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Tuesday January 1, 2002

India Elects Its Third Muslim President

Chan Cho

A prominent Muslim was sworn in last week as India's 12th president in a move widely seen as bolstering the nation's secular credentials after a wave of religious violence.

A.P.J. Kalam is the third Muslim to serve in the largely ceremonial post in majority Hindu, but officially secular, India. The 71-year-old Kalam rose to become a national folk hero by overseeing India's successful nuclear tests in 1998.

Kalam won nearly 90 percent of the votes cast by 4,896 members of the national Parliament and the state legislatures. The only other candidate was Lakshmi Sehgal, a woman proposed by the leftist parties. Although born to Muslim parents, Kalam, 70, does not describe himself as Muslim. He reads Hindu scriptures each day and is a vegetarian.

Analysts have said Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's nomination of Kalam was a political master-stroke following religious riots earlier this year. At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed in western Gujarat state in India's worst religious violence in a decade.

The election as president comes at a time when military tensions have escalated to near breaking point between India and its Islamic neighbor, Pakistan. Kalam, popularly known as 'Missile Man', has insisted his presidency would not signal warlike intentions from India.

A strong advocate of Indian self-reliance in technology, Kalam said in a speech that India must be transformed into a "developed nation."

"This is the time to ignite the minds of the people for this movement. We will work for it," he said.

Kalam is a bachelor, vegetarian, an amateur musician and a poet, who can recite from the holy Koran and the Hindu holy scripture Bhagavadgita with equal ease. He drew up at the parliament buildings with outgoing president K.R. Narayanan in a limousine followed by a ceremonial column of horses ridden by the president's bodyguard.

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