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Civil servants and politics do not mix

  • Published at 04:13 pm March 12th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:44 pm March 12th, 2018
Civil servants and politics do not mix
(Translated by Ziauddin Choudhury) Tura was a small town in the West Garo Hills District of Meghalaya state of India where I had taken refuge in the turbulent days of 1971. I had fled there from Kishoreganj of what was then East Pakistan where I was Sub-divisional Officer (SDO); I was escaping the marauding Pakistan army’s brutal onslaught on the Bengalis. I had tried to forge a resistance joining with police and ansars and student volunteers after hearing about the Pakistan army’s brutal killing of Dhaka University students and teachers, and civilians. But I had to leave along with a few of my colleagues as it became clear that our resistance would be of no avail against the Pakistani forces. I had crossed the Indian border near Tura travelling through Bijaypur along with a few of my colleagues in Kishoreganj. Initially we camped in a village across the border called Bagmara. But that was too small a place for our group. We knew of Tura which was a sub-division of West Garo Hills, and we also knew that a good number of Bengalis fleeing the attacks in Mymensingh area had found refuge there. We decided to go there right away. In Tura I found shelter in a teachers’ dormitory of the local college. I lodged there in a room with my brother-in-law, and magistrate Kibria from Kishoreganj. Though the room was tiny, I was glad that we at least found a shelter after escaping fatal attacks in Kishoreganj. Gradually I started to get news about other Bangladeshis who had crossed into India and were staying in other parts of neighboring states, Tripura and West Bengal. I started feeling hopeful that something good would emerge soon.
Why should an SDO (an important government officer in Pakistan) leave his assignment and seek shelter in India?
But my stay in Tura was not without some hazards. The hazards were the growing attention and curiosity among the locals about me. Why should an SDO (an important government officer in Pakistan) leave his assignment and seek shelter in India? Are the affairs in East Pakistan that bad? Obviously, the people in Meghalaya or in the neighboring Indian states were unaware of the magnitude of the crisis happening in East Pakistan (at least in that early period of April). They would like to know what was happening in their neighboring country, the politics of it all, and what drove me to leave the country and my important post. People who wanted to meet me were just not journalists or business people; many were important politicians and government officials. I met the Chief Minister of Meghalaya Captain Williamson Sangma twice. He was polite, sympathetic and helpful. One day I received a message from the local administration that the governor of Meghalaya would like to meet with me. The governor was Mr BK Nehru, a scion of the illustrious Nehru family who previously belonged to the Indian Civil Service, which was once referred to as “the steel frame” of the Indian Government in British period. The governor was visiting Tura. I was perplexed. Why would the governor of Meghalaya like to see me? I was a tiny civil servant, a humble SDO in a small sub-division, a position that I had forsaken. I was nobody since I had no status or position nor had I reconnected with any resistance movement there. If the governor wanted information on what was happening in East Pakistan he could easily do so through his government’s intelligence agencies. I debated in my mind if I should go and meet the governor. I finally agreed to see him since I thought I was a guest in his state. A government jeep was sent by the local administration to take me to the governor. He was lodging in Tura Circuit House which was situated on a hill-top. A beautiful bungalow built in colonial times, the Circuit House was an elegant place lined with pine trees, with beautiful lawns and flower gardens.
I tried to explain with a brief account of the Pakistan army’s ruthless attacks on people, and their indiscriminate killing of civilians.
When I reached the bungalow, the governor’s ADC received me and escorted me to the lawn where I found the governor having tea along with a few others. Among them was the deputy commissioner of Garo Hills who introduced me to the governor. BK Nehru, once reputed to be a formidable bureaucrat, had an imposing physical appearance, tall and handsome. He was wearing an expensive suit, a red tie with a red rose stuck to the lapel. He asked me to sit down after we shook hands. After exchange of greetings and enquiries about my welfare, the governor asked, “So, you were Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kishoreganj?” “Sub-Divisional Officer, Sir,” I replied. The governor smiled and said, “In our times the position was called Sub-divisional Magistrate.” Then he went on to explain why it was changed to Sub-divisional Officer later. Meanwhile, an attendant came in with tea. While sipping tea, the governor startled me with his next question. “Tell me why you, who are a civil servant of the state, left your post. Your job is to serve the state,” he said. I tried to explain with a brief account of the Pakistan army’s ruthless attacks on people, and their indiscriminate killing of civilians. But before I could finish, the governor interrupted me. “I see no reason why you should have left your job as SDO. Pakistan army would not have harmed you unless you indulged in anti-state activities.” He said rather impatiently. Anti-state activities? I was astounded to hear the governor calling our resistance to Pakistan army’s genocide campaign as anti-state activities! I was speechless. But the governor went on. “I do not think you did the right thing by abandoning your position as a civil servant. Especially when I heard that you were a member of the Civil Service of Pakistan.” I was quietly listening for some time. But I could not remain silent any more.
Should a civil servant never follow his instincts or dictates of his conscience? When does a civil servant cease to be a civil servant and become a fighter for freedom?
“Perhaps you are not fully aware of what is happening in East Pakistan. The whole Bengali nation is fighting the Pakistan army for survival. This is total war,” I said rather desperately. “I do not agree,” the governor said. “Political movements are not your concern. I believe you should have remained at your post. I was also a Sub-divisional Magistrate at your age. Had I been in your place I would have never left my position. This is not a civil servant’s job. That’s how we are trained.” I realized it would be futile to argue with him. I kept quiet. The governor gave me some more unsolicited advice. I listened to him quietly although I was resenting his words and burning inside. I reasoned with myself, after all he was a much older person and a man in a high position. Moreover, I was a guest to his government. It would not be polite or seemly to talk back or argue with him. The governor left for Shillong a little later in the helicopter that was waiting in the compound. He shook my hands again before departure and asked the deputy commissioner to take good care of me. Before leaving, the governor said to me, “I know you did not like what I said to you. But believe me you will appreciate my words when you get back to your country one day and assume higher office. It is not a civil servant’s job to indulge in political movements or politics.” On the way back to my lodging, I went over the conversation with the governor and his critical comments. I had met many high officials so far in India but none as opinionated as he was. Others had commented on my bravery and courage to stand up to the attacking army, and were supportive of my decision. This was the first time I heard a civil servant criticize me and put me down for doing what I did. I pondered the governor’s remarks for a long time after this meeting, but I could never understand the meaning of his words. Should a civil servant never follow his instincts or dictates of his conscience? When does a civil servant cease to be a civil servant and become a fighter for freedom? I wished I had asked him this question.
Khashruzzaman Choudhury was a freedom fighter. He is a recipient of Shadhinota Padak.
Ziauddin Chowdhury joined the civil service early in his career. Later he worked with the World Bank in the US.