Two events gripped my attention this last week. First the news on Wednesday that according to the United Nations population division in its 2015 report, India will match and pass China in overall population six years earlier than previously thought. Instead of it happening in 2028, it will more likely be in 2022. At that point, both countries will be roughly equal at 1.4 billion. India’s population will then keep growing, surpassing China’s by the end of that year and reaching 1.7 billion by 2050.
This may not surprise many aware of each country’s dynamics , but when combined with another event this week it made me think again of the importance of India as a potential model of unity in diversity in the coming decades and centuries. That was the death of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a former President of India and leading scientist and thinker. This man brought hope to millions with his inspirational writings and messages, with a particular focus on the generations under 18 years of age. Kalam was also an Indian Muslim.
One of over 160 million Indian Muslims, he personified a leader who appealed far beyond his own community. As one journalist wrote this week, Kalam “was one of the few Indian leaders able to bridge the country’s political, religious and linguistic divides, and his death provoked an outpouring of grief across the political spectrum at a time when positions have hardened.” It is in a societal climate of the “hardening of positions” that Kalam’s life and death becomes even more important.
With India not only being the largest Hindu country in the world as well as perhaps the second largest Muslim nation, what happens there in the next 50 years is very important. It is also home to over 30 million Christians as well and various other faiths. How India deals with its religious, cultural and linguistic diversity is important not only for its own future, but the future of the neighbors around it in South Asia. This can also be said of China, for how that nation also deals with its own diversity is another important story. In many ways in fact the future of India and China and particularly how they handle their diversity will be a crucially important part of the future story of our world.
The humility of Abdul Kalam was recognized by many of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. For many years he articulated a vision centered around the year 2020, when he envisioned improvements in Indian society that would help it to be an example to the nations. While being President and after he travelled all over India and to other nations, promoting this vision and challenging a new generation to bring it to pass. Though India is not a perfect society and many of Kalam’s ideas are far from fulfillment, the fact of his being an eminent thinker, a nuclear scientist, a Tamil Muslim and someone so committed to connecting with a new generation makes his death a point to stop and reflect.
Is it too much to dream that India could be a place where a modeling of unity in diversity could take place as an example to the nations? That the largest nation on earth most likely after 2022, and certainly the most diverse in language and culture, could lead the way in evidencing concrete solutions on how faiths and cultures can live together in peace? To many that may seem like a pipe dream or worse. But Abdul Kalam presents us with an example of someone who believed in a vision of the future that offers hope and creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
I close this post with a personal remembrance from several years ago when Abdul Kalam had just become President. His longish unruly hair, one of his trademarks, had caused a certain amount of angst in political circles. There was much debate in the newspapers and on TV that of course with the dignity of the office he would have to get a haircut. But what happened? He kept his hair long and it continued to be part of the flair of his persona. He was his own man. He had a deep, quiet dignity combined with a sharp wit and mind.
President Abdul Kalam, we will deeply miss you. But we thank you for the vision you had and the hope you gave millions. Many of those will reach the age of 18 and above in the next few years, and along with the Pakistani young woman Malala will answer for themselves the question I started with. Will those that heard Kalam speak, or will read his writings, be inspired to have hope for the future? The same kind of hope that Malala has brought to not only Pakistani society but the world.
As we move further into the 21st century, it will be these new generations that will answer the question of who and where will a model of unity in diversity happen. Sometime after 2022, the largest nation on earth will also be the most diverse nation. Put those two things together, and for the sake of the future of the world let India be the model it has the potential to be.