A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the Poor Boy from Rameswaram Who Gave Flight to a Nation's Dreams

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 role he believed students could play in it.

Note: This article was originally published on July 28, 2015, and was republished on July 27, 2020, on the occasion of Kalam’s death anniversary.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a man of many parts. Best known for the good nature he brought to the office of the president, 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 reach for the skies.

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

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 – a matter of 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 to November 1973, when the then ISRO Chairman Satish Dhawan and Brahm Prakash, the director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, 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 then moved over to ISRO.

The project he was entrusted with in 1973 was completed well ahead of time, even though it overran its budget by Rs 5 crore in 1976. On August 10, 1979, the organisation conducted the first experimental flight of the SLV-3. Although 36 out of 44 subsystems functioned normally, the launch failed. On July 18, 1980, the second experimental flight of the SLV-3 succeeded, 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. The latter included nuclear weapons, whose development Kalam aided despite the moral ambiguity surrounding their use.

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. Kalam oversaw as principal scientific adviser and head of the DRDO the 1998 testing of atomic weapons that made India a nuclear weapons state, inviting bristling sanctions from around the world.

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 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.

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 role he believed students could play in it. Kalam’s writing was marked by a childlike frankness, 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”.

Also read: Abdus Salam the Physicist Won the Nobel Prize. Salam the Pakistani Elevated it.

In fact, the 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.”

In 2011, he disappointed 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 to be 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, though it was eventually built.

His support for indigenous 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 advocacy of technology led him to underestimate the gap between technocratic certitude and the sociological impact of such projects. Recently, he co-wrote an oped in The Hindu about how India could benefit greatly from a neutrino observatory in Theni, Tamil Nadu, as if stating the scientific facts of the project alone would suffice to quell the many disputes surrounding the project.

Whether it was his advocacy of nuclear weapons, his conversion – but only 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 always a side of Kalam even his admirers may not have found appealing. But it was impossible to remain unmoved in his presence, 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.