My sense of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as an iconic Supreme Commander of India’s Armed Forces hinges simply on the fact that he garnered time from his routine to especially visit Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, while he lay ailing and nearing his demise, in the Military Hospital at Wellington. And this was not an isolated act of innate courtesy due to the Service Chiefs from their Supreme Commander because a few years later, he displayed similar resolve during an “At Home” at the Rashtrapati Bhavan when he spotted that The Marshal of The Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, PVSM, DFC had been seated in the second row of invitees. The President broke with the ongoing protocol, walked up to the MOIAF and showed him to a chair in the front row!
At the personal level, I had a memorable tryst with India’s “Missile Man” in my office at HQ Eastern Command, Calcutta in 1991. The Army HQ had made a special budgetary allocation to expose officers on current issues of concern through “guest speakers”. So I wrote to Dr Kalam if he would share with us the status of the Integrated Missile Project and his vision for the future. He accepted the invitation promptly and following Services protocol, he was received by a staff officer and guided to my office. I had not understood at all the personal life-style simplicity of this man till I shook hands. Of course, he was dressed in his trade mark open-collar shirt worn over his modest trousers and his feet shod in strapless, flat leather Chappals but the moment I showed him to a sofachair, he immediately slipped his feet out of chappals and sat down crosslegged, folding his legs at the knees upon the sofa-seat! Totally un-self conscious of his posture, he launched in to the history of his project-in-hand. In time, he accepted the offer for a cup of coffee and in between utterances he would transfer some coffee from the cup to the saucer and slurp it, nonchalantly!
His talk to the officers assembled in the auditorium was brilliant for its content and a “teacher” that he was he made extensive use of chalk-n-board to write equations and draw diagrams of trajectories and so on to convey his message in common parlance, to perfection. To my enquiry as to how much lead in time we had over Pakistan in this sphere, his prompt and confident reply was “at least four years”. He was applauded and even mobbed by officers as he had no doubt charmed them all by his honesty of commitment, to what he believed in.
We hosted him to a formal lunch in the Command Officers Mess. Although we had correctly imagined that he would prefer boiled rice, Sambhar-n- Rasam but beyond that we had simply not guessed his “native” eating ways. Once again, Dr Kalam adopted the same sitting posture as in my office and taking his seat on my right, he took a good helping of Rice-n-Sambhar, lifted all cutlery from around his dinner plate, neatly piled it aside and with complete concentration and in total silence took his meal using his fingers! The moment he finished his serving on the platter, he simply got up and walked to the wash room to cleanse his hands! We were all aghast by this definitely the first of its kind in lunch eating performance, in the history of an army officer’s mess but at the same time humbled by the deepset personal living convictions of a self effacing, great man of our times.
My sense of Dr Kalam as the “People’s President” is derived from the fact that he was empathetic to the efforts of other Indians striving for the greater, common good. India is the home to the tallest flying bird in the world, that is the Sarus crane, but as with all other species, Sarus too is pushed towards extinction by rampaging “development”. In 2002, its last and the most viable breeding ground in the Ettawa-Mainpuri region was chosen by the local politicians to site an airport, posing a threat to the long term survival of this crane species. When all efforts to save the Sarus habitat failed, I wrote to the President soliciting his intervention and within days (27 August, 2002) I received his reply:
“Dear Gen Baljit Singh, I am indeed delighted to receive your letter. I have noted your concern for the vanishing Sarus Crane. I am having the matter looked into. With greetings and best wishes, Yours sincerely, (signed) A P J Abdul Kalam.”
Thankfully, the project was disallowed in good time! But I was to know how deeply a compassionate human being The President of India was late in the evening of 03 June, 2004 when a young surgeon from the Remount and Veterinary Corps called to give me the news of a two and a half hour long surgery he had performed a short while earlier. And the story which FOND REMEMBRANCES OF AN ICONIC SUPREME COMMANDER Lt Gen Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM 26-27- Baljit_14_19_ BEING A FLY GIRL.qxd 5/22/2016 11:31 AM Page 1 emerged from the Rashtrapati Bhavan does proud to the legacy of Emperor Asoka, unarguably India’s first Head of State whose writ ran over the entire Sub-Continent, back in 03 BCE. Among the “Edicts” handed down to us by that Emperor through etchings on prominent rock-faces in 247 BCE, “through Rock Edict I, Asoka forbids animal sacrifices…..” and in so doing he had embodied the care of wildlife as an instrument of state policy. Notwithstanding Ashoka’s intent, as a people this injunction has regrettably remained the least of our concerns. So when an incumbent of the Rashtrapati Bhavan today (in a sense the elected successor of Asoka) reaches out to an animal in distress moved by impulses of compassion, it is surely an occasion for celebration.
Now on 02 June 2004, out on his morning walk in the Mughal Gardens, President APJ Kalam found one adult Peacock crouched and inert by the side of a bush while hundreds of others on the estate were active with the dawn chorus. Observing carefully, he noticed a big lump wedged between the mandibles and over the right eye of the Peacock. There and then the resident veterinary surgeon of the 44 Military Veterinary Hospital located on the estate was spoken to by the President over the cell-phone and the ADC was asked to remain by the peacock till the arrival of the surgeon. On examination, Major Y Sudheer Kumar found a cancerous tumour lodged in the mouth cavity which was also pressing on the right eye ball; the bird could neither eat nor drink and his vision was blanketed from the right side. As a result, the stricken bird had wasted, was acutely dehydrated and the surgeon concluded that it would perish without immediate surgical intervention.
MY SENSE OF DR KALAM AS THE “PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT” IS DERIVED FROM THE FACT THAT HE WAS EMPATHETIC TO THE EFFORTS OF OTHER INDIANS STRIVING FOR THE GREATER, COMMON GOOD. INDIA IS THE HOME TO THE TALLEST FLYING BIRD IN THE WORLD, THAT IS THE SARUS CRANE, BUT AS WITH ALL OTHER SPECIES, SARUS TOO IS PUSHED TOWARDS EXTINCTION BY RAMPAGING “DEVELOPMENT”.
After thorough preparation, surgery was performed on 03 Jun, 2004 and all vestiges of the 3 cm wide by 4 cm deep tumour “along with its stalk originating from turbinate bones” were successfully removed; forty eight hours later the peacock’s mandibles regained functions, he took to feeding and what was even more gratifying, the sight of his right eye also seemed restored. The President looked visibly moved when on the seventh day the surgeon handed the Peacock to Dr Kalam for reintroduction to its natural niche. Surely the happy news must have spread among birds, mammals, reptiles and all other creatures of India’s wilderness by way of the “jungle telegram” as envisioned by Rudyard Kipling’s setting in the Jungle Books, and all denizens big and small went rushing to the “Council Rock” to pass a vote of thanks to President APJ Abdul Kalam!
“That peacock would in all likelihood have died had the President not spotted it on time. And thereby hangs a touching tale.” When a story is too good to believe, it becomes a fable. This one from the Rashtrapati Bhavan surely will in times ahead. As a matter of fact, about two months ago Mr. Ravi Singh, the CEO, WWF-INDIA had called to enquire the whereabouts of Major Sudheer Kumar because a veterinary Doctor in the USA wanted details at first hand as he had a similar case on his surgery table!
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.