If there is a single name in Jammu & Kashmir that is synonymous with education, it is Prof. Agha Ashraf Ali. “While in Kashmir if you missed meeting Agha Sahib you in fact have not seen Kashmir”, writes Khushwant Singh. In my understanding of Agha Sahib he is a brilliant learning experience and a continued association would be an enlightening event for ever.
Born in 1922 in a successful upper middle class family, Agha Sahib had to suffer severe bouts of anxiety in his childhood. Perhaps that is the reason that his childhood wasn’t as spectacular as to match his adult landmark excellence.
As an alumnus of the Tyndale Bisco Memorial School, Dr. Ashraf stepped into the Sri Pratap College with a disciplined mind and a creative urge to graduate through the college craft to a delightful academic life. But thanks to his restless talent he stretched beyond the conventional disciplines and opted for the Honours programme in History which he cleared with distinction. He did try his luck with science but had to pull back for want of an adequate aptitude for science. But this pull-back experience proved to be a ‘push through’ event in his life, when Agha Sahib’s mind displayed more analytical objective and empirical treatments to environmental data no matter where from did it come – philosophy, sociology, psychology, law or history. It could not be Sir Geroge Sarton alone to charge his mind with a passion for science, but even Socrates had an enduring attraction whose ideas sharpened his mind to accept the truth only after discovering it. His non-repulsive attachment to Marxian dialectical materialism, Freudian unconscious motivation, and Darwinian evolution of species could be a genuine prelude to his earlier assertion that modern mind must be looked through these parameters only.
Towards the end of World War II (1944-45) Dr. Ashraf was all set for Aligarh Muslim University to pursue a masters programme in history. Prof. M. Habib – the unconquerable academic – was the beacon light to empower Aga Sahib to burst forth his originality and creativity. As an immediate reward he won the Lord Morrison’s Medal while majoring in history.
Soon after, his real journey of discovery began with Dr. Zakir Hussain’s letter to Begam Zafar Ali (Aga Sahib’s mother – a real symbol of unconditional love) insisting and recommending Agha Sahib’s association with Jamia Millia Islamia as an academic faculty. This was agreed and Prof. Ashraf had to spend six years in Jamia followed by one year in London to receive the academic diploma in Education. I consider this period of seven years as both internship and house job experience for long educational career which began when Sheikh M. Abdullah (Prime Minister J&K State) requested him to come and take charge of the state education as Inspector of Schools.
However, a real portrait of Prof. Agha Ashraf emerges from his tenure as the Principal Teachers Training College, Srinagar (1950-55). A backward march of 56 years would meet an Agha Sahib with a fringe of long, straight black hair, the high forehead, horn rimmed glasses, gold watch chain, a well-worn leather brief case; he looked like a stock character the professor. His contribution to our understanding of the educational process, not his Hollywood appearance accounts for his significance. While in the teachers college he was projected as a man not troubled to fit his love of music, joys in life and admiration for great men in art literature and religion. It is again here that Agha Sahib got convinced that teaching is art, and science never generate arts directly out of themselves. An inventive mind must be intuitively or professionally involved in the application of psychological principles to the process of education. He was further convinced that the future of education depended directly upon the quality of the inventive minds.
Surprisingly, it seemed as if opportunities stood in queue to lift Aga Sahib from one peak to another and that too on a five year stay basis. In early sixties a Fulbright scheme to America won him a doctorate degree on the theories of Americanisation. A survey of rich and empowering literature, a keen study of the rare and historically credible documents must have accelerated his dynamism which was seen in operation when he joined the Department of Education
Kashmir University in 1965. Primarily a creative and imaginative teacher Dr. Ashraf concentrated upon a small group of students leading them to the masters programme in education. Using both art and craft of teaching Prof. Agha resolved to liberate his students from all illusions, fears and irrelevant beliefs. How this objective could be realized without a strong background of men and their creations. His personal journey to excellence begins with Paul Brenton, Dr. Zakir Hussain, Moulana Azad and matures with Kenth Crag’s, the event of Quran. Besides, his mental make up was both coloured and strengthened by the men of outstanding intelligence. These included Gordon Child, Leo Haberman, B. Dunham, Eric Fromm and Freud. With these academic and theoretical inputs in hand, Dr. Ashraf transferred his classroom into a laboratory of understanding, questioning and analysing facts, doubts and beliefs.
A spell bound delivery of his lectures increased his popularity. His unique style of oratory with maximum use of humour, poetry and pun made him a versatile hero of action and thought. His cognitive faculties of recognition, retention and recall are his exclusive assets for a continued mental alertness.
His entry into the reconstruction of education system in Jammu and Kashmir began when he took over the Chairmanship of the State Board of School Education in 1975 followed by his appointment as the Director Colleges and the Commissioner of Education. His membership to the Bhagwan Sahai Commission on Education 1972 and L. K. Jha Committee 1978 recorded his objective intervention in reconstructing the education scenario in Kashmir.