[The following piece by President Ashish Merchant originally appeared in The Ismaili India under the title “From the President’s Desk.” It has been slightly edited, and is published here with his kind permission. His enlightening and informative piece is relevant to the Jamats worldwide as it is to the Jamat in India, and we sincerely hope readers will share it with their family members and friends around the world – Ed.]

By ASHISH MERCHANT
(President, His Highness the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for India)

Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee Jamati leaders arrival in Mumbai

President Ashish Merchant of the Aga Khan Council for India is seen at left as Mawlana Hazar Imam is welcomed to Mumbai by the Mukhi, Mukhiani, Kamadia and Kamadiani of the Darkhana Jamatkhana. Photo: AKDN/Aziz Ajaney.

After the glorious Diamond Jubilee Padhramni to India, I have often been asked what Hazar Imam’s guidance was.  Those ten days [February 20 – March 1, 2018] were magical and there is so much to share and learn from. 

The most memorable takeaways happened from personal experience. And many experiences resulted from personal naivety that our generous spiritual father affectionately responded to with love and support.  So, in my limited capacity, I will try to express my understanding of 3 big lessons I learned, through personal stories:

  1. The ethic of best practice
  2. The idea of long-term anticipatory thinking
  3. The importance of working with and strengthening institutions

The Ethic of Best Practice

The first story happened in Ahmedabad.

I had the privilege of accompanying Hazar Imam in his car to the venue of our first Jamati work in Gujarat.  Hazar Imam was keenly looking at the constructed facility at the Gujarat University Convention Centre complex, the hundreds of police personnel deployed on the roads and the uniformed volunteers helping guide the Jamat with assertiveness and empathy as our car slowly navigated through the complex.

Hazar Imam asked me to explain what we had done. Naïvely, I responded by describing the location, the construction techniques used, the financial savings experienced by using rentals vs. buying and by giving a short history of the contractor and volunteers. Playfully, Hazar Imam invited me to compare this current effort with those of the past when we used bamboo and cloth mandaps. 

I laughingly told Hazar Imam that I don’t think our Jamat would have tolerated it, if institutions hadn’t given them a good built environment experience for the mulaqat, even in a temporary context. Hazar Imam nodded in approval and reinforced that the built environment, albeit temporary, was an important signal to our Jamat on the notion of best practice. And just as our institutions had made a choice to deploy quality resources and efforts for a superior mulaqat experience, so should the India Jamat strive for best practice in all we do – in maintaining our health, in planning the quality of life for our families, in making choices about the education institutions we choose to attend, and in our conduct at our professions and trade. Best Practice in other words Hazar Imam explained is not a business strategy, but a personal ethic. And this ethic would directly impact how the Jamat and our AKDN institutions would be perceived and treated in India.

Long Term Anticipatory Thinking

My second story is from Hyderabad.

Hazar Imam learned about many young children preparing for examinations. And about how the marks they score impacts the colleges and universities they access. Hazar Imam asked me about the students and what he expects the students to do after their examinations.  I went on to describe the profile and ambition of the students of the Aga Khan hostel, the Aga Khan Academy and of the other students from Nagpur, Delhi, Yavatmal, Bengaluru and other such centres. I then again, naïvely remarked how perhaps the best and brightest would probably take off to the USA and Canada for higher studies.

Aga Khan Academy Hyderabad-india-2015-55945

Mawlana Hazar Imam meets with students during his visit to the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad, India, in April 2015. Photo: AKDN/Ahmed Charania.

Hazar Imam sensed my unencouraging tone and went on to explain how of all the youth who go overseas for studies, many may stay back and get married and start a family.  However, several of these will then Inshallah, return one day.  And when they return, they would bring with them their high-quality education and professional ethics to be in the service of the Jamat. Hazar Imam used this example to explain the importance of long-term anticipatory thinking. While the departure of bright young minds was being viewed as a set-back today, it may actually turn out to be an investment for superior leadership in the future!

Hazar Imam invited the India Jamat to think in terms of multiple generations, in terms of safeguarding and growing wealth and assets, in terms choices of careers that we can differentiate on with our knowledge, competence and ethics and to be optimistic in our attitude.  In other words, to be prepared to make some hard choices today in anticipation of a superior outcome tomorrow.

Choices always have trade-offs. Hazar Imam encouraged us to think through those trade-offs for the long-term.  For example, Hazar Imam explained how some parents had been courageous to let their children be resident at the Aga Khan hostel or at the Aga Khan Academy. Of course they must have been uncomfortable letting their children go and live away from them. But they made the choice to undertake this personal discomfort for long-term benefits of access to quality residential life programmes and quality education provision.  And Inshallah, the children will as a result emerge with superior independent thinking and interpersonal skills of a residential life programme and of emerging stronger from receiving a quality education provision. And these positives are worth the trade-off of living away from the family.

So, my lesson from that Hyderabad experience was to always think of the long-term before making decisions in the short term. 

Working With and Strengthening Institutions

My third story is based in New Delhi.

We were witnessing the historic opening of Sunder Nursery.  I was naïve again and asked Hazar Imam about the rationale of investing resources on a public park.

Hazar Imam lovingly explained the notion of strengthening institutions especially those that can help with civil society. Most people don’t consider a public park as an instrument to improve quality of life.  However, when such a national asset is ready, it becomes a powerful force in the service of a city and a country.

Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee inuguration of Sunder Nursery_0334

Mawlana Hazar Imam with Honourable Vice President Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu light the lamp to mark the inauguration of Sunder Nursery. Photo: Shamsh Maredia via the Ismaili.

The Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Nizamuddin Basti project is not only an economic asset that draws tourists and livelihoods but also an important catalyst for civil society as well as a tool for the health of the citizens of New Delhi.  It also offers a physical space for civil society to potentially bloom and flourish. And to do all of this, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Aga Khan Foundation and the associated institutions would need to be even stronger than they have been in the past to go beyond just the single project in Delhi to the second project in Hyderabad as well as to other projects in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

When I comprehended those profound remarks, the Delhi project transformed in my mind as an amazing example of the combination of all 3 lessons – the notion of long-term anticipatory thinking, the commitment to best practice at all times, despite the temptation to cut corners for speed, as well as in ensuring that through all our efforts, institutions emerged stronger. 

I convey Jubilee Mubarak to each one of you! And may you enjoy success in incorporating these three values in your own families and lives. 

Date posted: August 22, 2018.

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