Remembering Agha Ashraf Ali

He added another layer to the age of enlightenment and liberal reformist modernisation in Jammu and Kashmir
"Agha Ashraf (whom I heard and met many times) used to take a position independent of those in power."
"Agha Ashraf (whom I heard and met many times) used to take a position independent of those in power."Special arrangement

Professor Agha Ashraf passed away on August 18, 2020 at the age of 97. He had contributed greatly as an academic administrator and as a public intellectual. Elliot Eisner, leading education thinker of our time once said, “not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important’’.

Some people didn’t leave behind things which earn rewards, awards and rankings in our times. But they used to debate and dialogue and have romance with ideas essential for growth mindset. Truth is that there are many routes to fulfillment.

The lives of many people have not followed a standard course. Today it is fashionable to be a specialist unconcerned with the world and people. It is a fallacy to equate these specialists with public intellectuals. Agha Ashraf (whom I heard and met many times) used to take a position independent of those in power.

During 1990-2010 he questioned privately and publicly ideas irrespective of who propagated them. Reasoned critique of state, society, political class, middle class and educational landscape was always his special gift to his audience. This column is a tribute to his memory and also an opportunity to draw a sketch of his social thought.

Public intellectual

Social Scientists view public intellectual a “person who takes a position independent of those in power enabling him to question debatable ideas, irrespective of who propagates them. The public intellectual has to see himself or herself as a person who is as close to being autonomous as is possible and more than that be seen by others as such”.

Agha Ashraf mainly through his speeches and conversations took a position independent of those in or out of power. He added another layer to the age of enlightenment and liberal reformist modernisation in Jammu and Kashmir and In doing so he drew upon the wider knowledge of Eastern and western thought. Professor Arvind Giggo described him the “Kashmir’s Renaissance man”.

He got influenced by such contemporary events as the Indian freedom movement, the French revolution, Russian revolution and nearer home the anti-Maharaja/Feudal movement (which was of course part of anti-colonial movement). His concerns as a modern educated person were not necessarily Kashmir-centric but were far and wide. His vision was not dimmed by obsolete conventions and customs.

His generous heart and equally generous mind prompted him to accept the message of the West without belittling the significance of Eastern thought and outlook. His access to western thought was through his education in the West and also through his connect with people and ideas at Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia. Agha Ashraf was a strong advocate of Kashmiri culture and solidarity.

Contours of Social Thought

Agha Sahib’s immediate problematique was the social and educational degeneration of native Kashmiris before 1947. In many of his speeches one could locate his reference to thick clouds of ignorance, backwardness in Kashmir in that period.

He usually would in his lectures turn to the pre-1947 socio-economic order and lament over the irrational sectarian beliefs and corrupt practices of the feudal/ bureaucratic elite who had reduced the majority community to a position of slavery.

The sectarian religious dogmas and practices too were a matter of concern to him. He along with others raised his voice against these practices which deprived common people in general in Jammu and Kashmir from the comforts of society.

Some of these early modernists believed that religious and social reforms are essentially steps towards political modernisation and development. Some of the reform movements that emerged in Indian sub-continent before independence were mostly considered by these reformers as instruments of social change

Agha Sahib always emphasised how Christian Reformation shook off the corruption and restored it to its pristine purity. He earnestly looked for similar changes in our part of the world. He had a thorough understanding of Aligarh movement of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and how it unleashed progressive forces.

His mother Begum Zafar Ali was the first matriculate in Kashmir. This instinctively made him a champaign of women’s education and emancipation. Denying property rights to women in Kashmir was a matter of grave concern to him. He strongly advocated modern education for women in Kashmir.

His economic and political ideas oscillated between liberal-democratic and socialist-cosmopolitan values as well as between colonial and post-colonial orientations.

His upbringing in an aristocratic-feudal family had its own impact on his outlook, experiences and attitude to life. Some of his aristocratic values came in conflict with class character of Kashmir society which had seen terrible economic hardships and economic disempowerment.

Agha’s first experience of feudal system was when he was admitted to the Mission School Fateh Kadal. There, all his other school mates would sit on the floor and Agha alone had to sit on a chair which was due to him being son of a registered Jagirdar family.

Reportedly this horrible experience mobilised him to search for an egalitarian society. After attending some of his lectures at Kashmir University I have always found it difficult to locate a clear theoretical or philosophical treatment of issues discussed by him.

This was partly due to an academic orientation of his generation where for career promotion reading comprehensively was necessary and writing became a secondary task.

Today the teacher writes more but reads less to catch up with requirements of career advancement and institutional ranking. Agha Sahib left no substantial writing so essential for understanding theoretical understanding of men and matters.

Be that as it may he taught and advocated the cause of what he felt were liberating and growth promoting forces in the society. His economic ideas were shaped by radical land reforms and free education in Jammu and Kashmir.

Agha Sahib during his student days at SP college Srinagar was drawn towards student activism and formed the Muslim Block with late Mir Qasim ( one time Chief Minister) as its General Secretary in 1941. However, the progressive direction of political forces in Kashmir forced him to abandon the idea. He admired the British system of constitutional government for the civil liberties it gave to the people.

The post-independence educated class broadly followed the political leadership in supporting the British constitutional system. This to them had potential to promote the liberal spirit and also liberate the people from tyranny of Rajas and Maharajas.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Zakir Hussein, Maulana Azad and Prof Mujeeb were the greatest influences on Agha Ashraf shaping his national and world outlook. He viewed Islam as a liberating force and thought no conflict between Islam, democracy and the rational thought.

In one of his lectures at Kashmir University he said, “Islam has always come to the rescue of Muslims but Muslims never came to the rescue of Islam”. Agha Sahib often quoted Rabindernath Tagore whenever and wherever, he spotted enemies of the open society:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Philosophy of Education

Agha Sahib was attracted towards liberal arts education which according to him enriches mind, soul, individual and national life. He was averse to commoditisation of education where the content of education must be determined by market demands.

During (1971-72) Agha remained a member of Shri Bhagwan Sahai committee on education which was headed by JP Nayek. It was in 1968 that Agha Ashraf established the Department of Education at Kashmir University. He believed that higher education has to serve not only as a source of economic growth but a critic and conscience of the society.

He admired dialogic method in and outside the classroom. To be open-minded is to be critically receptive to alternate possibilities. He thought that the best in the student comes out during the informal education consisting of seminars, dialogues etc.

The Jammu and Kashmir police organised a seminar in September, 2008 at Srinagar and I was asked by the then Inspector General Police SM Sahay to speak on “India’s Experiences with Democracy”. Professor Agha Ashraf had to chair the session. To my good luck, after the lecture was over and delegates dispersed for tea Agha sahib turned to me and said, “talk was fantastic and shall never forget it”.

I shall always remember Agha’s great sense of humor, white hair and magnetic smile on his face. Today when more and more Indian students are seeking admission to prestigious universities outside India the most fitting tribute to the memory of Agha Sahib would be to make our educational institutions particularly theuniversities strong, resilient and fit to face challenges of this century.

The other day the Canadian High Commissioner in Delhi, in a series of tweets said, “thousands of Indian students were receiving visa every week and the waiting time shall be reduced”. Trust me in Hyderabad’s Chilkur Balaji Temple the youth pray before god for getting visas quickly to earn education and citizenship abroad.

According to one estimate almost 300,000 Indian students study abroad doing PG and PhD and spending annually about 60,000 crores rupees . The Hi-B visa students from India go for paid education. Eminent economist Jagdesh Bhagwati talks of introducing “Brain Drain tax” but the Prime Minister Mr Modi considers the people leaving India as the “Brain Bank”.

Agha Sahib’s all children landed in European universities and made successful careers there. But he was acutely conscious of building a strong human resource in Kashmir as the only way to contribute to a strong Jammu and Kashmir.

We need to heal our education system in Kashmir and for that there is need for teachers having intellectual clarity and open mind. It is these virtues which psychologists advocate for transforming “teacher personalities” into “seeker personalities”.

Prof Gull Wani is Honorary Senior Fellow Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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