Life of a civil servant

September 12, 2021

Shakil Durrani writes an account of his time in public service while serving in different provinces of Pakistan

Life of a civil servant

There was a time when most officers of the Indian Civil Services (ICS) would pen down their experiences of how life was in British India during their stint and how they governed the multitudes. The British officers who served in the North-Western Frontier Province were no exception and always seemed to have a special liking for the Frontier, the rugged terrain and the hardy Pathans. Most memoirs were a blend of history, anecdotes - some comic while others drawing serious consequences, detailed description of places, anthropology, unimaginable splendour, curious local customs some of which need respect, wildlife and shikar, a favourite pastime with many. Some would contain a detailed commentary on how to govern, tactics and policies that are likely to remain useful especially in remote areas and under unusual circumstances.

The tradition of memoir writing by civil servants had waned considerably waned in recent decades and no worthwhile autobiography is available based largely on experiences about the Frontier region. Maybe writing the truth in an increasingly intolerant society is not considered safe. This has resulted in a frustrating vacuum for those trying to know more about governance in post-independence Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Recently, Shakil Durrani, an extraordinarily daring officer from the 1971 batch of Pakistan Administrative Service, has penned down his astonishing memoirs Frontier Stations: An Account of Public Service in Pakistan. Durrani had spent many years in the province, serving as a deputy commissioner, commissioner and political agent in the erstwhile FATA, now the Merged Districts. He is unique among his civil service peers to have served as chief secretary in Sindh, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. After his retirement he spent another six years heading two public organisations as chairman, Pakistan Railways and the WAPDA. Frontier Stations is therefore a reflection of 40 years of public service in Pakistan.

It is an interesting discourse, mostly about the North-West but not limited to it, with anecdotes about many officers and how they thought and felt while governing so many people with limited resources and scant personal protection. Durbar Ali Shah, the political agent (PA) of South Waziristan after independence, it says, was “perpetually worried and would go to great lengths to avoid risk.” The reason lay in violent deaths of three political agents in the Agency before 1947, whose names all started with a ‘D’: Dodd, Donald and Duncan. Durrani has drawn on his vast personal experience to propose guidelines for future policies governance in the seven Tribal Agencies/ Merged Districts.

It is an interesting discourse, mostly about the North-West but not limited to it, with anecdotes about many officers and how they thought and felt while governing so many people with limited resources and scant personal protection.

Durrani has a passion for wildlife and is an avid hunter. This may have helped him launch the trophy hunting programme while he was the chief commissioner in Gilgit-Baltistan in 1994. A limited number of licences to hunt ibex were auctioned to the highest bidders including foreigners. 80 percent of the money was given to the local communities as an incentive to protect wildlife. The programme has paid dividends as poaching has stopped and the numbers of ibex and markhor have increased exponentially. Durrani writes that hunting for food is acceptable but deriving pleasure from killing animals is unhealthy. He recalls that a president of Pakistan denotified a wildlife reserve for a day to legalise his hunt. Another president could not tell partridges from ducks and shocked the governor by thanking him for his gift of batkhain. A pack of jackals, says Durrani, lived freely in the palatial Governor’s House in Peshawar. The animals were treated by the households of successive governors as resident natives. The jackals, supposed to bring good luck to hunters, ran out of luck themselves in the mid-eighties when a military aide to the governor had them clubbed to death.

The book’s literary flavour reminds one of Charles Allan’s Plain Tales from the Raj. Two Afridi brothers from Khyber Agency got gallantry awards in the First World War – but from opposing countries while fighting in Europe. Both got it in 1915 – one got the Iron Cross and the other was the recipient of Victoria Cross. The writer, then Kohat commissioner, helped Mrs Councell locate the bungalow where her parents were murdered in the 1920s while she hid under the bed. RH Lowis, posted as assistant political agent in South Waziristan in 1937, got back his lost wrist watch – but how. Joanna, his daughter, visited the author at Cavagnari House in Kohat to tell the tale. Durrani met Molly Ellis twice, once in 1979 at her home in Suffolk, England, and again in early 1980s when she visited Khyber Agency where he received her as the political agent. Molly, as a young girl was kidnapped by Ajab Khan Afridi from Kohat Cantonment while her father, Maj Ellis, was away. Her mother was murdered on resistance. Although she was recovered unharmed a few weeks later, the incident shook colonial India. Durrani also had the honour of receiving Princess Diana when she visited Chitral in 1991 and noted that “there was sadness in her eyes”.

In the chapter titled Na Bijli, Na Panni (neither energy, nor water), Durrani laments the failure the government to focus on the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam. His reflections on his legacy at railways are also worth reading. Some power brokers in our country, it shows, work in weird ways and remain invisible to the public. Durrani points out that while the life of a civil servant appears glamorous from the outside, careers of honest and upright officers are vulnerable to many a pitfall. He cites the case of two assistant sub-inspectors of whom one retired as an inspector (in Grade-16) and the other rose to become the inspector general of West Pakistan police. A minister in Sindh, he reports, placed a gun to a secretary’s head in his office to force him to approve what he considered an illegal decision. The author adds: “one should have one’s spine removed surgically before stepping in.”

The language is simple and the narrative fluid. These keep the reader glued to the book. The publisher could, however, have taken better care of proofreading and editing. Nevertheless, Shakil Durrani gives his readers an insider’s view on critical issues of governance. He has brought to life some of the events that usually remain obscure from the general public. He recalls what transpired behind the scenes on May 12, 2007, when Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry landed in Karachi. He remembers what happened when he turned down the request of a senior officer who wanted to build “a public park on self-help basis” but asked to be paid Rs 10 million? One also gets to know whether Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw received the
Rs 1,000 he had lent
Gen Yahya Khan in 1947?

That was your life Shakil Durrani! Thanks for sharing it with us all.

Frontier Stations: An Account of Public Service in Pakistan

Author: Shakil Durrani

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2021

Pages: 448

Price: Rs 1,695

The writer is a retired civil servant, a conservationist and an animal right activist. He can be reached at

Life of a civil servant