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The Outreach of Memory

In addition to being a celebration of the Urdu idiom, former civil servant Tariq Mahmud’s memoirs provide valuable insight into Pakistan’s history

by Khaled Ahmed

Tariq Mahmud’s memoir Dam-e-Khayal (Sang-e-Meel 2022) is a feast of Urdu prose, recalling events in his career as a civil servant. Having served on key policy positions in both the federal and provincial governments, his career included stints as the federal interior secretary, secretary communications, and food and agriculture.

In then-NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), he served as additional chief secretary planning and development, though most of his career was spent in Punjab, where he was principal secretary to the governor and secretary to caretaker chief minister; home secretary; senior member of the Board of Revenue; and the secretary of Information and Culture. He also served as commissioner of Bahawalpur and the deputy commissioner of three other districts.

Before joining the civil service, Mahmud was a news producer at PTV; today, after retirement, he is adjunct faculty at the School of Business at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Prior to these memoirs, Mahmud had published five collections of short stories and two novels. His impressionable years in Bengal, and a long stint of service in Seraiki-speaking, marginalized areas, has left a deep imprint on his writing.

From Sialkot to East Pakistan

Born in Quetta, Balochistan, Mahmud spent his childhood at Fort Sandeman and hails from a family that ultimately settled in Sialkot after his father died in Rawalpindi. He completed his intermediate in Sialkot, where “his elders are buried in now-dilapidated graves,” and eventually followed his elder brother’s entry into the civil service and stint of training in East Pakistan. It was this elder brother who came up with the idea for Mahmud to take advantage of a scholarship and continue his education in East Pakistan. During that period, he developed his humane sensibility of observing events without the official gloss that all West Pakistanis were used to. What comes out in the book is a balanced account of how East Pakistan separated and became Bangladesh in 1971.

It is difficult to imagine how West Pakistan could force the East Pakistan Assembly to conduct its sessions in Urdu and English only, ignoring the richness and precocity of Bengali, whose Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore was to be the author of national anthems of three South Asian states: India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. When language riots started in Dhaka, the demonstrations were greeted with bullets confirming the error of the Founder of Pakistan who thought Bengalis would give up their native tongue and adopt Urdu despite the fact that they were larger in population than West Pakistan. Today, when one thinks back, one has to agree with the compassion Mahmud felt for his Bengali friends as a West Pakistani living in East Pakistan. He recalls a visit of West Pakistani student leader Tariq Ali to Dhaka, during which he defended the Bengali language to great appreciation by East Pakistanis. Tariq Ali could not live in West Pakistan either and has spent his life in exile.

Trouble in Jhang

Mahmud sat the CSS exam in 1973 and left his television job to begin a lifetime of serving his country. Only, he was different from the run-of-the-mill “CSP,” with a sensibility rarely found in routine-ridden bureaucrats. Urdu came to his rescue; and now we have a book of memories that regales the reader with stylistic linguistic feasts that many literary contemporaries have recognized as a creative achievement. When he began his career in the field as deputy commissioner of Jhang, his account—the text recalls one encounter with local politician-leader Syeda Abida Husain, a Shia Muslim, for whom he has only good things to say despite local polarities—makes it clear that he was completely immersed in his job and already stood out in the service as somebody that the senior bureaucrats relied on as a troubleshooter. Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was to catapult Pakistan into decades of sectarian violence, was there too. Mahmud notes he was able to cajole the man into changing the venue of his “jalsa” to avoid mayhem.

Haq Nawaz’s anti-Shia outfit was soon taken over by bloodthirsty Malik Ishaq, who in time succeeded in arousing the concern of the entire world. The Sri Lankan cricket team playing in Lahore in 2009 was attacked, injuring three team members and killing seven police personnel guarding them. Twelve terrorists, riding rickshaws, surrounded the van bringing the Sri Lankans to Qaddafi Stadium and fired on it for 25 minutes before making their escape. They were armed with rockets, hand-grenades and Kalashnikovs. The cricket series was called off and the Sri Lankans made to go home shaken by what they had experienced.

In 2015, Ishaq, leader of the now-banned jihadi organization Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, was killed in the Muzaffargarh district in southern Punjab in what looked like an “extra-judicial” encounter. The police said they had picked him up for “identification of a weapons cache” when on the way his armed thugs tried to snatch him from custody; they attacked the police guard and were killed in a counter-attack. Tariq had tried to douse the fire started by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi but the state was ideologically prostrate before anti-Shia radicalism. Malik Ishaq had completed almost a dozen years in jail for killing scores of Shia Muslims before being let out on bail in 2011 after he openly threatened judges. And the police had failed to prevent their witnesses from absconding from the case.

Red Mosque trouble

Shortly after his stint in Jhang, the British Council selected Mahmud for a scholarship at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. for a degree in rural development to further broaden his generalist experience. After his course there was completed, he was posted as deputy commissioner of Multan in 1985, which began his journey of acquaintance and comprehension that was to become the hallmark of his career. The boy who arose from Sialkot and was educated in East Pakistan was able to guard his inner self from the ordinariness of civil service routines. He found himself serving as principal secretary to Punjab governor in 2004, having reverted to the province after a stint in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa during which 9/11 had happened. Then came the Islamabad “red mosque” crisis when he was the federal interior secretary.

Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) belonged to the Auqaf Department of the state but was led by Maulana Abdul Aziz, who had dubious linkages to the underworld terrorism led by Osama bin Laden. He was into Islamizing the “pagan” world of Islamabad where Chinese “beauty parlors” functioned with all their sinfulness in the eyes of the pious. Lal Masjid boys would advance stick-in-hand and chastise the un-Islamic activities of the sinful city. Tariq, as interior secretary, had to deal with the trespasses of the mullah and soon found that there were “sympathizers” of the rebel cleric inside the political establishment.

The Firing of Mullah Aziz

Mullah Aziz was fired from his job at Lal Masjid after a Kalashnikov was discovered inside the madrassa. Strangely, many Islamabad bigwigs were disturbed by this, including the son of former military ruler General Ziaul Haq, who was probably hoping to climb the ladder of power on the shoulder of a cleric who had issued a fatwa against the Pakistan Army. Mahmud, as interior secretary, wanted the mullah to withdraw his fatwa if he wanted things back to normal, but was shocked by the way Islamabad bypassed the law and got the mullah to resume his position as head of Lal Masjid. He noted that the situation of deadlock over Lal Masjid carried on for three years after his transfer from the job. The scandal ended in total fiasco that was to shake the entire country.

Finally, Operation Silence was launched after militant students stationed inside the Lal Masjid killed a Pakistan Rangers soldier posted outside the mosque in July 2007. The siege attracted a lot of high-profile religious leaders who tried to reason with the Lal Masjid clerics to eschew confrontation. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman “mistakenly” condemned Lal Masjid for its defiance and was roundly condemned by a congregation of fellow-clerics in Multan till he retracted. According to reports, Lal Masjid was sheltering Chinese Uighur Muslim terrorists in addition to other elements connected with Al Qaeda. The commando unit that carried out Operation Silence was later attacked by a suicide-bomber in September 2007 at their Haripur headquarters, killing 15 soldiers. Al Qaeda then declared the foundation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in response to Operation Silence.

Andrew Small, in his book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (2015), links the Lal Masjid affair with the Uighurs of Chinese Turkestan who had joined the mosque terrorists: “Word leaked out that, in the course of bilateral talks, China was attributing the instigation of the kidnappings of the Chinese nationals in Islamabad to the influence of militants from China’s Uighur minority at Lal Masjid. What the Chinese knew was news to Pakistan, so out-of-bounds was the Lal Masjid setup for Pakistani intelligence agencies. After Operation Silence, which almost destroyed the seminary, Afghan and local warriors were found among the dead. Out of the dead, 12 were Uighurs.”

Backsliding in Balochistan

Mahmud saw the tragic decline of Balochistan into a wilderness of the writ of the state where Baloch leaders like Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti were killed, tilting the province into a negation of state sovereignty and a wilderness of violence. After 75 years of its existence, almost 60 percent of Pakistan’s territory still lacks writ of the state with “external” elements arousing the deprived local population to revolt.

Tariq Mahmud is aware of the lack of state sovereignty in many parts of Pakistan when he discusses the Balochistan situation, but his main plaint is with the obsession of the state with centralization. His vision of the state is one that serves all parts of the country with local assent and judicious participation. His ideal state is a decentralized entity that doesn’t dictate but works with the local population. He saw this principle violated in East Pakistan and has not succumbed to the West Pakistani subterfuge of “Indian trespass.”

What comes to the fore in the book is Mahmud’s perception of the state as a benign entity and his deep conviction in the principles of grassroots governance; but what can’t be captured in this review is his use of the Urdu idiom, which has bestowed on him a style rarely seen in biographies. This review fails to capture the pleasure the book gives through its use of the Urdu idiom and civilizational reference found scattered in our Urdu and Punjabi poetry.

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