The Poor Boy from Rameswaram Who Gave Flight to a Nation’s Dreams

Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who died in Shillong on July 27, 2015, was a man of many parts. Best known and loved for the simplicity and good nature he brought to the office of the President of India, he was also an author and inspirational speaker, a poet in Tamil, an amateur musician and polymath. Most of all, however, he was a scientist with a flair for inventiveness, adaptation and administration – qualities that propelled him to the frontlines of the national imagination when the rocketry that he devoted most of his professional life to helped India literally reach for the skies.

After the launches of the Aryabhata, Bhaskara and APPLE satellites in the late 1960s, the Indian space research community had begun to mull an indigenous launch vehicle, one that would lift India’s satellites from Indian soil – obviously a matter of tremendous pride to a nation that had been independent for less than 25 years. One of the most significant moments in the Indian space programme can be traced back to November 1973, when the then ISRO Chairman Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre Director Brahm Prakash chose to restructure the SLV-3 management team to make it launch-ready within a decade. They reposed their faith in Kalam and appointed him project director.

Kalam had joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment, a branch of the Defence Research and Development Organisation soon after graduating from college in 1960, and had then moved over to the Indian Space Research Organisation.

The project he was entrusted with in 1973 was completed well ahead of time, even though it oversaw a cost overrun of Rs.5 crore in 1976. On August 10, 1979, the first experimental flight of the SLV-3 was conducted. Although 36 out of 44 subsystems functioned normally, the launch was considered a failure. Then, on July 18, 1980, the second experimental flight of the SLV-3 was a roaring success, launching the Rohini RS-I satellite into orbit and India into a group of four other countries with indigenous launch capabilities. Did Kalam remember the 35th anniversary of the event last week? It couldn’t have been easy to forget: the SLV program became the precursor for two significant ‘product’ lines integral to India’s eventual emergence as a space and military power, the PSLV rocket and the indigenous missile program (including nuclear weapons).

In fact, it was in recognition of the history of the nation’s potent inheritance that both the BJP and the Congress agreed on Kalam’s appointment as the 11th President of India in 2002. And for all his whimsies and eccentricities, almost everyone who knew of him are sure to be the sadder for his passing, at the age of 83.

His leadership of many ambitious, future-oriented government projects afforded him enviable vantage points from which to better understand the roots of India’s aspirations to greatness. Insights from such experiences, as well as the benevolent relationships he enjoyed with politicians, diplomats and other scientists could have imbued in him the popular optimism with which he used to frequently address school and college students. Despite having overseen – as Principal Scientific Adviser and head of the DRDO – the 1998 testing of atomic weapons that made India a nuclear weapons state and invited bristling sanctions from around the world, Kalam was known more for his frequent exhortations to youngsters to participate in nation-building programmes.

And such exhortations were more than rhetorical, too. Starting in 1988 and until his death, Kalam wrote more than a dozen books about his vision for a developed India by 2020 and the great role he believed students could play in it. While mostly all of them had pithy titles more commonly associated with middling management gurus, Kalam’s writing itself was marked by a childlike frankness, conviction and initiative – traits that in anyone less ‘experienced’ would have signalled naïveté. After the end of his stint as Principal Scientific Adviser in 1999, he had resolved to meet with a 100,000 students around the country, to help them “ignite their imagination” and prepare them to “work for a developed India”.

In fact, the few brushes he had with controversy were also associated with India’s nuclear ambitions. By 1990, Kalam had identified nuclear self-sufficiency as one of the critical technologies necessary for the country to become a superpower by 2020. After the Pokhran-II tests in 1998, which he strongly advocated, he and former Atomic Energy Chairman Chairman R. Chidambaram expressly dismissed claims that the thermonuclear bomb tested had been a fizzle, i.e. had yielded much less than what it had been designed for. Though he resigned the next year, Kalam continued to speak in favour of holding nuclear weapons, and not just as a deterrent. In 2001, he suggested they might need to be used, too: “Every weapon is made … not for storing but for deployment.”

Then, in 2011, he disappointed both the government and the people protesting the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant near Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, when he conducted an informal inspection of the site and declared the plant was safe. The government had hoped Kalam’s intervention would help disarm the plant’s local critics but his refusal to meet the protesters meant his stance had little impact. His known pro-nuclear position and cordial relationship with the then UPA-II government actually intensified the opposition to the plant, although it was eventually built.

Kalam’s consistent support for indigenously developed technology can be traced to a nation obsessed with the potential applications of engineering since the early 1950s, when Nehru famously described the Bhakra Nangal dam as the “new temple of resurgent India”. On the other hand, his messianic advocacy of technology led him to underestimate – and thus leave unaddressed – the gap between technocratic certitude and public perceptions about individual projects. Recently, he co-wrote an oped in The Hindu about how India could benefit greatly from a neutrino observatory in Theni (TN) but chose not to advise  the government on how it might go about resolving the disputes surrounding it.

Whether it was his advocacy of nuclear weapons, his conversion – after leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan – to the cause of the abolition of the death penalty, his occasionally indifferent poetry, and his embarrassing fondness for getting audiences to repeat his homilies in unison, there was likely always a side of Kalam that even his admirers may not have found appealing. However, it was impossible to remain unmoved by the man, his face often set to a stern expression like a schoolteacher who has struck upon an epiphany, his neatly partitioned mane of silver hair staying obediently out of the way. The success of the SLV-3 fetched him a Padma Bhushan in 1981; excellence at the DRDO, the Padma Vibhushan in 1990; and ultimately the Bharat Ratna in 1997. In his lifetime, he conducted seminal research, helped launch satellites, installed advanced defence systems to protect the country, inspired lakhs of students, taught at universities and was the President of India. If nothing else, Abdul Kalam, the poor boy from Rameswaram, was great.

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, President of India from 2002 to 2007, was born in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, on October 15, 1931. He died in Shillong, Meghalaya, on July 27, 2015, aged 83. 

  • Prapanch Kulkarni

    In case you were hoping that The Wire would provide us with a balanced view of Kalam to conquer all the absurd hagiographies out there, you’ll be disappointed, the few mildly critical notes in this piece notwithstanding. Kalam was a loyal servant of the Government of India, a highly capable and popular man-manager and administrator, a charismatic President whose desire to engage with the young (even if that engagement took the form of one-way platitudes, in the manner of our present Prime Minister; “Repeat after me: India will be a superpower by 2020”, Kalam was fond of telling his student audiences) and distance from established political parties were highly creditable and made him look, by comparison to Presidents past and present, like some sort of saint. He lived simply and had little interest in money, although the idea that this constitutes humility is a strange one. There have been few people in our public life with a greater craving for media attention or a greater gift at public relations than Kalam (here too, note the similarity with Modi). His hankering after a second presidential term gave the lie to any claims of humility.

    He wasn’t a scientist of any great distinction and his books– India 2020 and Ignited Minds in particular– consist of incoherent, vapid ramblings on anything and everything. Kalam the idea, Kalam the fantasy really, ran ahead of Kalam the man. And I am surprised and disappointed to see even The Wire refer to him as “Dr.”– he was awarded many doctorates honoris causa, but this does not entitle one to the title of Dr. For someone working in the world of science to go by the title of Dr. when he does not hold a PhD is especially inappropriate. His millions of admirers, happily unaware that he was primarily an administrator (as I have said above, an excellent one) and not a scientist, all know him, wrongly, as Dr. Kalam.

    But at a time of mass cynicism towards politicians and government servants, Kalam alone has a halo around him. As a self-made man, as a technologist and technology evangelist at a time of IT revolution, as a genuine product of India’s more imagined than real syncretic culture, and as someone seen, rightly, as free from the besetting sins of corruption and partisanship, Kalam became a kind of National Treasure. And, like his fellow National Treasure and Bharat Ratna, Sachin Tendulkar, you criticize Kalam at your peril– an army is generally waiting to go after you.