A charismatic personality

File Image of DG tourism, J&K Late M Ashraf

A wonderful human being, Mohammad Ashraf, fondly known as M. Ashraf, former member of  Indian Administrative Service and Vice President of Indian mountaineering Foundation, just couldn’t survive the mayhem of Covid19 and lost the battle of life during intervening night of 13th & 14th October, 2020 at the age of 77. Hailing from Srinagar, Kashmir (J&K), a noted civil servant, adventurist, explorer, columnist, nature lover, progressive thinker, an optimist and well-meaning person with gifted qualities of a gentleman.  Well known and respected in Jammu & Kashmir, in country and overseas for his meaningful and dynamic involvement and lasting contribution to tourism – nature, adventure and mystic –  well versed in tourism uniqueness of Kashmir, Ladakh and Jammu. A prolific writer and a columnist with gifted abilities of a good speaker, I may say, he held the strong principles of the highest achievers who lived in their own world of wisdom, knowledge and practice.  An upright officer with a clear canvass of thought – no frills, no mincing of words, just straight with no malice. These qualities validate the durable truths of a  proven person as they apply to family, profession and society in general.

M Ashraf has been a brilliant student who pursued civil engineering at Regional Engineering College Srinagar and got his diploma in French language from Alliance Francaise, New Delhi. He received his training in Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling & Indian Institute of Skiing & Mountaineering, Gulmarg.  He served the State during both the times – calm and turbulent. He spent most of his service-time in tourism department from Deputy Director to Director General level with outstanding record besides being member of numerous tourism and heritage advisory bodies of the State and the country. After the turmoil of 1990s in Jammu and Kashmir, he had the ability of keeping the worst hit tourism sector’s flag waving for which he was honoured on numerous occasions in the country. His passion, drive and dedication remained unmatched. He was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by the Swiss in 1993 in a special function in Less Diablerets for introducing rescue measure in Kashmir Mountains.

M Ashraf was devotedly attached to the tourism sector so much that he nearly spent his entire life in it focusing adventure promotion. His contributions to alpine hiking, mountain walking and mountaineering in the Sate besides snow adventure games at Gulmarg, the world famous tourist resort and showcasing Budhistic festivities of Ladakh are remarkable and memorable. He involved European experts for shaping slopes at Gulmarg before onset of winters for attracting world class skiing  lovers to this distinctive meadow and was also initially instrumental to start the Gondola ropeway project which was later commissioned successfully. Stage second of this ropeway ends at Affarwath, the  highest altitude point of the ropeways in the  world.

He has been also associated with the world pioneer of Extreme Skiing, Sylvain Saudan,  a Swiss born French national, famously known as “Skier of Impossible” who started Heli Skiing in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country from early 1980s.  Sylvain would get helicopters from overseas and facilitate heli skiing in the Gulmarg & Sonamarg areas. Sportsmen from overseas pre-booked the sorties.  He stopped  heli skiing in Sonamarg after he survived the crash of his helicopter in 2007 around Sonamarg area. However, he was given permission to operate in the Gund area of Ganderbal district by the Tourism department in the year 2008-09 which I signed. I met him along  with Mehmood A Shah at SKICC when he visited Srinagar in January 2010, robust elderly sportsman having enormous respect for M Ashraf.

M Ashraf had a knack about nature photography. While promoting tourism in the State, his pictures taken around late 1970s & early 1980s of Ladakh including Pangong Lake were used by the tourism department for nearly 30 years, till the department engaged world famous Photographer, Robert Hueber, in 2008 for taking pictures of all the three regions of Jammu & Kashmir which I organised and monitored alongwith Mehmood A Shah, soon after joining the tourism department as Joint Director in August , 2008 attending adventure and cultural matters.  While doing so, I accompanied Robert Hueber to a few spots and experienced some fascinating moments requiring enormous patience and creativity. Ours was a team work, but M Ashraf had done it, whatever he did, solely with his own efforts, equipment and imagination. He even wrote & printed tourism promotion material of quality content, still adoring many books shelves.

M Ashraf was a pioneer in changing the face of Ladakh tourism attracting global attention to its breath-taking beauty and coloured charm.  His creative thoughts about Leh, Ladakh to boost its tourism and economy, which used to be like an ancient hamlet with scattered population unexplored to the modern world, shaped the State policy towards its immense tourism potential including adventure. Around 1973, M Ashraf submitted a paper to the tourism department on adventure, eventually it was well received and he was made to head the newly created  adventure wing of the department as Deputy Director. His ideas and imagination of adventure brought enormous change of Ladakh over the decades and the present canvass of exposition deeply owes its brilliance of success to M Ashraf. Apart from tourism, he was the first tourism officer who in consultation with Tata Energy got the solar home-lights for Leh village around late 1970s, as told to me, immediately after Ladakh was let open for travellers. The villagers of Leh were amazed to see the night lights, something  unseen before, whole of the town came out to see the magical illumination during the night.  Empathetic about the people living in extreme harsh conditions, spending long chilly nights under conventional oil lamps attached to walls, he was thrilled beyond measure by the joy of these poor villagers, and eventually got moved and inspired to do more.

Having been passionate about hiking and mountaineering , he served for twelve years as President of the Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club (JKHMC), erstwhile Cashmere Climbing Club established way back in 1934 by Eric Tyndale Biscoe. Late Chandra Pandit, Nand Lal Bakaya, Arjan Nath Mujoo and Samsar Chand Koul, all being teachers at CMS School, Fatehkadal, were its basic and active members whose interest in mountaineering was inspired by the men like R. Denton Thompson, who served the School in 1920s after losing one leg in the First world War.  After the Second World War the activities of the Club suffered nearly for 17 years and it was in 1965 Cashmere Climbing Club was revived and renamed as the Jammu and Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking  Club nominating Sir Jhon Ray as the Chairman. In the same year, Indian Everest Expedition gave boost to mountaineering activities in the country and among the nine summiteers two were from Jammu & Kashmir, one among them “Hero Wangyal” who later remained Patron of this Club. Like other friends, I remained involved with the activities of the Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club and subsequently tookover as its President  in October 2009 relieving  M Ashraf who was unanimously chosen by the Club members as lifetime Patron. It was a remarkable occasion when all luminaries of adventure sports in the State, like Peerzadah Mumtaz, former Chief Engineer, Jagdish Mehta, Mehta Photographers, Hakim Showkat Ali, former Chief Engineer, Muazam Bakshi, Senior Travel Operator, Naseer Ahamad Mir, Tourist Officer (incharge adventure), a trained mountaineer from Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi Uttarakhand, and others  spoke about the unforgettable contributions of this  gentleman. He was also an active member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and served its Vice President for a long spell. While celebrating the 75th Anniversary of JKMHC in the year 2009, in one of its functions, Sir Jhon Ray, a British and former Principal of Tyandale Biscoe School, Srinagar Kashmir, was invited and honoured at Tourist Reception Centre when M Ashraf spoke about the adventure related activities of Tyndale Biscoe School and shared the long lasting memories of the adventurers and travellers. Sir Jhon Ray, an articulate and humble person, spoke about the Club activities besides well thought and professionally managed  pursuits of M Ashraf for the adventure  tourism & sports.  In a passing note, M Ashraf informed us that the grade of  of Drass river rapids at  some spots  equal the grade 4 plus of Colorado river in the USA making it extremely challenging for the rafters, but not explored the way it ought to have been.

M. Ashraf would often share with me the enduring spirit and adventurous nature of  Major HPS Ahluwalia, former President of Indian Mountaineering Foundation, being 21st mountaineer of the world to  scale Mount Everest, perhaps 6th Indian. Subsequently, Major Ahluwalia got some injury and resultant neuro problems requiring wheel-chair support. Despite the physical challenge, Maj. Ahluwalia founded the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, New Delhi and Chairs it, doing immense service to humanity. Store of inspiring tales and events. Famous Everester from Ladakh,  Mr Wangyal populary known as “Hero Wangyal” all along spoke about M Ashraf. During 2009 when IMF commemorated its 50th anniversary at the SK International Convection Centre , Cheshmashi Srinagar , participated by the famous Everesters, mountaineers and explorers of the country and Guest of Honour being Mr Rigzin Jora, the then Minister of Tourism , Jammu & Kashmir. I delivered the inaugural address and  M Ashraf also spoke. I vividly remember, austere and impromptu, with flowing thoughts unfolding remarkable memories, receiving applause and appreciation from all the IMF members who had arrived from different parts of the country. M Ashraf served the IMF as its Vice President for a long spell and Vice President of the Himalayan Motorsport Association (Raid de Himalaya), Shimla.

M Ashraf was a noted columnist who wrote for Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Time, Caravan, Khaleej Times, Dubai. He has to his credit some books including “Ashraf’s Adventures – Travels in Ladakh” , published by Gulshan Books, Srinagar.

He contributed to the tourism sector of the State and the country as well. Highly respected and keenly heard, Mr Ashraf wrote and spoke always from his heart.  He had the opportunity and honour of meeting and interacting with noted personalities of the country and world representing varied professions – adventure sportsmen, civil servants, diplomats, defence officers, medicos, technocrats, educationists, writers, media persons, travel and tourism professionals etc.

Finally, in passing away of M Ashraf we have lost a charismatic person who deserves to the remembered and honoured by the adventure lovers, sports societies & clubs and even by the State Government for his contribution to the tourism sector.

Mohammad Saleem is former Commissioner/Secretary to Government,  Culture Department,  and former President J&K Mountaineering and Hiking Club