An Assistant Commissioner’s Diary In East Pakistan: Field Lessons

An Assistant Commissioner’s Diary In East Pakistan: Field Lessons
The stability and therefore the success of any national government depends on the district and subdivisional level of administration. When I arrived in East Pakistan in 1970 to take charge as Assistant Commissioner/Subdivision Magistrate of Kishoreganj subdivision in the district of Mymensingh, East Pakistan was simmering with political tension. I sensed that it was all about to explode. It was not long before it did blow up. A year later, East Pakistan declared independence and after a bloody civil war a new nation called Bangladesh emerged. In the end, thousands of people lay dead and four of my CSP colleagues, Assistant Commissioners in the field, were killed; some with their wives. It was a sobering thought: my wife and I could have been one of them. This was Russian roulette.

It was evident on my arrival that things were not normal. Law and order had almost collapsed, and students were preparing for exams in open revolt as they demanded the right to cheat. Attempting to use force on the students would have resulted in an escalation of the crisis. Allowing them to cheat would have rendered examinations meaningless. The same crisis was being enacted in every district across the land. As a young Assistant Commissioner, just 27 years old, I was acutely aware that the crisis was urgent, and Pakistan was in grave danger.

Uncertainty hung like a fog on the land. Politicians issued blood-curdling threats. Everything was connected with everything else and a problem in one part of the state structure would rapidly disturb and disrupt other parts. In spite of the crisis swirling around me, I kept a detailed diary of what was happening, and I reproduce it below without editing or altering it – in the hope that it has lessons for us today decades later. Keep in mind the different political and cultural context:


A Sub-Divisional Officer's Diary:


(I) The SSC and HSC Examinations

I took charge as Sub-Divisional Officer at Kishoreganj on 17th April, 1970, and landed right in the middle of the examination fever plaguing the land: it was a far cry from the peace of Mansehra, across the Subcontinent, that I had left behind. When I arrived on the evening of the 17th at 7:30 P.M., immediately I found myself holding a meeting to discuss the problems related to the Secondary School Certificate Examinations. There were to be 6 Centres in Kishoreganj Town itself. The Invigilators were on nerves’-edge due to a mounting and uninhibited campaign by the candidates demanding the right to cheat. I assured them of the fullest co-operation of the administration and after a thorough examination of the situation over the weekend, on Monday the 20th, I along with the Sub-Divisional Police Officer toured the 6 Centres. Unfortunately, this was a ‘bad day’. An important paper meant a determined effort to cheat inside the hall and attempts to secure aid from outside. Hundreds of boys and people besieged each Centre: there were fathers, uncles, guardians, all in the game. We had deployed the police at each Centre and filled in the gaps with soldiers from the East Pakistan Rifles, a para-military irregular force.

The additional Superintendent of police came down from Mymensingh, the district headquarters, and we saw that not only were we totally disregarded as deterrence in the cheating attempt but that our presence was turning into an impotent administrative gesture. On Wednesday, the 22nd, tension was high. It was the crucial Mathematics paper. Each Centre was mobbed by the ‘helpers.’ Any action on our part through the police force, already hopelessly dwindled in number due to its being split up for the six Centres, would rapidly escalate into an undesirable shooting. The Deputy Commissioner sent down the Additional Deputy Commissioner (Development), the Additional Superintendent of Police and the Assistant Commissioner, Mymensingh, with the firm and final order, vitiating any action, that there would be no recourse to firing under any circumstances. The tempo and the scene took on the familiar pattern. The first hour was peaceful and the Mymensingh team, as they jokingly called themselves, were exultant at their success. The quiet, we later discovered, was due to the time-gap in receiving the question papers, passing them to helpers outside, waiting for them to solve the questions and then returning them. At this point, pandemonium broke loose. It was highly embarrassing for both the local and district administration to have to watch this situation merely as on-lookers.

The last half hour found us virtually prisoners in the office of the headmaster of the High School. As any army strategist could have seen, this was the worst of all battlegrounds: in the middle of a bazaar and at noonday. There were thousands of people who mingled with students around the High School. At Azimuddin High School it was worse: one entire side of the school was flanked by a railway line upon which hundreds of students squatted faced by a few constables feebly attempting to keep them away from the windows.

On the 25th, the Additional Deputy Commissioner (General) arrived. On that day there was hardly any cheating: the paper was an unimportant one. After this paper, fewer students and less important subjects reduced the tension and made the problem easier to cope with.

A few days later we were confronted with the spectacle of the HSC examination. On May 28th, the Principal, Vice-Principal and other staff of the local Gurudayal College came to me in the evening complaining of 'insecurity' and offered a solution: at least one police constable lo guard each Invigilator round the clock. I asked how many there were. They said 36. l only had some 20 constables in the Thana Headquarters.

There was genuine fear on their faces and in their hearts. In a public meeting the students had threatened to 'behead' any Invigilator who interfered with their cheating. Subsequently, an Invigilator was attacked. Again, we had late-night emergency sessions. But the attitude of the Invigilators was ambivalent. The 'assaulted' Invigilator at first procrastinated and finally withdrew his case. The fear of the naked power of the student was greater than the desire to maintain personal dignity or academic decorum.

On June 2nd, the Chairman of the Examination Board drove down from Dacca. The Additional Deputy Commissioner (Development) was already in Kishoreganj and once again we met in the Principal’s office. From the statement of the Chairman, it appeared that the situation was normal and conditions like those at Kishoreganj existed, slightly better or slightly worse, all over the province of East Pakistan. On the 4th I went to Bhairab where the Chairman had promised to meet me. He failed to turn up. I met the Principal and staff of the Haji Asmat College who had evolved a smooth technique for holding examinations in this milieu: the Invigilators handed out the papers and then, to a man. retreated to wait out the 3-hour period in the Staff Room.

On the 9th l spent the day at Bajitpur and visited the College Examination Centre there. Things were remarkably peaceful. In fact, of all the 3 Centres in the Sub-Division this Centre managed to stay out of the 'news' totally. They had resorted to an effective expedience: black out all incidents. This saves both local prestige and permits the cheating to continue unabated. In fact, this modus vivendi was resorted to generally by other Centres in the province.
It was being predicted that after the nightmare of the 3,000 frustrated students in the SSC, the less than 2,000 in the HSC in Kishoreganj town would not constitute a problem. This was wrong. The HSC boys were bigger and bolder.

We took every conceivable step to either mitigate or anticipate the problem on both occasions and at the Centres.
It was the crucial Mathematics paper. Each Centre was mobbed by the ‘helpers.’ Any action on our part through the police force, already hopelessly dwindled in number due to its being split up for the six Centres, would rapidly escalate into an undesirable shooting

In the face of the physical brute determination of the student group nothing actually worked; we could dampen but not eradicate the problem. We were busy working out solutions:

  1. Repeated emergency sessions were conducted late into the night with the local Subdivisional Police Officer (SDPO), Magistrates, Principals and Headmasters to work out or try any system.

  2. Local political and social leaders of all types were formed into travelling 'pressure-groups' to dissuade boys.

  3. The staff and Invigilators were 'pushed' and 'pulled' and encouraged to stay on the job.

  4. At the next stage in the SSC examination, the entire body of Invigilators handed in their resignation en bloc. We had Sub-Divisional clerks and other Primary teachers contacted in the night to stand by for the morrow. This latter strategy became a routine.

  5. Police was repeatedly deployed along with Ansars.

  6. Later, even student groups were formed to patrol and keep away the disturbing elements: the latter were often regular political anarchists.

  7. Public meetings were called to appeal to guardians and 'good sense.’ Society at all levels was torn in this crisis.

  8. l was acutely short of Magistrates. A previous Executive Magistrate had been transferred and no replacement sent. Yet I sent my Second Officer (or a Judicial Magistrate though later they began to object to this practice) hither and thither as the situation warranted. I personally kept on the move virtually round the clock with the Subdivisional Police Officer, Principal or/and Headmasters.

Everything failed. Last year a similar situation prevailed under Army personnel. This Election-year everyone knew that no one was going to fire. Fear as an argument had ceased in the student mind, as love and reason had failed earlier. The answers were no longer on the Sub-Divisional but on the Provincial level. Fear or defiance is a contagious emotion. The great tolerance and sympathy the student enjoys (basking in the opinion that he toppled the Ayub regime) and the international rise of student power have combined to elevate the student today as the unchallenged pace­setter of society. No other segment of society is either confident or big enough to challenge student power. Defiance and a total arrogance in the face of authority culminated in the wild sacking of the Dacca college by the HSC candidates under the nose of Government on the 12th of June.

All along the line were two sets of pressures and alternatives. All along they were unresolved:

The administration displayed its police force, but they were not to take action or fire (and create student martyrs). Police thus became an impotent gesture and irritant.

  1. The teachers would fulminate about their students, cry about the 'future of the country', beseech us to shoot if necessary but then melt back into their academic role of guide and friend of the student at the signs of the slightest trouble.

  2. Bhairab is theoretically administered from Kishoreganj but is practically an independent entity of its own. No Magistrate sits at this important Centre of commerce. The Circle Officer (Development) is not a heavy enough symbol of authority to control any emergency situation.

  3. People in theory will disapprove of the idea of cheating by students in general but will aid their own relatives by any means to ensure their passing the examination.

  4. No one is safe from the student imbroglio. Invigilators claimed police constables merely watched this anarchy and some actually took 10-rupee notes to look the other way, but the police claim that amongst the roughly treated Invigilators were those who took money from students, promising them access to outside aid and then refusing.

  5. Under normal conditions the Asiatic cultural tradition imposes respect, fear and even loyalty on the students when dealing with elders and especially teachers, but there is a tremendous generation gap and cultural identification is not complete. Concepts of 'fair play', 'decency', 'good sense' ‘country's future' mean little to the young interested only in their immediate goals. Discipline is dead.

  6. Kishoreganj might have not been as bad as it turned out to be but as the Additional Deputy Commissioner's report to the Deputy Commissioner pointed out: 'Kishoreganj is notorious for its goonda and anti-social elements. These elements are always at hand to exploit any situation and embarrass the administration.’

  7. In the light of the statement of the Chairman of the Board and subsequent information (even in the newspapers) the 'free-for-all' at Bhairab was a normal phenomenon in the province in 1970; but as normal administrative practice is to play down, if not actually conceal, any local crisis in order to avert personal involvement and rebuke, we at Kishoreganj told all and thus immediately anticipated and invited the District Headquarters' response of 'why Kishoreganj has failed'? It was high time the spade was being called a spade.

In most places 'all OK' reports were being sent to the superiors.
One man that night stood out in my memory. He was in charge of the contingent of the East Pakistan Rifles, a para-military force made up of Bengali soldiers

Bhairab constituted a particular problem because of its peculiar position within the framework of District administration. It is an affluent trading centre. The people are newly rich and materialistic. There is neither a cultural nor educational tradition nor a local authority to check any such adverse developments. When cheating began and the Principal with his invigilators decided to sit it out some paradoxes were observed:

  1. No news regarding cheating appeared in the press. The Principal said this was because the students had threatened the newsmen who reported on them.

  2. The only check to excessive cheating came from senior boys. The reason: excessive cheating might provoke the authorities to cancel the B.A. Centre at Bhairab in the future.

  3. Professional 'helpers' came from Dacca to solve the questions.

  4. The Ansars posted to help came to the Principal asking him to save them against student threats. They were discreetly moved out of sight.

  5. The c.o. (Development) was the highest administrative authority in Bhairab and was openly and noisily questioned as to why he was bent on stopping cheating. Students felt he had no authority.

  6. Bhairab is isolated not only from the District Headquarters but also the Sub-Divisional Headquarters. The only communication is 2 to 3 hours by train. The phone is always out of order. Upon receiving the Principal's telegram on the first day of the examination I sent a Magistrate immediately: which was next morning.

The Principal of the Haji Asmat College wrote a lengthy report along with his poignant resignation letter. That perhaps reflects this social disease as seen through the eyes of a sensitive and dedicated educationist. I understood his viewpoint when I went through a series of public meetings in an attempt to enlist active public support for the Principal and his staff at Bhairab. All the white-beards and wealthy folk agreed; but no one was prepared to stand by the lonely Principal if it came to a showdown. Soon after this Bhairab was the subject of an editorial in The Pakistan Observer, Dacca. and the Centre was closed. The Principal must have felt fulfilled. The problem was no longer his. It now belonged to the nation.


(II) The B.A. Examination

The excess of indiscipline displayed by students in their attempts to cheat their way whole-sale through the SSC and HSC examinations all over the province had prepared the ground for public opinion to swing against further permissiveness. The Administration felt it could now go to all logical extremes to put a stop to the shambles the examination system had become.

The Deputy Commissioner, Mymensingh, typified this attitude when he talked on the 23rd and 24th of June to the various segments that make up Kishoreganj society. Guardians, political leaders, students and Professors were all told in no uncertain manner that the B.A. examination in Kishoreganj would be a 'test-case' for the district and any attempt to cheat would mean immediate action leading to a possible cancellation of the Examination Centre. The Deputy Commissioner's 'no-nonsense' attitude cleared the air and paved the way for tough action, if necessary. It also convinced Kishoreganj that the SSC and HSC days of latitude were over.

I then went through a series of similar but more detailed meetings with similar groups. In each case the message was loud and clear: no more soft-peddling. The dreaded Martial Law Regulation was to be invoked in any such case.

On 1st July a riot-platoon of the police force arrived; and also, a platoon of the East Pakistan Rifles (a para-military force). When the examination started the next day not a soul was to be seen anywhere near the College proximity. We had deployed the police for immediate use in blocking off the main road by the College during examination hours and the E.P.R. to be near at hand as silent but meaningful spectators.

In my tour around the College, not a boy was in sight. Remarkable from the chaotic days of the SSC and HSC examinations. Inside the Examination Hall, there was calm and order. But after a few days, reports filtered to me that the boys were carrying on the game with a new rule. No outside help but inside, anything goes. A boy was said to have jabbed at the Principal with a pen when the latter took away his cheating material. Although I insisted that the boy be immediately expelled to become an example to others (and this took on the air of a minor scandal) the Principal refused to take action. He even refused to give me the name of the boy as he feared reprisals later.

I called the Principal and his Vice-Principal and warned them that if on a sudden check of the Examination Hall I saw any sign of cheating I would hold the Invigilator on duty personally responsible and proceed against him. On the 6th of July, I called the Principal and the entire lot of Invigilators and again warned them that I had been receiving reports of extensive cheating. They denied any such knowledge. The Principal is an amiable but an ineffective character straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. He exemplified the mentality of his staff in requests that now degenerated into juvenile fantasies: could the E.P.R. patrol inside the Examination Halls? 'We are in mortal threat of our lives and demand round-the­ clock personal protection': the mounting hysteria and theme of the academic when confronted with physical violence.

It soon became abundantly clear that two rival staff parties were involved in a power struggle and were using every trick to discomfit each other. Clear impressions of College intrigue and College parties stabbing each other in the back at the expense of the College and its boys were formed and confirmed. The Vice-Principal hoped to replace the Principal through these means.

On the 9th of July, I asked my Second Officer to make a surprise visit to the Examination Hall as I was going to Bhairab to see matters there. My Second Officer was instructed to check or catch any cheating attempts and also report the name of the relevant Invigilator. He reported that all was in order.

This made me suspicious. All variables had been isolated once we 'sealed off' the College. It was purely a 2+2 =4 equation now. The Professors confronting their boys. And as there is no smoke without a fire, I became convinced that the teachers had decided en masse to join hands with the students and abet them in their illegal methods. Administration could lead the horse to the water but only its own inner instincts could make it drink.

I intended to pay constant and unexpected surprise visits to the Examination Hall to seize cheating boys and their materials as well as the abetting Invigilators. Unfortunately, a sort of underground warning system telling them of my approach or that of any other Magistrate sent by me or from Mymensingh had been developed to perfection. In any case, any other Magistrate could not legally act inside the Hall as he would have no locus standi. I, of course, had access both as Sub-Divisional Officer and Chairman of the Board of Governors of the College.

A few words might be added here about the Bhairab affair. After having been cancelled as a Centre it was ‘re-granted’ by the Vice-Chancellor in a rather dramatic manner and I first heard of it from the daily The Morning News, Dacca. However, the Vice-Chancellor’s gamble appeared to have paid off. Apart from a handful of expelled boys and some who walked out (peacefully) as they could not cope with the paper, the examination was a model of propriety for the 290 candidates. The guardians who had guaranteed this extraordinary change of heart were on regular patrol. To ensure law and order a full riot-platoon from Mymensingh stood by. My Second Officer (and only Executive Magistrate) was present for every important paper. To date the Examination at Bhairab has been a model one.

As far as the Gurudayal College at Kishoregani is concerned the main and old argument of the Professors that the administration could have done more was exhausted; the corollary remained that the College staff either cannot or will not make an effort to stop the boys. The alternatives we could have adopted were either to scrap the papers, or scrap the staff or even scrap the College. In the last case the loss might exceed the gain. It does not take much imagination or intelligence to prophesy that unless Government takes radical steps soon, the examination system as we know it will not only create a collapse in academic standards but also in the moral standards of our college students and society. Besides it will become an unbearable and unmanageable problem for the local administration.

It is usually distressing to have one’s predictions proved false; in this case it would be more distressing to have one’s predictions proved true.

I was informed of a tense situation developing at the Azimuddin High School and rushed there. As I arrived, I saw a sight that sent a shiver of apprehension through me. A huge noisy crowd of students, quite rowdy and agitated, was taunting a large contingent of the East Pakistan Rifles. The soldiers had backed to the railway line which lay just behind them so there was little space for further movement. One glance was enough to convey the dangers of the situation. A single injury or action would immediately escalate into an uncontrollable melee.

One man that night stood out in my memory. He was in charge of the contingent of the East Pakistan Rifles, a para-military force made up of Bengali soldiers. This man was tall, fairish in colour and had green eyes. He was as I suspected a Pukhtun, a Yusufzai as it turned out. He held a machine-gun-like weapon. I talked to him in Pukhto. He responded with a torrent of Pukhto as if he had been dying to speak his native language. He was clearly at the end of his tether. His veins stood out on his forehead and his eyes were red as if he had not slept for weeks. He looked tense and I saw that his finger was nervously twitching on the trigger of his weapon. He spoke to me in Pukhto and complained of abuse and humiliation.

I knew he was itching to punish his tormentors. He insisted the only solution was to take tough action. I also knew that if he pulled the trigger even by accident and killed some students, it would instantly escalate into a major conflagration and change the local problem into a national crisis. The provocation was severe as the students were lined up opposite the troops and determined to insult and prod them. There were loud shouts and noise and anger. I had to remain calm. I ordered the Yusufzai to take his men and fall back out of sight and only to move when I specifically asked them to. In fact, it never came to that.

Later, I wondered what happened to him. He had come from across the continent in Mardan in the Yusufzai belt to serve deep in Bengal. Had he even survived the storm that was to come in 1971?

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland