"With the competence required for addressing the challenges both in the government of British India and through the formative years of Pakistan, he rose to the highest levels of policymaking" - Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of Syed Ghiasuddin Ahmed
The Indian Civil Service (ICS) was a fascinating institution with distinct values and beliefs. It came into existence under the Government of India Act of 1858 and its small cadre of a little over a thousand officers directed all the activities of more than 300 million Indians in the 250 districts and more than 450 Princely States of British India. At Independence, there were 980 ICS officers including 468 British, 352 Hindus, 101 Muslims, 25 Indian Christians, 13 Parsis, 10 Sikhs and 11 from other communities.
One of the Muslims who joined the ICS close to the beginning of the Second World War was Syed Ghiasuddin Ahmed. He was a direct descendant of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Al-Gilani, an 11th-century saint whose shrine is located in the Resafa neighborhood of Baghdad. During the 18th century, a descendant of the saint with the same name migrated to Punjab, and his shrine was erected at the confluence of the Jhelum and Chenab rivers. The site developed into the village of Pirkot where Ghiasuddin was born in 1915 and educated at a primary school established by his father Syed Muhammad Shah Gilani for him and the other village boys. Coached by his tutor in Persian, English, and Urdu, his love and knowledge of these languages remained throughout his life.
When his father moved from Pirkot to take care of his lands near Risalewala in Lyallpur district, Ghiasuddin was first admitted to the Government College Lyallpur, and then graduated from Government College Lahore. He was a good friend of Dr. Abdul Salam, the great physicist and Nobel Laureate. Both belonged to the district of Jhang and Dr. Salam used to tell him, “Ghias Sahib, Jhang ne sirf do hi parhe-likhe paida kiay hain; aik tusi te aik mein.” (“Ghias Sahib, Jhang has produced only two educated people; one is you and the other myself”). Ghiasuddin lost his mother when he was only 12 and at 21, his father expired leaving him responsible for his two youngest siblings. However, he not only managed the affairs of the family but also passed the entrance examination to the hallowed ranks of the ICS held in early 1938.
Governor General Warren Hastings (1774-85) laid the groundwork for the Imperial Civil Service, as it was originally named. A century later, the British parliament accepted that the ICS could no longer be a monopoly of European officers and allowed Indians to apply through competitive tests, though they had to appear in the UK. This was also consistent with Lord Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education of 1835. The ICS was now divided into two categories – the covenanted service for the British and the uncovenanted one at the lower rung for Indians, with a huge disparity in salaries. The British were very careful about who we were allowed to enter the ICS and Philip Mason’s described the process as “picked men, picked from picked men.”
He was a good friend of Dr. Abdul Salam, the great physicist and Nobel Laureate. Both belonged to the district of Jhang and Dr. Salam used to tell him, “Ghias Sahib, Jhang ne sirf do hi parhe-likhe paida kiay hain; aik tusi te aik mein.” (“Ghias Sahib, Jhang has produced only two educated people; one is you and the other myself”)
Even so, the British did not feel comfortable with the Indians forming part of the ‘elite,’ on which Viceroy Curzon (1899-1905) expressed his concern, “higher posts […] reserved for Europeans are being filched away by the superior wits of the native in the English exams” terming this as the “greatest peril with which the administration is confronted.” To control the Indian entries, they fiddled with the syllabus, awarding lesser marks to Arabic and Sanskrit, and constantly lowering the age limitations. After the First World War, a decline in the number of candidates from the United Kingdom and pressure from the Freedom Movement compelled the British to permit Indians to hold a third (33%) of the posts, increasing them to nearly half (48%) within ten years. In 1922, they also agreed to hold exams in India simultaneously, although British candidates continued to be given priority consideration for ICS positions.
In September 1938, Ghiasuddin sailed for the UK with a batch of 16 probationers which included M. H. Sufi who after serving in Sind became the Cabinet Secretary, Ikram Ahmed Khan who was appointed Chairman WAPDA and Sheikh Anwar ul Haq, who was the Chief Justice of Pakistan during the trial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Half the probationers including Ghiasuddin were enrolled in Cambridge University while the other half went to Oxford. During a one-year period, they were tutored in courses on Indian governance such as criminal law, the law of evidence, the revenue system and Indian history. They were also tutored in the language of the province they had opted for. Ghiasuddin had opted for the United Provinces (UP) because it was regarded as one of the best-administered.
Before returning to India, he was invited to tour the continent by a classmate and friend who was the younger brother of the wealthy Maharaja of Patiala. They travelled through Hitler’s Germany as well as Mussolini’s Italy and in Rome, called on the British Ambassador. He was surprised to see them. “What are you fellows doing here?” he asked these two young adventurous probationers. “Don’t you know that there is a war breaking out in Europe and you may end up in an internment camp for its duration?” They immediately caught a train back to London and left for India by ship. The war was declared while they were crossing the Bay of Biscay and the passengers and the crew members were anxious about German submarines but they arrived safely at Bombay in early October 1939.
Till the First World War, the Indians in the ICS were a small 6.2% of 1,255 members. By the time Ghiasuddin entered the service 20 years later, they constituted the majority with 625 Indians against 575 Europeans. The senior posts in the provincial capitals and districts were held by the British, while the Indians served in the districts as assistant magistrates and assistant collectors. The district officers directed the affairs of about 300,000 Indians within the districts and were the trestles of the proverbial steel frame that kept together India’s fabric. While the officers of the ICS cadre called themselves “civilians”, the other central services like the Police, Customs, etc., referred to them as “Heaven Born.” However, as the process of Indianisation and constitutional reforms accelerated, the authority and standing of the District Collectors diminished.
The demands of the Second World War placed a huge burden on the administration, often presenting the ICS officers with an almost impossible situation with political disturbances, revolts, famines, etc. For the next eight years, Syed Ghiasuddin Ahmed served at Gorakhpur, Benares, Allahabad, and Fatehpur Haswa as an assistant magistrate and Deputy Collector. While serving in Aligarh, he was married to Suriya Jabeen, the daughter of Mian Fakhruddin. At the time of Independence, he was serving in the provincial government at Lucknow.
After independence, Sir Francis Mudie was appointed Governor of Punjab. His sympathies were with the Muslims, and while he was serving as the last British Governor of Sind, the Hindu press cynically referred to him as “Fateh Muhammad” after his initials of ‘F.M’. Mudie selected Ghiasuddin as his secretary because he himself had served in the UP. Ghiasuddin subsequently also served with Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar who was one of the candidates for Prime Minister when Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. While he was Deputy Commissioner Lahore (1952-53), the city witnessed one of its worst periods with the anti-Ahmadi riots leading to two months of Martial Law.
Among his most cherished assignments were two tenures as Commissioner of the Rawalpindi Division, the largest of Punjab’s four administrative divisions. It was a sensitive division as it was the Pakistan Army’s recruiting base but was also economically impoverished and had a weak communication infrastructure. Following the best traditions of administration established by the British, Ghiasuddin toured long distances to the outlying districts – inspecting development programs and holding open ‘kutcheries’ to listen to the problems of the locals and also apprise them of the development projects. His first term, which began in 1956, was cut short by a welcome year at the Imperial Defence College in London.
The British did not feel comfortable with the Indians forming part of the ‘elite,’ on which Viceroy Curzon (1899-1905) expressed his concern, “higher posts […] reserved for Europeans are being filched away by the superior wits of the native in the English exams” terming this as the “greatest peril with which the administration is confronted”
On his return, he again administered the Rawalpindi Division this time for six years till 1963. The highlight of his tenure was accommodating the government offices and staff when the federal capital was temporarily relocated to Rawalpindi. He also served as an ex-officio member of a committee tasked to determine the location of the new capital. It studied sites around Kalar Kahar, Gujar Khan and Taxila – and finally selected the base of the Margalla Hills. He then served as the ex-officio Deputy Chairman of the newly founded Capital Development Authority, which was headed by Major General Yahya Khan, who was also Chairman of the Federal Capital Commission. Ghiasuddin had a great interest in the arts and erected an open-air amphitheatre in the Ayub Park in Rawalpindi, which was replicated in the Sharkarparian Hills in Islamabad. A number of plays were performed at these theatres and prominent artists like Begum Akhtar, who was on a visit from India, were invited to perform. As a keen horticulturist, he guided the CDA in establishing a nursery and tree plantation in the new capital at Islamabad. He was also the founding member of the Islamabad Horticultural Society.
Ghiasuddin returned to Lahore in 1963 as the Additional Chief Secretary for Planning and Development, Government of West Pakistan and was subsequently appointed as Director of the Civil Services Academy. It was a post he enjoyed since it allowed him to cultivate within the probationers the same culture of a civil servant and gentleman in which he had himself been groomed. In 1966 he was appointed as Interior Secretary in the central government and a year later as Defence Secretary and was concurrently ex-officio Chairman of PIA. In this capacity, he oversaw two very important events. The first was the airlift to East Pakistan in March 1971 of two infantry divisions and units of the Civil Armed Forces with 75% of the PIA fleet supplemented by the transport squadron of the PAF. The second was arranging the aircraft that flew Kissinger on his covert diplomatic missions to Beijing in July 1971 under extreme secrecy.
Since he was a graduate of the IDC, he took particular interest in the establishment of the National Defence College at Rawalpindi. The foundations of Pakistan’s two largest military-industrial complexes – the Tank Factory in Taxila and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra – were laid during his tenure. He served for six years as Secretary of Defence, right through the tumultuous events of 1971, and his career of over 30 years culminated with his elevation to Secretary-General Defence. A few years after his retirement, he was appointed as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Iran during the last few years of the Shah’s reign and was subsequently appointed as Ambassador to Morocco from where he returned in 1980.
With the competence required for addressing the challenges both in the government of British India and through the formative years of Pakistan, he rose to the highest levels of policymaking and subsequently served on two diplomatic assignments. He was always very discreet regarding official matters and never discussed sensitive issues in public or even within the family. He was extremely well-read and could converse on a variety of topics including history, arts, literature, horticulture, cuisine, etc. He would make a study of the dictionary and the thesaurus, and the Encyclopedia Britannica was his equivalent of Google.
He had a very attractive and charismatic personality that endeared him to the young and old, as well as foreigners and he and his wife Suriya had an open house. After his retirement, he lived to the age of 100 years, loved by his six children, 22 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren.