The civil service-convict link - S Khalid Husain - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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As far as is known, the civil service can trace its roots to the personal servants of the privileged elite in the Roman Empire, who were placed in charge of the administrative structures that were needed by the elite to administer their lands and holdings. As the elites’ influence and power grew, so did their possessions, and with it the influence and power of their servants, who administered the possessions. This is documented in detail in Notitia Dignitatum, a rare document of that period which includes administrative details of the time, and lists of the more privileged.

In more recent times there is historical “civil servant-convict” link going back to the time when Australia was a British penal colony in the 18th century, and a convict assigned to work on a public project was referred to as “civil servant,” much like a literary reference to a sanitary worker in this part of the world is “halal-khor,” or “legitimate breadwinner,” to confer dignity to him, and to his work.

In many European countries “civil servant” is also used for a “conscientious objector,” or one who does other work in lieu of compulsory military service, which his “conscience” may not allow. Since “conscience” is a must for someone to be a conscientious objector, and there is also no compulsory military service in Pakistan, the issue in the context of this country is probably redundant.

In 1947, out of 1,157 Muslim officers in the Indian Civil Service and Indian Police Service, a handful who opted for Pakistan, plus one Christian officer, made up the core of the country’s civil service, which also included senior officers from non-administrative services. This was the first and last group of civil servants who stayed the course as bureaucracy, offering sound advice and working under the direction of a political government made up largely of feudal elites, or the local equivalents of the Roman privileged elite.

After Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951, however, the civil servants broke loose, when under fellow-civil servants, first Ghulam Mohammad, and then Iskander Mirza, they took charge of the country, relegating the politicians to virtual servitude. Their bureaucratic minds, which had little use for democracy, came up with adjustment to the concept, such as “controlled” democracy and “guided democracy.” Plato and his devotees must have turned in their graves. Because of their actions, the Pakistani civil servants came close to disproving any ancient work bonds with the Roman “personal servants” as they are recorded in Notitia Dignitatum.

Ancient wisdom, however, is not to be trifled with. When the army under Gen Mohammad Ayub Khan sent Iskander Mirza packing in October 1958, the civil servants kowtowed before him and jostled to gain his patronage. However, some of the best work delivered by the civil servants was during the ten-year rule of the later Field Marshal Ayub Khan. This could be because Ayub dismissed hundreds of civil servants soon after seizing power, and those who survived the chop worked extra hard to save their own jobs. It could also be that the mindset of civil servants in Pakistan, inured through training and through their larger-than-life places in the hierarchy since independence, was not of public servants but of masters, and were well-suited to better performance in the controlled environment of dictatorship.

Gen Yahya Khan, who succeeded Ayub in March 1969, struck terror in civil servants’ hearts by dismissing three hundred and three of them. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who followed Yahya Khan as civilian president, and then prime minister, outdid both Ayub and Yahya, by dismissing 1,600 civil servants. These dismissals, starting from Ayub, reinforced by Yahya and doubly emphasised by Bhutto, were a clear message to Pakistan’s civil servants that their role, as it was recorded in the ancient Notitia Dignitatum, had not changed.

With regard to the demise of our civil service, some of the worst damage done in this period was by the judiciary, just as it had done since 1954 when it legitimised the dismissal of the constituent assembly by Governor General Ghulam Mohammad. The judiciary likewise legitimised Ayub Khan’s seizure of power under the 13th- century “doctrine of necessity,” thereby subordinating itself to the executive, a positions where it has remained since. The present judiciary is exerting itself to regain its independence, but the rulers are sparing no efforts to obstruct that effort.

All democratic civilian rulers who replaced dictators have wanted, almost neurotically, to keep the judiciary subservient, and “safeguarding” judicial subservience has been their priority No 1. One such democratic ruler launched a physical assault on the Supreme Court in 1997, while the present, the latest model of this kind of democratic rulers, is doing his frantic best to subdue it.

Through its “reforms” in 1973, which ended cadres in the service and thereby constitutional protection of service to civil servants, the PPP government under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sounded the death knell for it. And this applied not only to the most elite among the elite, the CSP cadre. Through its “lateral entry” scheme, the PPP stuffed the civil service with its own nominees, with most damaging consequences for the effectiveness of the service, as well as integrity. The civil service in Pakistan was unable to recover from the blow dealt it by Bhutto. Whatever remains of the civil service today is a highly politicised skeleton of the original, whose main attributes are servility to politicians in power, and incompetence.

Establishing a “civil servant-convict” link will not be hard. Scores of civil servants in every country have been convicted, with many perhaps for crimes no less than of convicts in Australia when it was a British penal colony. With all that is in the news in Pakistan pertaining to various government institutions and ministries – including the ministry of religious affairs, and now even the Foreign Office – such link would appear patent.

This link was most glaring in the hasty presidential pardon granted to a former civil servant, the powerful interior minister in the present federal cabinet, immediately after he was convicted by the Supreme Court. Mr Rehman Malik will now no longer be a “convict” on record, but a “pardoned convict.”


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