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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

An explosion fulfills part of a dream


Go to main story

Fallout: Tokyo and Washington vow sanctions against New Delhi

Wannabe: Is India now a nuclear power?

SHORTLY AFTER PAKISTAN SUCCESSFULLY fired the Ghauri medium-range missile last month, some reporters sought a reaction from Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam. "There is no reason to worry," he replied. "Our defense preparedness is not so flimsy as to make us anxious about Pakistan developing a single missile." India, he added, could produce any number of nuclear weapons if the need arose.

He should know. If India decides to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads, Kalam will almost surely be the man entrusted with the job. As director of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), he has led efforts to build an assortment of guided missiles over the past 15 years. It was under his supervision that the recent bomb tests were conducted. Three hours before the first test, Kalam's "boys" test-fired the Trishul, one of five known missiles in India's arsenal.

The architect of India's missile program, Kalam was born to a poor Muslim family in the southern Tamil Nadu state. To pay for his school fees, his father is said to have built a boat, which he rented to fishermen. Another story has it that Kalam would help his brother sell paan, the betel leaf-based delicacy savored throughout India. After finishing school, Kalam joined the Madras Institute of Technology, where he first became interested in weapons. One of his first projects involved designing low-level attack aircraft - an assignment that he still considers the most valuable in his scientific career so far.

In 1963, after a five-year stint at the super-secret DRDO, Kalam joined the Indian Space Research Organization, where he led efforts to design and develop India's first indigenous satellite launch vehicle. The first launch was a failure. But Kalam didn't give up. In 1980, he led the team that successfully launched a satellite. Kalam's big break came when he became director of DRDO in 1982. He conceived the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, an ambitious and indigenous project that skeptics initially dubbed "Kalamity." At the same time, he harnessed missile technology for wide-ranging medical research, including the development of light-weight calipers for polio victims.

Kalam is a product of an Indian education. Except for a four-month visit to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he has never received any formal training overseas. A bachelor throughout his 67 years, he is a private man with a love for poetry and the veena, a musical stringed instrument. He lives in a two-room government apartment in Delhi, shunning the plush bungalows to which he is entitled.

It has long been Kalam's goal to make India a missile superpower by 2000. "Strength recognizes and respects strength," he said last year shortly after being awarded the Bharat Ratna (India's Gem), the nation's highest civilian award. "For India technology is strength." Even if it's used to make bombs.

- By Ajay Singh


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