Aminullah Chaudhry’s ‘unputdownable’ memoir

Reading Aminullah Chaudhry's memoir I can say he may have been harmlessly ‘uppity’ but did not deserve to be despised.

Khaled Ahmed July 30, 2011

Many decades ago, whenever I saw Aminullah Chaudhry, I thought he looked a bit supercilious; now, after reading his book, I think he was not supercilious, simply superior. He was a CSP officer of the 1967 batch, together with my favourite Government College (GC) class-fellow, Tariq Sultan, and another dear GC friend, Ali Kazim.

Before he entered the CSP cadre, he held an honours degree in physics from Punjab University and an LLM in corporate law from the London School of Economics. I always wondered why he was universally disliked by his contemporaries. After reading his memoir Political Administrators: The Story of the Civil Service of Pakistan (OUP 2011) I can say that he may have been harmlessly ‘uppity’ but simply did not deserve to be despised the way he was.

The book substantiates the charge that the CSP was patronage-based and thoroughly political, and declined after 1947 when the service gradually began to succumb to being a collection of henchmen of military dictators and elected strongmen. Today, as we revert to the commissionerate system, Aminullah Chaudhry’s frank assessment of it might temper our reactive enthusiasm a bit.

Aminullah was director-general Civil Aviation Authority in Karachi — where he was perhaps mischievously sidelined by the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif — when Pervez Musharraf’s coup happened and he was accused of abetting the hijacking of Musharraf’s plane in October 1999. As he languished in jail, Aminullah thought of the service to which he had given his life. He meditates in the introduction: “CSP officers were confronted with a tricky choice. To move up the ladder they would need to become party loyalists; failure would mean pining away in sideline positions”.

The book is full of anecdotes like the one concerning then chairman of Punjab’s Planning Board, Muhammad Arif, who was being tripped up by Chief Minister Wyne’s ultra vires interventions. Wyne’s answer was: “When confronted with a difference of opinion between a civil servant and a politician, I would willingly support my party colleague irrespective of the merits of the case”.

Aminullah is positive about Shahbaz Sharif and that is saying a lot, given Aminullah’s strict yardstick of merit; but, in 2008, the way Shahbaz went hunting for ‘loyal’ officers set his teeth on edge. Conclusion: “The civil service is as politicised as the armed forces, big business, lawyers, doctors, and educationists, the feudal and trading classes”. If you have patrons you can duck normal discipline like foreign service officers Tariq Osman Hyder and Munir Akram — the latter was bottom of the list — and inspector-general police Haji Habibur Rehman (p.77) and Bandial, who were close to the generals (p.83).

As junior officer in Dipalpur (1969), “I was summoned by Shoaib Sultan Khan (CSP 1955), secretary services, to his residence in the Civil Service Academy: Without waiting for me to even sit down, he said that I had acquired the reputation of being an influence-peddler (p.161).

Roedad Khan, today the champion of democracy, behaved differently in 1971: Yahya Khan made his famous speech announcing a ban on all political activities and imposition of complete press censorship in East Pakistan. Roedad’s face beamed when the president denounced Mujib as a traitor and declared that the man would not go unpunished. Roedad reacted: “Yaar iman taza hogaya” (my faith stands revived) (p.167).

As commissioner Faisalabad, he witnessed handyman civil servants like Haji Akram and Chaudhry Sardar, the latter police officer sneaking on him when he tried to help Aitzaz Ahsan and his brother Ijaz Ahsan — both his maternal Warraich cousins — against threats of PML leader-cum-strongman Rohail Asghar. Nawaz Sharif was not pleased (p.228).

Some judgements are interesting and I daresay I can’t find myself disagreeing: Benazir’s choice of police officer Rao Rashid as her adviser on establishment was a serious error of judgement (p.230). Pervaiz Masud as chief secretary Punjab under Wyne was a good decision to maintain sanity in administration. Nawaz Sharif allowed GC principal Majeed Awan’s son to unfairly augment his marks to enter medical college (p.245).

When working in the Chief Minister’s Inspection Team in Lahore, he wondered together with Anwar Zahid (CSP 1957) at the hold Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had on Nawaz Sharif (most of us are still wondering). He thought AZK Sherdil was not competent but AZK held on to Nawaz Sharif despite some misadventures and emerged as his favourite to his dying day (p.298).

He is honest about his own encounters: “I had a particularly acrimonious meeting with the chief minister in which he accused me of creating misunderstandings between him and senior PPP minister Makhdoom Altaf (p.259). Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto lost her cool: She sharply rebuked me and accused me of having wrongly briefed my minister” (p.263).

After President Farooq Leghari got rid of Benazir’s government, he surrounded himself with his batchmates. (He was fourth in CSP 1964). Aminullah is acidic about Afzal Kahut and his costive behaviour. Another batchmate, Shahid Hamid, escapes the skewer because of competence. Another Nawaz Sharif man who gets by is Aminullah’s batchmate Saeed Mehdi whose relationship with Nawaz Sharif continues to be mysterious. Mehdi got kicked out to Sindh when one thought he would be in Islamabad after NS’s ‘heavy mandate’. So was Aminullah, understandably.

Observation: “A temperamental personality, Nawaz Sharif, like all other leaders of stature, was not averse to backbiting and this created a general sense of insecurity among senior bureaucrats” (p.303). And the coda: “The problem with loyalty as demanded by the Sharifs is that at the end of the day, it turns out to be as unreliable and fickle as a woman of easy virtue” (p.336)

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2011.


Rana | 11 years ago | Reply

Aminullah was known in service as "meanullah" and his memoirs have proved it.

Max | 11 years ago | Reply

I have not read the book, so cannot make any judgment. We need to keep in mind that intra-institutional and intra-service rivalries always play a role in any institutional settings. It is not something unique in Pakistan; I have this and experienced in other cultures. Human nature is same everywhere and borrowing from Thomas Hobbes it is “conflictual.” Sometimes these are based on professional jalousies, other times just simple personality conflicts. You are damned if you do it, and you are damned if you don’t do it.

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