Sunday July 03, 2022

Among the best

June 14, 2021

“I hope you will write an obituary when I die,” Omar Khan Afridi once requested. He knew that I like writing obituaries about people I know – irrespective of the fact whether they were known or unknown, rich or poor. It was an innocent wish from someone who had served on senior civil service positions and deserved tributes for his many achievements in life.

Omar Afridi lived for 87 long years, but he ensured that post-retirement he would spend his time productively by engaging in literary pursuits and social work. Not many people knew that he founded and supervised the SOS Villages in his native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and undertook fund-raising campaigns for the orphaned children living and studying there. This showed his kind-heartedness and his urge to help the orphans to live in a decent place and receive quality education.

The well-built, mild-mannered civil servant from Kohat wrote two books. One published in 2014 is titled ‘Pukhtanah: a concise account’, explaining the life and ways of Pakhtuns. I was pleasantly surprised to receive the 188-page book from him as he had given no hint he was writing it. ‘Pukhtanah’ is a common word used by Pakhtuns to refer to themselves. ‘Moong Pukhtanah yoo’, meaning ‘we are Pakhtuns’, is a matter of pride and is used whenever certain good traits of the tribe need to be highlighted.

The other book, ‘Mahsud Monograph’, is an account of the Mahsud tribe, which inhabits South Waziristan and is known for its bravery. He knew the Mahsuds well as he had served from 1968-71 as the political agent of South Waziristan Agency, now a district after Fata’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2018. Those were peaceful times, but even then it wasn’t easy administering South Waziristan, which bordered Afghanistan and where the two major Pakhtun tribes, Mahsud and Ahmadzai Wazir, at times clashed with each other over a host of issues.

Belonging to the Adamkhel sub-tribe of the dynamic Afridi tribe, Omar Afridi rose in the ranks to reach the highest offices in the civil service. He served as chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and secretary to the president of Pakistan before retirement from service in 1994. Before that he had served as the administrator of Islamabad Capital Territory.

He remained the deputy commissioner of Mardan before being posted as the secretary of the home and tribal affairs department of the province. It was during Omar Afridi’s latter posting that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as the prime minister initiated the reforms process in Fata by undertaking for the first time twice-a-year visits to each of the seven tribal agencies, holding public meetings and creating political awareness. As home secretary, Omar Afridi used to hold meetings of political agents of tribal agencies every week, getting together some of the noted names from civil service such as Khalid Aziz, Inayatullah, Abdullah and Shakil Durrani. The dynamic duo of Inspector General of Frontier Corps, then Brigadier Naseerullah Babar and later the governor, and Chief Secretary Nasruminallah, watched their performance and were highly supportive.

Omar Afridi had also served as Balochistan’s additional chief secretary of the planning and development department and the commissioner of Lahore division.

He was a member of the caretaker government of Malik Meraj Khalid as the minister for interior, states and frontier regions and narcotics control. It was during this short stint that he made a big contribution by initiating the process in 1997 to give the right of universal adult franchise to the long-suffering tribespeople and setting the stage for the future mainstreaming of Fata. He was lucky to have senior police officer, a fellow Pakhtun, Mohammad Abbas Khan as secretary of his ministry at the time and the two worked together to ensure that all the people of tribal areas were awarded the right to vote. Predictably, there was opposition from some in the provincial government, parts of the bureaucracy, and the maliks (tribal elders) who alone until then enjoyed the right to vote and contest elections due to the limited franchise. They were warned it would lead to law and order issues in Fata that bordered the generally unfriendly Afghanistan, but Omar Afridi stood his ground and got valuable support from the then president Farooq Leghari and interim prime minister Meraj Khalid to get his proposal approved by the cabinet.

Omar Afridi was born in London, UK, in January 1934. He had studied at the Presentation Convent School in Murree, Bishop Cotton School in Shimla (India), Karachi Grammar School, and Victoria College, Alexandria (Egypt).

He had joined the army as a cadet, was commissioned as an officer in March 1954 and joined his regiment, Probyn’s Horse, as a second lieutenant. He had left the army on being selected for the civil service in 1960. During the 1965 war with India, Omar Afridi – in keeping with the best traditions of the army – answered the call of patriotism and reported for duty to his unit even though he had retired.

Omar Afridi rightly felt proud of his children. He was the father of Justice Yahya Afridi, judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan who earlier remained chief justice of Peshawar High Court. Also mourning his death are his wife and three daughters, one married to Tariq Saranjam, the US-based son of late landowner and PML-N leader Saranjam Khan.

As it happens in the case of many of us who are born in a village, receive education and find work in urban centres, and are returned after death for burial in ancestral graveyards, Omar Afridi’s final resting place is his native Babri Banda in Kohat. The funeral had to be big for someone who not only served in high positions, but was a modest, polite and kind man. As one civil servant who had worked under him remarked, he was among the best.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.