Colombo Telegraph

APJ Abdul Kalam: Campaigner For Human Empowerment To The End

By W.A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

A man who wanted his fellow citizens to work an extra-day

APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India, scientist with a heart, campaigner for youth empowerment through knowledge and fighter against poverty, is no more. At the age of 84, he collapsed to his death while delivering a lecture to students at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong. Just before proceeding to Shillong, he is said to have tweeted in full spirit that he was going to talk on a liveable planet to students there.

Being a man practising hard work, workaholism and achievement with religious fervour, he knew what to do to elevate a poor nation to prosperity. That is, by working more and not less. Hence, he is reported to have said before his death: “Don’t declare a holiday on my death. Instead, work an extra day, if you love me.”

Target the youth and the poor

Kalam conquered the world, giving himself over to hard work, dedication and ambition. Having been born to a poor Tamil Muslim family in Tamil Nadu, he had to work as a child to support his parents. Then, luck came in his way through a benefactor who supported him to study for a college degree.

It enabled him to complete a degree in Physics at St. Joseph’s College affiliated to the University of Madras.

He is said to have expressed his unhappiness about learning there calling it a waste of time. He then got a scholarship to do a degree in Aerospace Science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. This is the learning that paved way for him to achieve everything that he did in his later life. He led the team of scientists which propelled India into the missile age by developing India’s home-produced Missile ‘Agni’.

He became the 11th President of India. After retirement, he chose to be a campaigner for raising the status of Indians. He commenced his campaign by targeting the youth – the future – and the poor – the untapped prosperity at the bottom of the pyramid.

Advocating for sustainable prosperity

Kalam’s philosophy is documented in two books he has published. In ‘Ignited Minds’, published in 2002, Kalam has given his recipe for unleashing the power within India. In a later book co-authored with Srijan Pal Singh in 2011 under the title ‘Target 3 Billion’, Kalam described how the rural poor throughout the world be empowered in a project called Providing Urban-amenities in Rural Areas or PURA.

The aim was to uplift the poor not through subsidies but through entrepreneurship with community participation. Thus, PURA was a project to be tried out globally by amalgamating a number of key contributors to sustainable prosperity. They are the technology, people, traditions, skills and entrepreneurial spirit. According to the objectives of PURA, the societies so developed will be financially viable (no need for outside support and protection), socially equitable (everyone will get fair opportunities) and eco-friendly (no damage to environment).

Child is the first scientist because he asks all kinds of questions

Kalam went on a mission to meet the young students of India. His objective was to interact with them face to face. By meeting them, he sought to understand their problems and assess their intellectuality. Ignited Minds explains the questions they posed and how it was difficult for him to give correct answers to some of them.

He was baffled when a student asked the question: “Who was the first scientist?” It would be difficult to answer that question by going back to history. Whoever the scientist named, it was bound to be disputed later with better evidence. It was like a riddle posed to him by a young mind. The question challenged him to think hard, says Kalam. Then, he says he realised that it was the foundation of science that he was questioning. Who is the person who starts life with plenty of questions? The answer came to his lips automatically, ‘The child’.

Children are the very first scientists because they question everything. If anyone wants to make scientists out of young people, he should allow them to question everything. The sad irony is that questions raised by children are encouraged and tolerated. But when the very same children raise questions as young adults, they are suppressed, killing the scientist in them instantly. Kalam wanted to reawaken that scientist – a person who makes choices based on evidence and not on hearsay – hidden in them.

Poverty is our enemy

In a school in Gujarat, a boy posed a very smart question to Kalam. He asked: “Who is our enemy?” The answer in popular belief was a country or a nation such as Pakistan, USA or even Sri Lanka. But there can be a completely different approach to this question forcing one to think ‘out of the box’.

That was also a difficult question because any answer given could be disputed. Kalam put the question to the house to test the brains of the students.

A solution coming from many brains will always be better than one designed in a single mind. ‘Poverty’ came the answer after some consultation among students amazing Kalam. That meant that the enemy was within India itself. When a large number of people – 450 million in India and nearly three billion in the whole globe – were living in deprivation, why should one think of an enemy out? Fight out the enemy within first before thinking of an enemy out. The young brains in Gujarat have taught a valuable lesson to adults. That includes voters in Sri Lanka today. They are being bombarded with suggestions of unseen enemies by those who seek their consent to rule them in the future. But the real enemy is among Sri Lankans themselves and not in USA, India or China.

Don’t sacrifice everything for spirituality but take it as the guide

Kalam’s best advice to young people was as to how one should draw a line between spirituality and materialist living. The popular belief is that these two goals of living are in conflict with each other. The belief says that if one pursues a spiritual life, one should necessarily give up craving for material pleasures. In the opposite, if one is given to materialism, one does not have spiritualism altogether. Says Kalam in Ignited Minds: “I do not think that abundance and spirituality are mutually exclusive or it is wrong to desire material things. For instance, while I cherish a life with minimum of possessions, I admire abundance for it brings along with it security and confidence, and these eventually help preserve our freedom.

“Nature too does not do anything by half measures, as you will see if you look around you. Go to a garden. In season, there is a profusion of flowers. Or look up. The universe stretches into infinitude, vast beyond belief.”

Kalam argues that all people, species and things are a part of a cosmic energy where spirit and matter are perfectly in harmony. Hence, it is wrong to feel that to desire material things is non-spiritual or shameful. But, of course, says Kalam, following a life of asceticism has its own benefits. Yet, it should be based on one’s own choice and not on being imposed by outsiders who have taken the liberty of choosing on behalf of others. In this sense, Kalam is like a libertarian economist who maintains that people should keep the right to choose with themselves.

Self-realisation should be the objective

But is Kalam anti-spiritualistic? No. This is his advice to the youth and planners of education in Ignited Minds: “Spirituality must be integrated with education. Self-realisation is the focus. Each one of us must become aware of our higher self. We are links of a great past to a grand future. We should ignite our dormant inner energy and let it guide our lives. The radiance of such minds embarked on constructive endeavour will bring peace, prosperity and bliss to this nation.”

What Kalam says is compatible with what economists say about the ultimate goal of development, namely, creating opportunities for everyone to attain self-perfection. Economic growth that expands the availability of material goods and services is only a vehicle to reach that final goal. Kalam’s advice to the youth is that one should keep in mind the needs of the day in material form to plan for the final attainment in the future.

Sorry, Agni is not to attack any other nation unprovoked

In another school, students were jubilant, as were all other fellow Indians, over India’s production of an advanced missile system under Kalam’s leadership. A student who could not hide his joy, asked Kalam whether his Agni missile was capable of reaching the US. The implication was that, if the answer were in the affirmative, India could bring USA to its knees.

Kalam says that he was “startled by this thought.” He has very carefully phrased his answer and told the students of the true purpose of developing Agni missile system: “For us, no country is our enemy to send Agni there. Particularly, America is our friend. Agni symbolises our strength. It shows that India has all the capabilities.”

This answer reinforces Kalam’s stand that education should be connected to spirituality. The question raised by the student is a demonstration of how young minds have been corrupted by all those in society: teachers, politicians, media, religious leaders and so on. This is happening unabated throughout the globe. One has to listen to a politician campaigning at the ongoing election in Sri Lanka today to get the proof. Scientists who have spirituality in their hearts produce things for the benefit of society. Yet, politicians with their ulterior motives misuse those inventions to serve their personal interests and corrupt the young minds to create suitable grounds for attaining their targets.

Patriotism is beyond politics and religion

Is Kalam a patriot? Not in the sense patriotism is defined today in terms of politics or religion. In politics, patriotism is the unreserved faith and allegiance to a political dogma being propagated by a political party.

In religion, it is the advocacy of one’s religion to the exclusion of all other faiths. Anyone who is critical of that dogma or chooses to follow a different faith is quickly branded as unpatriotic. If one follows that dogma or practices that religion, he is considered one belonging to that group and worshipped as a hero. All his weaknesses are readily overlooked. An example is that if Bill Clinton of USA keeps a Buddha’s statue in his room, he is considered a hero by Sri Lanka’s Buddhists. George Bush who does not is condemned as a person unworthy.

This type of narrowly defined extreme forms of patriotism has been there in India even in the past. In third century BCE, Emperor Asoka was prompted to issue an edict announcing that one who insults other religions by praising his own does more harm to his religion than doing good for it. This is especially important in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society like India or Sri Lanka. If all other ethnic groups or religions are ridiculed, there is no nation but different societal segments ready to fight with each other at the very first excuse.

In Ignited Minds, Kalam has the following advice to the young and through the young,to adults as well: “There are success stories among failures. There is hope among chaos, promise among problems. We are one billion people with multiple faiths and ideologies. In the absence of a national vision, cracks at the seam keep surfacing and make us vulnerable. There is a need to reinforce this seam and amalgamate us into one national forum”. Perhaps, Kalam has given this piece of advice not to the youth of India, but to all those in Sri Lanka.

Knowledge is the power

Kalam has fully understood that key to develop a nation into a respected power is the acquisition of knowledge. In Ignited Minds, he has quoted a quotation from the ancient Tamil treatise Thirukkural for use by the youth of India today. That quotation is equally valid for the youth of Sri Lanka as well.

Thirukkural says: “Knowledge is a weapon to ward off destruction. It is an inner fortress which enemies cannot destroy”. Knowledge is to be acquired, according to Kalam, through education, information, intelligence and experience. Thus, a nation should concentrate on all the four areas of knowledge building and not only on education. In terms of economics, it is ‘education plus’ that encompasses teaching, training, learning, research, development and marketing. In this sense, the recently introduced Google Loon Project in Sri Lanka will create the needed ground conditions for ‘education plus’ to take place.

According to Kalam, knowledge has always been the prime mover of prosperity and power. Hence, the thrust throughout the world has been to acquire knowledge. India’s culture, says Kalam, has been not only to develop knowledge but also to share it with others, including those in other countries.

According to him, a nation is judged whether it is a knowledge society by two factors: how effectively it has created knowledge and how forcefully it has deployed knowledge.

In Kalam’s 2020 Vision Plan for India, knowledge has been identified as the prime requisite to make India a prosperous nation. Of the fivefold strategies recommended, three are directly related to knowledge: education, information and communication technology and the development or acquisition of critical technologies.

Our allegiance should be to ‘mankind’ and not to races or religions

Abdul Kalam had an extraordinary vision. That was to elevate India to a great power by building the nation called ‘Indians’. In that nation, there are no differences among faiths, races, ethnic groups or languages. They are all converged to a single group of people called ‘mankind’.

To realise this vision, he had one strategy. That was to reach out to the youth and give them wisdom. That was because today’s youth would be tomorrow’s adults. Those adults in turn will pass that wisdom on to their children. Thus, his vision is to be realised not immediately but over a number of generations. Those who crave for instant products may not value his efforts. But what he did was to lay the foundation today. That foundation, as he boldly declared, would bring a better tomorrow.

Youth want changes but they are like dynamite ready for ignition

He travelled the length and breadth of India to meet students, interact with them and understand their brains. Youth in any society want changes to the existing system. Hence, they are easy prey for crafty politicians, extreme religious leaders and pseudo nationalists. They are like dynamite and could be ignited easily destroying themselves as well as those around them.

Sri Lanka had had, to its grave costs, three such ignitions within four decades. It is still not free from a repeat performance in the near future. It, therefore, underscores the need for a Kalam here in Sri Lanka.

Kalam told the youth in India as well as those elsewhere that they could have a dream for themselves. If they work hard for that dream, they could succeed. That success is the key to building a great nation. That was the essential message of Ignited Minds. He even died while delivering the youth that message. That is the unique greatness of the man we lost last week.

*W. A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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