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India’s nuclear father becomes nation’s leader

Avul Pakir Janiulabuddin Abdul Kalam, the 70-year-old Indian scientist, is to India’s bomb and Agni missile what Dr. Frankenstein was to the renowned monster. NBC’s Robert Windrem reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Avul Pakir Janiulabuddin Abdul Kalam, the 70-year-old Indian scientist, is to India’s bomb and Agni missile what A. Q. Khan is to Pakistan’s bomb and Ghauri missile and what Dr. Frankenstein was to the renowned monster.

IT WAS Abdul Kalam who conceived the missile and managed the bomb program many years before. It was he who had in effect assembled the thing and breathed life into it. And it was he would fully understand their purpose.

“Its gives us the confidence that we are capable of designing any kind of missile,” he said on the occasion of the first successful Agni launch in 1989 and “We must think and act like a nation of a billion people, and not like a million people...Dream! dream! dream!” he said just after the nuclear tests in 1998.

One measure of his messages resonate with the Indian public came in 1998, just before India tested its nuclear weapons. An Indian newspaper asked the public to choose the 20 most influential Indians of the nation’s first 50 years. At the top, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. At No. 20 was Abdul Kalam...and that was before the test.

He was the scientific advisor to the Defense Minister, George Fernandes, but he was—and is—much more. After all, he was invited to join the cabinet of Prime Minister Atal Bahari Vajpayee, although he declined. But more telling, it was he, not Fernandes, who Vajpayee told to “induct” nuclear weapons into India’s defense arsenal. That order was given on April 8, 1998. According to reports in the Indian press, Vajpayee didn’t tell Fernandes about the test until May 9, two days before it took place.

Abdul Kalam not only led the effort to successfully test the weapons, but he also embarrassed western intelligence that did not know of the test until after it was announced on India television. It was, in the words of one senior U.S. intelligence official “a master stroke of denial and deception.”


Described as ascetic and shaggy-haired, Abdul Kalam is seen in India not just as national hero, but as the idealized Indian — poet, scientist, historian, patriot, bureaucrat. Much has been written about one line of poetry in which he seems ambivalent about his role in the development of India’s missiles.

In “Tumult,” he wrote, “Did I explore space to enhance science or did I provide weapons of destruction?” Another poem, to celebrate the firing of the Agni, leaves little doubt about his core belief in a mature, powerful India: “Dreams float on an impatient wind; A wind that wants to create a new order, An order of strength and thundering of fire.”

InsertArt(1519368)His poetry can extend even to policy statements, as it did the day of the Agni launch: “Strength respects strength. Weaklings are not honored.”

The Agni in fact was Abdul Kalam’s entry onto the world stage. That night, on Indian television, he could be seen screaming and shouting with his colleagues as the rocket rose into the skies above Balasore. He would not acknowledge the nuclear potential of his creation back then: “It can also carry flowers to offer as a symbol of peace.”

The remark was reminiscent of Gandhi, the great pacifist. No one — certainly no one who spoke Hindi — would have been taken in by Abdul Kalam’s allusion to flowers. Agni does not mean chrysanthemum. It means fire.

But even before that, the scientist had achieved great success in rocketry, putting India on the world’s space map. He was project manager for the Indian SLV-3 rocket launch that culminated into putting India’s first satellite, the Rohini, into orbit in 1980. It was advertised as an ingenious success and Abdul Kalam has said “I am completely ingenious!”

Indeed, he is. But not all of his creations have been.

The son of a fisherman, Abdul Kalam is self-made. Born, like Khan, when all of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were still British India, Abdul Kalam is a Muslim.

His father made money by renting his boat to fisherman who plied the waters between the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. By one account, he first felt the sting of anti-Muslim prejudice when he was placed in the back of the class.

A friend, who was from India’s Brahmin cast, was horrified and helped him get his first opportunity. The boy’s father paid his way through a Roman Catholic high school and then St. Joseph’s College and the Madras Institute of Technology.

While still a devout Muslim, Abdul Kalam steeped himself in Indian history and culture, reading the great Hindi and Tamal poets and ultimately writing verse in both of those languages as well as English.

So brilliant was he that during a U.S. attempt to woo India away from the Soviet Union, he was invited to spend three months at NASA’s Langley Space Flight Center and Wallops Island test range in Virginia. It was here he learned about rocketry and also more importantly, systems integration, the West’s great true technological strength.


Whatever Abdul Kalam’s level of self-sufficiency in the art of missile development, Agni and the series of lesser rockets that preceded it derived from foreign designs and technology. Agni’s earliest ancestor was designed at Langley and flown out of Wallops Island. Its name was the Scout. Kalam knew a great deal about Scout because he had studied its plans, seen it put together, and watched it fly.

Scout had been designed toward the end of the 1950’s as a low-cost way of getting small research satellites into orbit. The four-state, solid propellant rocket was first launched in 1960. Three years later, India invited the United States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union to help it start an ostensibly civilian space program.

All four responded enthusiastically. Between 1963 and 1975, more than 350 of those nations’ scientific rockets blasted off from the new Thumba test range, which the United States helped design. Abdul Kalam was part of the program. He spent four months in 1963 and 1964 at both Langley and Wallops Island, becoming intimately acquainted with the Scout. It did not seem to dawn on U.S. officials that the year before he and other Indians arrived in Virginia to study rocketry, India had suffered at the hands of the Chinese Army, backed, everyone in New Delhi knew, by a nuclear arsenal, still small but an arsenal nonetheless.

Abdul Kalam then worked for the Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO, which was placed under India’s Atomic Energy Commission, headed by none other than Homi Bhabha, who was feverishly working on an atomic bomb at the time.

One of Abdul Kalam’s biographers and proteges, Anand Parthasarathy, said of the young scientist: “Kalam was something of a curiosity at Thumba. A bachelor, his spartan lifestyle as a vegetarian and teetotaler who lived in a single room in a lodge, earned him the nickname Kalam Iyer [Iyer means earth].”

In 1965, Abdul Kalam and Bhabha conceived of a plan to acquire the Scout. India asked NASA for financial and technical information about acquiring the Scout. NASA answered back that while the rocket was unclassified owing to the purely scientific nature of its work, and was therefore available for purchase, the Department of State would have the final say-so.

InsertArt(1519371)NASA, nonetheless, proceeded to send technical reports on Scout’s design to Bhabha in his role as head of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. The United States ultimately said no to the Indians, but under Abdul Kalam’s exhaustive efforts, Scout became Space Launch Vehicle-3, India’s first space launch vehicle.

Both rockets are 75 feet high, both use four solid-fuel stages and both can put a 90-pound satellite into orbit. And most important of all, the SLV-3’s first stage and Agni’s are virtually identical.

Abdul Kalam did the same thing with France, which provided the Viking rocket motor, a variant of which is now in the Prithvi missile; the Soviet Union, which launched India’s satellites and provided tutorials to Kalam’s scientists; and Germany, which taught the Indians how to perform high-altitude rocket simulation tests, helped construct rocket tests facilities, arranged delivery of electronics and other equipment from German firms, conducted wind tunnel tests in Germany of the SLV-3, sold rocket motor segment rings, co-developed and tested computers for rocket payload guidance, provided software for satellite orbital analysis, and even provided extensive help with carbon composites. Voila! Kalam had his infrastructure.

Abdul Kalam knew what he was doing, melding India’s homegrown talent with the West’s technology and equipment. By 1983, with the space program literally soaring, he changed jobs...sort of. He was appointed head of India’s Integrated Guided Missile program.

It was a short leap forward and within a few years, he was producing missiles based on what he and his men had learned in the space program, missiles with poetic names: Prithvi, Hindi for earth; Akash, Hindi for sky; Nag, Hindi for cobra; and of course, Agni, or fire. More importantly, he got the Indian government to build a futuristic missile development center.

Indeed, Abdul Kalam had developed an entire fleet of missiles under the west’s nose and knew exactly what he was doing. And if the west imposed sanctions, he was ready: “If there are restrictions, we must beat the system. We anticipated this problem and taken a consortium approach toward critical components. An industry, a lab, and an academic institution were identified for a particular problem, and we generated indigenous bases in various critical areas. If embargoes come in a particular area, we will activate the relevant groups.”

Summing up was pure Abdul Kalam: “They cannot throttle us.”

That organizational genius led to his appointment in 1990 as head of the nuclear program, one that the US saw as the world’s most secretive. Abdul Kalam had his work cut out for him. India, after testing in 1974, had built and then dismantled its bombs. There was the need for new designs, new weapons.

His schedule was rigorous. He devoted the first half-hour of the day to a “morning meeting” to meet with administrative heads on routine issue. The rest of the day was devoted to hands-on interaction with project teams. And he was not only in charge of nuclear weapons. There was the problematic Light Combat Aircraft, the Main Battle Tank. It is said he is happiest when he is with his design teams. But he has a temper as well. Indians who have worked for him and have not met his tight schedules call it “calamitous”.

With the success of the nuclear tests, Abdul Kamal may be able to spend more time reading poetry. It is said he knows all the lines of Hindu poet Bhagavad-Gita, including the most famous one, the one quoted by Robert Oppenheimer, father of the American bomb on the occasion of his first nuclear test: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC.