Catholics in India mourn Abdul Kalam, the much-loved 'people's president'

APJ Abdul Kalam, the former Indian president who died July 27, speaks at Tulane University Oct. 26, 2009. Credit: Tulane Public Relations via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
APJ Abdul Kalam, the former Indian president who died July 27, speaks at Tulane University Oct. 26, 2009. Credit: Tulane Public Relations via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

.- Catholics in India have joined their confreres in paying tribute to and praying for APJ Abdul Kalam, who served as the nation's president from 2002 to 2007 and was beloved by Indians across religious and cultural divides.

Kalam died July 27 of cardiac arrest, collapsing while addressing university students in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state in India's northeast.

“All the Catholic youth and the entire Catholic community is in solidarity with the nation in mourning the death of a great son of India who was a statesman, a scientist, a visionary and a great motivator,” Bishop Henry D’Souza of Bellary told CNA July 28.

“There is a somber mood in the country due to the passing away of Bharat Ratna Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, who endeared himself to all sections of people.”

The Catholic prelate recounted his having met Kalam on several occasions, and added that “he had a great appeal to children and youth – he aimed to 'ignite young minds'. He fired their imagination.”

Bishop D’Souza also noted that Kalam completed his college education at a Catholic college, and often mentioned of the influence of Father T. N. Sequeira on his life.

Kalam took great pride in recounting anecdotes of his alma mater, St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli,  and his gratitude to the principal priest for mentoring him with moral science education which pushed his “urge to strive to foster a value-based society and world.”

“He made a deep impression on people, especially the youth of India,” Bishop D’Souza reflected. “His friendly ways and congenial life style will continue to be a legacy to be followed and imitated – may his soul rest in peace!”

Kalam was born in 1931 into a poor Muslim family in Tamil Nadu, in India's extreme southeast. He started working at a young age to help support his family, and went on to study physics at a Catholic college, and then aerospace engineering at at Madras Institute of Technology.

He had a lengthy career in rocket science, becoming head of India's civilian space and missile defense programs.

In 2002 he won India's presidential election, with the backing of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress, the opposition party. While the Indian president is head of state, it is largely a ceremonial role, and the prime minister is the acting head of government. Kalam, however, used his position to reach out to Indians, especially the youth, about the importance of new energy sources, and internet access for rural populations.

“Dr. Kalam was such a great person, and I am glad I was able to see him at close quarters. May his soul rest in peace,” Bishop Thomas Dabre of Poona told CNA July 28.

Bishop Dabre recounted that he had the privilege to encounter Kalam a few times, both in Delhi and Surat, and also discussed the keen interest of the scientist-president in the issues of peace and progress in society.

“Some of us representing various religious communities in India founded an association of various religions for the promotion of peace, unity, and harmony,” the bishop said. “And Dr. Kalam was the patron. Dr. Kalam personally guided the proceedings at a meeting in Surat, when we of various religions signed the Surat Declaration for peace and development.”

Bishop Dabre added that “on another occasion, we discussed the problem of communal riots and the responsibility of religious leaders for healing the situation. Dr. Kalam listened to us intently and offered his perceptive suggestions.”

Bishop George Palliparambil of Miao told CNA that “Abdul Kalam will be remembered forever as a great scientist, the missile man of India, the 11th president, and so on … but as I see him, he will forever be an icon for the youth of India, a trend setter, as well as a model for every Indian – his demise is a great loss to the country.”

“He was not a product of political patronage, but a true patriot,” Bishop Palliparambil added. “Despite the many billionaires and 'successful' men and women, there are hardly any role models we can present to the youth – Dr. Kalam stands out as a very modern role model, and his words are always inspiring.”

The bishop said that “the first thing about him was that he was truly an Indian – he was not a Tamilian, not a Muslim, nor any of those restricted groups – he was an Indian through and through. He spoke of India, especially of a future where the youth of India will play a role.”

“We hear a lot of political jargons and slogans these days,” Bishop Palliparambil said. “Dr. Kalam did not indulge in any of those and he used plain words that sprung from the heart of an Indian, who grew to the greatest heights in India through hard work and unstinted perseverance.”

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