What do you want to be remembered for? President APJ Abdul Kalam’s aide Srijan Pal Singh asked him once. “President, Scientist, Writer, Missile man, India 2020, Target 3 billion….What?”
The Late President sprung a complete surprise on his aide.
“Teacher,” he said.
The former President may be gone, but his achievements, teachings and life lessons continue to inspire and enlighten minds even today. We reminisce a few reasons why former President Kalam was an absolute favourite.
1. Promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
A devout practising Muslim, he read his daily namāz and fasted during Ramadan. His father, an imam of a mosque in his hometown Rameswaram, had strictly instilled Islamic customs in his children. But also, impressed upon young Kalam the value of interfaith respect and dialogue.
Kalam often said that the answers to India’s multitudinous issues lay in “dialogue and cooperation” among the country’s religious, social, and political leaders.
He fondly said, “For great men, religion is a way of making friends; small people make religion a fighting tool.”
2. Humility, and refusal to accept any VVIP treatment
At a function in at IIT (BHU) Varanasi where he was invited as chief guest, Kalam refused to sit on the President’s chair offered specially to him. The chair was bigger in size and was meant to give Kalam special honour. Out of the five chairs arranged on the stage, one was for Kalam in the centre and other four was for top university officials. When the Missile Man was told to sit on the big chair, he took notice of it and humbly offered the seat to a university official instead.
3. Inspiring young minds to dream and fly
During his tenure as President of India, Kalam made it a priority to meet as many young people as possible one-to-one. He met almost a record-breaking target of 500,000 during his five-year term. When he left office in 2007, he was conferred a loving title of “Kalam Chacha” (“Uncle Kalam”) because he would receive hundreds of emails a day from young people inspired by his encouragement to “dream, dream, dream!” He is reported to have replied in person to nearly all of them.
4. Believing in a democracy that is functional
In one of his last memories with Dr. Kalam, Sripal Singh recalled how worried Kalam was at the time about the Parliament, the supreme institution of democracy, being dysfunctional. He said, “I have seen two different governments in my tenure. I have seen more after that. This disruption just keeps happening. It is not right. I really need to find out a way to ensure that the parliament works on developmental politics.”
He asked for a surprise assignment question to be given out to students at IIM Shillong at the end of the lecture. He asked to them to suggest ‘three innovative ways to make the Parliament more productive and vibrant.’ He questioned, “But how can I ask them to give solutions if I don’t have any myself?”
For the next hour, they discussed numerous options to come up with recommendations. They included this discussion in his last book, Advantage India.
5. Inspiring change even after leaving office
In 2012, he launched a campaign called ‘What Can I Give Movement’ to develop a “giving” attitude in the youth and to encourage them to contribute towards nation building by taking small but positive steps. In 2012, his efforts to improve healthcare led to the release of a tablet for medical personnel to use in remote areas.
As the Presidential elections grow closer, let us hope that a few teachings of Late President Kalam inspire candidates competing to take charge and make a better India.