APJ Abdul Kalam, India’s 11th president, passed away on Monday. In the flurry of tributes that followed, it was relevant that he was most often described as a scientist first and politician second. Though he rose from humble beginnings to become India’s head of state, Abdul Kalam’s initial calling was elsewhere.
For 40 years before he entered public life, Abdul Kalam was a scientist, working first in defence research before moving on to India’s space programme. He was popularly known as the father of the country’s missile programme, but Abdul Kalam also made breakthroughs in other areas – notably using what he learnt from rocket technology to create a low-cost coronary stent.
Abdul Kalam liked to boast that he was “made in India”, because he received all his scientific training in the country. And he was an inspiration in many ways: what Abdul Kalam represented was the best of what India is and can be.
For starters, he was a scientist fascinated by classical poetry and traditional Indian music. He was a Muslim in a country that too often today celebrates only one of its many religious traditions, and he was a fierce patriot who contributed to India’s security.
He was a self-made, ascetic politician at a time when too many Indians believe their political class is corrupt and hereditary. Most of all, he was a patrician from humble beginnings who never forgot his own past, nor the grand history of his country.
Abdul Kalam’s life, then, gave the lie to many myths that have been allowed to grow up about India, not least by a political class to whom he was an outsider. The idea that India belongs to only one religious tradition, that politics is the domain only of an elite or career politicians, that those who reach high status strive only for themselves. These are pernicious myths about a great country, and Abdul Kalam embodied their rejection. He died giving a lecture, still tirelessly talking at 83. He will be missed by many Indians because of who he was; he will be missed by many more because of what he represented.