President Dr. Abdul Kalam – a Role Model

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Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was an Indian aerospace scientist and politician who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007. He was born and raised in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, and studied physics and aerospace engineering. Wikipedia – Here is a piece by Chidu Rajghatta, What a role model Dr. Kalam is.

By Chidu Rajghatta

Abdul Kalam: a blog post I wrote upon his death five years ago this day. Some reflections on President Kalam, the U.S., and India’s going nuclear:

Abdul Kalam did not visit the United States in the years he was President of India (2002-2007). It was the aftermath of 9/11; Washington was in an angry red haze and had launched a ”war on terror.” There was little appetite in the Bush administration, which was yet to get its teeth into the U.S-India nuclear deal, to host a titular head of state, although it has already begun recalibrating its ties with India. Dr. Manmohan Singh was the go-to man. Kalam may well have been the ”to-go” man.

After all, he had defied U.S sanctions for more than two decades to help India eventually become a de facto nuclear and ballistic missile power, circumventing an American-led effort by world powers to ”cap, roll-back, and eliminate” New Delhi’s progress. With his crazy-looking hair-do and pronounced desi accent, he was, more than any other scientist in the Indian establishment, imbued with a diabolic, mephistophelian avatar in western non-proliferation narrative – India’s Dr Strangelove.

Kalam had visited the United States before. As a young rocket scientist, he had spent time in the 1960s at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on either side of the U.S capital, in an era when Washington happily patronized India’s fledgling space program. But things went south after Richard Nixon’s toxic tilt in 1971 and India’s first nuclear test in 1974, resulting in long years of ever-tightening sanctions on the country’s nuclear and missile program.

Struggling to get India’s space program going in the face of an inimical U.S-led sanctions, Kalam was at the wrong end of Washington’s technology denial regime. The experience motivated him to work on indigenizing every aspect of India’s space and nuclear program, not always with great success. By the time he adopted the nom de guerre ”Major General Prithviraj” and donned military camouflage during the Shakti tests in 1998 to escape U.S spy satellites and spooks tasked with monitoring India’s nuclear program, he had become a past master at working his way around American restrictions.

Taking on the name ”Prithviraj” may or may not have indicated the comfort with which he carried a syncretic Indian heritage. But his association with India’s overt nuclearisation, which he had long pressed for as it’s ”missile man,” perhaps helped avoid the weapon being dubbed a ”Hindu bomb.” It was a term that western headline writers and non-proliferation nabobs were all too eager to bestow as a counterpoint to the ”Islamic Bomb.”

As it is, India’s return to the world nuclear center-stage has been colored by corrosive commentary on bouts of Hindu triumphalism that followed the Shakti tests. Some analysts attributed the tests as much to BJP’s domestic political compulsions and instinct for survival (it led a minority government) as to India’s security needs or strategic foresight. So there was a spate of editorials, analyses, and cartoons with a ”Hindu” angle — from India’s ”Hindu Prime Minister” offering his home minister ”Hindu sweets,” to a weekend New York Times story that was accompanied by a reproduction of a painting of Shiva — with five heads, ten arms, and a garland of skulls. Other commentaries spoke of a recidivist, revanchist mood in India, flogging the usual cliché-d images… snake charmers, fakirs, even sati and Kipling.

But there was one problem with the ”Hindu bomb” narrative. One of its principals was a Muslim, even though he was an unusual one: Kalam read the Bhagavad Gita, listened to Carnatic music, liked to play the Rudra Veena, and even had praying rights at the Rameswaram temple. In fact, he had seldom been seen at a mosque; one rare public visit to the Fatehpuri Masjid in 2007 occasioned much surprised commentary.

In truth, Kalam professed to be neither Muslim nor Hindu in public: his religion was learning.

Not that he disdained religion. In fact, when he did resume his U.S visits after demitting the Presidential office, one of his trips was to attend the anniversary of the JSS spiritual mission in Maryland outside Washington. Associated with the Suttur mutth (monastery), the mission is avowedly Hindu, but Kalam chose to recognize its commitment to education above all else. In his book Ignited Minds, the former President also cited my book The Horse That Flew, referring in particular to a passage that described a Silicon Valley eco-system where enterprise and teamwork trumped religion, politics, and even nationality.

The U.S itself had secretly begun citing his ascension as president as proof that even under a BJP/NDA government, notwithstanding aberrations, India was well and truly secular, and the opportunity the country’s democracy offered to minorities boded well in the fight against terrorism. ”With a Muslim President (Abdul Kalam) occupying the highest political position in the country, Muslims have been encouraged to seek political power in electoral and parliamentary politics, all but eliminating the appeal of violent extremism,” then U.S ambassador to New Delhi David Mulford wrote to Washington, according to a cable cited by Wikileaks.

In more recent years, Kalam, like the current prime minister, demonstrated that pique was not part of his psyche despite Washington’s one-time discrimination and demonization. There was the odd security flub and protocol gaffe even on post 2007 visits to the U.S., but he took it in his stride, accepting honorary degrees from University of Houston and Carnegie Mellon among others, while unfailingly speaking about his first love: learning. In more than one way, he was an inspirational man of words.

PS: This from the White House just now:

Office of the Press Secretary
July 28, 2015

Statement by the President on the Death of Former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam

On behalf of the American people, I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the people of India on the passing of former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. 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. An advocate for stronger U.S.-India relations, Dr. Kalam worked to deepen our space cooperation, forging links with NASA during a 1962 visit to the United States. His tenure as India’s 11th president witnessed unprecedented growth in U.S.-India ties. Suitably named “the People’s President,” Dr. Kalam’s humility and dedication to public service served as an inspiration to millions of Indians and admirers around the world.

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