How the Pakistani bureaucrat became a fat cat

Arrest of Punjab govt's Ahad Cheema should surprise none for the rot dates to the 1950s

How the Pakistani bureaucrat became a fat cat
The arrest of ace bureaucrat Ahad Cheema exemplifies the moral and functional dilemma of the civil service cadres. No one appreciated the administrative state machinery’s frenzied reaction to his arrest by the National Accountability Bureau on February 21 in the Ashiana Housing Scheme investigation. The investigation had revealed corruption worth billions in a deal between Paragon Housing Society and the Punjab Land Development Company for the construction of the Punjab government’s low-cost housing project. Cheema was heading the authority at the time. The Punjab bureaucracy has stood behind him.

History of bureaucracy

Pakistan inherited a modicum of the large administrative resource at its inception, and owing to the paucity of administrative expertise and personnel, its administrative structure was in shambles. This compelled the government to create the position of Secretary General (SG) and appoint Chaudhry Muhammad Ali of the Audit & Accounts Service to this position. The responsibilities assigned to the SG actually belonged to the political executive such as in the UK where the PM is also the minister of the civil service. But the political frenzy in the newly created country constrained the political executive to delegate it to unelected civil servants.

In the name of national integration, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali came up with a system of patronage that supported the centralisation drive of the government and the arbitrariness inherent in such an exercise automatically crept into the professional makeup of the administrative class. The proponents of the excessive centralisation conveniently ignored that such an arrangement was laden with a high proclivity to lend itself to abuse which it eventually did.

The services established close ties with the landowning class that dominated politics in Pakistan and had much in common with them. Despite opposition from non-service technocrats, the services succeeded in securing control of economic policy-making and implementation. They ensnared print and electronic media by tightening control over newsprint, withholding advertisements and giving arbitrary press advice. They also gained control of foreign relations through their close collaboration with the security-conscious military. They was instrumental in initiating political engineering in as early as 1954 when they deftly manoeuvred a series of moves, sidelining the popularly elected United Front (Jugtoo Front) in East Pakistan.

Ahad Cheema

As a result, the overweening authority handed over to the administrative set-up turned it into an arbitrary force. The attitudes of officers hardened against all other state institutions, particularly the political class which it considered the only impediment in its unbridled exercise of power. The civil servants denigrated politicians having the temerity to air their views through newspapers as was done by Mian Anwar (IP) in the 1950s, berating politicians for deliberately undermining the administrative authority.

The intransigence of the services could be gleaned from an oft-quoted episode when Aziz Ahmad (ICS-1930) as Cabinet Secretary and chairman of the Selection Board pilloried a central secretary for paying undue attention to the recommendation of his minister. When told he was harsh with his junior colleague he retorted: “No. I want the Secretary to stand up to his minister more. He is not being paid Rs4,000 per month to be a yes-man”.

The functionaries of civil service operated almost independently of the political executive as another incident reveals. PM Khwaja Nazimuddin deputed defence secretary Iskander Mirza to determine the pros and cons of army intervention to quell the anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Lahore in 1953 and to ask Maj. Azam Khan, GOC 10 Division, to take action accordingly. Iskander Mirza (IPS-1926) leaned back in his chair and said with a smug look: “I already have, Sir!” It was such an attitude that conditioned new recruits to civil service as they fed on old stories of glacial supremacy.

The tentative political base of the political executive ruling Pakistan in the first decade of its existence was the heyday of the civil service. But anticipating the winds of change, Iskander Mirza began to develop a close liaison with the army and Ayub Khan responded positively. The dangers associated with an unnatural alliance between two almost similar bureaucratic organisations were lost on the senior civil servants who took a short view of the situation. The army knew, however, that the civil service intended to use it as a crutch and bided its time.

Mushtaq Raisani was a Balochistan secretary finance arrested with Rs 730m in 2016

Once in the saddle, Ayub Khan watered down the dominance of the civil service by appointing 250 military officers in supervisory civilian positions. And, since his organisation possessed plenty of administrative know-how, he did not rely on the civil service. A year into power, he screened out 84 civil servants, including 12 CSP officers among whom were men of high calibre such as Abbas Khaleeli (ICS-1931), A.T. Naqvi (ICS-1931) and Zafarul Ahsan (ICS-1936). Ayub’s highhandedness did not demoralise the civil service—it became his handmaiden, hoping that the military would soon withdraw, restoring the civil administration to it again. But this was a chimera, as the Ayub era witnessed the end of their national administrative dominance.

This was nothing in comparison to what was to follow as the floodgates were swept open by the uniformed bureaucracy when Yahya Khan dismissed 303 civil servants, including 38 CSPs in 1969. Following it up, a grudgingly skeptical PM Bhutto got rid of 1,300 civil servants who included 22 CSPs. Bhutto scrapped the fabled constitutional protection provided to   the administrative machinery by the British which was followed till Bhutto devised a new constitution in 1973.

Taking a cue from the policy initiated by Bhutto of inducting officers in government through a much maligned lateral entry scheme, Gen Zia scrapped its civilian part and instead institutionalised a ten percent quota for ex-army officers in the federal administrative services. Musharraf enhanced the presence of uniformed officers in civil institutions when he whimsically appointed hundreds of serving and retired army officers to civilian jobs.

Ayub Khan’s rule was notorious for corrupt practices of a ruling coterie that trickled down to the civil service. During the Zia era, practices of malfeasance enveloped all areas of administrative activity. Zia turned a blind eye to gross malpractices his uniformed cronies were involved in, encouraging their civilian counterparts to line their pockets. The fragile barriers of probity and good conduct were broken with the gradual shrinking of the civil service. This trend was strengthened by former uniformed officers in their midst as they had strong connections with their erstwhile institution.
The corruptibility of the civil service is mostly due to the patronage it received from political and uniformed segments of the country

The decline of the administrative service was accompanied by the arrests of bureaucrats such as Altaf Gauhar, Ahmed Sadiq and Saeed Mehdi, held for their partisan political affiliations. The application of the vague ‘living beyond their means’ tag spun out of control. In the new millennium, successive governments arrested their functionaries accused of gross financial misconduct. Consequently, high-ranking administrators such as Salman Faruqi, Farkhand Iqbal (CDA chairman), Shafqat Cheema (FO director), Shafi Sehwani (CDA chairman), Rao Shakeel (hajj DG), Zafar Gondal (EOBI chairman), Mushtaq Raisani (Balochistan finance secretary) and Malik Naveed (KP IG) were taken into custody and charged with malpractices. Ahad Cheema is the latest on the list.


Unimaginably lucrative opportunities presented to Ahad Cheema and his alleged disregard for propriety just proves what a mess the civil service is in. Its corruptibility is mostly due to the patronage it received from political and uniformed segments of the country. The political cover given to corrupt practices is mainly due to the ambivalent attitude of the military that ruled Pakistan for 33 years followed by almost 20 years of the PMLN’s political dominance. The PPP also aided and abetted corrupt practices while the army-backed NAB came to the rescue by offering offenders plea bargaining and reinstating them to run riot again. And to top it all, a lax judicial process practically gives government functionaries a free hand.

Cheema is a junior officer of the Pakistan Administrative Service, hailing from a modest background but who appeared to have made it big. His arrest points to a painful reality that the administrative structure of Pakistan is now nothing more than an unrecognizable entity. Its sad story is that of an excellent functional outfit that fell from grace, endangering the very edifice it was established to serve. It seems impossible to retrieve it from the abyss.

Cheema’s arrest follows a string of punitive measures taken against the cadres of state employees who consistently refused to function above board over the last half of the century. The unpalatable reality of being caught is never far from their minds but they have grown psychologically immune to it by depending on the law of averages which still tilts in favour of a wayward bureaucrat getting away with his windfall.

Ali Siddiqi is a former bureaucrat and runs an academic training outfit in Karachi.

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