India’s former President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam passed away on 27th July 2015 while addressing students at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. It was somewhat fitting he breathed his last doing the thing dearest to him – being with students to talk to them, share some knowledge and pep them up.
The spontaneous grief witnessed across India on Abdul Kalam’s death tells us many things. He came to be adored by diverse sections of people by the sheer force of his deeds and his personality. He had earned distinction as a scientist in aerospace engineering and as a defence research specialist. Still, he may not have been so widely known and admired if he had not been President. But a mere stint in Rashtrapathi Bhavan – India’s Presidential abode - does not bring one close to the hearts of the people. If you ask an ordinary Indian adult to name the person who was President immediately before or after Abdul Kalam’s term, he will draw a blank. So what was extra special about Kalam?
First, Abdul Kalam visibly came across as an honest person. Just on this count he was different from nine-tenths, or even more, of people in India’s public life. Then he was simple and humble, with all the knowledge in his field of study and achievements in work. And he happily reached out to others to share and to help, respecting others who came into contact with him. These stellar qualities of the man got showcased when he was elected President - here India must thank the persons who chose and fielded him for that office - and they continued to glow after his term was over, when he was meeting and mixing with more and more of students and young Indians. The younger generation was pleasantly surprised to find him with no airs of a former President. He also defied the general rule that learned men do not smile, attracting more admirers on his way.
To be in one’s 70’s and 80’s and still impress and motivate the youth of a nation today is extraordinary in any land. It is amazing Kalam could do it in India till the moment he left us, aged 83.
Abdul Kalam hailed from Rameswaram in the State of Tamil Nadu. The High Court in his home State, the Madras High Court, did something unusual when on 3rd Aug. 2015 it was condoling his demise. As usual for a similar occasion, the judges rose 75 minutes before the scheduled court-sitting time was to close that day, to assemble in a hall along with advocates for the condolence meeting. Shortly before that, the Chief Justice of the High Court directed that on the remaining four working days of the week the High Court judges will sit 15 minutes longer in courtrooms to make up for at least 60 minutes of sitting time lost, as a mark of respect for Abdul Kalam for whom work was worship. That was the impact of the late President on the Chief Justice.
The immense respect Abdul Kalam earned within the country is like what Nelson Mandela received in South Africa, with the difference that Abdul Kalam was not in the political sphere. Kalam’s popularity is also like that of President Barack Obama in the USA - again with the same difference, but with something in common: the religious or ethnic backgrounds of the Indian and the American are those of minorities, and yet they won admiration from a great part of the majority too. All the three, Mandela, Obama and Kalam, sowed in the hearts of their countrymen a feeling that they could look up to those leaders with hope – for emancipation in South Africa, for reconciliation between whites and African Americans in the USA and for connecting young India with their future. In India many will wish that at least one thing about Abdul Kalam had changed – that he could be far younger when he became so popular, so he will have inspired more of India’s young persons for more years.
Abdul Kalam’s popularity in India also speaks of a glory of the country, apart from the glory of the man. There is no doubt that a vast majority of the people who love and respect him in India, a Hindu majority country, are Hindus. They have no concern at all about his religion – Islam – being different from theirs, and they only look at the man, his achievements and his qualities. Such a thing does not easily happen in many countries. It is also hard to visualise someone like Abdul Kalam, a scientist and a non-political person, winning such huge and affectionate public acclaim even in a Muslim majority nation - with its prime minister and various political leaders paying their last respects at his funeral. India deserves a great salute.
Abdul Kalam’s fame in India should do the country good, particularly on two fronts. One is in the realm of education. Kalam was a man of science, and was eager about spreading education. He took pride in being a teacher and in kindling the thirst for knowledge in young students. To the whole of India, he was a symbol of learning and pursuit of knowledge. Tens and thousands of common men and women, many of them not well-educated themselves, could sense his missionary zeal in bringing education to all. Muslims throughout the country will have sensed it too, and should become keener to benefit their children, especially girl children, with education to a good level. The memory of Abdul Kalam should give a fillip to that community in this direction.
The other is about Hindu-Muslim amity. Terrorist crimes linked to Muslim offenders crop up now and then in India. They create a psychological divide between Hindus and Muslims and lead to mutual hatred between them in some locations. With Abdul Kalam being extremely popular among Hindus – and with a huge outpouring of grief and regard from Hindus on his demise, which was nationally seen on television on the day he was laid to rest – it is likely that misguided Muslims taking to terrorist offences will be more firmly distanced and shunned by Muslims themselves as a whole in the days to come. That may happen because of a heightened feeling of brotherhood in Muslims toward Hindu Indians, thanks to Abdul Kalam. An average Muslim could be friendlier towards Hindus because they loved Kalam, and an average Hindu could warm up more towards Muslims because Kalam belonged to their religion. So even when Abdul Kalam is no more his goodwill may subtly bring both communities in India closer by a few more steps. That might be his silent contribution to India.
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