Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the most popular President in India’s history, was born on 15 October 1931 in a small coastal town in what is now Tamil Nadu. An aerospace engineer and scientist before he was appointed to the country’s highest constitutional office, Kalam was closely linked to India’s missile programme. One of the reasons for his popularity, which continued even after his term as President ended in 2007, was the thousands of interactions he has had with school children and college students over the years. ‘People’s President’ and ‘India’s missile man’ are some of the more common labels attached to him.
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam’s father Jainulabdeen was a boat-maker at Rameshwaram, then a sleepy pilgrim town by the sea, in Tamil Nadu. Since money was limited in the poor Tamil Muslim household, Kalam distributed newspapers as a boy.
“My enthusiasm knew no bounds. I was only eight, but I was going to contribute in a meaningful way to the household income! […] However, my new job had to be fitted into my regular routine,” he recalled in his 2013 autobiography My Journey. “My studies and school had to continue as before, and the [newspaper] delivery business had to be accommodated amidst all these other activities.” The family’s financial condition, however, improved when Jainulabdeen started operating a ferry service.
Kalam’s practical introduction to the world of engineering came when he saw his father build a boat all by himself. “Every day, I would wait impatiently till I could go to the place where the boat was taking shape. . . . Slowly the bottom, then the sides and the hull began to form in front of our eyes,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Many years later, in my work, I would learn how to make rockets and missiles. . . . But that boat coming up on a seashore, which would take pilgrims and fishermen back and forth . . . who is to say it was not as important or momentous in our lives then?”
Kalam never forgot a lesson he had learnt when he was ten years old. His teacher, Subramaniam Iyer, was explaining how seagulls fly. The little Kalam had “a billion doubts” and Iyer “offered as many clarifications”. The teacher took the students to the seaside and showed them the birds, explaining every movement, every action. “Wonder-struck, I listened to my teacher — the man who, while teaching me about the flight of birds, gave me a purpose in life — to fly!” Kalam later wrote.
After his school education he graduated in physics from Saint Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli in 1954. He then studied aerospace engineering in Madras 1955. His dream of becoming a fighter pilot was, however, not realised.
Kalam joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) after graduating from the Madras Institute of Technology. He also worked under the legendary space scientist Vikram Sarabhai. In 1969, Kalam became project director of India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle, SLV-III.
Though not directly involved with it, he was invited to witness India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran in Rajasthan when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. In the 1970s, Kalam directed two projects, Project Devil and Project Valiant, to develop ballistic missiles using indigenous technology. However, there are mixed views about the success of these secretive programmes. In the 1980s, the Indian government started an advanced missile programme that was headed by Kalam and V. S. Arunachalam, then scientific adviser to the defence ministry. Kalam was the chief executive of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, under which the Agni, an intermediate range ballistic missile, and Prithvi, a tactical surface-to-surface missile, were built.
He later slammed claims in the international media that the Agni was made with foreign help, saying that such reports made him laugh. He had often stressed that technological backwardness leads to subjugation and it is the duty of the country’s leadership and scientific community to guarantee the security and integrity of the country. After the Agni launch, India had reached the stage where “she had the option of preventing the wars involving her”.
After the first Gulf War, following the victory of the technologically superior Allied forces, Kalam asked a gathering of around 500 Indian scientists from the Defence Research and Development Laboratory and the Research Centre Imarat to take a hard look at what India needed to do to upgrade its defence capability. Soon, a consensus emerged that “there was no way to redress asymmetry in military capability except to have the same capacity in specific areas as your potential opponent”, Kalam wrote in his book Wings of Fire.
From July 1992 to December 1999 Kalam was the chief scientific adviser to the Prime Minister and secretary of the DRDO. This was also the period when the BJP-led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government conducted the Pokhran-II nuclear tests.
In 2002, the NDA proposed Kalam’s name for the post of President. With parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party backing Kalam’s name, the serving President, K. R. Narayanan, decided not to seek another term in office. Subsequently, Kalam won the poll by a very comfortable margin, becoming the 11th President of India.
A recipient of several doctoral degrees and international awards, Kalam was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1981 and Padma Vibhushan in 1990. He was conferred with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 1998.
From the son of a boat-maker to the President of India, was an incredible journey for Kalam. He summed up this journey, which is continuing even after he left the office of the President, in his own modest words: “I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a 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 was on 27 July 2015, India lost a gem as Dr. A.P.J. Kalam passed away due to a cardiac arrest while delivering a lecture at Indian Institute of Management, Shillong.
Also on this day:
1949 — Prannoy Roy, Indian journalist and media personality, was born
1957 — Mira Nair, film director, was born