr. Kalam’s birthday (October 15) as “Youth Renaissance Day.” Discussion about building a large-scale memorial at his burial site is underway.

Wheeler Island – located off the coast of Odisha, which is one of India’s key missile testing facilities, will be named after President APJ Abdul Kalam. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced the move on Monday joining a league of state governments who have taken to honor Dr Kalam, considered the father of India’s missile program and a widely loved public figure. Fondly remembered as the ‘People’s President’, his death was mourned widely. The government of Delhi announced it would rename a key road at the heart of the capital city after the former President last week while the Bihar government named an agriculture college after him.

Among his many accolades, including honorary doctorates from 40 universities, he was granted the Padma Bhushan (1981), the Padma Vibhushan (1990) and the Bharat Ratna (1997) — India’s highest civilian awards — for his contributions in modernizing government defense technology. He also wrote several books, including the autobiography Wings of Fire in 1999.

Dr Kalam was a very wise man whose worth is difficult to measure by anyone. To Shashi Tharoor, probably India’s best known diplomat, Dr. Kalam “was a complete Indian, an embodiment of the eclecticism of India’s heritage of diversity.” “In his life and his work, APJ Abdul Kalam embodied the best of what India can be. India has never had a more beloved president. Active till the end, he left the world in mid-speech, as if to remind us that he still had something more to say.”

Here below are 37 quotations from him that I found worth sharing.

  1. Only the person who has the courage to lose sight of the shore can discover new oceans.
  2. Life is a very complex interplay of various factors and there has to be acceptance of the risks inherent in coping with it and yet keep moving on.
  3. Determination is the power that sees us through all our frustrations and obstacles. It helps in building our willpower which is the very basis of success.
  4. No matter what you achieve, you should never be completely satisfied and should always be searching for ways to prove yourself.
  5. You have to dream before your dreams can come true.
  6. Great dreams of great dreamers are always transcended.
  7. If you want to leave your footprints on the sands of time do not drag your feet.
    Dream, Dream, Dream, Dreams transform into thoughts and thoughts result in action.
  8. Never give up on your dreams no matter how old you are, no matter where you are today. Do not give up dreaming for a better tomorrow.
  9. There is no success without failure. Failures are just intermittent blockades. Success is the final destination.
  10. Do not wait for something big to happen, start where you are with whatever you have.
  11. To succeed in life and achieve results, you must understand and must master three mighty forces – desire, belief and expectation.
  12. Man needs his difficulties because they are necessary to enjoy success.
  13. Let me define a leader. He must have vision and passion and not be afraid of any problem. Instead, he should know how to defeat it. Most importantly, he must work with integrity.
  14. To succeed in your mission, you must have single-minded devotion to your goal.
  15. God, our Creator, has stored within our minds and personalities, great potential strength and ability. Prayer helps us tap and develop these powers.
  16. Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident.
  17. One of the very important characteristics of a student is to question. Let the students ask questions.
  18. Failure will never overtake me if my determination to succeed is strong enough.
  19. Don’t take rest after your first victory because if you fail in second, more lips are waiting to say that your first victory was just luck.
  20. All Birds find shelter during a rain. But Eagle avoids rain by flying above the clouds.
  21. Man needs difficulties in life because they are necessary to enjoy the success.
  22. If you want to shine like a sun: first burn like a sun.
  23. All of us do not have equal talent. But, all of us have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.
  24. Be more dedicated to making solid achievements than in running after swift but synthetic happiness.
  25. Thinking should become your capital asset, no matter whatever ups and downs you come across in your life.
  26. Those who cannot work with their hearts achieve but a hollow, half-hearted success that breeds bitterness all around.
  27. Without your involvement you can’t succeed. With your involvement you can’t fail.
  28. My message, especially to young people is to have courage to think differently, courage to invent, to travel the unexplored path, courage to discover the impossible and to conquer the problems and succeed. These are great qualities that they must work towards. This is my message to the young people.
  29. When your hopes and dreams and goals are dashed, search among the wreckage, you may find a golden opportunity hidden in the ruins.
  30. The best performances are accomplished when you are relaxed and free of doubt.
  31. Before God trusts you with success, you have to prove yourself humble enough to handle the big prize.
  32. A leader can only be free to lead his team if he keeps abreast of all that is happening around him—in real time.
  33. To be a successful team leader, one has to stay back after the din and clutter of a working day to emerge better-equipped and ready to face a new day.
    Life is a difficult game. You can win it only by retaining your birthright to be a person.
  34. He who knows others is learned, but the wise one is the one who knows himself. Learning without wisdom is of no use.
  35. If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.
  36. There are boundaries that dictate life: you can only lift so much weight; you can only learn so fast; you can only work so hard; you can only go so far!
  37. “Learning uses creativity, creativity leads to thinking, thinking provides knowledge and knowledge makes you great. Righteousness are moral principles learnt in a spiritual environment from our parents and teachers. When there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character; when there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in the home; when there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation and when there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world. Courage is to think different, to discover impossible, to combat the problem and succeed and to travel into an unexplored path.” ~ Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam

How did Dr. Kalam sum up himself? In his book ‘Wings of Fire’, he wrote, “My story—the story of the son of Jainulabdeen, who lived for over a hundred years on Mosque Street in Rameswaram island and died there; the story of a lad who sold newspapers to help his brother; the story of a pupil reared by Sivasubramania Iyer and Iyadurai Solomon; the story of a student taught by teachers like Pandalai; the story of an engineer spotted by MGK Menon and groomed by the legendary Prof. Sarabhai; the story of a scientist tested by failures and setbacks; the story of a leader supported by a large team of brilliant and dedicated professionals. This story will end with me, for I have no belongings in the worldly sense. I have acquired nothing, built nothing, possess nothing—no family, sons, daughters.”

But I am sure Dr. Kalam’s story will not end with his burial in a Muslim grave in Tamil Nadu but would continue to be told and retold because he was able to ignite the minds of so many – tens of millions not just in India but all over the globe. His indomitable spirit will live along with us and continue to inspire the generations to come. May Allah have mercy on him!

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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