Today is the 88th birthday of Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (APJ Abdul Kalam) who was born on 15th October 1931 to a Tamil Muslim family in the pilgrimage Centre of Rameswaram on PAMBAN Island, then in the Madras Presidency and now in the state of Tamil Nadu. His father Jainulabdeen was a boat owner and Imam of a local mosque, his mother Ashiamma was a housewife. Kalam was the youngest of four brothers and one sister in the family. The eldest of whom was a sister “Asim Zohra”, followed by three brothers: Mohammad Muthu Meera Lebbai Maraikayar,Mustafa kalam and Kashim Mohammad. He was extremely closed to his elder siblings and their extended families throughout his life and would regularly send small sums of money to his older relations, himself remaining a lifelong bachelor. Kalam was noted for his integrity and his simple lifestyle. He never owned a television and was in the habit of rising at 6:30 am or 7am and sleeping by 2am. His few personal possessions included his books, his Veena, some articles of clothing, a CD player and a laptop; at his death, he left no will, and his possession went to his eldest brother who survived him. Kalm’s father owned a ferry that took Hindu pilgrims back and forth between Rameswaram and now the uninhabited Dhanushkodi. His ancestors had been wealthy traders and owned with numerous properties and large tracts of land. Their business had involved trading groceries between the mainland and the Island and to and from Sri Lanka as well as ferrying pilgrims between the mainland and Pamban. As a result the family acquired the title of “Mara Kalam Iyakkivar” (means, wooden boat steerers), which over the years became shortened to “Marakier”. With the opening of the Pamban Bridge to the mainland in 1914, however the business failed and family fortune and properties were lost over time, apart from ancestral home. By his early childhood Kalam’s family had become poor; at an early age he sold newspaper to supplement his family income.
In his school years, Kalam had average grades but was described as a bright hardworking student who had a strong desire to learn. He spent hours on his studies, especially Mathematics. After completing his education at the Schwartz Higher Secondary school Ramanathapuram, Kalam went to attend Saint Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli, then affiliated with the University of Madras, from where he graduated in Physics in 1954. He moved to Madras in 1955 to study Aerospace Engineering in Madras Institute of Technology. While Kalam was working on a senior class project, the Dean was dissatisfied with his lack of progress and threatened to revoke his scholarship unless the project was finished within the next three days. Kalm met the deadline, impressing the Dean, who later said to him “I was putting you under stress and asking you to meet a difficult deadline”. He narrowly missed achieving his dream of becoming a fighter pilot as he was placed 9th in qualifiers and only eight positions were available in IAF. A proud and practicing Muslim, daily namaz and fasting during Ramadan were integral to Kalam’s life. He was fond of saying:” For Great men, religion is a way of making friends; small people make religion a fighting tool”. In addition to his faith in the Koran and Islamic practice, Kalam was well versed in Hindu traditions; he learnt Sanskrit, read the BHAGAVAD GITA; and he was a vegetarian. Kalam’s desire to meet spiritual leaders to help create a more prosperous ,spiritual and unified India was what initially led him to meet Pramukh Swami, the Hindu Guru of BAPS Swaminarayan Sampradaya who Kalam would come to consider his ultimate spiritual teacher and guru. His father had also impressed upon the young Kalam,the value of interfaith, respect and dialogue. As Kalam recalled: “Every evening, my father A.P. Jainulabdeen, an Imam, Pakshi Lakshmana sastry, the head priest of the Ramanathaswamy Hindu temple and a church priest used to sit with hot tea and discussed the issues concerning the Pamban Island”. Such early exposure convinced Kalam that the answer to Indian’s multitudinous issues lay in dialogue and cooperation among the country’s religion, social and political leaders.
After graduation from Madras Institute of Technology in 1960, Kalam joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment of the Defense Research and Development Organization as a member after becoming a member of Defense Research and Development Service (DRDS). He started his career by designing a small hovercraft but remained unconvinced by his choice of a job at DRDO. Kalam was also part of INCOSPAR Committee working under Vikram Sarabhai, the renowned space scientist. In 1969, Kalam was transferred to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) where he was the project Director of India’s first satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) which successfully deployed the Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit in July 1980; Kalam had first started work on an expandable Rocket project independently at DRDO in 1965. In 1969, Kalam received the government’s approval and expanded the programme to include more Engineers. In 1963 to 1964, he visited NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia; Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland; and Wallops Flight Facility. Between 1970s and 1990s, Kalam made an effort to develop the polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and SLV-II projects, both of which proved to be successful. In 1970s Kalam also directed two projects-project Devil and project Valiant which sought to develop ballistic missiles from the technology of successful SLV programme. Despite the disapproval of the Union cabinet, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi allotted secrete funds for these aerospace projects through her discretionary powers under Kalam’s directorship. His research and educational leadership brought him great laurels and prestige in 1980s which prompted the government to initiate and advanced missile programme under his directorship. Kalam was the chief executive for the Integrated Guided Missile Development programme. Kalam played a major role in developing many missile under the mission including AGNI an intermediate range ballistic missile, PRITHIVI, the tactical surface to surface missile. He thus came to be known as the “MISSILE MAN OF INDIA. He also played a pivotal organizational, technical and political role in India’s POKHRAN-II nuclear tests in 1998, the first since the original nuclear tests “SMILING BUDHA” by India at Pokhran in 1974. In 1998, along with Cardiologist SOMA RAJU, Kalam developed a low cost coronary stent, named “KALAM-RAJU” stent. In 2012 the duo designed a rugged tablet computer for healthcare in rural areas which was named the “Kalam-Raju Tablet”. Kalam received 7 honorary doctorates from 40 universities. The Government of India honoured him with Padma Bhushan in 1981 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1990 for his work with ISRO and DRDO and his role as a scientific advisor to the Government. In 1997, Kalam received India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, for his contribution to the scientific research and modernization of defense technology in India. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Von Braun Award from the National Space Society to recognize excellence in the management and leadership of a space –related project. In 2012, Kalam was ranked number 2 in Outlook India’s poll of the Greatest Indian.
Kalam served as the 11th President of India, succeeding K.R Narayanan. His term lasted from 25th July 2002 to 25th July 2007.During his term as president ,he was affectionately known as the “ PEOPLE’s PRESIDENT, saying that signing the office of profit Bill was the toughest decision he had taken during his tenure. Kalam was criticized for his inaction in deciding the fate of 20 out of 21 mercy petitions submitted to him during his tenure. Article 72 of Indian Constitution empowers the President of India to grant pardons and suspends or commute the death sentences of convicts on death row. Kalam acted only one mercy plea in his five years tenure as president, rejecting the plea of rapist Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who was later hanged. Perhaps the most notable plea was from Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist who was convicted on conspiracy in the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and was sentenced to death by Supreme Court of India in 2004, while the sentence was scheduled to be carried out on 20th October 2006, the plea resulted in him remaining on death row. He also took the controversial decision to impose President’s Rule in Bihar in 2005. In September 2003, in an interactive session in PGI Chandigarh, Kalam supported the need of uniform civil code in India keeping in view the population. During his tenure as President of India, on 12th April 2006, Gin Gangte, then a mere School Head Master of a hill village Bunglon (now a member of the Indian Information Service) in Churachandpur District of Manipur, met the President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam at Rastrapati Bhawan in new Delhi and invited him to visit the Bunglon; to know the real faces of India to which Kalam promised to make a visit at the Village. Six months down the line the President fulfilled his promised with the “Great October Visit” on 16th October 2006, which turned the village and it’s surrounding a new life which was unattended for the last 70 years.
After leaving office, Kalam became visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management Shillong, Ahmedabad, Indore and an honorary fellow of Indian Institute of Science ,Bangalore; Chancellor of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Thiruvanant hapuram; professor of Aerospace Engineering at Ana university and an adjunct at many other academic and research Institutions across India. He taught Information Technology at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad. In May 2012, Kalam launched a programme for the youths of India called “What Can I give Movement” with the central theme of defeating corruption. On 27th July 2015, Kalam travelled to Shillong to delivered a lecture on “Creating a livable Planet Earth” at the Indian Institute of Management Shillong. At about 6:35pm IST; only five minutes into his lecture, he collapsed and rushed to the nearby Hospital but he breathed last at 7:45pm IST due to sudden cardiac arrest. His last words to his aide Srijan Pal Singh were “Funny Guy! Are you doing well? Thus Missile man of India and people’s President bade good bye to us for his heavenly abode forever leaving behind a vacuum which will be hard to fill.