Visit from former Indian president leads to new program, closer ties

Siripriya Katragadda stood in a crowd of people behind a velvet rope in the Singletary Center yesterday in hopes of glimpsing for a few seconds, not a Hollywood celebrity, but a former president of India.

“He stepped out of the presidency July 2007, but even after he left office he was charmed in many ways,” said Katragadda, a UK graduate student.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, president of India from 2002 to 2007 is on campus as part of a three-day “Celebration of India” at UK. The last event free and open to the public that Kalam will participate in is a question and answer session with students at 10 a.m. today in the Worsham Theater in the Student Center.

Kalam is an engineer and author known for a plan to make India a fully developed nation by 2020. He will leave the Bluegrass today with an honorary degree from UK and gifts from various community groups.

Discussions of his visit that began almost a year ago have led to a new program at UK.

During a ceremony last night where Kalam was the keynote speaker, UK announced a new Center of Excellence for India Studies. The center would focus on research, teaching and outreach in areas like Indian business, language and religion.

“Many parts of the Bluegrass have the same problems as the rural parts of India, so there’s a lot we can learn from each other,” said UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy during the program’s announcement.

The center would use private donations from an endowment fund, which would be named the President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam India Studies Endowment Fund pending Kalam’s approval. The fund would create two endowed professorships in the Gatton College of Business and Economics.

Throughout his visit, Kalam has emphasized the importance of international economic and cultural alliances, including between the Bluegrass and India. During a news conference yesterday, he brought up a question a student had asked him earlier about how richer countries should interact with poorer countries.

“The solution is countries like India and the United States have responsibilities not only to our prosperity and happiness, but a responsibility to help other nations with their prosperity and happiness.”

Kalam also said India can offer intellect and vision to the Bluegrass, and Kentucky could contribute as well.

“It’s a beautiful land,” he said of Kentucky during the news conference. “Any country can have a beautiful land. That’s no surprise. After one day here I talked to people, experienced people, saw their arts and culture. Kentucky people are not only blessed with beautiful places, but beautiful minds.”

Each time Kalam spoke this week, a crowd of people of all ages gathered waiting to shake his hand. As Kalam left the Singletary Center yesterday, he took two or three minutes to greet the crowd, including Katragadda, before being ushered into his car to another event.

After Katragadda checked the pictures on her friend’s camera of the president and her, she said seeing Kalam and shaking his hand was a priceless experience.

“It’s been a lifetime opportunity,” she said.