After the death of Abdul Sattar Edhi, one of the major questions I have faced is if there is anybody in Pakistan who can fill the huge philanthropic void left by his absence. This question becomes doubly significant when analysed in comparison with the pre-1947 philanthropic missions run by the Khatris in the Punjab, in addition to their contributions to the intellectual and cultural lives of the province.
In trying to find a relevant Muslim figure who has contributed significantly to the national, cultural, financial, and institutional history of the Punjab, perhaps nobody comes as close to the Khatri influence as the post-1947 part played by one individual, Syed Babar Ali.
Hailing from a well-heeled Lahore-based family of businessmen, Syed Babar Ali was educated at Aitchison College, the premier institution for educating the aristocracy of colonial Punjab. One of the lessons he took away from that formidable education was reverence for his teachers, which he says has stayed with him throughout his life (this is from his autobiography Learning from Others).
The Khatri philanthropic endeavour was characterised by an acumen which drove them to build hugely successful business empires. Parallel to these expanding businesses, they richly contributed to the social and welfare projects in their communities. Lala Harkishen Lal, Ganga Ram, and Mela Ram are outstanding examples of Khatri businessmen/entrepreneurs who built tremendous financial empires for their times, but who also made huge contributions to the cultural and social environment.
By some coincidence, all three of these men made their fortunes in the city of Lahore, which they later enriched through their generous acts of giving back to society. It is also in the city of Lahore that Syed Babar Ali has built and developed institutions that have contributed immensely to social mobility.
One aspect of his tremendous and lasting contribution to society is the filling of a void in public sector education. This began with the construction of the Ali Industrial Technical Institute in the 1960s using the family’s own resources. The Ali Institute of Education, which opened in 1992, was born out of a realisation that the primary and secondary education structure was damaging the minds of students. This was a teacher training institute which replaced the technical institute. As this shows, Syed Babar Ali has always had a keen eye for identifying the malaise that besets Pakistani society and, unlike most other people, he has had the vision to take practical steps for addressing the educational void in society.
His family’s various companies and ventures have always generously contributed to the projects, never waiting for help from the government. It is, in fact, only after he starts a project that he allows donors to join.
Perhaps nowhere else is Syed Babar Ali’s commitment to education, and his vision, more apparent than in the establishment of Pakistan’s premier higher education institution, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Realising that Pakistani higher education seriously lags behind the rest of the world, he visualised the need for a business school, which over time has evolved to include schools of social science, law, and now science, that competes with the very best in the world.
While some detractors might say that LUMS does not cater to the vast majority of Pakistani students, the fact is that the university has an exceedingly generous financial aid system, which ensures that deserving students get the highest quality education even if they cannot afford it. The only condition is merit. In a society where all public and private structures revolve around individuals and their bestowing of favours on those who pledge personal loyalty with them, it is a huge tribute to Syed Babar Ali that his concern has always been the strengthening of institutions. While other public universities have faced a constant downfall in standards, LUMS remains an ever-improving example of how institutionalised structures ensure the competence of the individuals who compose them.
One final aspect of Syed Babar Ali’s contribution to society is his promotion of indigenous culture. While 90 per cent of the Babar Ali Foundation’s focus is on helping LUMS in its needs, the philanthropic foundation donates a sizable amount to causes that interest its founder. Packages had once helped publish several poets, including Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum. Syed Babar Ali also helped publish several books in Persian and Punjabi. He entrusted the project of publishing the Sufi poets of Punjab to Dr Nazir Ahmad when the latter retired from the principal’s post at the Government College Lahore.
Similarly, the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature at LUMS is doing commendable work to promote indigenous languages and literatures.
On a personal level, I can attest to the simplicity of his lifestyle, where those who join him at the dinner table, are invited to share well-cooked but simple meals that have a distinctly desi flavour. Syed Babar Ali’s contributions may be larger than life, but the man himself is down to earth.
To think of Syed Babar Ali merely as an individual would be unfair to his stature. He is an institution in his own person. Like the Hindu Khatri businessmen of pre-partition India, and like the completely unique phenomenon of Abdul Sattar Edhi in post-partition Pakistan, Syed Babar Ali’s act of giving back to society entails selfless generosity. Figures like Edhi and Babar Ali do not allow infringement of merit in their personal lives, and extend their generosity across any religious, sectarian, social, and class divisions. Such figures arise to address a void left by the government.
In him we see a truly visionary ability to recognise a vacuum in the government’s provision of services, and a selfless motivation to fill that gap. With our ruling elite having been overtaken by social myopia of sorts, such people like Edhi and Babar Ali have been a source of much-needed social reformation. Undoubtedly, such people are role models and inspiration for the younger generation and posterity.