Albert Guerard, the fiercely democratic French historian once exclaimed: “So long as the bureaucrat is at his desk, France survives”.
Pakistan has lived in a state of permanent crisis since its inception. What is it that is holding it together? Is it fake democracy? Is it our rubber-stamp parliament? Is it Potemkin political institutions dotted all over the country? Is it the coercive power of the state? Or, as in France, is it the bureaucrat at his desk who keeps the flag flying through thick and thin. It is worthwhile to reproduce what the Father of the Nation had to say on the role of bureaucrats.
“The reason why I wanted to meet you is that I wanted to say a few words to you who are occupying very important positions in the administration of Pakistan”, said Mr. Jinnah in an informal talk to civil servants in Government House Peshawar in April 1948…. “Governments are formed, governments are defeated. Prime Ministers come and go, ministers come and go, but you stay on and, therefore, there is a very great responsibility placed on your shoulders. You are the backbone of the state”. Mr. Jinnah’s words still ring in my ears.
During the last 73 years, the country has lived in a state of permanent political crisis. Governments rose and fell with dizzy rapidity, some lasting but a few months and nearly all of them set up and soon overthrown as a result of trivial intrigues in the corridors of power or military interventions that were rarely understood and scarcely appreciated by the bewildered citizenry. All this weakened the Republic from the beginning and in the end helped pave the road to disaster and the loss of half the country.
Amid so much political instability how could the Republic continue to function and its ephemeral governments manage the business of a modern government? What held the country together more than anything else and enabled the Republic to function tolerably well was the steady hand of the permanent establishment. It comprised various organs, run and staffed by permanent civil servants, which administered the law, the legislation passed by Parliament and the acts and services of government. In its strange but steady exertions one can see much of the secret of the solidity and continuity of life in Pakistan despite the toppling of regimes, dictatorships, the execution of an elected Prime Minister, and the incessant changes in regimes and governments. In the 20th century a good deal of this bureaucracy seemed to be an anachronism, an apparatus musty from age. In reality it was one of the foundations of the Republic.
Elected and un-elected rulers would come and go, some of them whiling away much of their time in the west at the tax payer’s expense. Parliaments might be suppressed; ministers might spend most of their time in their hometowns or abroad, the permanent bureaucracy, the officials high and low, the Deputy Commissioners, the Assistant Commissioners, the Magistrates, the Civil and Criminal Courts, the Revenue Officers, the lowly clerks, the postmen, the police officers manning the police stations, throughout the country, the engineers and doctors, saw to it that the machinery of government ground away.
Taxes were collected, accounts kept, justice dispensed, and public services and civil order for the most part maintained. Despite all the turmoil over decades of the country’s history, the bureaucracy, the permanent establishment, stood like a rock of Gibraltar against the chaotic currents of whatever times. Honest to a degree unknown or unpracticed among the parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers, industrious in a plodding sort of way and fairly efficient, possessed of a strong sense of public duty, of a remarkable esprit de corps, and of a pride in their professional code, but also woefully unprogressive and unresponsive to the demands of the evolving society, they were a pillar of the state. Like the French permanent establishment, it saw to it that the business of government got done even at the most chaotic moments.
Once the civil service, in the words of Mr. Jinnah, was the backbone of the state. No longer. Successive governments have reduced public servants to the level of domestic servants. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sacked 1400 civil servants and sent them home without any inquiry. General Yahya sacked 303 senior civil servants. Not all of them were corrupt or incompetent. Prime Minister Imran Khan was ill-advised to publicly rebuke his Ambassadors and their staff.
The service we inherited on independence, known for its integrity, objectivity and political neutrality has been, over the years, thoroughly mutilated, demoralized, emasculated, politicized, corrupted and changed beyond recognition by politicians, and is now a ghost of its former self. Not surprisingly, when tragedy struck in the greatest flood in our history, one fifth of the country went under water and millions of people were rendered homeless, there was nobody to look after them. Elected representatives of the people just vanished and were not to be seen anywhere.
Not many people know that it is the much maligned civil servants who saved the Margallah Hill National Park from the vested interest and the government which had allowed the park to be disfigured, decimated and defiled as a result of activities which were prejudicial to its preservation, environmentally hazardous and incompatible with the objectives of the National Park. The park features, its rock, soil, fauna and flora were all being destroyed with the approval of the Government. In sheer desperation, we took the case to the Supreme Court and won.