Like any public figure of his standing, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had many facets and interests. But it was his achievements as a scientist and a manager of technological projects that earned him respect and popularity. That his memorial in Rameswaram has become mired in the faultlines and tokenism of identity politics does a great disservice to the legacy of the “people’s president”. Hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Kalam’s memorial on July 27, copies of the Quran and Bible appeared alongside an engraved copy of the Gita next to the former president’s statue. The holy books were placed there by members of Kalam’s family after certain groups questioned the placement of the Gita. A complaint has also been filed by a Hindutva activist claiming the two books were placed without permission.
Kalam was himself a prolific writer. In India 2020 and Ignited Minds, he laid out a roadmap for the country’s development. Both in and out of office, he constantly spoke to and about children and the need for their education, and the importance of science and rationality in that regard. In his pre-political avatar, Kalam had been an important part of India’s space programme, in the development of missile systems and the nuclear weapons programme. He has, through his work and words, arguably done more to popularise science for an entire generation than any other public figure in recent memory.
In a deeply diverse society, where politics and social identity often become inseparable, Kalam’s wide appeal was all the more remarkable because it did not rely on his identity, whether ascriptive or ascribed. That a man from a humble background could become one of the country’s foremost scientists and then hold the highest constitutional office is what made him an inspiring figure. The memorial, apart from a statue of Kalam with a veena on his lap, and the engraved Gita, contains models and photographs of his many achievements as a scientist and administrator. For those who admired him, and for the young people he wished to inspire, that should be the aspect of the people’s president that ought to be celebrated.