Agha Ashraf Ali-Sojourn in the world of Education

Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah opposed with his Idea of forming of a Separate Muslim Block Organization in Kashmir

If Ashraf doesn’t break the Muslim Block he will be expelled from SP College.

Introduced new Reappear policy in 10th class Examination if candidate failed in one Subject

By: Agha Faisal Ali

The Agha clan to which Agha Ashraf Ali traces his ancestry has comes from a powerful tribal military confederacy collectively known as the “Qizilbash”.

1900 CE. Standing 3rd from right first Matriculate of Kashmir-Aga Syed Hussain-as a young Tehsildar behind Sir Walter Lawrence, Settlement commissioner of Kashmir. Aga Syed Hussain (Rezavi) was Maternal grandfather of Agha Ashraf Ali (Qizilbash) and had later adopted him.

Qizilbash (meaning Red-Capts) were a Turkic martial race based in present day Azerbaijan. The confederacy was divided into sub-tribes, each one ruling over a small principality. In 1501 AD they conquered Iran and established the Safavid Empire which was also known as “Mamlikat-I-Qizilbash”.

The term Agha (which is of Turkish origin & means Lord, Master) was originally used for a commander among the Qizilbash or for their provincial/tribal chiefs, thus being a military title. However by the end of the 18th century this word got mixed with its Persian homonym (Aaqa/Aaka-title used by Sayid clerics) and is now used by many Sayids (even the non-clergy) across the subcontinent.

Early Life:

Born in Srinagar to an aristocratic family “Qizilbash Aghas”, with roots connecting to the regal Afsharid household of Afghanistan.

Agha family with Qaid e Azam MA Jinnah with his sister Fatima Jinnah at Agha House, Srinagar – 1944.
Agha Ashraf is standing on extreme left just above his maternal grandpa in turban-Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain thakur. Other members of the family in the picture are Begum Zafar Ali, Begum & Agha Shaukat Ali, Aga Syed Ahmad and the rest are the members of Mian family of Lahore (in laws of Agha Shaukat) .

He was the third son of his parents. His maternal grandfather Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain (1st Matriculate of Kashmir) who was a Minister in Maharaja Hari Singh’s cabinet had adopted him. Thus Agha Ashraf Ali had a very close affinity with his maternal grandfather who was his favourite throughout his life. Ashraf grew up as a pampered boy and had a nickname in the family circles. He was called “Phal Kath”.

File Photo | Agha Ashraf Ali

His mother Begum Zaffar Ali who was Kashmir’s first woman matriculate -was a teacher who went on to become Chief Inspector of Schools Kashmir in 1952.

1929-Young Agha Ashraf Ali with his Maternal grandfather Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain as Justice of the first High Court and Minister.

Ashraf’s father Agha Zaffar Ali alongwith his half-brother Agha Firdous Ali and cousin Agha Abdullah were registered as Jagirdars of the joint family estates in the revenue records till 1950.

Academic Journey:

Right from his childhood Agha Ashraf Ali was a keen and observant child, dedicated and competent. Here was a man who always craved for excellence when it came to education.

File Photo | Agha Ashraf Ali

However his academic journey was not that easy. Ashraf had the first bitter experience of the privileged life when he was admitted to the Mission School Fateh Kadal, where all the children would sit on the floor while Agha had to sit on a chair which was specifically commissioned for him. As a result nobody wanted to be his friend. This experience left a deep impact on his mind and he was disillusioned with the feudal system. As he grew up he gave up the privilege of sitting on the chair and would sit on the floor with his other classmates and thus made friends in later years of his School.

Agha Ashraf Ali after completing his studies at SP College he moved to AMU for his M.A in History and wrote a letter to Dr Zakir Hussain. Within 3 days Agha receives a reply with an inspiring epistle from Dr Zakir Hussain, with whom he had met earlier during college days when on 2nd October 1941, latter delivered a lecture at the Jammu and Kashmir Students Federation Annual Conference.

This lecture had a tremendous impact on Agha Ashraf Ali. The concluding line of the lecture was, “Youth, young friends, is not an attainment, it is an opportunity, don’t let this opportunity go by”.

At Aligarh he was taught by the brilliant Professors of the old English variety and was thus groomed to perfection. He moved to Jamia in 1946 and his successful journey in the field of education began. In his autograph book was an inspirational quote written by the Philosopher Paul Burton which he remembered like a Talisman.

“Be loyal to your inner most self, trust the guidance and obey its prompting even though the world cannot understand and misunderstands. Do this and you will be happy and more truly successful than by following the conventional road.”

(Paul Burton’s note on Agha’s autograph book 1942)

In 1944, when Agha Ashraf Ali was appearing for his M.A History examination at the Aligarh Muslim University, he was disappointed with his performance in the paper on the French revolution. He left the examination halfway and appeared again in 1945 securing first position and was awarded the Morrison Medal.

In 1946 Agha got an opportunity to meet Mahatma Gandhi on the latter’s visit to Jamia where Gandhi gave his speech on the unity of Hindus and Muslims at a time when bloodshed had begun in the entire country.

In 1950, Agha Ashraf went to England and specialized in academic diploma in comparative education and educational organization and administration. He was influenced by the philosophy of Martin Buber and greatly inspired by the socialist ideas. For the last three months in 1951, he visited schools in France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark in order to understand the system of education there and the way of teaching. He came back to Kashmir in 1951.

Crave for Knowledge:

His mother Begum Zaffar Ali who was Kashmir’s first woman matriculate-was a teacher who went on to become Chief Inspector of Schools Kashmir in 1952.

Ashraf’s brothers Agha Nasir Ali and Agha Shaukat Ali became famous civil servants in India and Pakistan respectively, however Agha Ashraf Ali as he would say, “I Choose to become a teacher”.

Agha Ashraf Ali after receiving the first PhD in 1964 of Teachers College, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, USA

He taught History at Jamia Millia and was closely associated with Dr Zakir Hussain (later President of India), Prof Muhammad Mujeeb, Dr Abid Hussain and Prof Shafiq-u-Rehman Kidwai. He called them the four pillars of Jamia and one body, with four hearts.

In 1960 he received a Fulbright Scholarship on the recommendations of Prof of Law, Asaf Asghar Ali Fayzee. Agha Ashraf moved to the United States with his family to complete his education. He was enrolled at the Ball State Teachers College, in Muncie, Indiana, where he did his PhD in comparative education thus becoming the first PhD of the Ball State Teachers College, USA in 1964.

Agha Ashraf Ali receiving 1st PhD Degree of Teachers College Ball State University Muncie Indiana USA in 1964.
He is seen with his wife begum Sufia Agha, daughter Hena Agha, son Shahid in white suit and son Iqbal in black suit

He married in 1946 after falling in love with Sufia Nomani who hailed from Rudauli near Lucknow. The amazing couple served together with the best of their ability and dedication in the department of education as teachers and later administrators.

Dedication towards work:

On his return from England in 1951, Agha Ashraf Ali was appointed as officer on special duty under Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. One year later 28 year old Ashraf was made the inspector of Schools, Kashmir in 1952. Thus began his administrative career which was fearless, Agha would never compromise on his principles and would always defy authority.

File Photo | Agha Ashraf Ali

As a young and dynamic officer taking over as the Inspector of Schools, he began to overhaul the dilapidated education system.

He went for an inspection to Kargil in his own car, where no Inspector of Schools had visited in 16 years ! He would recall an experience where a teacher was sleeping in the class and the children were reciting ,“CAT” Cat maanay Choohaa”.

On another occasion as the Inspector of Schools, he recalled how the former Chief Minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed as a young boy visited his office alongwith his friends in the Autumn of 1952 and pleaded before him that they came from poor families and cannot afford private tutors during vacations, and that the School teachers be asked to utilize the vacations for teaching.

The next day Agha Ashraf Ali reaches Bijbihara School at 10’O Clock in the morning, summons the Headmaster, Ganga Dhar Raina as well as the teachers and directs them not to avail the vacations and instead utilize the vacations to teach the students and prepare them for matriculation. That year 11 students from Bijbihara appeared in the Matric exams, however only two passed. One of them was Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. When Mufti became the Chief Minister, he realized he was indebted to Agha and thus offered him a seat in the Legislative Council and Education Ministry to which Agha politely refused.

During his tenure whenever people (teachers) who wanted favourable transfers and would bring recommendations (Sifarish), the fearless Agha would transfer them to far off places and instead would bring people with merit who had no recommendations (sifarish).

In 1954 Agha Ashraf Ali was made the officiating principal of the Teachers College of Education (Teachers Training College). Coincidentally the first teachers college was functioning in the old ancestral house of the Aghas where Agha Ashraf Ali had grown up. Later he was taken as principal of the National Extension Training Centre, where there were two hundred village level workers. He used the best of his skills and ability to train them into socialists and modern Kashmiris.
He would recall how he was shifted from Education to Agriculture,

“The irony of it all; from Culture to Agriculture, from character formation to castration of the Bull, and to top it all, the dissemination of knowledge to the artificial insemination of the Cow…”

When Ghulam Mohammed Sadiq became the Education Minister. Agha Ashraf was asked to join back as Inspector of Schools however Ashraf expressed his wish to continue as the Principal of Teachers College with an aim to produce efficient teachers. He remained as Principal of the Teachers College for five years from 1955-1960.

File Photo | Agha Ashraf Ali

After his return from the US in 1967, he was appointed as officer on special duty for a brief period. The Chief Minister G.M.Sadiq had asked him to take over the charge of Director of Information Kashmir, however Agha refused the offer and said he only wanted to serve as an educator. During this time University of Kashmir created the Post Graduate Department of Education and Agha Ashraf Ali applied for the post of Professor.

Except for Prof Abdul Qadir Sarwari there was no Professor in the University, all of those who taught were Readers and Lecturers.

A special committee was constituted to consider the application of Agha Ashraf Ali, which was finally approved by Dr Karan Singh and Dr K.G.Sayidain who headed the committee. Thus Agha Ashraf Ali opened the Department of Education in the University for the first time in 1968 as its inaugural Professor. He started working independently and groomed students to the best of his capability which showed remarkable results.

The department started flourishing and the news reached the Governor Baghwan Sahai who praised the teaching skills of Agha. This was the time when cheating had grown rampant in the university exams, to which Agha Ashraf Ali had raised his voice by leading a strike alongwith a few lecturers.

To quote him in his own words, “As a result the Vice Chancellor Kh Noorudin exiled the Department of Education to the present College of Education at M.A.Road”. He was designated as the Principal of Teachers college M.A.Road as well as the Head of Education Department.
He mentions in his book, right from 1968 no convocation was held in the university to felicitate students, therefore he in his individual capacity held a convocation for his department pass outs of M.Ed, in the Teachers College at MA Road, where he invited Prof Mujeeb to deliver the keynote address. Prof Mujeeb gave a lecture on the “Historical approach to Education”. Governor Bhagwan Sahai presided over the convocation.

Agha Ashraf would organize lectures and seminars and would bring Professors to the Department from outside. He headed the Department of Education for many years thus groomed and nurtured students into efficient teachers, scholars and Professors. Personally he would deliver his lecture everyday in class at 10’O clock in the morning on Philosophy of Education. Not a single student would miss his class.

To quote him in his own words, “the best work of my life will be the relationship with my students”.

He believed that Education in a way means to win the hearts of the people.

From 1971 to 1972 Agha Ashraf Ali was also a member of the Bhagwan Sahai Committee on Education which was headed by J.P.Nayak. In 1973 Agha Ashraf Ali was appointed as Director of training and curricula from 1973 -1975, in which all training was under his guidance. He used modern methods to train teachers and to frame the curricula of Schools and colleges. He was also given the temporary powers of the Chairman Board of school education which till then was the exclusive domain of the education Minister. In 1975 he was given the permanent charge of the Chairman J&K board of school education with independent powers.

Being a Role model for Society:

His first public speech was in 1941 when he was a student in SP College. He addressed a gathering of 150 students in the capacity of the secretary of the Historical Society of the college.

His first speech was so fiery, that the news reached Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad who were actively involved in the changing Politics of Kashmir. In the same year Agha Ashraf Ali formed the Muslim Block in the college after being inspired by the Forward Block formed by Subash Chandra Bose after resigning from the Indian National Congress.

Agha Ashraf Ali became its president while Syed Mir Qasim its secretary. This was a time when Quit India Movement had started.

Jinnah’s Visit to Kashmir

Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah asked Bakshi to make Agha Ashraf understand that the formation of the Muslim Block will not be in the best interest of the students. After a few days then principal of the college Mr Avtar Krishen Kitchloo went to see Ashraf’s parents , Begum and Agha Zaffar Ali Qizilbash. They were told that if Ashraf doesn’t break the Muslim Block he will be expelled from the college. So at home Ashraf was pressurized to break the block which he did however he was labeled as a traitor in the college.

During his stint as the chairman board of school education he brought sweeping reforms. The most important contribution of his was that if one fails in one subject in Matric exams he would be considered as having passed the matric and could be promoted to 11th class while simultaneously appearing for the paper which he could not pass.

Begum Zafar Ali

Earlier if a person failed in one paper in the matric exams, he/she was considered as failed in the entire exams and had to reappear next year in all the five Subject. Agha Ashraf Ali convinced the Governor and the then CM Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah to implement his revolutionary idea in the exam system. This was approved and the next day CM announced it on All India Radio.

Agha Ashraf Ali thus brought in a new system where a person failing in one subject would still be promoted to 11th class while reappearing in the paper privately.

Another important was that he also introduced Mathematics and Science as compulsory subjects for girls in all schools across the state. Before that Science and Mathematics were not compulsory subjects for girls. Thus brought girls at par with boys thus removing the disparity.

Agha remained as Chairman from 1975 to 1980.

Agha had a different approach to education, he would say, “to engage children in the fear of examination is not justice but a crime”. Among his many contributions during his stint as Chairman was that he abolished the old system of failing during matriculation. Earlier a person failing in one subject was declared having been failed in entire 5 subjects and had to reappear in all 5 subjects the next year.

Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah now wanted to make him the Vice Chancellor of the University of Kashmir however some members from the political and the bureaucratic circles did not let that happen. Agha was then appointed as the Commissioner of Higher Education J&K.
Even though Agha Ashraf Ali tried his best to remain independent and was highly intolerant towards interference in his work he continued with his policy of appointing teachers on merit exclusively and rejected all candidates who were recommended by Ministers, he was disjointed with the changing approach of Sheikh Abdullah during the later years, as political and bureaucratic intervention came in Agha’s way with no action from the Chief Minister. Agha found himself in a difficult situation.

He writes in his book that while being disturbed, he opened the Quran with Yousuf Ali’s translation and the first line that he read was, “Speak the truth even if its against you”.
He decided to retire from the services and said that his date of birth was wrongly recorded and that he was turning 60.

File Photo | Agha Ashraf Ali

Agha Ashraf writes in his book how he was about to expose a big date of birth scandal which would have put careers of many teachers and professors in jeopardy, however the situation compelled him to resign from the post of commissioner of Education.

In December 1982 C.M, Farooq Abdullah requested Agha Ashraf Ali to take over the department of Education.

Since Agha loved to teach, he accepted the offer and joined the University of Kashmir. Agha says when he took over as the HOD, the Department was like a fish market and he had to change the entire system. By now M.A, M.Phil and PHD had also been introduced in the Department. He started teaching and thus brought the department on the right track. The results were remarkable and the news reached the CMs office.

However when the CM expressed his wish to make Agha the Vice Chancellor of the University, many professors objected so did a Minister in the NC government with a big lobby. To this Agha Ashraf Ali would say that the university had become a breeding ground for corruption and that till he served in the Education department he tried his best to keep it independent with sole aim on educational excellence. Later Agha Ashraf Ali was appointed as the Chairman of the Competent Authority of J&K.

He was its chairman till 1992 after resigning from his office citing open nepotism and interference in his official duties.
He was disappointed with the degrading education system of Kashmir and yearned for a revolution in the educational sector so that it reaches a certain level of excellence. He was against the repeated examination system both in schools and University calling it “unjust” and firmly believed that stress should be on learning rather than passing the exams.

Towards Dusk:

File Photo | Khan Bahadur Aga Sayyid Hussain
Syed Manzil, till 1942. This too was located at Shaheed Gunj, adjacent to Ashraf’s paternal home. This house belonged to Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain Thakur (Maternal grandfather of Agha Ashraf Ali). Agha Ashraf Ali spent a major part of his childhood here after he was adopted by his maternal grandfather. This house was later Srinagar’s first Teacher Training College, where Agha Ashraf Ali taught for some time in the capacity of its Principal.

As an educator, he continued to deliver lectures in universities, colleges and schools in and outside Kashmir. His cosy cottage was always open for everyone. He would never mind lecturing students at home. He was and continues to be an inspiration for many people. Known for his speeches on various contemporary issues, he was an extraordinary orator and public speaker.

As a visionary with a puckish wisdom he was the life of every gathering. He was everybody’s favourite be it outside or relatives. In the family circles he was fondly called Ashraf Bhai, loved for his affection and tremendous sense of humour Agha Ashraf Ali shall always be the grand old man of the family.

Helping students to achieve intellectual and self discovery was his unique attribute.

Agha Manzil, till 1950. Ancestral house of the Aghas at Shaheed Gunj Road, behind New Secretariat,Srinagar. This House is presently a School “Milad Educational Institute” owned and run by the Jallu family.

He was someone who contributed so richly to the tradition that made him known as a great educator and academician and earned him the title of the “Pride of Education”. His passing away has left a gap which can never be filled. He was venerated by his friends and students as a symbol of excellence.

To his attendants he was simply an amazing fatherly figure who loved them equally like his own children. His hospitality was celebrated just like his wisdom.

Great Father, Great Son: Agha Ashraf Ali with his son Agha Shahid Ali (Celebrated Kashmiri American Poet)

To quote Sheikh Akbar Mohidin Ibn Arabi;

“My heart has become capable of every form,
It is a pasture of gazelles and a convent for Christians,
And a temple of Idols, and the pilgrims Ka’aba,
And the tables of the Torah and the book of Quran,
I follow the religion of love,
Whatever way love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith”.

His son, the celebrated Kashmiri American poet late Agha Shahid Ali needs no introduction. Shahid’s loss was Kashmir’s own loss and a shock to the global literary world. Ashraf’s wife Sufia Agha who died in 1997 had served as Principal College of Education.

Agha Ashraf Ali is survived by a son Dr Agha Iqbal Ali and two daughters Dr Hena Ahmed and Dr Sameetah Agha. They all work as Professors in USA.

Agha Ashraf Ali had made a place in everyone’s heart and he lives in our memories of him that shall never cease to be.

About Author: Agha Faisal Ali is a Srinagar based lawyer and writer. He is a cousin nephew of Late Prof Agha Ashraf Ali and is writing a book on the family History.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this video are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the video do not reflect the views of Kashmir Today and Kashmir Today does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.