Lesser known today, but decidedly at the apex of the administrative machinery of British India, was the Foreign and Political department. Its genesis lay in a department which was created in 1783 by the East India Company for conducting “secret and political business”. Since in the India of that period, Persian was the language of diplomatic correspondence, the head of the department was known as the Persian Secretary. Its primary responsibility was dealing with the Princely States through British Residents appointed from the Department. It also housed the officers of British India’s diplomatic service i.e. its emissaries to the countries surrounding India and the Trucial States in the Persian Gulf region. It was staffed by officers from the Indian Political Service (IPS) who were generally referred to as Political Officers, or colloquially as “politicals”. Some famous names in the history of the Middle East served as Political Officers including Sir Percy Cox, who masterminded the British policy in this region during the First World War.
The Department was controlled by the Viceroy and when the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) was separated from the Punjab in 1901, to ensure that the new Province was directly under his control, Lord Curzon decided that the officers who had chosen to make their careers in the frontier districts of Balochistan and the NWFP were also from this department. They were designated as Political Agents (PAs) and amongst the notables were captains of the Frontier like Sir Roos-Keppel who spoke fluent Pashto and authored a book on the language, Olaf Caroe, the last British Governor of the NWFP and Sir Rupert Hay, the Chief Commissioner in Balochistan from 1943–46. The term continued to be applied to date for the administrators of the agencies in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas(FATA).
In 1914, the department was reorganized as the Foreign and Political Department, with two separate secretaries: the Political Wing dealt with the princely states and other Asian kingdoms, while the Foreign Department a forerunner of the Foreign Service of both Pakistan and India, focused on engagement with the European powers.
Between half to two-thirds of the Politicals were recruited from the army, because they were cheaper to employ and in larger number than the civil servants, who were the next most abundant. Employees of the political service were predominantly British although small numbers of Indians were employed. The Politicals were a small body of about 150 officers, whose varied functions were little known even to their colleagues in India. They were held in awe and referred to as ‘The Twice Born’, a progression of the terminology sometimes used in respect of members the Indian Civil Service: ‘The Heaven-Born’. Those jealous of its stature referred to the IPS cadre as “civil servants who didn’t want to work and soldiers who didn’t want to fight.”
One of the applicants from the army for the IPS was Syed Shahid Hamid. He was commissioned from Sandhurst in 1933 and joined 3rd Cavalry, a recently Indianised regiment in which he spent six years. The second half of this term were not easy as he did not get along with the second-in-command who was subsequently promoted to command the regiment. Since there was no vacancy for him in the other two Indianised cavalry regiments, Shahid sought an entry onto the hallowed ranks of the Indian Political Service (IPS). At the time he applied Shahid was a lieutenant commanding a detachment of 3rd Cavalry in Allahabad. His close friend in Allahabad was Muhammad Sharif Khan (10th Baloch Regiment), the son of the legendry Khan Bahadur Sardar Mughal Baz Khan of the Guides and the IPS. Many years later Col Sharif’s son Dr. Hamid Zeb sent me a picture of our fathers’ together in 1938. It is possible that his friend Sharif Khan gave Shahid Hamid the idea of applying for the IPS.
Between half to two-thirds of the Politicals were recruited from the army, because they were cheaper to employ and in larger number than the civil servants
My father’s files contain a set of letters related to the case. The first letter in the correspondence trail sent by his regiment in August 1937 in response to a telegram sent by Shahid informs him that as per an extract governing the terms of application to the IPS, he should have corresponded directly with the Foreign and Political Department. It appears that Shahid was unaware of this and had applied through the Headquarters Deccan District. However, it also appears that the regiment had not informed the officer in time since the extract was received in Jan 1937 but forwarded to the officer in six months later.
His subsequent application to the right quarters drew a response in August 1937 from the Department’s office in Simla, the summer capital of British India. He was informed that the selection for that year had already been made but that he would come up for consideration the following year. By now Capt. Iftikhar Khan (‘Ifty’ to his friends) had been appointed as the first Indian adjutant of the regiment. In a private letter to Shahid he regretted that due to “the Regtl officer’s slackness”, his chances of getting into the IPS had been ruined for that year. Following Independence, Iftikhar was being groomed to be the first Pakistani C-in-C but sadly died in an air crash in 1949.
In December 1937, it was communicated to Shahid that the interviews for 1938 would be either conducted at Delhi ‘at the end of the Delhi Season’, or during the Simla Season in August. From 1863 onwards, Viceroy John Lawrence shifted the summer capital of the British Raj to Simla. Since then every year the entire administration would painstakingly move first from Calcutta and later from Delhi to Simla and back every summer. The hill station was also made the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief during the summer months.
A letter of condolence from a certain Azizuddin Ahmed gives a surprising reason for his rejection that “apparently […] they [the British] give preference to Punjabis” [sic]
He was also advised to correspond with the Under Secretary, Capt P.C. Hailey for necessary particulars. Hailey too was a Political who in 1933 had served as the Escort Commanding Officer in Gyantse, Tibet. Shahid persisted for an early interview and wrote directly to Sir Bertrand Glancy, the head of the Political Department. Glancy was from the cadre of ‘Heaven Born’ and was subsequently the Governor of Punjab during the Second World War. Shahid was informed by Hailey that Glancy was prepared to meet him in the first week of February 1938 but then there is a break in the correspondence followed by another letter from Hailey in July 1938 regretting that Shahid could not get a passport for Persia. Apparently the interview was successful but then the letter goes onto say that no final selection has been made. In October 1938 came the disappointing news from Hailey that he had not been selected. A letter of condolence from a certain Azizuddin Ahmed gives a surprising reason for his rejection that “apparently […] they [the British] give preference to Punjabis” [sic]. Shahid Hamid was not from the Punjab but from a Syed family of the United Provinces.
While this may have been the case in the late 1930s, most of the Muslim officers selected for the IPS in the 1920s and early 1930s were either Pathans or from aristocratic families. Amongst the Pathans was Abdul Rahim Khan, Guides Cavalry, the son of Khan Bahadur Abdul Ghafoor Khan who was elected to the provincial assembly in 1932. After Independence, Rahim Khan served Pakistan as its first representative to the UN in 1947-48. Like Rahim Khan, Sahibzada Muhammad Khurshid, 1/14th Punjab Regiment was also from the Mardan District and was the first Pakistani Governor of NWFP. From the Hindko speaking Syed family of Peshawar was Agha Syed Bad Shah (known as A.S.B. Shah) who also joined 1/14th Punjab. He was fluent in seven languages; Urdu, English, Hindi, Pushtu, Punjabi, Persian & Arabic and served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul. Members of aristocratic families who were permitted to be ‘Twice Born’ league included Mirza Osman Ali Baig, 7th Light Cavalry, who was from Hyderabad Deccan and the son of Sir Abbas Ali Baig a decedent of the Chughtais who accompanied Emperor Babur to India in 1526. He subsequently served as foreign secretary of Pakistan. Finally, but not the least was Iskander Mirza, the first Indian (and the first Muslim) to be commissioned from Sandhurst and ultimately served as the President of Pakistan. He was from the family of the Nawab of Bengal and transferred to the IPS after serving for four years in Poona Horse. Candidates who successfully cleared the Interview, served on probation for over three years at the end of which they had to pass some rigorous test in history and frontier matters. Mirza and Rahim appeared together in the 1928 exam and received very high marks beating the British officers.
In 1939, Shahid managed to leave the regiment by accepting a transfer to the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. From here he tried once again for the IPS but his efforts were halted by a letter from the Political Department that fresh applications by officers who have been rejected were not entertained and further on account of the war, there was to be no recruitment in the IPS. The Almighty had his own plans for Shahid who after serving in Burma where he was badly injured, attended the Staff Course at Quetta, returned as a member of the Directing Staff and his final assignment before Independence was the most coveted post for a lieutenant colonel in the British India Army i.e. Private Secretary to Commander-in-Chief India who during this period was General Claude Auchinleck.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to the eminent scholar Hamid Hussain for providing me information on the Muslim officers who were selected for the IPS and to Brig Dogar for his valuable comments on the first draft which have been incorporated.