A Humble Tribute To The Real Hero : Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
APJ was a man of integrity, genuine simplicity with an abiding concern for the well-being of fellow human beings. He shunned pomp and publicity. He was most happy in the company of children, which is testimony to his childlike nature. I am not aware of any political or public personality who has found a place in the hearts of millions of our people as APJ has. He greatly enhanced the stature of his office by adhering to constitutional norms. He gave respectability to our country in the world. APJ was a president and a human being par excellence. Good night, beloved Abdul Kalam, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
– Soli J Sorabjee, former Attorney General of India and one of India’s greatest and most eminent legal luminary
Needless to say, a person of the towering personality like that of Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam comes on earth once in many centuries. I did not see Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru or Subhash Chandra Bose with my own eyes as they died many decades before even I was born. But yes, I have grown seeing Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who was not just our former President but also a great scientist who has played a stellar role in making India nuclear and in ensuring that our missiles like Agni and others are successfully tested.
It must be mentioned here that Dr Kalam passed away at Bethany hospital on July 27, 2015 after he collapsed while he was delivering a lecture at the IIM of Shillong in Meghalaya at around 6:30 pm which left the whole country numbed. Doctors at the Bethany hospital said that he was brought dead around 7 pm and attributed his death to cardiac arrest. In fact, leaders from all across the globe conveyed their heartfelt condolences and shock at his untimely demise. On July 30, 2015, Kalam was laid to rest finally at Rameswaram’s Pei Karumbu Ground with full State honours and with PM Narendra Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee and all other VVIPs and foreign dignitaries personally paying their tributes to him! Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hassina too came personally to pay her last respects to the departed great soul!
Tshering Tobgay who is PM of Bhutan said that, “His Majesty the King has commanded our National Flags will fly at half mast to mourn the passing of India’s former President Dr Abdul Kalam.” Barack Obama who is US President paid his rich tributes to Dr Kalam and said that, “A scientist and statesman, Dr Kalam rose from humble beginnings to become one of India’s most accomplished leaders, earning esteem at home and abroad.”
Maithripala Sirisena who was then the President of Sri Lanka said that, “Dr Abdul Kalam – the man who ushered India on a new journey has just finished his own. You will continue to inspire us for centuries.” LK Advani who is India’s former Deputy PM said that, “I always regarded Dr Kalam as the best exemplar of the idea of India, one who embodied the best of all the cultural and spiritual traditions that signify India’s unity in immense diversity. He harmonised science and spirituality.”
If there is one person in my life about whom I have never heard anyone talking ill of – it is none other than our former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam! He was revered by people of all religions and leaders from all parties. He himself personally respected all religions and that only added to the huge respect he commanded from people cutting across religious lines. Very few know that he was a pure vegetarian and always read Gita as he was greatly inspired by it! He had praying rights at the Rameshwaram temple, listened to Carnatic music and liked to play Rudra Veena! He was a staunch Muslim yet was an epitome of secularism who firmly believed in unity of all religions! He never wanted to host iftaar party and always gifted food to inmates of orphanages in and around Delhi and that too at his own expense!
Let me now quote from Gita what was Dr Kalam’s most favourite quote which says that, “See the flower, how generously it distributes perfume and honey. When its work is done, it falls away quietly. Try to be like it, unassuming despite all its qualities.” Dr Kalam practiced it throughout his life and has set a trend for all of us to emulate. Dr Kalam also was full of praise for the Holy Quran and paid his tribute to it by saying that, “I have worked with many brilliant engineers/leaders. The words from the Quran ring in my ears when I think of them : ‘Light upon light. Allah guides His light to whom He will.”
It must be mentioned here that Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was born on October 15, 1931 in Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. October 15 this year in 2021 is thus his 90th birth anniversary. A towering personality like him is born once in many centuries. He was a beacon of hope and always led his life from the front. His father Jainulabdeen was an Imam who owned boats and would rent them out to fisherman and mother Ashiamma was a housewife. He came from very humble family background and worked very hard to sustain his educational expenses. He worked as a newspaper vendor to contribute to his father’s income and see where he ultimately reached! He became not just a great scientist but also occupied the highest post of our country – President! The very first thing he did with the first scholarship money he got for securing very high marks was to pay to get back the jewellery which her sister had mortgaged to sustain his educational expenses!
I still remember my best friend in life Sageer Khan telling me way back in 1994 more than twenty seven years back that there is one Indian scientist Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who inspite of being a Muslim is a vegetarian, reads Gita everyday along with Holy Quaran with equal reverence and firmly believes in unity of all religions and wished that such a great person should become the President of India who could bring together people from different religions on one platform! To be brutally honest, I had not even heard then of the name of Dr Kalam but I nodded “yes, yes, yes” as I didn’t want to offend my best friend Sageer by saying “Who is this Kalam?” ! Sageer Khan too had read about him in some magazine but I didn’t take this so seriously as I had never heard of him earlier. But now I realize that Sageer was cent percent right and it is India’s good luck that Dr Kalam rose on to become the President of India!
Dr Kalam attended Schwartz Matriculation School in Ramanathapuram and graduated in physics from Saint Joseph’s College at Tiruchirappalli in 1954. He joined Madras Institute of Technology to study aerospace engineering in 1955 and by 1958 completed his post graduation. He joined the aeronautical development establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation as a scientist in 1960 and designed a small helicopter for the Army.
He was transferred to the Indian Space Research Organisation in 1969. He was the project director of India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle which put the Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit in July 1980 and worked on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and SLV-III projects. He was the chief project coordinator of the Pokhran II nuclear tests. He was Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister and Secretary of the DRDO between 1992 and 1999.
He was appointed as Principal Scientific Advisor to Government of India in 1999 and stayed till November 2001 and was accorded Cabinet Minister rank responsible for policies, strategies and missions for many development applications. He devoted a major part of his life in developing many scientific projects, missiles and even nuclear bomb for India! His immense contribution in the field of science and technology cannot be described in words!
In 1998 along with cardiologist Soma Raju, Dr Kalam developed a low cost coronary stent, named the Kalam- Raju Stent. In 2012, the duo designed a rugged tablet computer for health care in rural areas which was named the Kalam-Raju Tablet. Dr Kalam firmly believed that our economic strength will flow from our mastery of key strategic technologies.
It is worth mentioning that Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was instrumental in playing a vital role in developing many major weapons and this includes the Prithvi and Agni missiles! Very few know the glaring fact that it was Dr Kalam who had persuaded the then Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik to relent and devote Wheeler Island which is off the Odisha coast exclusively to build a missile testing facility for the DRDO! Patnaik relented after a lot of persuasion from Kalam and the latter had to promise the former that he would build missiles that could reach China. As we all know, now this very same place has become India’s ideal place for launching missiles!
I was absolutely flabbergasted when I first learnt how many awards Dr Kalam has won in his life. He has received honorary doctorates from 40 universities from all across the globe! Let me briefly mention few awards and honours which he earned in his glowing life and these are as follows : –
1. Awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1981.
2. Awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1990.
3. Awarded Distinguished Fellow by Institute of Directors (India) in 1994.
4. Awarded the Bharat Ratna which is the highest award of our country in 1997. He was the second scientist after the late Homi Jahangir Bhabha to receive this award.
5. Awarded the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration in 1997.
6. Awarded the Veer Savarkar Award in 1998.
7. Awarded the Ramanujan Award Alwars Research Centre at Chennai in 2000.
8. Awarded the highest award – Deshikottam by Viswa Bharati in 2000.
9. Awarded DSc by the Madurai Kamaraj University in 2000.
10. Awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Science University of Wolverhampton in UK in 2007.
11. Awarded the King Charles II Medal Royal Society of UK in 2007.
12. Awarded the Doctor of Engineering (Honoris Causa) by Nanyang Technological University of Singapore in 2008.
13. Awarded the International Von Karman Wings Award by California Institute of Technology in 2009.
14. Awarded the Hoover Medal by ASME Foundation in USA in 2009.
15. Awarded the Honorary Doctorate by Oakland University.
16. Awarded the Doctor of Engineering University of Waterloo in 2010.
17. Awarded the Honorary Membership of IEEE in 2011.
18. Awarded the Doctor of Science by Edinburgh University of UK in 2014.
Now let me mention some of his most talked about books and biographies on him. First of all, let me mention those books which he authored either himself alone or along with some other. They are as follows : –
1. India 2020 : A Vision for the New Millennium – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
2. Wings of Fire : An Autobiography – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and Arun Tiwari
3. Ignited Minds : Unleashing the Power Within India – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
4. Mission India – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
5. Inspiring Thoughts – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
6. You Are Born To Blossom : Take My Journey Beyond – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
7. Turning Points : A Journey Through Challenges – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
8. My Journey : Transforming Dreams Into Actions – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
9. Reignited : Scientific Pathways To A Brighter Future – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and Srijan Pal Singh
10. Transcendence : My Spiritual Experience With Pramukh Swamiji – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and Arun Tiwari
11. Dialogues On The Purpose Of Life – Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
Now let me come to biographies. They are as follows : –
1. President APJ Abdul Kalam – RK Pruthi
2. APJ Abdul Kalam : The Visionary of India – K Bhushan and G Katyal
3. A Little Dream (Documentary Film) – P Dhanapal
4. The Kalam Effect : My years With The President – PM Nair
5. My Days With Mahatma Abdul Kalam – AK George
Without an iota of doubt, he also deserved like Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Peace Prize but was denied the same. When US President Barack Obama could be given Nobel Peace Prize then why not Dr Kalam? But Kalam himself never wanted any such prize and worked dispassionately throughout his life which is what distinguishes him like Mahatma Gandhi from the rest of the crowd! He is an inspiration not just for Indians but for people from all across the globe and all world leaders acknowledge this and mourned with a heavy heart on learning of his untimely demise!
Truth be told, Dr Kalam may have died but his ideas and noble thoughts can never die. What he said will always be remembered in much the same manner as what Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and other great leaders said and which is often quoted. As a mark of my last respect, let me recollect some of the famous sayings which he said and which I always treasure in my heart. They are as follows : –
1. Don’t take rest after your first victory because if you fail in the second, more lips are waiting to say that your first victory was just luck.
2. A dream is not that which you see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep.
3. If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun.
4. All birds find shelter during rains. But the eagle avoids the rain by flying above the clouds.
5. For great men, religion is a way of making friends; small people make religion a fighting tool.
6. Thinking should become your capital asset, no matter whatever ups and downs you come across in your life.
7. Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident.
8. 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.
9. Science is global. Einstein’s equation has to reach everywhere. Science is a beautiful gift to humanity. We should not distort it. Science does not discriminate between multiple races.
10. My story is 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.
11. Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us and conspires only to give the best to those who dream and work.
12. 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.
13. To succeed in your mission, you must have single-minded devotion to your goal.
14. Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength.
15. 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 should work with integrity.
16. When we tackle obstacles, we find hidden reserves of courage and resilience we did not know we had. And it is only when we are faced with failure do we realize that these resources were always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives.
17. Man needs his difficulties because they are necessary to enjoy success.
18. We should not give up and should not allow the problem to defeat us.
19. Great dreams of great dreamers are always transcended.
20. You see, God helps only people who work hard. That principle is very clear.
21. Life is a difficult game. You can win it by retaining your birthright to be a person.
22. English is necessary as at present original works of science are in English. I believe that in two decades times original works of science will start coming out in our languages. Then we can move over like the Japanese.
23. God, our Creator has stored within our minds and personalities, great potential strength and ability. Prayer helps us tap and develop these powers.
24. Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow.
25. Anything and everything can be achieved by working hard.
26. I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; but some poor child living in an obscure place in an underprivileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness.
27. We are all born with a divine fire in us. Our efforts should be to give wings to this fire and fill the world with the glow of its goodness.
Dr Kalam was also known as the “Missile Man of India”. He became the 11th President of India and occupied the post between 2002 and 2007. Nearly all major political parties extended unstinted support to Dr Kalam which makes him one of India’s most undisputed President! If there is one work for which I truly appreciate our former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it is for propping up Dr Kalam’s name as the President of India even though later all major parties rose in his support!
Even after relinquishing his charge as President he did not prefer to sit quiet and took up the work of teaching science to the youth of India and did this job with brilliance till his last breath! When asked what he would like to be remembered as, Dr Kalam replied immediately : “Teacher”. Till his very last breath, he kept visiting educational institutions and loved interacting with children.
Dr Kalam had entered the Rashtrapati Bhavan with two bags and most amazingly left finally with those same two bags! Where else would you find such a shining example of utmost honesty and simplicity! It was Dr Kalam who opened the sprawling Rashtrapati Bhavan to children from all over the country to visit the 340 room house and the fabled Mughal Gardens. Not only this, he went through the guest list and on learning that only those of the rank of additional secretary and above were invited, he ordered immediately that from now onwards a group of ordinary workers should be invited to every reception. Thus, 40 postmen and postwomen were invited and next time municipal workers were invited and a new historic trend was thus started by Dr Kalam which was never attempted by any President before!
I am happy to learn that Tamil Nadu state government has decided to observe October 15 across the state as “Youth Renaissance Day”. It has also further instituted the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Award. This award will undoubtedly motivate the youth and propel them to work more harder! I am also happy to learn that Centre has decided to rename Aurangzeb road after Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Dr Kalam is admired by people cutting across religious lines and is someone whom most of us have seen for ourselves and admire him for his so many qualities most prominent being religious tolerance unlike Aurangzeb known infamously for religious intolerance yet we had roads in our capital named after him!
Dr Kalam was not in favour of death penalty and granted mercy to nearly all the mercy petitions presented before him in his five year tenure barring that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee! He once rhetorically asked “Why there were only poor people on death row? Almost all the cases which were pending had a social and economic bias.” What an irony that Dhananjoy who was hanged too was very poor and as senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves pointed out that his mercy petition was drafted by prisoners of Tihar jail as he didn’t had enough money to consult a lawyer! Centre must make necessary corrections to ensure that it is not just poor who are hanged but even rich, affluent and powerful are hanged! What better tribute can be paid to Dr Kalam than correcting this grave anomaly which he never liked and which has become the unwritten law in our country!
The biggest lesson that the youngsters of today can draw from Dr Kalam’s life is to never get bogged down by failure and work hard relentlessly to achieve what they want to achieve in their respective lives. Dr Kalam wanted to become an airforce officer but he could not become as he ranked 9th and only 8 were selected but that only motivated him to work more harder and reach greater heights! G Satheesh Reddy who is scientific advisor to the defence minister recalled that, “I had a 13-year association with Kalam dating back to 1985. In 1989, during the first lauch of Agni, the first attempt failed and the DRDO came under tremendous pressure from the government, media and even the scientific community. Kalam never let the pressure that he faced percolate down to us, his team members. Instead, he kept encouraging us. We were together for almost two months during that time. Even the third attempt failed but Kalam never lost his temper.” Ultimately the launch of Agni was successful and today it has emerged as one of India’s most advanced ballistic missile with its range going up steadily!
In 1983, Dr Kalam left ISRO and joined the DRDO as director of Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) at Hyderabad. As director of the DRDL, Dr Kalam envisioned India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) and led teams that built India’s Agni, Akash, Prithvi and Nag missile programme. Agni is a strategic missile that can carry nuclear warheads. He built the missile complex of three DRDO facilities at Hyderabad and was instrumental in forging India’s collaboration with Russia to build the supersonic cruise missile Brahmos. VK Saraswat who is former DRDO director general admitted that, “Kalam was an institution builder, team-builder, visionary, dreamer and motivator of men.”
K Radhakrishnan who is former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said that, “Kalam had a single-minded approach in leading projects and his connect with other scientists and the younger generation distinguished him from everybody else. His taking over the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3) programme as its Project Director led to its spectacular success in 1980 and it was the turning point in India’s space programme.” After the failure of the SLV-3 in 1979, Dr Kalam led the ISRO teams from the front and became fully involved in it. The subsequent success in 1980 propelled India into the exclusive space club of the US, Russia, France, China and Japan.
At the age of 83 years he followed such a pace of work that even a 20 or 30 year old would find difficult to follow! Dr Kalam was so humane that when doctors told him about nine-year-old Swarna who was a polio victim, he got DRDL to design an ultra lightweight, prosthetic foot support for her! He was so adventurous that in 2006, he who then was 74 created history as the oldest Indian co-pilot of a fighter jet and he made a 30-minute flight over Pune in a Sukhoi 30 MKI! Dr Kalam will always be with us and no Indian can ever afford to forget him! He may have although left us physically but emotionally and mentally he is always there with us! Dr Kalam is the only President till now under whose name a film has been made titled “I am Kalam” directed by Nila Madhab Panda.
Narendra Modi who is our PM was forthright enough to admit that, “Bharat has lost a Ratna, but the light from this jewel will guide us towards APJ Abdul Kalam’s dream destination : India as a knowledge superpower. His memory is best honoured by the creation of new institutions that nurture science and technology, and enable to find a beneficial equation with the awesome power of nature. He took little from the world and gave all he could to society. A man of deep faith, he epitomised the three great virtues of our civilisation : dama, Self-restraint; dana, sacrifice; and daya, compassion. But this persona was powered by the fire of endeavour. His vision for the nation was anchored in freedom, development and freedom. He wanted India to leap out of the underdeveloped trough and eliminate the curse of poverty through inclusive economic growth. The first thing that struck one about him was that, uniquely, he combined the honesty of a child with the energy of a teenager and the maturity of an adult.” Pranab Mukherjee who is our President now candidly remarked that, “A deep personal loss for me. His warmth, humility and simple ways endeared him to one and all. He was a people’s President during his lifetime and will remain so even after his death.”
Dr Manmohan Singh who is our former PM remarked that, “In his death, our country has lost a great human being who made phenomenal contribution to the promotion of self reliance in defence technologies.” I very strongly believe that Dr Kalam will always remain permanently etched in the memory and heart of millions of Indians like me who know fully well how he led a bachelor life and sacrificed his whole life for making India self-reliant in development of defence missiles and nuclear bomb. As a President also, he set very high standards and shall always be followed by all the coming Presidents in future who occupy this highest august office of our country!
For the first time in world history, the US White House Flag was half down as a tribute to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam! The UNO as a floral tribute declared his birthday – 15 October as the ‘World’s Students Day’! Let me now conclude by quoting what Dr Kalam had once himself famously said that,
“I have no house, only open spaces,
Filled with truth, kindness and dreams.
Desire to see my country developed and great,
Dreams to see everywhere happiness and peace.”
In conclusion, the best tribute that we can pay to Dr Kalam is: We all must strive with full vigour to follow always what he cherished most – equality, scientific temper, humanity and brotherhood. Only then can our nation progress, prosper and become powerful! This is exactly what Dr APJ Abdul Kalam always stood for!