Remembering a forgotten hero

SM Burke deserves a place in our national hall of fame for his enduring contribution to our public and intellectual life

Remembering a forgotten hero

SM Burke is little known in Pakistan despite having contributed enormously to its intellectual and public life. One probable reason for his relative obscurity is his Christian faith.  He lived a long life and his contribution spanned administrative and judicial roles in civil service, diplomacy, academia in the US and South Asian historiography.

Burke’s name is a throwback to the golden old days when Pakistan’s foreign service was staffed by capable administrators and intellectuals. The time he served in the foreign service also boasted the presence of Patras Bukhari, Professor Ahmed Ali, Shahid Suhrawardy and Sir Zafarullah Khan, only to name a few top-drawer names.

Samuel Martin Burke was born in Martinpur, in Faisalabad, in 1906. He was the son of a local school headmaster, Janab Khairuddin Burq (lightening), who was the first graduate from the village where he taught. Burke is the anglicised version of Burq.

Burke attended the Government College Lahore on a scholarship. Initially enrolled as a science student with a view to pursuing a career in medicine, he soon grew tired of the lab work and switched to history. He excelled at history, doing well enough in his history BA honours to advance into masters. He sat and passed the Indian civil service exam which led to a further two years training in England in administration and law. Upon completion of the training, he was appointed first to administrative positions and later to judicial appointments, becoming a high court judge in the process.

As a judicial officer, he chaired a three-member committee charged with taking up election petitions against the election result of the 1945 election. Burke dealt with petitions in a balanced and fair-minded way, often pronouncing in favour of the Muslim League candidates.

When the partition of India loomed, Burke resigned from the civil service in a principled show of neutrality as he could not be part of any country as an impartial civil servant (both countries had asked Burke to serve in their civil service). However, when he decided to stay in Pakistan, he joined Pakistan foreign service where, under the leadership of foreign minister Sir Zafarullah Khan, he played a vital role in organising the nascent service.

In his autobiography, he wrote "If I had the chance of living my life all over again, I would like to marry the same woman and have the same careers in the same order in which they actually happened."

Like his previous assignments, Burke brought great administrative and intellectual changes in the job. He served in Pakistani diplomatic missions in 11 countries including the US, Canada and the UK. Burke was instrumental in cementing Pakistan-US relations as well as persuading the US administration to send shipments of much-needed wheat to the food-scarce Pakistan in 1950s. Similarly, as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Canada, he played a crucial role in finalising negotiation between Pakistan and Canada on shipment of uranium and the installation of nuclear power plant for electricity generation.

Upon retirement from the foreign service in 1961, he was appointed professor of South Asian studies at the University of Minnesota -- a post especially created for him. There he set up the Burke library. He retired from his academic position in 1975 and relocated to the UK where he was to spend the rest of his life immersed in historical research on India and Pakistan.

This period was the most fertile in his life and represented a continuation of his intellectual output which began with his first authoritative work on Pakistan’s foreign policy. The book tilted Pakistan foreign policy: an historical analysis, published in 1973, remains one of the best account of the origin of Pakistan foreign policy. The book remains in print and is updated with the collaboration of Professor Lawrence Ziring, author of many academic studies on Pakistan. This important work was followed by another comparative study of Pakistan and Indian foreign policies under the Mainsprings of Indian and Pakistani Foreign Policy in 1974. Both books are known as authoritative text on the early years of Pakistan and Indian foreign policies.

Beyond his narrow specialism, Burke was also engaged with research on the wider Indian history. With Saleemuddin Qureshi, he worked on collaborative works on the study of Akbar and the British Raj. The history of the Mughal period was also Burke’s preoccupation. Beside Akbar, Burke also wrote a book on Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor in India. His magnum opus The British Raj: An historical overview is a wide-ranging work on the history of the Raj in India.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was also the subject of his research. He rounded off his research with the publication of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah: His Personality and his Politics in 1997, a balanced assessment of Jinnah’c career and politics.

His consistent preoccupation with Pakistan was remarkable given the fact he had left Pakistan in the 1950 never to return. He also wrote his autobiography which he dedicated to his English wife Louise. Burke stands in the illustrious company of other stalwarts of Pakistan judicial history such as Justice Cornelius, another luminary of Christian faith. Thorough his public service and scholarship, he made a lasting contribution to not only make Pakistan a better place but also improve better understanding of Pakistan through the scholarly lenses of its foreign policy, its shared history with India of the Mughal and the British Raj period and its leadership by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

General Ayub Khan conferred Sitar-i-Pakistan upon him for his services. After this brief shower of recognition, Burke was almost forgotten. His vast contribution does not surface much in our history books or in mainstream media commentary. Burke lived a long life and died in 2010, aged 104. He lived a fulfilled life and died a thoroughly satisfied man. In his autobiography, he wrote "If I had the chance of living my life all over again, I would like to marry the same woman and have the same careers in the same order in which they actually happened."

SM Burke needs to be restored to our pantheon of national heroes. He deserves a place in our national hall of fame for his enduring contribution to our public and intellectual life.

Remembering a forgotten hero