The life and times of Shahid Hamid

March 14, 2021

Shahid Hamid’s Treasured Memories is where the personal, the private, the public and the political mingle and make for absorbing reading

Man in a lifetime is many parts. Shahid Hamid is more than the sum of his numerous parts. His Treasured Memories is a trove where the personal, the private, the public and the political meet, mix and mingle, and make for absorbing reading. On a personal level, he is a Cantab graduate and barrister; on the private: a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather and all the relations he mentions; on the public level, a practising lawyer and a former civil servant. On the political level, he was a powerful federal minister, an almost-prime minister and the Punjab governor.

Hamid “struts and frets his hour upon the stage” of life. However, he is not “full of sound and fury.” He is too self-restrained for that. His narrative, which proceeds with engaging equanimity, does signify something. A witness to, and an active player in, a crucial period of our national life, he provides much to consider. The work is largely descriptive. This sustains the author’s “apolitical” stance as well as obliges the reader to read between the lines without an authorial spin on the events. Regarding the goings-on in the maze of state structures, both at the provincial and the federal levels, he observes, “The reality of events within the corridors of power is often very different from its public manifestation.”

As a young CSP officer, Hamid was the sub-divisional officer in Gopalganj and the additional deputy commissioner in Comilla. He also served in Sylhet. As such, the chapters on his career in East Pakistan have a candid pungency. They make for grim reading. He narrates incidents to illustrate the strength of the writ of the government even at the level of sub-divisions, and the need for deliberated decisions and firm action in times of law-and-order crisis. Among East Pakistan’s grievances, he notes the lack of empathy between the West Pakistani army personnel and the local population, racism and a sense of superiority among the West Pakistanis; and the absence of a fellow-feeling. These among myriad factors were to contribute to the tragic human cost and harrowing events that preceded the breakup of Pakistan. As a young administrator, he interacts with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and finds him “a pleasant person, but I could not detect in him any charisma” (p 68). During the anti-Ayub riots in East Pakistan, he observes: “It was not that the civil administration was overwhelmed. It was more a case of doing nothing to prevent the fall of Ayub’s government” (p 70). This planned passivity is a potent tool in the hands of bureaucracy, visible time and again in our national history. His stint in the Finance Department reveals that budget figures were, and unfortunately still are, the product of “engineered optimism” and so untrustworthy (p 77). He observes that fake news was fed the public during the East Pakistan crisis, (p 79) and mentions the smoke screens created by the politic Mr Bhutto to hide the reality (p 83).

The oscillating manipulation by Mr Bhutto of Mr Mustafa Khar and “the scrupulously honest” Mr Haneef Ramay for the offices of the chief minister and governor is shared. The petty-mindedness of Mr Bhutto is remembered when a passing remark by a bureaucrat leads to his dismissal from service (p 94). For some time, Hamid remained secretary to the chief minister of the Punjab. Following Mr Ramay’s fall from Mr Bhutto’s favour, Hamid was unsuccessfully grilled, by the director general of the Federal Security Force, to testify against his former boss (pp 95-96). He then resigned from government service. Subsequently, he was appointed director general of the Lahore Development Authority: “The offer, made with Bhutto’s consent, shed an interesting light on the feudal part of his mindset. It was OK if he fired you; it was not acceptable if you left of your own volition” (p 97). Hamid’s views about the working and gradual deterioration of the civil service invite serious attention. He laments Mr Bhutto’s abolition of the CSP and introduction of Gen Zia’s “lateral entrants” from the armed forces. With the wisdom of one experienced in administrative and political office, he observes that the “politicisation” of the civil service “has not stopped” (p 57). His views on the restructuring of the Foreign Service and the federal bureaucracy still hold good. These chapters are enlightening not only for public servants but for policymakers and committees entrusted with administrative reforms from time to time.

The byzantine manoeuvres during Ms Benazir Bhutto’s period are riveting reading. The author recounts the events leading to her dismissal by her own handpicked president on the grounds: “corruption, nepotism and violation of rules”. The Presidential Order was upheld by the Supreme Court and the judgement reported: PLD 1998 SC 388. His appointment by Mr Farooq Leghari in Meraj Khalid’s caretaker cabinet was as a minister holding three key portfolios, of Establishment, Defence and Law. This interim period was short but intense and its recollection provides important information regarding statecraft. His handling of the ISI, (p 158) and the chiefs of the Armed Forces, resurrection of the Defence Council after 11 years, reduction of the defence budget by six percent and vital decisions on other defence matters (pp.158-159), decreasing the number of ministries, divisions and bodies by one-third, dealings with the Senate, the Judiciary and the Election Commission, the shifting stances of politic ministers, are some of the salient matters. Of the 51 ordinances, a majority were converted into permanent laws by the subsequent government. Among those were the important Right to Information, the extension of voting rights to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Ehtisab Ordinance. With the Muslim League-Nawaz government, which followed, the ministries went back to the original number and size. The Central Selection Board, reconstituted to promote merit, met a similar fate. All the bureaucrats superseded, managed their promotions “through political and other connections” (pp 159-160).

For some time, Hamid remained secretary to the chief minister of the Punjab. Following Mr Ramay’s fall from Mr Bhutto’s favour, Hamid was unsuccessfully grilled, by the director general of the Federal Security Force, to testify against his former boss (pp 95-96). He then resigned from government service. Subsequently, he was appointed director general of the Lahore Development Authority.

In the Sharif period, Hamid was the Punjab governor for almost two and a half years. Details about the tussle between the Judiciary and Mr Sharif’s government, and the latter’s “shameful” assault on the Supreme Court, and the resignation of President Leghari following his refusal to sign the order denotifying Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah (pp 222-228), are illuminating. He opines: “Leghari was the best president in our history. Did he make mistakes? Yes, he did, but acted on the basis of strongly held principles of honesty and integrity and deep patriotism” (p 228). The story behind Pakistan’s nuclear tests is told in the manner of a novelist, with dialogues. His observation “there was never any doubt in his (Mr Sharif’s) mind that we had to display our nuclear capability” questions Dr Qadeer’s claim that the prime minister was hesitant to allow nuclear tests.

The significant visit of former Indian prime minister, Mr Vajpayee, is described in graphic detail. With the postponement of the return visit by his Pakistani counterpart, “began the loss of a historic opportunity to make a meaningful Kashmir settlement” (p 248). On the controversy about Mr Sharif not knowing about Kargil, he says that he did, and then spells out the pressure exerted by the United States to withdraw from the mountainous heights (pp 248-255).

The Golden Jubilee of Pakistan saw several state visits in 1997. The wide range of preparations carried out on Governor Hamid’s watch were as meticulous as a barrister’s brief. Mr Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka, Mr Romeo LeBlanc, the Governor General of Canada, Mr Li Peng, the former prime minister and chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Queen Elizabeth, all stayed at the Governor’s House. Its long overdue, and quite splendid, renovation was energetically supervised by the woman behind the man, his wife Ms Sarwat Hamid.

Ready humour and wit, anecdotes pertaining to personal life, and idiosyncrasies of the bureaucracy, the legal profession and politicians are peppered throughout the narrative. As a student in a school in England, he is asked to deliver a lecture on Islam and then observes, “It was well received but my tableeghi effort failed to win any converts” (p 28). When at Cambridge, he sports a beard but is persuaded by his parents to shave it off “on payment of ten pounds” (p 38), a generous sum in the late fifties. The Pakistani naval attache, and his wife, in Bangkok, come to complain to his mother, who had played a practical joke on all the officers’ wives, that she had “made a fool of everyone but not us, why not, are we strangers!” (p 42). A fellow bureaucrat condoles the birth of the third daughter. By so doing, the author not only provides occasion for mirth but also points to the malaise of male-chauvinism embedded in our culture. A chief secretary is known to have “gained a reputation for being a wise man, largely because he seldom spoke”(p 56). He wins the case for a client who was detained on the sole ground that “He talks too much” (p 116). His prescription for insomnia is, “pick up and start reading the text of law and you will fall asleep within minutes” (p 119). Queen Elizabeth, on her 1997 state visit, haggles for a bargain while purchasing a hand-knotted carpet at the Governor’s House, Lahore (p 209). The Queen is not just the remote “Queen of the United Kingdom and 15 other Commonwealth realms” and head of the Anglican Church, se is a person, like any, who enjoys a deal.

Not dissimilar to Thomas More who served Henry VIII as Lord High Chancellor of England (1529 -1532), Hamid is a man for all seasons. He occupied high office but remained impervious to temptations and beguiling offers. Several individuals tried. He was offered elevation to the high court by Mr Wasim Sajjad, Law Minister in Mr Junejo’s government, for whom he had won a case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan (p 112). Two prime ministers also made offers: Ms Benazir Bhutto, a direct elevation to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and then had a change of mind (pp 133-134), and Mr Nawaz Sharif, an ambassadorship (p 238).

To encapsulate a fully-lived life in 200 pages of text and 60 photographs, can be a daunting task. What to retain or not to retain, that is the question.The numerous highlight shared, often tease one into thought regarding embedded matters pertaining to politics and politicians, the political, the politic and the apolitical. Through the labyrinthine corridors of power, he swans with grace and becoming aplomb; and ends on an optimistic note. With the conversational tone, which makes the text more accessible, he entices the reader into his life and times. And one is left, like Oliver Twist, asking for more.

The reviewer is a multiple award-winning Anglophone poet and founder of the International Centre for Pakistani Writing in English (ICPWE), Lahore

The life and times of Shahid Hamid