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August 13, 2020

What Mufti saw

Opinion

August 13, 2020

Masud Mufti, writer, thinker and administrator was among those teenagers who marched in the streets of Lahore for the creation of Pakistan. He joined the country's premier civil service as he had wished and strived for as a young degree holder. What he could not have foreseen was the cascade of events fate unleashed once he joined the Civil Service Academy in 1958.

The then army chief Gen Ayub Khan and the then governor general Iskander Mirza pulled the rug from under the feet of civilian rulers, and set the country on a new and uncertain course. In quick succession, the constitution was abrogated, politicians disqualified, a large number of senior civil servants dismissed and the civil service emasculated.

The long-term effects of dictatorship would unfold as the years passed. Mufti could never reconcile with this coup de force. His new book ‘Do Minar’ (Two Minarets) published by Oxford University Press this year is, in his description, 'reportage' covering the autobiography of the author and his country's changing fortunes in one volume.

This write-up goes into only some details of the chequered rise of the two minarets which readers need to know, to better understand how the young republic's institutions were mauled to clear the way for autocratic rule and exploitation of the country's resources for personal, group or class benefit. It is an insider's account of the step-by-step dismantling of safeguards for the civil service which stood as checks in the way of military rulers or power hungry politicians.

The publication of ‘Do Minar’ is timely in a way because the party in power since 2018 envisages some drastic changes in the service structure and has set up a task force under the chairmanship of Dr Ishrat Hussain to come forward with a plan to undertake new 'reforms'.

Mufti recalls that the administrative frame inherited at independence pulled Pakistan through its infancy and set it on a path of development which was cited as a model. But the game changed with the disruption of the country's democratic system. The constitutional order having been made redundant, the notables (read: feudals) and other influence peddlers moved quickly to grab power.

On his very first posting taking charge of a subdivision in the Jhelum district, Mufti would end up displeasing the local politician and influential landowner. A colleague of Mufti was facing the same predicament in the Campbellpur district. The divisional commissioner, no longer able to deal with the new power -rokers, simply ordered their mutual transfer.

In the new district, young Mufti again ran afoul of a local landlord hellbent on recovering a few acres of land he had lost under Ayub's land reforms. The result was another marching order but this time to the secretariat in Lahore. The steel frame had begun to unravel. The autocratic rule established at the top had trickled down to the districts, with the once powerful bureaucracy turned into helpless tools of the oligarchs.

The writer narrates how the parallel rise of the two minarets, one of the nation and the second his own, became interconnected in their travails. And how with each passing decade, the institutional rot would sap a young nation's positive energy and by age fifty, it would begin to be seen as a failing state.

Mid-level civil officers were being moved around like pawns on a chessboard as local influentials would demand at whim to move out civil servants from their area or to bring in someone of their choice. Mufti was no exception. He paid for trying to follow the rules and was posted to East Pakistan to eventually join the 90,000 POWs after the fall of Dhaka. But that is another story which is the theme of his books ‘Chehray’ and ‘Chehray aur Muhre’.

The transfer to Dhaka in 1971 was preceded by postings as deputy commissioner to Larkana and Lahore where he would have encounters with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was at the time riding a wave of popularity. Bhutto was highly conscious of the pivotal role of the civil service. Once at the helm, Bhutto saw the civil service as an obstacle to his (absolute) power as demonstrated in his far-reaching administrative reforms of 1973.

Bhutto addressed the nation on radio and television on August 20, 1973 to strip the services of their prestigious nomenclature – but more ominously of the remaining constitutional safeguards for the civil servants.

Mufti writes that if Ayub and Yahya had weakened the safeguards for the civil bureaucracy to follow rule of law without fear, Bhutto dismantled those beyond repair and recovery till this day. The ruler's word replaced the law and civil servants became beholden to the ruler rather than the state of Pakistan.

Ayub, Yahya and Bhutto used martial law to dismiss over 3,000 civil servants but under the reforms of 1973, the government was given powers to retire senior officers without assigning reasons. The message was clear; follow the orders or get ready to go on forced retirement. A culture of loyalty to the government, civil or military, became the new norm.

Mufti crossed paths with Bhutto one more time when he was made commissioner Rawalpindi on return from prison in India. Bhutto was already toying with the idea of early elections. Mufti was contacted by one of the cabinet ministers to get a feel of the situation for early polls. His unfavourable read of the prospects led to his removal from the sensitive post of commissioner Rawalpindi to the federal secretariat. He had questioned the age-old proverb of ‘the boss is always right’.

This transfer was also a signal to the administrative machinery not to question the wisdom of early elections and rather help in Bhutto's landslide victory. It also symbolised the tip of the iceberg that was heading to engulf the civil service. Each officer would be tagged as loyal or otherwise by the party in power. That assessment determined who would get the best jobs and who would be consigned to the 'parking lot' given the name of 'khudday line'.

Mufti meticulously traces from personal observation or accounts by other retired civil servants how the Central Superior Services were transformed into a high stakes game of power and pelf. A retired general's personal grouse against a deputy commissioner led to the abolition of posts of commissioner and deputy commissioner when the general was made head of the national reconstruction bureau. The decision was eventually reversed after years of confusion in district administration.

'Do Minar' also brings into relief all the damage that was done to the bureaucracy's role as efficient and neutral administrators, to a system characterized by shahparasti (pandering to the ruler's wishes) awam bezari ( aloofness from the people) and istehsali tarz-e-amal (exploitation). No surprise then that the term ‘bureaucracy’ ended up carrying a negative connotation.

The rulers began to punish senior civil servants for not falling in line by moving them to insignificant positions. The author concludes that the traditions set by Ayub, Yahya and Bhutto to undermine the civil service were diligently followed by the rulers who came after them. Merit is often a secondary consideration while personal loyalty became the new yardstick in assessing the value of senior bureaucrats.

Mufti got a reprieve from this free fall by joining the Asian Development Bank for a few years – only to return to a further decayed system, and then finding it hard to adjust to the morale breaking environment. He realised that as an additional secretary in the federal government he had to follow unjust demands of the minister in charge.

Mufti proceeded on leave only to be made an officer on special duty – OSD – a code word for no charge. His last assignment was to another insignificant post confirming that the government in power had little use for him. His career ended with retirement in 1994 when he turned into a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, with reportage becoming his specialty as a writer.

Masud Mufti's testimony in ‘Do Minar’ can serve as a work of reference for the team entrusted with the task of ‘fixing’ the civil administration yet again.

Email: [email protected]