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October 13, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/Dr A P J Abdul Kalam

'Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength'

As a devout Muslim, he prays twice a day. But he is also a Ram bhakt, plays the veena, loves the shri raga, writes poetry in Tamil and, like every proud Indian, swears by Pokhran II and self sufficiency in science and technology. At 67, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, is not just another Dr Strangelove having a torrid affair with the bomb. He is clever, sensitive, amazingly creative and, above all, a soft spoken patriot. India's answer to Western technological arrogance. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Pritish Nandy.

What is your vision of India in the next millennium?

I have three. Three visions for India. But before that I speak about them, I have one question to ask of you, Mr Nandy. Can you tell me why, in 3000 years of our history, people from all over the world have come and invaded us, captured our land, conquered our minds? From Alexander onwards. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Dutch, all of them came and looted us, took over what was ours. Yet we have not done this to any other nation. We have not invaded anyone. We have not conquered anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, their history and tried to enforce our way of life on them. Why?

Because, I guess, we respected the freedom of others.

Absolutely right. That is why my first vision is that of freedom. I believe that India got its first vision of this in 1857, when we started the war of Independence. It is this freedom that we must protect and nurture and build upon. If we are not free, no one will respect us.

My second vision for India is development. For fifty years we have been a developing nation. It is time we saw ourselves as a developed nation. We are among the top five nations of the world in terms of GDP. We have a 10 per cent growth rate in most areas. Our poverty levels are falling. Our achievements are being globally recognised today. Yet we lack the self confidence to see ourselves as a developed nation, self reliant and self assured. Tell me, Sir, is this right? Read the last chapter of my book, India 2020, A Vision for the Next Millennium and you will get what I mean.

I have a third vision. That India must stand up to the world. I have written 12 chapters on that. Because I believe that unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength. We must be strong not only as a military power but also as an economic power. Both must go hand in hand.

These are visions. What about the reality? What do you see as the most significant achievements of your rather distinguished career culminating in a Bharat Ratna in your lifetime?

My good fortune was to have worked with three great minds. Dr Vikram Sarabhai of the department of space. Professor Satish Dhawan, who succeeded him. And Dr Brahm Prakash, father of nuclear material. I was lucky to have worked with all three of them closely and consider this the greatest opportunity of my life.

I see four milestones in my career. One: The twenty years I spent in Indian Space Research Organisation. I was given the opportunity to be the project director for India's first satellite launch vehicle, SLV3. The one that launched Rohini. These years played a very important role in my life as a scientist. Two: After my ISRO years, I joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation and got a chance to be part of India's guided missile programme. It was, you could call, my second bliss when Agni met its mission requirements in 1994.

Three: The department of atomic energy and the DRDO had this tremendous partnership in the recent nuclear tests, on May 11 and 13. This was my third bliss. The joy of participating with my team in these nuclear tests and proving to the world that India can make it. That we are no longer a developing nation but one among them. It made me feel very proud as an Indian.

And, finally, four: The fact that we have now developed for Agni a re-entry structure, for which we have developed this new material. A very light material called carbon-carbon.

One day an orthopaedic surgeon from the Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences (in Hyderabad) visited my laboratory. He lifted the material and found it so light that he took me to his hospital and showed me his patients. There were these little girls and boys with heavy metallic callipers weighing over 3 kg each, dragging their feet around. He said to me: Please remove the pain of my patients. In three weeks, we made these Floor Reaction Orthosis 300 gram callipers and took them to the orthopaedic centre. The children could not believe their eyes! From dragging around a 3 kg load on their legs, they could now move around freely with these 300 gram callipers. They began running around! Their parents had tears in their eyes. That was my fourth bliss.

Apart from science and technology, what else interests you?

Poetry and music. I have this big library at home and my favourite poets are Milton, Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore. I write poetry too. My book of poems, Yenudaya Prayana, has now been translated into English. It is called My Journey. You must read it. I will send you a copy.

Who are your favourite poets in Tamil, the language you write in?

Bharatidasana, who died in 1965. And Subramaniya Bharathiar, who died in 1939 at the age of 35, killed by an elephant while giving it a coconut. I also enjoy Carnatic music and play the veena.

What is your favourite raga?

The shri raga. You know my favourite kirtan? It is the one that Swami Thyagaraja, a Ram bhakt like me, recited in the shri raga when he was called by this powerful Tanjore king to sing a poem in his sabha. He sang: "In this gathering whoever are great in front of God, I salute them." He never said: I salute the king. That is strength of conviction. That is courage.

You have asked me so many questions, Mr Nandy, may I ask you two?

By all means.

Tell me, why is the media here so negative? Why are we in India so embarrassed to recognise our own strengths, our achievements? We are such a great nation. We have so many amazing success stories but we refuse to acknowledge them. Why? We are the second largest producer of wheat in the world. We are the second largest producer of rice. We are the first in milk production. We are number one in remote sensing satellites. Look at Dr Sudarshan. He has transformed the tribal village into a self sustaining, self driving unit. There are millions of such achievements but our media is only obsessed with bad news and failures and disasters.

I was in Tel Aviv once and I was reading this Israeli newspaper. It was the day after a lot of attacks and bombardments and deaths had taken place. The Hamas had struck. But the front page of the newspaper had this picture of a Jewish gentleman who in five years had transformed his desert land into an orchard and a granary. It was this inspiring picture that everyone woke up to. The gory details of killings, bombardments, deaths, were inside the newspaper, buried among other news.

In India we only read about death, sickness, terrorism, crime. Why are we so negative?

I guess we grew up with the maxim that good news is no news. The right to publish bad news has become synonymous with freedom. That is why our press is so strong, so fiercely independent -- if not always encouraging of success stories.

Another question: Why are we, as a nation so obsessed with foreign things? Is it a legacy of our colonial years? We want foreign television sets. We want foreign shirts. We want foreign technology. Why this obsession with everything imported? Do we not realise that self respect comes with self reliance?

I guess that comes from repression. When you lock in your economy for years and leave it in the hands of local pirates and cheating banias, you are bound to get a backlash. Foreign things have indeed come in but they have also brought down prices, taught us quality, stopped us from cheating consumers with shoddy, overpriced local products. Like in cars, consumer electronics, fabrics, processed foods. Nationalism for too long has been a convenient cover for looting. Let us not forget that. But yes, I agree with you, it is time we started giving value to ourselves as a people, as a nation.

I was in Hyderabad giving this lecture, when a 14-year-old girl came up and asked me for my autograph. I asked her what her goal in life was. She replied: I want to live in a developed India. For her, you and I will have to build this developed India. You must proclaim this through your writings, through your speeches in Parliament.

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