The pompous, the self-important, the braggarts

What separates the civil from the servants?

It is a question of attitude. Or call it a flaw in academic upbringing. Or could it be sheer arrogance? When Alikadam UNO Mehruba Islam took upon herself the audacious responsibility of hurling to the ground the trophies she was supposed to hand over at a sports event and have them break apart, she raised a good number of questions about herself and about the de-construction of society.

That is where attitude comes in.

When an officer, having joined the inner sanctum of the government by successfully going through a competitive examination, demonstrates temper not expected of her, she commits grievous wrong. Of course, the UNO has tried to explain away her behaviour, citing the arguments erupting around the tournament between the two competing teams. But that does not absolve her of the way she reacted to the issue.

Good old Winston Churchill once spoke, more in bitterness than humour, of civil servants being neither civil nor servants. In later years a superannuated Singapore government official took the cue from the British politician, giving his memoirs the title Neither Civil Nor Servant. 

Churchill’s statement was certainly wide of the mark, for the good reason that sweeping statements about individuals or professions are often those one does not take seriously into account. Indeed, there are an innumerable amount of civil servants in any number of countries suffering through the arrogance of power -- power exercised by politicians or, in certain instances by dictators, in high office.

There are myriad instances that hold forth images of civil servants in our part of the world, especially those who have been part of the Indian Civil Service, the Pakistan Civil Service, and the Bangladesh Civil Service, representing the best in terms of performance in government through their understanding of the world and the intellectual approach they have brought into such an understanding. 

In Bangladesh, during the War for Liberation and later, Bengali civil servants who earlier had been CSP and EPCS officers formed the core of the new nation’s fledgling civil service. And they did the job marvelously well with the unadulterated patriotism they brought into the job.

The anger put on public display by the Alikadam Upazila Nirbahi Officer is, from such a perspective, an aberration -- or so one would like to think. In much the same way, the recent recall of a woman diplomat from Jakarta by the government was action brought on by allegations of wrongdoing levelled at her by the Indonesian authorities. 

We have heard of diplomats posted abroad flagrantly abusing their domestic help, with reports of such behaviour coming out into the public domain. Again, such stories speak of individuals who lost their bearings and did not fully comprehend the repercussions of their behaviour on the government and the country they happened to serve. 

Such individuals are no more than a handful, but they are enough to tarnish the image of the services they belong to. Human behaviour is all too prone to go into cherry-picking about the performance of people in the higher echelons of government service, gleefully fishing out the bad from what is possibly a deep pond of the good under the water. Such cherry-picking does not hold up the whole picture. 

Which is reason enough for one to expect that, while the authorities handle the crisis engendered by the behaviour of the Alikadam UNO, they will also go into a wholesale re-evaluation of the process of recruitment to the civil service, the foreign service, and what have you. We will not throw away all the good apples because of our sudden discovery of a few bad apples among them. But it will be our moral responsibility to ensure that these services, and other services, are restructured in the larger interest of the country.

It is, let it be said again, a matter of attitude.

When the luggage of our woman footballers returning triumphantly home is allegedly broken open and their valuables go missing at the airport, the issue of moral depravity comes to the fore yet again. The men who felt no qualms about commandeering those valuables are elements we certainly have little need of in their workplaces. Here was an entire nation celebrating the victory of these women, young enough to be our daughters and even granddaughters, at the SAFF games in Nepal; and there were these thieves at work before their luggage could reach their owners.

Does such behaviour surprise us?

When banks in the private sector sometimes fall prey to a purloining of money by the individuals who preside over them, we sadly tell ourselves that, despite all the economic progress the country is making, corruption continues to eat away at the vitals of our societal structure.

Attitudes do not change. 

Traders in the markets of the land are forever coming up with excuses to fleece the poor and the middle classes. The newest excuse is the war in Ukraine. Everything is linked, these shrewd traders would have us know, to the conflict. The government informs us that prices for products have been fixed by it. The traders look for ways of circumventing that list.

Attitudes often arise from a sense of self-importance. Why else would a bag of rice given to a woman plainly destitute invite no fewer than seven to ten people, all well-dressed and well-fed, into photographing themselves with her as they give her that bag? And they would like to call it generosity? 

They think it is philanthropy, not caring to remember the principle that philanthropy or even the simplest instance of human kindness is never a matter of photo-ops. When these “kind” men hold that bag of rice beside that nonplussed woman, they are simply putting their ego on display.

They lose respect.

The urge for publicity in individuals we would like to shower respect on diminishes when these very individuals are unable to resist the temptation of taking places rightfully not theirs. We go back to our young woman footballers who have brought glory to the country through their remarkable triumph at SAFF. 

At the media call to celebrate their achievement, where these young women and their coach should have held centre stage, it was a ubiquity of football federation officials who hijacked the show. They spoke to the press; they talked about the nation’s football possibilities. The cameras remained fixed on them.

And if you looked carefully, you might have spotted a lone member of the women's football team and her coach standing insignificantly somewhere in that picture. These self-serving men occupying those chairs felt, to our horror, absolutely no embarrassment that the moment did not belong to them, that it belonged to the women who ran hard on that foreign football field and brought the cup home.

Little minds have little concept of the wider world out there. And we in this country have for years been retreating before the pompous, the self-important, and the braggarts. And thus are we given short shrift on the global stage.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.