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Dhaka Tribune

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Our voice of conscience falls silent

Akbar Ali Khan will be remembered as the epitome of iron-cast moral principles

Update : 10 Sep 2022, 06:12 PM

Upstanding men like Akbar Ali Khan are a vanishing breed of civil servants in these lengthening times of mediocrity, resting as they do on sycophancy. In Khan were flashes of the old Indian Civil Service, though he was born rather late to be part of it. But those flashes were clearly in evidence in his role as part of the Pakistan civil service -- a CSP officer as a matter of fact -- in the days before the nation plunged into the struggle for a sovereign Bangladesh.

In his death, Akbar Ali Khan has caused to be rekindled all the brilliance one associates with a civil service, transferred as it was to Bangladesh through the War of Liberation, which saw its work cut out for it. While political forces shaped strategy, civil servants knew what they had to do, which was to implement that strategy. 

It was such a concept of duty which impelled Khan to link up with the Mujibnagar government in 1971. He had no illusions about a soon-to-emerge Bangladesh. It would be a land where egalitarianism would serve as the baseline of governance, with the civil service rededicating itself to the idea that it was not to function as masters of the people.

For Khan, the War of Liberation was that point in time where the old, discredited concept of a civil-military bureaucratic combine, born in Ayub Khan’s Pakistan, was rejected in its finality. Khan and his fellow civil servants, infused with the idealism working in the Bangladesh idea, looked to not merely the rise of a new country but also to a system of administration that would overhaul and redefine national politics. 

As Bangladesh stood liberated, these men convinced themselves, even as all those impediments soon began to be thrown their way, that they were part of a throbbing new experiment in nation-building. All of them, as Khan would subsequently record in his memoirs, were entrusted with responsibilities as deputy commissioners of the nineteen districts constituting Bangladesh.

Integrity was the essence of Akbar Ali Khan’s character. In those early days, as he prepared to take charge as deputy commissioner of Sylhet, he eventually decided that it was not a job he needed. If he accepted it, he would find himself, against his will, genuflecting before the political classes forever ready to impose their will on civil servants. 

Indeed, Khan’s disillusionment set in when a prominent political leader from Sylhet, within days of liberation, handed him a list of people he thought should be given preference in government and a list of individuals he suggested ought to be sent to prison because they were followers of his rival. Morally outraged, Khan knew what he needed to do. He did not go to Sylhet.

There were no holy cows for Akbar Ali Khan in his entire career. A cultured man, it was his belief, owed it to himself and to his fellow citizens to be dispassionate in his services to the state. He was disturbed when a section officer in a ministry made a leap to being joint secretary rather than deputy secretary because of his links to power. 

In the late 1990s, Khan and Mohammad Ibrahim Khaled --- two of our finest men --- went out on a government-decreed tour of some foreign capitals, their task being a carrying out of audit at Bangladesh’s diplomatic missions in those capitals. It was a tour which caused perceptible degrees of nervousness among our ambassadors and high commissioners and other officers at the missions. 

Akbar Ali Khan called a spade for what it was, a spade. Always polite in his interaction with people, he could nevertheless be blunt when the occasion demanded it. And that bluntness was also directed at men whose role in administering the land came into question. 

He would have no truck with such men of power, an instance of which was his unambiguous decision to take himself, along with some colleagues, out of the caretaker administration led by President Iajuddin Ahmed in late 2006. Integrity mattered to Khan.

A widely read man, Akbar Ali Khan’s world view was remarkable. He walked out of the Pakistan civil service, went on to add substance to the Mujibnagar government. Contrary to the opinions of those too ready to misread or misrepresent history, he was emphatic in his conviction -- one shared by the nation -- that the liberation of Bangladesh was brought about by the Mujibnagar government. Period. 

Khan shared Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad’s worries about the moves by Indian officials in Delhi toward the end of the war in 1971 that a woeful lack of Bengali civil servants could necessitate a placing of officials from various Indian states at the top of Bangladesh’s nineteen districts. In the end, it was Bengali civil servants who took charge of the districts.

He had little time for those who went on sniping at him. Among such snipers were elements whose dubious reputation as journalists he was aware of. He ignored them and went on to proffer the sort of sage advice the nation needed in its hours of political ferment. He came under attack for his bold expression of views, for his objective and deep analyses of the state of political and social conditions in the country. 

An unfazed Khan refused to go silent. In newspaper columns and interviews and on television talk shows and in public lectures, he drew the nation’s attention to the causes which mattered to them. He was part of civil society. And civil society, battered and vilified as it has been in Bangladesh, offered for him a window wide enough for citizens to educate and enlighten themselves on, to peer into a future they cherished. 

A patrician in his intellectual outlook, Akbar Ali Khan had no time for nonsense. He did not gladly suffer fools. His zero tolerance of corruption, of administrative sloth; his mastery of subjects as diverse as economics and literature and governance made of him a rounded character, a living symbol of urbanity steeped in unencumbered knowledge.

Akbar Ali Khan was the wise man this nation loved. In death, he will be the epitome of iron-cast moral principles Bangladesh’s people will remember. He was the public intellectual who spoke for us, every day and in every way.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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