by Zafar Bangash (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 3, Ramadan, 1443)
Shakil Durrani: Frontier Stations: An Account of Public Service in North and West Pakistan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, Pakistan, pp. 440; 2021.
In an intellectually-barren country like Pakistan where the literacy rate is low and aptitude for reading even lower, writing a book about the inner workings of the bureaucracy is a daring undertaking. Shakil Durrani, a retired civil servant, has done just that with his book, Frontier Stations.
An average citizen’s encounter with the civil bureaucracy is not very pleasant. The bureaucrat is seen as the ‘pukka sahib’ continuing the tradition of the raj but it is useful to get the bureaucrat’s perspective.
Describing his experiences—both personal and official—Shakil Durrani weaves an interesting narrative that is at once engaging and informative. It is interspersed with nuggets about the history and exploits of the Pakhtuns, the ethnic group to which he belongs.
For some readers, it will provide new insights; for others the book will merely confirm what they already know: a dysfunctional state where political bosses (civilian or military) force bureaucrats to violate rules to comply with their illegal demands.
Most bureaucrats simply comply to avoid incurring the wrath of political bosses. Others with a conscience have to suffer the consequences of abiding by the rules. Shakil Durrani falls into the latter category, hence his frequent transfers from one post to another. Despite this, he reached the highest level of the civil bureaucracy: chief secretary.
The frequent moves afforded him an opportunity to gain wide experience: Chief Commissioner Gilgit-Baltistan, Chief Secretary Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Chief Secretary Frontier Province (now renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) as well as Chief Secretary Sindh. From this vantage point, he sheds light on the political machinations that have bedevilled Pakistan’s chequered history.
In order to understand the political environment, we must first review the role of power-wielders in Pakistan. Three institutions are primarily responsible for running the affairs of state: government of the day, bureaucracy (aka ‘civil service’) and the military, or more accurately the army. Other institutions, like the judiciary and electronic media, are also trying to barge in now, to influence decision-making, often exacerbating problems.
Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan’s troubled history has alternated between bouts of military dictatorship and civilian rule. Even when civilians are at the helm of affairs, the generals breathe down their necks. Pakistan’s current travails confirm this. Not surprisingly, it has evoked the retort that in Pakistan 'the army has a state!’
Two other Muslim countries share similar experiences: Turkey and Egypt. While Turkey may have tamed its military, Egypt remains in its grip. There are striking parallels between the militaries in Pakistan and Egypt.
Of the three pillars of state, the bureaucrats are the most educated while a majority of politicians are semi-literate. Yet, they are tasked with drafting the laws of the country! Can anything be more absurd?
Feudal by nature and rotten to the core, they inherited vast estates from their forefathers. As agents of British colonialism, they were awarded vast landholdings for betraying their own people in the 1857 uprising. Mumtaz Daultana (himself a feudal lord), admitted in the Agrarian Committee report of the Muslim League (1949) that “no large feudal family could trace back its proprietorship beyond 1857.”
The men in khaki, while much more disciplined, are slightly better educated, but barely. Cadets enter the military academy after O-levels or grade 12. These can hardly be considered sterling qualifications.
Despite their better education, the bureaucrats do not get the respect or appreciation they deserve from their moronic political bosses. The threat of transfer hangs over their head like the Sword of Damocles!
To understand the dilemma, let us consider one particularly grim episode the author narrates from May 2007 when General Pervez Musharraf was the ‘president’. The general desperately wanted another term as president to complete his ‘reforms’ and ‘resolve the Kashmir dispute’ while still serving as army chief but Chief Justice Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry got in the way. Musharraf demanded Chaudhry’s resignation; the latter refused, whereupon the general “forwarded a reference to the Supreme Judicial Council containing various charges seeking his removal” (p.389).
A countrywide lawyers’ movement erupted in support of the ousted chief justice. Tens of thousands of people joined rallies, much to the chagrin—and fear—of the commando general. When the Karachi Bar Association invited the deposed chief justice to address them on May 12, 2007, the general issued orders to prevent him from speaking there. A showdown became inevitable.
It would be useful to quote the author who as Chief Secretary Sindh was part of official discussions to prevent the ousted chief justice from addressing the Karachi Bar Association.
“For four days prior to the scheduled arrival of the Chief Justice, long, tense, and worrisome meetings were held in the Governor’s House on the subject attended by a frightened Governor and a casual Chief Minister, as they more than others, would be responsible for the consequences. Also, in attendance were a few rather irresponsible federal and provincial ministers and of course the Karachi Chiefs of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau, provincial Police Chief and his deputy, and the Director General Sindh Rangers. The Civil Administration was represented by me, as Chief Secretary, while the Home Secretary was the respected Brigadier Mohammad Mohtaram.
“For an official like me, who had spent his entire career in the Frontier— now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province—Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit- Baltistan (Northern Areas), it was strange to note that in the meetings in Sindh, the views of the civil administration were neither sought nor heeded.
“Civil servants were there to support and implement the directives, no matter how asinine, and in no case could they question or oppose these directives. Theirs was to ‘do or die’ so that the politicians, including the Army Chief, achieved their purposes in life” (p.391).
With the advice of the Chief Secretary and that of the Sindh Interior Secretary ignored, a bloodbath on May 12, 2007 became inevitable. Many innocent people died. This happened only because the generalissimo was determined to be president and keep his army uniform. Within a year, he was consigned to the dustbin of history (p.392).
There is much useful information in Shakil Durrani’s book even if the accolades he heaps upon some journalists and politicians may raise eyebrows! After exposing the wrongdoings of the ruling elite, he concludes with a plea to rise above provincialism and parochialism. He also calls for more attention to be paid to the two poorest provinces of Pakistan: Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Will the power-wielders take heed?
(Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and the author of several books)