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A window into the past

September 04, 2016


THIS is an unavoidably incomplete yet unexpectedly absorbing book about the fulsome life of an unusually distinguished individual. Syed Fida Hassan had a meritorious education. He succeeded in the competitive Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination. He married a woman of ability. Together, they nurtured three gifted children who achieved excellence in their respective fields. He achieved sustained progress in the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) which culminated in high-level appointments and awards. He attained international recognition in sports administration. He gained wide respect. That’s enough raw material for one or more volumes of memoirs. And the icing on the cake: he was also good-looking.

In his Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan,1966-1972 (OUP, 2007), the former president records a note in October 1967 about Syed Fida Hassan who was then serving as his principal secretary. A dinner was 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 [sic] 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 at another table....”

Prosaic yet readable, reserved yet revelatory, Syed Fida Hassan’s memoirs constitute an interesting book despite its restricted coverage

Syed Babar Ali, the eminent entrepreneur and present pro-chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) has addressed an affectionate foreword to Pakistan — the Promise of the Early Years. Syed Fida Hassan’s talented progeny have each also contributed to his memoir. Syed Farid Hassan, the eldest, achieved the unique position of being CEO of three major global pharmaceutical companies in the USA. In his prologue, he recalls his father’s special humility and sense of humour. Anjum Niaz, the youngest sibling, has excelled for 30 years as an English-language journalist in Pakistan and the USA. In her afterword, she movingly recalls receiving his cortege at the Wagah border as she also contrasts his steadfast integrity to the morass of contemporary corruption. Former ambassador Syed Azmat Hassan, the second son, who ably represented our country in Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and served as additional secretary, foreign affairs, in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat during the tenures of both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, is currently adjunct professor at Lums. He has skilfully edited the book and provided brief, thoughtful notes. Vivid photographs capture some memorable moments.

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, 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 four years of his service.

Part II contains notes from an official diary he maintained when, about seven years after his retirement, then prime minister Zulfikar Ali 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 Dec 10, 1977, at his New Delhi office, making the diary’s entry on Dec 8 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 the pre-1947 years and others who warmly welcomed him to India. In both parts of the book, we see a large gallery of historical figures glimpsed at critical moments.

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 1,000 miles of hostile territory — Pakistan in 1947 began life almost like a dream-state. Even the nightmare of the terrible bloodshed of about one million people and the traumatic migration of millions could not detract from the vision of an ideal, forward-looking, and independent nation-state predominantly, but not exclusively, peopled by Muslims.

Whatever the reasons for being non-comprehensive, one misses recollections of Ayub Khan’s electoral campaign for the presidency while competing with Fatima Jinnah, the events of 1964-65, the Rann of Kutch conflict and the September 1965 war with India, interactions 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.

Incomplete dimensions contrast sharply with the crowded span of Syed Fida Hassan’s life and work as mirrored here. After entry into ICS, he went through probationary training at Oriel College, Oxford. He married Zeenat Hussain in 1934. As a reflection of her own public activism, she served as a member on a reserved women’s seat in the Punjab Legislative Assembly from 1951 to 1955, and then, post-One Unit, the West Pakistan Assembly up to 1958.

He was appointed to the demanding posts of home secretary, Punjab, and chief secretary, Punjab, in the tumultuous times of Independence and during 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 — and even 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 that of federal cabinet secretary.

On retirement, Syed Fida Hassan was appointed adviser to the president with the rank of a federal minister from 1967 to 1969. He left that office soon after the takeover by General Yahya Khan in March 1969.

He had a special interest in cricket, as a player and an administrator. He was the strong motivator and deft manager of the Pakistan cricket team’s historic maiden tour of England in 1954 when Pakistan’s famous Oval victory made it the first team to defeat England on home soil on its first tour, and then, as president of the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP) for six significant years, 1963 to 1969. In 1965, in international recognition, he was presented with honorary membership of the Marylebone Cricket Club.

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, when 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 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, Ayub Khan noted on Dec 28, 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 — or how tough — 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 1,000 miles of hostile territory — Pakistan in 1947 began life almost like a dream-state. Even the nightmare of the terrible bloodshed of about one million people and the traumatic migration of millions could not detract from the vision of an ideal, forward-looking, and 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 the 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.

The reviewer is a writer, a former senator and federal minister.

Pakistan: the Promise of the Early Years — A Memoir (1908-1977)
By Syed Fida Hassan
Zeenat Publications, Lahore

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 4th, 2016