By Dr. Ash Narain Roy Director, Institute of Social Sciences
The visit of the Ismaili spiritual leader the Aga Khan to India has always evoked considerable interest because of his multi-faceted personality and the philanthropic work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini Aga Khan IV’s exceptional role in promoting social, cultural and economic development projects across the world has earned him encomiums worldwide. However, the current 11-day visit of the Supreme spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect has historic significance, as it coincides with the commemoration of his Diamond Jubilee. The Aga Khan met President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed issues of common concern.
The Aga Khan and the Indian Vice President inaugurated the Sunder Nursery Park neat the Humayun’s Tomb. It now serves as Delhi’s first arboretum with almost 300 tree species, the largest number in any of Delhi’s parks and with distinct heritage, ecological and nursery zones. On the 50th anniversary of India’s independence in 1997, the Aga Khan had made a pledge to restore the Humayun Tomb’s gardens. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, Humayun’s Tomb has been restored to its pristine glory.
Also as part of the Urban Renewal Initiative, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Aga Khan Foundation, Central Public Works Department, South Delhi Municipal Corporation and Archaeological Survey of India in partnership have restored a number of adjoining monuments, including Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan’s tomb, Bu Halima’s tomb, Arab Serai gateways and Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli among others.
The Aga Khan’s special bond with India is over a century old. As early as 1905, Aga Khan’s grandfather Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah established a school in Mundra, Gujarat. The Aga Khan institutions have done pioneering work in India in the fields of education, health, drinking water, rural development etc. These initiatives include rural support programmes in over 2,500 villages, the creation of 6,600 community institutions, urban and rural education programmes working with over 400 schools, a comprehensive sanitation initiative in six states. The Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad is imparting quality education to thousands of students and a 161-bed multi-specialty acute care hospital in Mumbai is rendering yeoman service in healthcare.
Born in Switzerland but a British citizen (also a Canadian citizen), he was raised in Kenya and received his higher education at Harvard. The Aga Khan is the Imam and spiritual leader of the world’s over 15 million Ismaili Muslims. He runs a series of charitable foundations mostly devoted to helping the developing world, pouring huge amounts of money into often neglected parts of the world to support social development, education and charity projects.
Throughout the Diamond Jubilee year, the Aga Khan will travel to countries where his organisations operate to launch new programs to alleviate poverty and increase access to financing for housing, education and childhood development. The promotion of pluralism is one of the central themes of his Diamond Jubilee year. As he argues, the countries where his foundation works are historically pluralist. Many now suffer from ethnic and religious divides stoked by colonialism. “That inherited situation needs to be dealt with”, he asserts.
The spiritual leader is equally concerned about the climate change which “is a major threat to much of the developing world, and it needs to be looked at with great care.” His priority is to deal with poverty in the developing world. Instead of the enormous task of targeting the causes of climate change, his network largely focuses on fighting the ways it hurts the poor. That means identifying communities at risk of being hit by floods, drought, earthquakes, or mudslides, and making sure they’re moved or protected.
Beyond promoting pluralism, another key to addressing the tensions between Islam and the West is education. The Aga Khan’s message in these times of excesses perpetrated in the name of religion is compelling: ideas and culture are what matter, and that these are all to do with people, not necessarily faith. He stresses religion’s social traditions of peace, of tolerance and of pluralism. He has stressed that; all should work on building an “empathetic, welcoming, peaceful and generous” society, which he calls “a fundamental ethic of faith.”