Agha Ashraf Ali: ‘A Truly Renaissance Figure’

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Agha Ashraf Ali

‘There were few like him in Srinagar or anywhere. An extraordinary intellect, who could quote from Ibni Khaldun with as much ease as reciting verses from the Isho Upanishad!’

By Swati Joshi | Tooba Towfiq

WHEN Moosa Raza as chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir was trying to tackle the incipient militancy in Kashmir during nineties, he happened to ask Agha Ashraf Ali one day about Kashmir’s relation with India.

The firebrand educationist known for having least tolerance for ignorance told Raza that every Indian politician and bureaucrat, every editor of an Indian newspaper, every judge of the high court or the Supreme Court, has come to Kashmir only to go around its valleys, enjoy its springs, its mountains and hills, its forests, and in the early days, to shoot its wildlife.

This conversation appeared in Moosa’s 2019 published book, Kashmir: Land of Regrets. 

“Why should the Kashmiri feel any loyalty or commitment to India,” Agha Ashraf tells Moosa, “when the Indian establishment has only treated Kashmir as a call girl — to be enjoyed for a brief while, to be thrown a few crumbs, a few rupees, in appreciation of that hospitality? Kashmir is soon forgotten. That is the reason why, in spite of the fact that you have spent four times more than PoK, Kashmiris are still not happy with you, still do not love you, still do not want to be with you, they still shout “azadi, azadi, azadi”.”

The man who had hushed the Indian emissary during the tumultuous time in Kashmir also finds a stirring mention in writer Amitav Ghosh’s “The Ghat of the Only World”—the elegy for his poet friend—as an erudite man who “continued the family tradition of public service in education”.

“He taught at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi and went on to become the principal of the Teacher’s College in Srinagar,” Ghosh writes. “In 1961, he enrolled at Ball State Teacher’s College, in Muncie, Indiana, to do a PhD in Comparative Education.”

But in Kashmir, the outspoken Agha was more than his heavyweight academic stature.

“He was the Rishi of RajBagh, the Sufi of Srinagar – a truly Renaissance figure,” says Prof. Amitabh Mattoo.

“There were few like him in Srinagar or anywhere. An extraordinary intellect, who could quote from Ibni Khaldun with as much ease as reciting verses from the Isho Upanishad!”

A visit to Agha Ashraf’s fairy tale home at Raj Bagh (rebuilt after the floods), the professor recalls, was an overwhelming experience. “A ranconteur par excellence, he would delight you with anecdotes drawn from history and personal experience; from his time in the United States to the special relationship he shared with Dr Zakir Hussain and Professor Mujib at Jamia – to the story of Kashmir and the Sheikh, as he knew it,” he says.

Agha Ashraf retained his encyclopedic memory till almost the last, as separatist and mainstream, the devotee and the atheist, all made way to Agha’s Sahib’s chambers to be enlightened, the professor continues.

“And he served the delicacies of Awadhi cuisine in Wedgewood with the same epicurean sensitivity as his beloved late wife Sufia,” Prof Matoo says.

“In his later years he became better known as Agha Shahid Ali’s dad; it thrilled him to bits. But Agha Sahib was unmatched in his love and zest of for life in all its colours. In his passing away, Kashmir has lost amongst the last of its truly great souls.”

Agha Ashraf breathed his last at 11:45 pm on August 7 at his residence in Srinagar.

At a time when the young were chided and rarely entrusted with leadership roles, Sheikh Abdullah had identified in Agha Ashraf the potential to usher in new reforms in education. However, his merit and role were hardly surprising.

He belonged to a highly educated family in which everyone from his grandparents, mother and his brothers enjoyed very seminal positions of power. Such a background and an inspired legacy of education in his family ensured his initiation and integration into the world as a changemaker.

As his death triggered a tsunami of tributes, many recall how his work dramatically transformed the milieu of education in Kashmir. “The positions of administrative leadership in education that he occupied were in itself a statement at a time when Kashmiri Pandits dominated the education and literary landscape of Kashmir,” argues Tania Shafi, a Kashmiri scholar.

A Shia Muslim spearheading reforms in education, he was at once an instigator as well as an incentive to invite more Muslims towards education, Shafi continues.

“The impact of his work as a scholar, educationist and a philanthropist in Kashmir carries with it the distinction of being unparalleled and ephemeral.”

Back in the 2000s, journalist Gowhar Geelani recalls, when he went to a local hotel where Agha Ashraf Ali was invited as a speaker, everyone was excited to hear him speak.

“Before him many speakers came and bored the audiences to death,” Geelani recalls. “Visibly upset, Agha’s turn came to speak as the chief guest. He cited an example of some American scholar. He said the American scholar was invited as the chief guest, but many spoke before him and spoke nonsense. When it was time for the chief guest to address the audience, he read out his home address instead: ‘Street XYZ, House No ***, Zip *****, LA, USA…’ This is what renowned Agha Ashraf Ali commented on the prolonged monologues which are off-putting for noted scholars. Bored, they don’t address but read out their home address!”

“Called Dad to convey death of Prof. Agha Ashraf Ali,” a twitter user said, “impromptu reply, ‘He won’t die but only fade away, as his light will continue to illuminate our generations.”

Manan Kapoor, author of the forthcoming book, “Shahid: His Life and Work”, recounts his association with Agha Ashraf with a deep sense of nostalgia.

“Although I met him for the first time only a few years ago – when he was already in his nineties – I remember he was always surrounded by books, always reading,” Kapoor says.

“Last year, I went for a drive around Srinagar with Agha Ashraf, his son Iqbal and a family friend. As we crossed University of Kashmir, one of his students (who is now a professor) recognised him and invited us to his house inside the campus. I’ve never seen anything like it. He kept kissing Agha Ashraf’s hand, eagerly calling his daughters to meet his guru. I can’t forget the look on his face. It was almost as if he’d seen God. I’d heard of everything he’d done for Kashmir and for the education of the youth but that day, I truly realised the legacy he’d left behind. With his passing, Kashmir has lost one of its most erudite and eloquent men.”

Born in the famous Agha family whose roots belonged to the elite Qizilbashi, a martial race of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, Agha Ashraf Ali was a well-known name not even in Kashmir but all over India. Even before he became a renowned educationist, he was entitled to the family name “Agha”, a Turkish word meaning chief, master, or lord.

His forefathers held respectable offices of Royal Physicians, Ministers, Wazir-e-Wazarat, Thanadaars, and Tehsildaars during the Maharaja Rule in Kashmir and had the privilege of Darbar Nishini in the court of the Maharaja.

His great-great-grandfather Agha Ashraf (Hakim) Muhammad Baqir was the Chief Physician to Maharaja Ranbir Singh.

Agha Ashraf’s mother Begum Zafar Ali was an educationist and a legislator, and she was the first female matriculate of Kashmir. His elder brothers Agha Nasir Ali and Agha Shaukat Ali were both civil servants serving in India and Pakistan respectively.

Doing justice to his family name, he became a master educationist who played a significant role in turning around the situation for Muslims in Kashmir after 1947.

When the former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah appointed Agha Ashraf as the inspector of schools in 1951 at the age of 28, he brought sweeping changes to the Kashmir education sector.

In an interview, Agha Ashraf termed himself as a “dictator” for whom justice and promotion of talent were the key factors in the education sector.

During his tenure, he worked to improve the quality of education and making it available, not only in Kashmir but also in Leh, where he opened the first Girls primary school in 1952.

In 1953 when Abdullah was arrested, Agha Ashraf’s position as the school inspector was cut short and he was appointed as the officiating principal to the Teachers Training College.

In 1960, when Agha Ashraf received Fulbright Scholarship, he went to the United States to pursue his Ph.D. at Ball State University, Indiana. When he came back from the US, the University of Kashmir had started post-graduation department of education where he was selected as the first professor since there were only lecturers and readers at that time in the University.

He headed the varsity’s Department of Education for many years and later served as the acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kashmir. He was also the chairman of the Board of School Education. He promoted the best students and sent them to England and America to study new mathematics, and new ways of teaching mathematics.

“He played a crucial role in eliminating viva voice from the competitive examinations being held at Kashmir,” says Sheikh Qayoom, a journalist working with Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).

The entrance exam was divided into two sections- 20 marks for viva voice and 80 marks for the written exam.

“He told me that it is only the children of the influential who would get those 20 marks and they increase the merit for the average performers due to which students belonging to the weaker section of the society would not get selected,” Qayoom recalls.

Agha Ashraf canceled the interview process and increased the weightage of written exam from 80 marks to 100 marks. The decision was challenged in the High Court and it ruled that as the chairman he could not change the exam pattern.

Unsatisfied by the High Court’s ruling, Agha Ashraf decided to award 20 marks to every candidate.

“He told me that the High Court could stop me from changing the rules but the decision to give marks in the interview is mine,” Qayoom recounts.

But years later, after he lost his son, Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet in 2001, the tough educationist wasn’t the same man.

“He was broken after the death of his son,” Qayoom recalls. “It took Agha Ashraf sometime to get back to his life but he was a fighter. But his ability to remember incidents with photographic clarity even at the age of 90 would amaze people. He was a generous and self-righteous man.”

On the occasion of Teachers’ Day, on 5 September 2006, Agha Ashraf was awarded “Nigeena-e-Watan” for his “unmatched contribution in the field of education”. In 2011, he released his autobiography, Kuch to Likhyay ki log kehtay hain, in Urdu, which has become an inspirational book.

Even after his retirement, the distinguished educationist continued to spread the knowledge all over the world through his lectures in universities, colleges, and schools.

“Agha Ashraf was the greatest of all Aghas,” believes Shuja Hussain, his close associate. “He passed away in peace, without becoming a liability on anyone.”

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