a book review by Javed Jabbar
“Pakistan — the Promise of the Early Years : A Memoir”
by Syed Fida Hassan, (1908-1977)
copies available through email address firstname.lastname@example.org
As the icing on the cake — he was also good-looking .
In his Diaries of 1966-1972 (OUP, 2007) President Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan records a note in October 1967 about Syed Fida Hassan who was then serving as his Principal Secretary. There was a dinner hosted in the visiting President’s honour by Karim Aga Khan in Cannes, France . The Prince of Monaco and his wife, the beautiful Hollywood actor, Grace Kelly were also present . Ayub Khan noted : “There was an old French lady who apparently got very fond of Mr. Fida Hassan… she thought he was the most handsome man she has ever met and wanted him to come to stay with her on his next visit. Zeenat, Fida’s wife, was not listening in. She was on another table…”
Prosaic yet readable, reserved yet revelatory, selective yet panoramic , this becomes an interesting book despite its restricted coverage. Part I comprises his experiences in the Government of Pakistan from 1947 to about the mid-1960s , i.e. even though the total span of his service began in 1934 and ended in 1969 , i.e. about 35 years . He does not appear to have written about the first 13 years , or the last 4 years of his service.
Part II contains notes from an official Diary he maintained when, about 7 years after his retirement , Prime Minister Z.A .Bhutto appointed him as Pakistan’ s envoy to India with effect from July 1976 to resume formal bilateral diplomatic relations after the rupture caused by the 1971 conflict . After 18 months as Ambassador ,the author suffered a massive heart attack on 10 December 1977 at his New Delhi office, making the Diary’s entry on 8 December the last available notes.
Embedded in Part I are several striking episodes and encounters by one who was often inside the ring , and sometimes had a ringside seat. Briefly yet evocatively, these Memoirs help illuminate pivotal moments and critical passages in about the first 18 years of our history. They identify some well-made policies as well as lost opportunities for progress in administration, politics, economics and development. Part II primarily lists names of persons met in New Delhi but at different points also reflects the author’s views and sentiments. He had a large number of old friends from pre-1947 years and others who warmly welcomed him to India. In both Parts, we see a large gallery of historical figures glimpsed at critical moments.
Whatever the reasons for being non-comprehensive , one misses recollections of: Ayub Khan’s electoral campaign for the Presidency while competing with Fatima Jinnah , 1964-65; the Rann of Kutch conflict and the September 1965 war with India ; inter-actions with Z.A.Bhutto as Cabinet Minister ; the last 15 months of Ayub Khan’s tenure up to March 1969 , and the author’s experiences in cricket.
He was appointed to the demanding posts of Home Secretary, Punjab and Chief Secretary, Punjab in the tumultuous times of Independence and of the partition of Punjab, 1947-49. On being promoted to Chief Secretary , he retained responsibility as Home Secretary while also being given additional charge as Transport Secretary. Those first two years saw enormous, unprecedented pressures on the limited resources of a newly-born, greatly-disadvantaged state. He handled diverse challenges with competence and firm adherence to the code of conduct.
Compounding the difficulties was the fact that the Governor of Punjab , the British officer Sir Francis Mudie , an appointee of Mr Jinnah , was in sharp conflict with the Chief Minister , the Nawab of Mamdot . Such was the situation that the Governor had secretly tasked the unduly powerful Inspector-General of Police, Qurban Ali Khan to find any material to incriminate the Chief Minister — even to take a few liberties with the facts — so as to justify Mamdot’s removal. Syed Fida Hassan’s refusal to be a party to this plot led to his transfer as Commissioner, Lahore Division , a post at that time being of equivalent rank but nevertheless far more limited. He went on to handle several important posts, including Federal Cabinet Secretary.
On retirement ,he was appointed Adviser to the President with the rank of Federal Minister 1967-1969 and left that office soon after the takeover by General Yahya Khan in March 1969.
In Part 1, three principal aspects stimulate consideration. The first is about the early genesis of the uneasy civil-military relationship. The author recounts the late summer of 1950 . Punjab and Sindh were severely flooded. Then- Major General Azam Khan, GoC Lahore , in the process of providing direly needed logistics support to the civil administration “… virtually assumed command of the entire operation in the manner of the Army… he would even send for the Deputy Commissioners individually and collectively without my knowledge…” . The author candidly protested to the then-Governor of Punjab Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar. So firmly did the author make his position clear that : “after (his) interview with the Governor, the GoC neither called me nor any of my Deputy Commissioners to a meeting.”
If more CSP officers, and more importantly, major political leaders in the first formative decade had politely but firmly asserted civil, political authority over the military, the gross imbalance that evolved could possibly have been averted.
Five years later, the same Azam Khan helped Ayub Khan to impose martial law and abolish the political structures . With notable irony, Syed Fida Hassan, perhaps simply working dutifully as a Government servant , went on to serve at close quarters the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. In the same Diaries cited earlier, Field Marshal Ayub Khan noted on 28 December 1967 that, on the retirement of Syed Fida Hassan from Government service, he appointed his former Principal Secretary as Adviser to the President with the words : “.. ..I am happy to retain him. He has served me very well indeed. He is sober and sensible and commands trust.”
The second aspect to invite attention is how easy it is for those who exercise power to maintain integrity in public office. All one needs to do is to say ” No ” to oneself, and to others . Rendering his duties with the impeccable integrity that was to mark all positions he held, Syed Fida Hassan proved that an officer can earn the immeasurable riches of wide respect and career progression – without compromising the ethics of office.
A third aspect is the title. Is the presumption valid?
As a proposition “Pakistan — the promise of the early years” is pertinent only to the extent that the concept of Pakistan represented profound potential. Despite being the most awkwardly constructed nation-State in history — two wings separated by 1000 miles of hostile territory — Pakistan in 1947 began life almost like a Dream-state. Even the nightmare of the terrible blood-shed of about one million human beings and the traumatic migration of millions could not detract from the vision of an ideal, forward-looking, independent nation-State predominantly, but not exclusively peopled by Muslims. But as the author’s own experiences illustrate , the promise was dented quite early, not later.
Soon after August 1947 , while Mr Jinnah was still alive but ailing, many leaders and citizens diverted from the ideal. Their values and actions rapidly declined. Corruption commenced in shockingly early infancy. Falsehoods marked the greed to grab evacuee property. Intrigues and back-stabbing were frequent among political leaders to promote selfish personal ambitions. Loyalties to parties were switched overnight. A civil government made the catastrophic error of inviting a serving General (Ayub Khan) to concurrently become Defence Minister (1954).
Parts of the promise were thus broken virtually as soon as the promise was created. But reference to only political failures risks becoming yet another expression of the unfair tendency to demonise politicians while exempting the military and the bureaucracy from equivalent accountability for their own respective shares of responsibility. Any citizen devoted to constructively shaping Pakistan’s future will benefit by reading this fine record of Pakistan’s past.