India’s former President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, fondly known as the “People’s President”, was loved by many for his quintessential humaneness and simplicity. He breathed his last on July 27th, 2015 delivering a lecture at IIM-Shillong where he wanted to quiz the management students to explore ways for the smooth functioning of Indian Parliament. A visionary scientist and inspiration to millions for his incredible achievements, he was passionate about teaching too. His death while delivering a lecture must have ensured a great teacher like him a place in ‘the island of peace’ which finds a mention in his poem ‘The Vision’.
NISU UK, the umbrella organization representing the students and alumni of Indian origin in UK, has decided to bring you the story behind Dr Kalam’s last ‘honorary graduation’ ceremony on the anniversary of his birth as a fitting tribute. It is a matter of great pride for the UK-based Indian fraternity that a UK university awarded the last degree to Dr Kalam, which he personally collected and felt proud of. The story, as penned by NISU’s executive officer Mohanish Borana, is shaped around personal experiences of many eminent personalities involved with that ceremony. It includes the inspirational message that Dr Kalam gave to the youth. Mohanish is currently pursuing his PhD in Chemistry at the King’s building campus of the university.
It was a pleasant sunny summer day in Edinburgh on 15th of May 2014. The venue was theatre-styled Playfair Library Hall situated in the picturesque Old College of the University of Edinburgh. Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, had presented him with the honorary degree of Doctor of Science on behalf of the Chancellor HRH The Princess Royal. Little did he knew that it would become, unfortunately, Dr Kalam’s last honorary degree personally collected by the leader. Professor Sir O’Shea recalling his visit to Edinburgh in May 2014 says, “His arrival was greeted with much excitement and enthusiasm by the student community as well as the Indian Diaspora. His humility and inspirational leadership endeared him to the audience and I was fortunate to witness the great regard people had for him during his visit to the University of Edinburgh.” On the next day, Dr Kalam delivered the inaugural lecture for the Edinburgh India Institute in John McIntyre Conference Centre.
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam with his honorary degree of Doctor of Science accompanied by Prof Sir Timothy O’Shea (Principal and Vice Chancellor, The University of Edinburgh) and Dr George Palattiyil (Deputy Director, Edinburgh India Institute). Photo credits: Douglas Robertson Photography (courtesy Edinburgh India Institute)
The conference was appropriately titled “Innovative Engagement for Sustainable Development: the Edinburgh-India Story”, considering the fact Dr Kalam was an innovator and believed in sustainable development. “When we met him in January 2014 to discuss the conference, he said it would be an honour for him to walk and speak at the place which was graced by many great scientists including his inspirations Charles Darwin and Alexander Graham Bell,” said Dr George Palattiyil, Deputy Director of EII, who organised the conference along with Dr Dina Sidhva. When presented with the honorary degree Dr Kalam said, “This campus has been witness to some of the most historic people and their ideas which changed the world. When I was walking here yesterday and today, I saw many students walking past. I wondered, that someday back in history, through these same aisles, gardens and walkways, Charles Darwin would have walked, Alexander Graham Bell would have walked, Sir Walter Scott would have walked, Arthur Conan Doyle would have walked, and Thomas Bayes would have walked too. This place is filled with wisdom, knowledge and ideas of some of the greatest mind of humanity. I feel blessed to walk in the University of Edinburgh and now to be associated with it.”
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam at the inaugural Edinburgh India Institute’s inaugural conference flanked by Indian tricolours and Scotland’s flag. Photo credits: Douglas Robertson Photography (courtesy Edinburgh India Institute)
As one of the principal architects of modern India, Dr Kalam has been honoured with several esteemed national and international awards and a number of Honorary Degrees from around the world. It includes Doctor of Science from the University of Wolverhampton and Doctor of Laws from Queen’s University Belfast. However, the University of Edinburgh was indeed privileged to be the last University to confer an Honorary Doctorate to him. “I was privileged to host Dr Kalam for the EII’s inaugural conference which celebrated our engagement with India and cemented our longstanding partnership with a number of higher education institutions across India. It was my great honour to confer on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science in recognition of his outstanding contribution to science and technology, and his commitment to helping transform India into a developed nation by 2020”, says Professor Sir O’Shea.
*Kalam’s message to students*
His keynote address – “Vision 2030 for the Nations of the World” reflected on the continuing challenges facing the world – poverty, illiteracy, lack of drinking water, clean and green energy, equitable distribution of resources, value based education, empowerment of rural poor globally; and called on the collective responsibility of the global community to find solutions. His formula for handling global challenges and achieving global peace was based on better mutual trust.
Cartoonist representation of Dr Kalam giving his keynote address on Vision 2030 at Edinburgh India Institute’s inaugural conference in May 2014. Made exclusively for NISU by Mr Ajit Nirmal Johnson, PhD student at The University of Edinburgh. Copyright: Ajit Johnson
Dr Dina Sidhva recalled that he encouraged a gathering of over 400 Edinburgh University students and Indian Diaspora to dream and said, “A dream is not that which you see in sleep, a dream is something that doesn’t let you sleep”. She added that Dr Kalam advised them never to give up if they failed because according to him FAIL stood for “First Attempt in Learning”. According to Mr Jaishiv Natarajan, alumnus of University of Edinburgh who attended the conference, “He advised students to master three mighty forces namely desires, belief and expectation while asking the youths to take the 10 point oath that includes aiming high, working hard, succeeding with integrity, respect humanity, keeping the faith intact always, patriotism, no to addictions of drugs/alcohol/smoking etc.”
*Kalam: An extraordinary innovator*
Dr Sidhva reminisced that from their very first meeting itself, “Dr Kalam spoke with deep admiration, affection and respect about Edinburgh being a place of great scientific discoveries and inventions. In particular, he recalled the Edinburgh’s famous alumnus Alexander Graham Bell, who inspired him as an innovator” with his transformative work involving mechanics of voice covering speech and deafness. Dr Kalam was no lesser of an innovator himself. The missile man of India holds the credit for the development of AGNI and PRITHVI missiles as well as India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3). Apart from arming India with nuclear arsenal, he has also designed and developed a low-cost coronary stent and a tablet PC for health care; both named after him and his cardiologist friend Dr Soma Raju.
*What gave Kalam ultimate happiness?*
Any person who has any knowledge about Kalam’s vast list of achievements would start guessing it ranging from success of SLV-3/AGNI/Pokhran-II to Vision 2020 formulation. The truth is that Dr Kalam was happy with all these achievements, but these did not give him ultimate happiness. The reason that he is loved so much by people across regions, religions and age is that Dr Kalam’s heart had always beaten for the human cause till it stopped beating. It is evident from his speech after accepting the Honorary Degree from Prof Sir O’Shea in which he talked about what gave him bliss in a detailed fashion. Dr Kalam explained, “I am going to (give) the real answer. During my visit to one of the hospitals in Hyderabad, I found many children were struggling to walk with FRO (calliper) weighing over 4 Kg. At the request of Prof BN Prasad of NIMS, Head of orthopaedic department at that time, I asked my AGNI missile friends why we can’t use the composite material used for AGNI heat shield for fabricating FROs for polio affected patients. They immediately said it was possible. We worked on this project for some time and came up with a FRO for the child weighing around 400 g in place of 4 Kg, exactly 1/10th of the weight which the children were carrying. The doctors helped us to fit the new light weight FRO on the children and the children started walking and running around. Their parents were also present. Tears rolled down on all of their faces through the joy of seeing their children running with the light callipers. With the light weight device provided by the hospital they could run, ride a bicycle and do all sorts of things which they had been denied for a long time. The removal of the pain and the freedom attained by the children gave me a state of bliss which I never experienced during any other achievement in my life.”
*Dr Kalam’s visit to Scotland*
The former president stayed in Edinburgh for 4 days during which he visited the King’s Building Campus, Central campus and Central Library of the University of Edinburgh. Prof Sir O’Shea remembers that Dr Kalam told him of his desire to visit the University Library to see the original works of Charles Darwin and Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom inspired him throughout his life. “He was extremely moved by the University’s generous gesture to allow him to actually touch works by Darwin” recalled Dr Palattiyil. Dr Sidhva recalled that he was generous with his time and accepted an invite to speak at the Scottish Parliament on the theme of ‘Nations and Global Prosperity’. Minister for Europe and International Development with the Scottish Government, Mr Humza Yousaf MSP shared his experiences of meeting the great leader at EII conference with NISU and said, “Dr Kalam was an inspirational man who touched the hearts and minds of many. We were delighted to welcome Dr Kalam to Scotland in May 2014. I was honoured to hear him speak at Edinburgh University’s India Institute conference.”
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam at the opening ceremony of Edinburgh India Institute’s inaugural conference in May 2014 where he was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Edinburgh. Right to Left: Dr George Palattiyil (Deputy Director, Edinburgh India Institute and Conference organiser), William Dalrymple (Writer and Historian), Dr Virander Paul (Deputy High Commissioner of India in London), Dr Kalam (Chief Guest), Humza Yousaf (Minister for External Affairs and International Development in the Scottish Government), Dr Dina Sidhva (Fellow, Edinburgh India institute and Conference organiser) and Professor Stephen Hillier (OBE, Vice Principal International). Photo credits: Douglas Robertson Photography (courtesy Edinburgh India Institute)
All who were fortunate enough to have met him and spent time with him during that visit spoke with the greatest of affection for him. Both Dr Dina and Dr George reiterated that he was an extremely sincere, simple, down to earth and good human being with a great sense of humour and a child-like inquisitiveness and curiosity.” He found wonder and amazement in many things that he experienced in Edinburgh and often interjected with the words “simply fantastic”, recalled Dr Dina. Dr George shared “So inspired was he by Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, that when we met him in March 2015, he suggested that we jointly write a book on great lives and great deeds – focussing on the contributions of leading minds from Scotland, such as Alexander Graham Bell and Homi Bhabha from India; however it was never to be! Dr Kalam’s visit to Edinburgh seemed to have left a deep impression on him and he reminisced about the University and was hoping to return some day in the not so distant future.”
*What made Kalam stand out*
Reacting to his sudden death, Principal Prof Sir O’Shea wrote expressing formal condolences to the High Commissioner of India. He says, “Dr Kalam was a wonderful and inspiring man, with a keen sense of humour, and we at the University of Edinburgh were fortunate to have known him. It was with much sadness that I received the news of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s passing. As a mark of our respect, the University of Edinburgh flew its flags at half-mast on the day of his funeral”
Dr Kalam was an accomplished scientist of international renown and his mission was to ignite the young mind for nation building. He dreamed of a developed India and called on the youth not to give up dreaming for a better tomorrow. Dr Rami Ranger MBE while paying his tribute to the great leader rightly points out enormous contributions of Dr Kalam for youth development and nation building. According to him, “Dr Abdul Kalam dedicated his life in empowering people as he believed it was a prerequisite for India’s holistic development. He has left a great legacy for others to follow.” It is a known fact that Dr Kalam was a person who lived a simple life even after becoming the President of India. He opened Rashtrapati Bhawan for general public, had often dined with staff members working there and felt at ease even when crowded by people who were attracted to his charming personality. “We all saw him carry out his responsibilities as President in a most remarkably open manner, his additional interest in inspiring the younger generation left us all very impressed and amazed. He could really connect with the young India and make them realize their self-worth and determination to do something in life; he himself being the greatest living example” says Prof Atul Gurtu who was India-CMS spokesperson at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory at Geneva, and senior professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
Former Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Professor Mustansir Barma recalled Dr Kalam’s first visit to TIFR when he was still in office as President. During the day he spent at TIFR, he visited several laboratories, “displaying a childlike curiosity, and at the same time, extremely sound technical knowledge of all parts of science.” His address to the high energy physicist present on recent developments of electronic and communications for transmitting data was at such a high level that one of the international delegate remarked later that “it was indeed rare for any country to have as President a luminary who understood technology and science at the highest levels, and that India was lucky to have someone like him at the helm of affairs”, says Professor Burma.
NISU UK’s Patron Virendra Shrama MP sums it up perfectly, “Dr Kalam was a visionary both in his role as a scientist and as the President best known for bringing the presidency down to the people. His proud role in promoting education in a quickly developing India and the benefits of cross-cultural cooperation between India and the UK have brought greater strength to both nations. India’s progress in a growing STEM sector has pushed it to the fore of modern advancements, and Dr Kalam laid the foundations for this.” He says that the best way to honour Dr Kalam now after his sad death, is to continue to encourage young people to be politically engaged and to contribute for betterment of human race.
“An extraordinary Indian, an unparalleled teacher and a true visionary, Dr Kalam has inspired millions worldwide to dream, and to achieve. In bringing you this small story of his last degree, we hope you have relived this special moment in his life with us and that we can all continue to draw inspiration and make Dr Kalam’s visions for India a reality” is the message from NISU UK President Sanam Arora.