May 132018


Some people were destined to leave a legacy that forever changed the world. With tremendous passion, energy and enthusiasm, Professor Dr. Abul Pakir Jainuldin Abdul Kalam was undoubtedly one of those individuals. His prime concern as a scientist, researcher, defence minister, president and citizen of India was to lift the nation to realize its ultimate potential. (Photo on the right from “Wings of Fire.”)

More than 50 percent of Indians today are under the age of 25. On top of this, India with its 29 states possesses a miscellany of different languages, dances, religions, etc. With the youth population skyrocketing and such incredible diversity, it is shocking to observe that India lacks a young labour force of immense competitive capabilities. Over 80 percent of students coming out of college require further training before entering the industrial world. These figures were worse during Dr. Kalam’s youth (Dwivedi 11). Indeed, the discrepancy between what India could be and what it was motivated Dr. Kalam throughout his entire career. His goal was to empower the youth of the country, whether through training the staff under him when he worked for the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), or through visiting primary schools. This is evident as he met around 300,000 students in a short 3-month period after he stepped down from the Indian presidency (Kalam “Turning” 25). This is where his passion lied.

India gained independence from the British in 1947. Theoretically, Indians may have become freer once they achieved nationhood, yet they were bound by an urge to associate themselves with foreign products, policies, and mentality. Even I may be subject to this way of thinking, for I am pursuing my studies in the United States. To prevent this brain drain, Kalam’s vision included lifting the confidence of Indians about their motherland, its capabilities, and most important its potential for a secure future. On top of this, after independence, the British had left India with no governmental structure to manage 360 million people in widespread illiteracy and shocking poverty. At this time, there were far more basic problems to tackle than to focus on scientific development. However, Dr. Kalam fought for this neglected cause, for which he received numerous criticisms. His life is a testimony for fighting the system to first enter the world of scientists and then to create a knowledge leap in scientific discoveries. This essay uses Dr. Kalam’s life to illuminate the struggles of an individual to enter the scientific world, and a newly independent nation, India, to modernize scientifically in context of nuclear weapons.

After one of the talks delivered by Dr. Kalam, a ten-year-old girl came up to him for his autograph. He asked her, “What is your ambition?” She innocently replied, “I want to live in a developed India.” This escapade motivated Dr. Kalam to develop a formal program to inspire Indians to envision India in 2020. He converted this vision into a progressive movement in the form of a popular book – India 2020, which he published in 1998. When Kalam became the president, this was the vision with which he approached his decision (Nair 32). Kalam’s goal was also to make his view every individual’s vision, instead of merely his own. The book examines ten comprehensive areas, where India urgently needs development, ranging from health care to education and technology (Kalam “2020”). His belief is not in becoming sovereign among other nations, but in building on the available core competencies of the country so interexchange of resources can occur.

Dr. Kalam’s life redefines what it means to be a saint. He was endlessly inspirational, yet relatable. A Muslim, Dr. Kalam sought religious unity among different faiths, because he thought all humans were equal in the eyes of God. Initially, Dr. Kalam’s vision of developing India was through an investment in the nuclear technology, a focus that became broader in his later years. How could a saint help develop the weapons of destruction? This is one of the great resistance he faced in his scientific career, yet these challenged did not stop him. Since a complete biography cannot be provided, each section focuses on a different theme or lesson to shed light on the struggles of an ordinary man who entered the scientific world, and the setbacks that took place on the route to the scientific modernization of a developing country. Please refer to his autobiographies – Wings of Fire and Turning Points – for a complete biography.

The life of a boat taxi owner’s son

Jainulabdin’s house (Kalam “Fire”)

A child was born into a poor Muslim-Tamil family on October 15th, 1931 in Rameshwaram, one of the most holy Hindu pilgrimage sites. He was named Abdul. His mother Ashiamma was a homemaker, and his father Jainulabdeen Marakayar did not have a stable source of income. Their house is shown in the picture on the left. Despite their deprived conditions, the couple was known in the town for their generosity. Their house was always full of guests including friends and extended family, who would visit often. Kalam notes that they fed far more outsiders (guests) than all the family members put together daily, highlighting his family’s generosity (Kalam “Fire” 3).

Though Kalam’s father was crippled by his lack of formal education, Jainulabdeen was popular for his magnanimity and wisdom. Following Islam with devotion was the focal point of his life. People believed that he was connected to God. He studied the scripture with conviction and brought out the essential truth, and practised it in his day-to-day life (Kalam “Journey” 6). When he would finish praying namaz at the mosque, people would stand in a queue to share their worries and ask for a remedy. The most surprising aspect of his preaching was that this queue consisted not just of Muslims, but also of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Jainulabdeen and the highest Hindu priest of Rameshwaram temple, Pakshi Lakshmana Sastry, were close friends. They would wear their own religious attire, yet discuss spiritual matters without any conflicts or disputes. One of the key lessons Kalam learnt from his father was “when you pray, you transcend your body and become a part of the cosmos, which knows no division of wealth, age, caste, or creed” (Kalam “Fire” 4). Where numerous riots between Hindus and Muslims were taking place in other states, the environment Kalam grew up in did not reflect that even a tad bit. Such an environment was an instigator for Kalam to become the “People’s President” later in his career. Kalam had only furthered the legacy of selflessness, kindness and simplicity that his parents left behind.

Kalam’s father, Jainulabdeen’s daily routine consisted of waking up long before the sun rose and taking a four miles walk to the coconut grove that he owned. This walk along with the birds chirping, ravens swooping, the sea waves throbbing the holy shore and the calm, hustle free streets of Rameshwaram contributed immensely to Jainulabdeen’s tranquillity (Kalam “Journey” 21). This was the tranquillity and repose people searched for when interacting with him. Kalam, throughout his life, was curious what went through his father’s mind during these daily long walks. Kalam, even at the age of eighty, begun his day with a walk alongside the morning sunrise. Unlike his father, he found himself exploring the various cities that he gets to travel to, in the stillness of the morning. When at his home in New Delhi, the capital of India, he found himself walking to the same mammoth Terminalia tree, also known as Arjuna tree named after a Hindu mythical hero (Kalam “Journey 10”). He mentions that this tree was a home to hundreds of birds (especially parrots) with honeycombs laden on the branches. This was when he wrote a poem on this tree. The following is a selection from it.

Oh my friend Kalam,
I crossed age hundred like your father and mother.
Every day morning, you walk an hour,
I also see you on full moon nights,
Walking with a thinking mood.
I know, my friend, the thoughts in your mind,
‘What can I give?’… (11)

This poem by Kalam was written from the tree to the reader, but the tree here represents Kalam’s parents, who also lived for over the age of hundred, just like the tree. The walks in the morning reminded him of his father and a willingness to continue his legacy of humility, simplicity and spirituality. He felt as if his parents were still next to him, guiding him to greatness (11). This was a way for Kalam to feel connected with nature and find motivation.

A prefix of Dr. is added before Kalam’s name even though he never received a doctoral degree; neither did he go to medical school. Even then, he went on to receive 7 honorary doctorates from 40 universities. He had also won the von Braun award, one of the most prestigious awards to receive as a space explorer. He also won the Bharat Ratna, the highest honorary civilian award of India in 1997. Despite of such elite accolades, Dr. Kalam was not a prodigy. However, he became incredibly matured at a very young age.

According to his biography, “Wings of Fire,” Kalam had an intense daily schedule, even as a child (24). Since Kalam had shown an early aptitude and a keen interest in mathematics, more than his other four siblings, his father decided to provide him with additional tutoring despite of being financially bounded (Kalam “Journey” 24). The only condition the teacher had was that the students had to visit the teacher at 4 a.m. after taking a morning bath. He remembers being shaken to wake up by his mother daily. But soon, he got into the habit of waking up early and did not depend on his mum (25).

When Kalam was eight, World War II broke out and its effects even reached the small town of Rameshwaram. The British government imposed numerous sanctions and rations on goods, because of which many things became costlier (Kalam “Journey” 21). With a limited family income to serve the whole extended family, this had an immediate impact on Kalam’s family, which included five sons and daughters including Kalam, and his father’s brothers’ families. Kalam mentions that his grandmother had to stretch in every way to keep the family fed, clothed, and healthy (22). Even in such destitution, Kalam found himself a job with alacrity. Due to some political reasons, the train that brought newspapers to Rameshwaram could not stop. Therefore, the newspapers would be thrown from the moving train and distributed to the city. In early morning, Kalam would wait by the railway track for the loud, thundering sound of the train honk, where someone would toss the newspapers (26). This was where Kalam would pick these up and deliver them to the respective houses. During the evenings, he would visit various customers to collect the dues followed by visiting his boss, Samsuddin, to work out the daily logistics and accounts. After this, they would both sit together next to the sea and glance through the newspaper finding stories of Gandhi, Hitler, Congress, etc. This was when Kalam started fantasizing of what it would be like to accompany such personalities, to visit one of the big cities like Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), Calcutta (Kolkata), to be involved in causing a global movement, etc (26).

All of this had to be packed into the daily schedule of waking up early, school work, and playing in the evenings. Life surely did not remain easy for him, yet, he used it to better himself. Being tired became a normal part of the day. During the mornings, some customers would stand outside their homes to receive the newspaper, so that Kalam doesn’t get delayed to reach the school after his delivery services. Kalam was able to impress Samsuddin also by being able to work out the finances of all the individual houses they delivered to before he visited Samsuddin in the evenings (27). When Kalam returned back home, his mum would have already prepared food, which he would eat and immediately go to sleep to rejuvenate for another tiring day ahead. This busy routine never really halted throughout Kalam’s life. His working not only brought additional income to the family, but exposed him to adulthood. He saw the real application of mathematics. After failing to reach on time to get the newspapers numerous times, he realized that the train never waited for him. If he was to succeed, he had to pave his way for himself. This was also how he learnt to take up responsibilities and commit to them wholeheartedly – a skill that became essential for him as he moved up in his scientific and political career (28).

Early on, Kalam realized that opportunities do not just come to you, they had to be fought for. Failure is a part of life and many times, Kalam found himself disturbed because of them, yet he found motivation to continue on.

Engendering his vision

After World War II, the Indian economy started to flourish again. As Kalam showed exceptional interest in studies, he was sent to the nearby town of Ramanathapuram to continue his education at the age of fifteen to Schwartz High school with on campus housing, which meant that it was more expensive that day schools. Moving away from home was challenging as Ramanathapuram lacked the coherence and harmony of Rameshwaram. It took Kalam a while to get accustomed to the new atmosphere. He missed the decadence of his mother’s delicacies, the love he received from his family and the liveliness of the pilgrimage city. He reminded himself of the sacrifices his father was making in provision of such an education to motivate himself. Soon he accepted the learning environment of the school and found his community of friends and teachers (Kalam “Wings” 10-13) but back home, things had not been going well.

Kalam was unable to have a fruitful relationships with his three brothers. They always held things against Kalam as he was able to acquire better opportunities among all. Kalam was also the youngest of the siblings, because of which he enjoyed the most pampering. Two of his brothers, Mustafa and Kasim, owned a convenience store and a seashell novelties store. Having such shops in India, especially in a poor locality, puts you barely in the middle-class category. His brothers were not particularly well-off and Kalam was living in much higher standards. As a high school student, whenever Kalam would visit back, his brothers would put him in charge of the shops and escape for hours in a row. Being the younger one, he did not have a say. In Indian culture, the younger usually ones do not have an option of arguing with their elder ones, so Kalam had to accept the responsibilities his brother gave him. However, this sense of jealousy stopped once the brothers matured and realized Kalam’s humility (Kalam “Fire” 13-14). When Kalam became financially stable later in his life, he continued to provide monetary support to his brothers and extended family until he took his last sleep (Sivakumar “Leadership” 3).

At Schwartz, Kalam developed a keen interest in physics, which he decided to pursue in Bachelors of Science (BSc.) at St. Joseph’s College at the age of nineteen in Tiruchirappali, commonly known as Trichi. He was the first one from his family to do so. Since he had no guidance in making this decision, he was unaware of other available options. He fell in love with physics soon after he started his college but by the fourth year, he realized that physics was not meant for his mould (Kalam “Fire” 14). He did not waste his three years in the BSc. program. Little did he know, these basic physics concepts would play a vital role in the research that he would conduct later. At the time, not really aware of where his passion lies, he joined Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) in engineering, which was one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. During the first year, he took basic engineering courses. On his way to classes from dormitory, there were two aircrafts displayed partially disassembled to show the various subsystems of flying machines. This daily connection with the plane grew over the first year and he picked aeronautical engineering with the intention of eventually become a pilot (25).

Admission into such an exceptional university was an expensive affair. No scholarships were available in the first year and low middle class income of Jainulabdin could not suffice such sum of money. This was when Kalam’s sister, Zohara, mortgaged all her gold bangles and jewellery to get Rs. 1000 that were saved up for her married life (Kalam “Fire” 16). This was his father’s half-yearly income. This university was beyond Kalam’s family for not just academic reasons, but also in terms of social strata. Kalam was never able to forget this favour. His scientific career was to be based on getting a degree at MIT and performing his best to find a job that made him happy. He was to repay this debt by getting a scholarship as soon as possible and by becoming an outstanding pilot. He set this as his immediate goal (17).

Kalam might not be the brightest, but he was very dedicated towards achieving his goals. In his third year at MIT, he was supposed to prepare and draw the design of a low-level attack aircraft. This was bit too much to ask for young man wanting to be a pilot. Since all the other coursework had finished, Kalam was working day and night on this project. One week into the project, his design teacher who was also the director of the institution, Professor Srinivasan, arrived unannounced to the laboratory to check on the progress. Alarmed, Kalam presented all the scribbles on the paper and the ideas he had thought through. Professor Srinivasan destroyed all the hopes by calling Kalam’s work “dismal and disappointing” (Kalam “Fire” 20). Kalam had never received such comments, especially related to studying (Kalam “Journey” 72). He composed himself, asked for feedback and requested one month to come up with a better design. The professor angrily replied, “Look young man, today is Friday afternoon. I give you three days’ time. If by Monday morning I don’t get the configuration drawing, your scholarship will be stopped” (72). He did not have an option of asking for his sister’s jewellery again. Tears broke through when the Professor left (72). That Friday evening, Kalam skipped his dinner and just took a one hour break on Saturday morning to freshen up and eat (72). He knew he had to perform well, otherwise he would lose all he had accumulated. The stakes were high (73).

Professor Srinivasan popped at the lab again on the Sunday morning in his tennis attire. Kalam was wearing the same clothes and the tiredness was visible in his deep red eyes. Impressed by the work, Professor elaborated, “I knew I was putting you under stress and asking you to meet an impossible deadline. I never expected you to perform so well” (73). Kalam may not have performed well but his hard work and dedication inspired the professor (73). To focus in his classwork, Kalam’s friend mention that he stayed away from girls. This was something he was teased about also. Maybe this was because Schwatz High School and St. Joseph’s Institution had been all boys institutes (Chengappa 236). Nevertheless, Kalam graduated from MIT with flying colours and received two job interviews. One was at the Directorate of Technical Development and Production (DTD&P) for a research position and second was the Indian Air Force as a pilot. Kalam’s dream had been to become a pilot, therefore, his primary choice was bound to be in the Air Force. He wanted to serve the country by flying the military aircrafts for his profession (Kalam “Fire” 22).

For the first time, Kalam sat on such a long train journey to continue his endeavours in north India to Delhi of 2700 km or 1700 miles to Rameshwaram. Amazed at watching the valleys, mountains, and plateaus go pass by from the window compartment, Kalam loved the diversity in his motherland. He was fascinated by the amount of agriculture present just on the sides of the rail tracks – both men and women working hard in scorching sun in a green paddy background (Kalam “Fire” 23-24).
Arriving at Delhi, the city of great political movements at the time and a horrifying British past behind it, Kalam straightway went to the DTD&P interview. He mentions that he did not find the interview intellectually challenging and the questions were of routine nature. Following this, he proceeded to the next, more important interview in Dehra Dun, further north. The interview here was much more involved and the interviewers were in search of people with a holistic personality and athletic fitness, and did not even interview on intellect. Nobody had prepared him for what working in the Air Force demanded (24). Even after the interview, Kalam was disenchanted about this opportunity but had some hope. Even those hopes shattered the next day when he found that he stood ninth out of the total twenty five students interviewed, and they were only selecting top eight students (24). This was one of the biggest shocks of Kalam’s life to date. Kalam tried his best to negotiate with the selection board, but they were stringent on their criteria. An air of melancholy surrounded him but that was not all (25). He was also greatly disappointed on being so close, yet so far. He had started to question himself already (25).

Kalam picked himself up and decided to look for serenity in a nearby Hindu pilgrimage city, Rishikesh, to bathe in the holy Ganga river. To provide a little background, the Ganga river is the holiest river for Hindus with immense religious significance that flows from the Himalayas to east India. On its path, Hindus pay homage to their ancestors and Gods. The water from Ganga is used in ceremonies when a person is choosing to convert into Hinduism. For a Muslim like Kalam to be believing in such a Hindu tradition is remarkable, especially in the 1950s. Looking for answers even after his bathe in the Ganga, he chose to visit a Swami Sivananda, a sadhu who intuitively knew the conditions of a person without needing a verbal interaction, who explained Kalam, “Accept your destiny and trust the future… What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is predetermined… Surrender yourself to the wish of God” (Kalam “Fire” 25). This astonishing conversation between a Muslim and a Hindu saint is still a popular folk story kids learn about in school. After this, Kalam felt motivated again and returned to Delhi to find that he had been accepted for the other position. He decided to trust his destiny and have faith in the almighty, Allah. Because of familial background, Kalam could never neglect the importance of Allah, but he did so by respecting and accepting other religious practises too, exactly like his father, Jainulabdin did. Another proof of this religious unity is observed when the first hovercraft Kalam built was christened Nandi, after the bull ridden by Lord Shiv, a Hindu God (Kalam “Fire” 82).

Kalam faced various such hurdles but got through them eventually, either by guidance from his mentors, or through the self-discipline or just sheer luck. He jumped from organizations to organizations and kept getting promoted to the highest of the space research institutions present in India. He had numerous mentors like Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, who were the top leaders in the space research program. Kalam’s devotion to these mentors remained the same, even when he surpassed their positions in the hierarchy. During this time, he helped create technology that was beyond its time. Numerous allegations were made from foreign territory for technology theft (Chengappa, 378). His biggest of all projects came to him, after he had retired from Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1991 and the project that was to popularise him as the “Missile Man of India” and eventually make him the President. This is the Pokhran nuclear test in 1998. To understand these nuclear tests, a little of the history without Kalam has to be dug.

Becoming the Gandhian missile man

India had always been the defensive state. The social scientists ask why India with a history of thousands of years had never taken a dominating role and expanded its territories. Many explain this through the psychology of Indians being “great tolerance, less discipline, the lack of a sense of retaliation, etc” (Kapur, 19-20). Trying to break this long last history, only eight months after the independence from the British Raj in 1947, the first prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, along with an Indian nuclear physicist, Dr. Homi Bhabha, decided to pass the Atomic Energy Act to start developing nuclear weapons. Nehru said, “We are now facing an atomic age… If we have to remain abreast in the world as a nation which keeps ahead of things, we must develop it for the purpose of using it for peaceful purposes” (Chengappa, 79). Nehru wanted an ability to build nuclear weapons and did not necessarily want to exercise them. Nehru, just like Mahatma Gandhi, was also in support of the non-violence movement, and wanted to try his best to give “peace efforts a really good chance” (Chengappa, 82). Only when peace treaties did not work, he wanted India to use her might. He wanted the decision of building a nuclear bomb to be politically driven and not for scientific capability.

In 1962, Sino-Indian War between China and India took place. Nehru had not predicted this attack, and therefore, due to under-preparedness, not only did India lose the war, but also the Indians lost faith in Nehru. In 1964, China detonated nuclear weapons and declared itself as a nuclear state and became the fifth country to do so. With India sharing the border with China in the north, India had to equip herself with similar technology. During this time, many countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia took nuclear umbrella, which refers to a guaranteed protection from the nuclear state to a non-nuclear state. India tried to join this treaty, but received no support. They did not have a choice but to build their own nuclear bombs (Chengappa 188 – 200). Numerous other political movements, discussions and arguments took place in between 1962 and May 18th, 1974, when India’s first nuclear bomb, “Smiling Buddha” was detonated. The day of May 18th was also an auspicious day as it was supposed to be the birth anniversary of Gautam Buddha (lunar calendar). Only about 72 scientists were involved in the manufacturing stage from 1967 to 1974 and the remarkable fact was that India had not used any foreign technology whatsoever (Vikas, Chapter III). The tactic of the Indian government was to mellow down the impact to nuclear reaction by advertising it as a peaceful weapon. They were not weapons of war, but the last resort. However, this experiment marked an important landmark in the development of nuclear technology in India. India still lacked the technology for propelling this weapon to a long distance. This was why India could not declare herself as a nuclear state. These nuclear explosions were a very bold political decision and after this, the industry was shut off to produce more.

Kalam strongly believed in nuclear power as a gateway to a prosperous future. He wanted a development in this field, not just towards missiles but also towards using it as an energy source. Thorium, a radioactive material, is readily available in India. All of its isotopes are radioactive in nature. Yet, with such a tremendous reserve of radioactive raw materials available, only 3% of the total energy usage in India comes from nuclear energy, while the most of it arises from coal (Singh, “Nuclear power”). Kalam understood the connectedness between the unimaginable power of nuclear weapons to develop a leading economy.

During the 1990s, the governmental structure was reshaping. In 1992, Kalam was appointed as the scientific adviser to the defence minister of India and the DRDO chief. At the age of sixty-one, Kalam was overwhelmed with the responsibilities he had and started losing temperament and patience. Kalam was in charge of 40 laboratories all around India. On the failure of the initial tests on one of the missiles called Agni, which was a long range surface to surface missile, Kalam yelled at the development team, “You guys don’t know what you are doing” (Chingappa 380). Previously, he was known to be a leader who supported the hard times of failure (Dwivedi 17). The director of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) also changed to Rajagopala Chidambaram. Both Kalam and Chidamabaram were not on good terms with their predecessors but themselves were a strong duo. Kalam’s favourite saying was, “Strength respects only strength” and Chidambaram’s was, “The greatest advantage of recognized strength is that you don’t have to use it” (Chengappa 381). Both were at the heights of the two highly scientific organizations with excellent staff to extract their resources from. It was the synergy of this duo that lead to some movement towards the nuclear missile program (381). Political movement towards this cause also helped.

In this restructuring, Narsimha Rao became the prime minister (PM) in 1991. This was the first time someone not from the Nehru-Gandhi heritage was being elected for a complete term of five years. The PMs before since the tests in 1974 were not courageous enough to initiate the development of nuclear missiles. The preceding PMs kept postponing with the excuse of supporting the economic development in different ways. Rao was in support of nuclear missiles but was not completely devoted to the cause. He demanded the development of the missiles, but once again, the power to detonate it was in government’s hand. He was to make sure that nuclear missiles would only be used tested for international relations and strategic reasons. In 1995, Chidambaram also set aside six hundred crore rupees (US$ 89 million) towards the development of Agni missile, that was to be eventually used for nuclear tests. Bill Clinton took the presidency in the United States (US) in 1993 and his agenda was to pursue non-proliferation with great rigour (Perkovich, 335). During his term till 1996, Rao prioritized the Indo-Pakistan relations, not wanting to face the terror from other nations. The US satellites that were orbiting around the Indian territory had picked up traces of nuclear missile development and had threatened India from going through that route by imposing economic sanctions and embargoes as punishment (Vikas, Chapter III). Kalam stated that the US sanction would not seriously affect the Indian economic growth (Sheth, 73). Still feeling pressurized, Rao’s five year period ended without the nuclear tests. However, Kalam and Chidambaram had lead their team with an ability to launch the nuclear missiles within 10 days.

The PM with the confidence to be not affected by these US sanctions was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who succeeded Rao in 1996 (Chengappa 287). All the previous winning candidates for the post of PM had been from the Congress party since the independence and this was the first time any opposition (Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)) had managed to win the national elections. Nuclear missile development had always been on the agenda for BJP since the 60s. But they never had the power to enact it. Within two days of entering the parliament, Vajpayee enacted Kalam and Chidambaram to start the nuclear tests on 18th May 1996 (288). However, Vajpayee failed to gain the confidence from other members of parliament in his government and eventually resigned and left the decision on the next government if they want to test the nuclear missiles. Because he had publicly announced the nuclear missile development, the whole world became aware of the technological ability of India – once again lead by Kalam and Chidambaram.

For Vajpayee to fulfil his mission of making India a nuclear state, he had to come into power again and carry out the tests secretly. He formed a coalition of 13 different parties called National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and got elected again on 19th March 1998. Immediately after coming into the parliament, he with the president, Kalam, Chidambaram and his secretary secretly finalised the date of nuclear tests to be May 11th. From now, the responsibilities that Kalam and Chidambaram had were immense and everything had to be done secretly.

It was known that the Americans were keeping a track of Pokhran site where the first nuclear detonation had happened. However, scientists were not sure in which ways they were being tracked. All kinds of necessary precautions were taken to keep the nuclear tests hidden. Code words were developed to communicate via phone calls. Kalam’s code name was Prithviraj. The area of assembling the nuclear device was called “Prayer House.” The site at Pokhran where the missiles were going to test was christened “Taj Mahal” (Chengapa 290). This team of 58 engineers worked only at night so as to avoid being detected at the site. Immense sacrifices were made by these scientists to risk their lives in an underground facility. A sense of nationalism motivated this group of 58 engineers. Even a drop of sweat in the circuit could trigger the missiles, causing a mass destruction. The temperature at the dessert reached to the heights of 50°C or 120°F (Chengappa 414). All these scientists also had to wear military uniforms as Pokhran area was a strict military zone, shown in the picture below. Unlike the military personals, these scientists were not trained in surviving in the heat with these heavy dress code on. To maintain further secrecy, Kalam and Chidambaram never visited the site together.

The last ten days when the missiles were being assembled were not easy. Out of the 58 engineers working, none of them called in sick. Kalam exclaimed, “History is on the move” to help the engineers realize the intensity of the work required and the impact of being a part of such a huge nationalistic movement. Out of the 58 engineers working, none of them called in sick. One of the engineers, Anil Kakodkar had to visit home to attend the funeral of his father. Without staying for even a day, he returned to Pokhran, missing all the ceremonies that should have been performed by him (the only son). The weather did not support them either. On one of the nights, there was a violent lightning storm. If any lightning would have hit their building, in the worst case scenario, could have detonated the bomb. When the engineers were coming to the site at night, there was a severe sandstorm that cut the visibility down to zero. They were risking accidents and with these gusts of winds, they could have lost their way in the desert. At the “Prayer House,” no air conditioning was set up in order to avoid accidental fires and the temperature at the dessert reached to the heights of 50°C or 120°F (Chengappa 414).

Coincidently, it was Buddha anniversary again on the 11th May (lunar calendar), the day India was going to be much more powerful. Kalam and Chidambaram together pressed the button and red lamp lit up around the arena indicating the device had been activated. Everybody was praying to their own Gods for success of these tests. At 15:45, the monitors in the control room started flashing brightly indicating that the test had been conducted. There was still some uncertainty remaining. Everyone was waiting for the shock waves to hit them. And then they began and shook all the machinery.

“The earth broke under our feet,” Kalam shouted in thrill. “Now nobody could tell our nation of a billion people what to do. It is for us to decide.” The heat generated under the sand was as hot as the sun – upto a million degrees centigrade. It melted the sand immediately but since it was buried deep into the earth, none of the molten sand could rise. No radioactivity was detected in the atmosphere. However, the shock waves lifted a giant mound of sand, size of football field and then all of it fell back into the massive crate it had created. The picture is shown on the next page. The sudden adrenaline jump created a mini earthquake on the platform they were all standing on in anticipation. India became a nuclear state, and the sixth country to do so, under the leadership of Vajpayee, Chidambaram and most importantly, Dr. Abdul Kalam, who had spent his whole life developing technology that went into the development of nuclear missiles (Chengappa 426-440).

To resonate with the non-violence movement of Gandhi, within a week, India became the second country after China to articulate the No-First Use (NFU) policy which prevents “a nuclear power from using nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons” (Wikipedia “No First Use”). Vajpayee took this further and even imposed that India shall never utilize nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state. This is what made the Pokhran nuclear tests to synchronize with the notion of peace and truly creating the weapons of peace. After this, Kalam earned the name of “Gandhian Missile Man” (Chengappa 392).

By 1998, Kalam turned 67 and wanted to move away from research into improving the lives of the generations to come. Kalam had always enjoyed the company of youth, and he wanted to immerse into devoting his life for the youth development. The next part of his life focused more on his achievements relating to the youth and policy.
The honour of People’s President

Since his retirement in 1991 at age 60, Kalam was rethinking of moving into a profession of interacting with the students and to motivate them. He could not have switched then as he had plenty of responsibilities yet to fulfil. He continued to stay as the scientific adviser till 1999 but he wanted to enlarge his impact. He understood the humble roots he originated from and believed that anyone would have ended up where he was by following his route (Chandra 219). He decided to present his life-story in the form of an autobiography, not with an agenda to project himself, but to reach out to those young individuals who may be able to pick out incidents of motivation from Dr. Kalam’s life. He was keen on writing this autobiography, so as to thank every interaction and support that he had received from people all around the country, whether it was a cobbler or his mentor (Kalam “Fire” xiv – xv).

His next step was to develop a plan for India to succeed. He did this by proposing a plan of action for envisioning a developed India by 2020. He published this in the form of a book in 1998, where it examines ten comprehensive areas, where India urgently needs development, ranging from health care to education and technology. His belief was not in becoming sovereign among other nations, but in building on the available core competencies of the country (Kalam “2020”). He also devised a model called Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Area (PURA – which in Hindi means complete) to reach the rural areas by breaking the class distinction (Gandhi “PURA”). In 2001, Kalam became a distinguished professor at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s leading research institution in space research at the time and even today, to focus on these nation development projects (Chandra 219). Then he received an ultimate method of amplifying the impacts of these projects. He travelled around India giving lecture on nation development.

On 10 June 2002, when Kalam was presenting a lecture on ‘Vision to Mission’ in Anna University, he received multiple calls in his office as if someone was frantically trying to reach him (Kalam “Turning” 9). It turns out the PM Vajpayee was the one trying to reach the man who was going to be the eleventh president of India. Kalam had not even nominated himself. After hearing about the opportunity, Kalam made phone calls for two hours continuously asking his friends and family for suggestions. Two images shot through Kalam’s mind – one was of being surrounded by students in an academic life which was his passion and the other of projecting the India 2020 notion in front of the entire nation and the Indian Parliament (12). He chose the latter.
In a book called “The Kalam Effect” written by his secretary, P Madhavan Nair, when Kalam was the president reveals various dimensions of Kalam’s personality that have not been previously written about. Almost any literature where Kalam is mentioned never misses highlighting the simple nature of Kalam. Before presidency, Kalam would always dress in a simple shirt and a rubber chappal. Numerous bureaucrats frowned upon his dressing habits and just regarded him as “absent-minded scientist” (Chandra 220). His dressing style had to change at the post of the presidency but his simplicity did not take a stall. In the official picture of the president for that time period, Kalam had a half smile and an unbuttoned jacket with a pilot pen (Nair 116). Some criticized him for not holding Mont Blanc or Parker. As the president of India, it is an honour for him/her to be called “Your Excellency” or “ His Excellency” (118). Kalam insisted on not being called that as it creates a division. In contrast, other ministers and generals in the Indian government do not respond if not addressed in a particular manner. Muslims are known to be meat eaters, but early on in his career, he had switched to vegetarian, which is not very common Muslims in India. He was also a teetotaller.

One of the qualities that upset people around him the most was for punctuality. Kalam’s lectures always went overtime. The meetings never started on time (Nair 22). The people it affected the most were police constables. If the president is supposed to travel on a certain road, barricades would be set up to reserve the route for the president and heavy security would be in action (24). The policemen would arrive three hours before the scheduled time. Since Kalam never arrived on time, they ended up working up to 12 hours instead of a 7 hour job (22). Once his secretary, Nair acknowledged it to Kalam, he was punctual for the next few programmes before returning to the same condition.

Demise in the hands of the youth

Dr. Abdul Kalam was a man of passion. He had a dream and he lead the country to reach those heights. During the early age, he matured because of his familial background. He looked up to his father and admired his spirit. Many activities he undertook at an older age were a reflection of his father. The most important aspect he took away was how to live in a religious harmony and yet believing in a single faith. He may not have been a prodigy but his hard-work sufficed that. What Kalam did not have in control that helped him with his success was his family. It was because of their immense sacrifices that Kalam could receive an outstanding education and also, make the most out of it. Even when not sure what he wanted, he pursued what his heart desired and trusted the destiny. Many times, he did not receive the opportunities he desired, but by seeking advice, he learnt to become happy in what he received. Kalam never got married to stay dedicated towards the cause. Rising as a leading scientist in India is not easy, especially through the social background Kalam came from, but he did so with his perseverance.

India had always been a defensive state and after realizing the impact of the British colonialism, she had to develop resources to prevent any such exploitation in future. Many such programs were going on when Kalam entered his professional life. Kalam joined in this movement and lead his teams to develop missile technology without any foreign assistance and under pressure from sanctions and embargoes. This was applied into the nuclear technology to make India the sixth nation to be a nuclear state and be counted in the category of the most powerful nations.

When Kalam became the president, he surprised everyone with his simple nature. He looked at the position as another opportunity to lead the nation to heights. He wrote 23 books until his death and all of them themed on either motivating Indians to perform better or on nation development. He was a true Indian patriot, who tried to his best capabilities to improve the conditions of the nation.

Sadly Dr. Kalam did not live until 2020 to see the progress country will make by then. On 27th July 2015, while standing on a podium and giving a lecture on “Creating a Livable Planet Earth” collapsed onto the ground from a heart attack. He left the earth doing what he loved the most – teaching a group of talented students.


  1. BI, Sivakumar. “Man of Integrity, Kalam Insulated Family from Trappings of Power – Times of India.” The Times of India, 31 July 2015, An article from Times of India can be trusted as it is a leading newspaper company in India.
  2. Chandra, Ramesh. Scientist to President: Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Gyan Publishing House, 2002.
  3. Chengappa, Raj. Weapons of Peace The Secret Story of India’s Quest to Be a Nuclear Power. HarperCollins India, 2001.
  4. Dwivedi, R. S. “Visionary Leadership: A Survey of Literature and Case Study of Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam at Drdl.” Vision: The Journal of Business Perspective, vol. 10, no. 3, 2006, pp. 11–21., doi:10.1177/097226290601000302.
  5. J., Abdul Kalam A. P. My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions. Rupa, 2017.
  6. Kalam, A. P. J. Abdul. Beyond 2020. Penguin Books India, 2016.
  7. Kalam, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul., and Arun Tiwari. Wings of Fire: an Autobiography. Universities Press, 2015.
  8. Kapūra Aśoka. Pokhran and beyond: India’s Nuclear Behaviour. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  9. Nair, P. M. The Kalam Effect: My Years with the President: with 16 Pages of Colour Photographs. HarperCollins Publishers India, a Joint Venture with The India Today Group, 2011.
  10. P, Gandhi. “Abdul Kalam’s PURA Model from an Academic Angle.” Indian Economic Journal, vol. 53, 2005, pp. 96–101. ISSN: 0019-4662
  11. Perkovich, George. India’s Nuclear Bomb. University of California Press, 2000.
  12. Sheth, Pravin N. Post-Pokhran Nuclear Politics: Fresh Perspectives on Indo-US Relations. Rawat Publ., 1999.
  13. Sikka, Pawan. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam the People’s President: the Missile Man of India. Uppal Publishing House, 2016.
  14. Singh, Srijan Pal, and Abdul Kalam. “Nuclear Power Is Our Gateway to a Prosperous Future.” The Hindu, 5 Nov. 2011, This is an article that Singh wrote in collaboration with Kalam. The Hindu is another national newspaper company that can be trusted.
  15. Sivakumar, BI. “Man of Integrity, Kalam Insulated Family from Trappings of Power – Times of India.” The Times of India, 31 July 2015, Times of India again.
  16. Vikas. “Indo – Us Nuclear Relations: Continuity and Change.” Maharshi Dayanand University Rohtak, Department of Political Science, 2011. Link:

Pranav Mohan

Change and progress are two words that define my character and my ultimate goals. I have a vision to bring a global change by targeting the psychology, because that is the easiest to change. My aim is to incur a self-progressive routine for myself and then help the people around me to progress themselves. In my perspective, walking towards a defined target should be everyone’s goal while keeping in mind that things don’t go as planned but still the target should remain unchanged.

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