Ziauddin Choudhury reminisces about his Civil Service apprenticeship
My career path in the Civil Service, particularly the initial years, was not exactly strewn with roses, although I would not characterise it as one of hardship either. My year of training in the Civil Service in the Academy in Lahore, interjected by a three-month initial apprenticeship in Abbottabad, was followed by a year or more of apprenticeship in the districts. Even though the curricula and the ground rules of a civil service apprentice were laid out by the government, much of what came out in reality depended on how the apprentice was trained by the trainers; most importantly what the apprentice retained.
My apprenticeship began in a muggy October 1969 in the then East Pakistan, where we, a group of ten greenhorns, arrived at the conclusion of our training year in Lahore. We were assigned to nine different districts (two among us to one district); my lot was Jessore -- the land of Michael Madhusudan Dutta. I was asked to report to Jessore within a week of my arrival from Lahore where I arrived on a humid and foggy evening.
I received my first shock at the rather desolate Jessore Airport when I did not find the government vehicle that was supposed to pick me up. It was pretty late in the evening as I had taken the last flight from Dhaka. Those days there were two, and sometimes three, daily flights each way. The airport was mostly deserted all day. I remember a bell was rung to announce the arrival of a flight, and to warn the airport guards to drive away any wandering cattle from the tarmac. When I did not find anyone to receive me, the airport manager kindly agreed to let me use his office phone to call the deputy commissioner's house. The DC was not home, but an attendant gave me the number of the additional deputy commissioner, who I called next.
The additional deputy commissioner, Mohammed Kaleem, was surprised to get the call as according to him I was not expected till the next day. He said he would send his own transport to fetch me from the airport. An hour later the jeep arrived, and the driver dropped me at the Roads and Highways rest-house, which would be my home for the next several months.
The Roads and Highways rest-house doubled as a circuit house in Jessore during that period as the main circuit house was used by the military for the office of the sub-zonal martial law administrator. (Recall that the country was under Yahya Khan's martial law at the time.) The circuit house, that venerable resting place for visiting dignitaries and government officials, was off limits to the civilians, hence the substitution.
Located in the periphery of Jessore town, the rest-house was in a very quiet section, which almost resembled a rural area but for the electricity and running water. I was greeted by a swarm of insects that circled around the hazy lights in the rest-house corridor and a sleepy chowkidar, who also worked as a cook. I was very hungry and wanted to know from Mansur (that was the chowkidar's name) if there would be any restaurant around. He laughed saying that the town's only restaurant (a kind of Chinese) was in the town centre several miles away. Also, it would be closed that late in the evening. He offered to cook up an egg curry and rice, which I readily accepted. Mansur, it turned out, was not a bad cook. I had a hearty meal of egg curry, rice, and daal before I fell to my rather springy bed.
Next morning I was joined at breakfast by Waliul Islam, the senior Civil Service apprentice, who had come to Jessore a year before. He had already been reassigned to a new job, and was expected to leave Jessore. He had kindly volunteered to introduce me to the people and the practices that I would have to live with for the year or so of my apprenticeship in Jessore.
The Jessore collectorate building reminded me of the similarity in architecture and building design that the British had adopted almost all over India in building these edifices for government work. The arched entrances, immense ceilings, very fat pillars, and thick walls of these structures followed the ubiquitous colonial architecture that I had seen in the districts in Punjab, and North West Frontier of Pakistan. As we stepped out of the vehicle, and entered the cavernous building, Waliul Islam took me first to a small room in one corner of the massive building. There were three chairs and a table in that room. The chair facing the door was covered by a well-worn cushion, with a coloured towel protecting the back. Wali said this would be my humble office for the period that I would be in Jessore, and left advising me that he would be back soon to take me to the DC for my audience. I took a good look around and discovered paint peeling off from walls, a translucent pitcher containing water on the desk with an equally translucent glass, and a creaking ceiling fan making a feeble attempt at airing the place. I heaved a sigh and sat on the chair wondering about my next encounters.
Wali returned soon to take me to the DC's office. The DC was a portly man in middle age; he was from the Provincial Service where promotions came slow. He was rather laconic in his reception, but quick in pointing out his expectations from me as an apprentice. This included my duties as a magistrate of the second class, training in different sections of the collectorate, particularly revenue administration, and attachment to the sub-divisions. Jessore in those days had three sub-divisions, Sadar, Jhenaidah, Magura, and Narail, all except Sadar had CSP officers from then West Pakistan as SDOs. (The government of Pakistan at that time had put in place the practice of assigning CSP officers from one wing to another for a two-year stint.)
I returned in no time back to my cubby-hole smelling of mould and musty furniture. This would be the beginning of my travails in the court house of Jessore that would last for nearly ten months with a three month break in-between for our settlement training that ushered me in the paddy fields and canals of rural Dhaka. But that would be another story.
My first day was spent mostly paying visits to my seniors, the three additional deputy commissioners -- one of whom I had talked over phone the previous evening. Mohammed Kaleem was a CSP from Punjab, and was in his second and last year before he would go back to West Pakistan. For lunch I would have to go back to my rest house as almost every officer in the collectorate who lived in nearby government quarters went home for lunch. That would be my routine for the next few months in Jessore.
Unlike the cohorts of my batch, who enjoyed a more diverse type of training in their districts, my apprenticeship in Jessore mostly comprised of hearing criminal cases as a second class magistrate, and occasional forays into the thanas to enquire into complaints, or solicitations for government subsidy that were sent to me by the DC. One major aspect of trying criminal cases was hearing requests for bails from lawyers defending the accused, with routine objections from the prosecuting officer, who was known as the court sub-inspector or CSI. The lawyers who appeared in magistrates' courts that time were known as mukhtears. As opposed to a lawyer (ukil) who was a law graduate from college, a mukhtear was a licensed legal practitioner, who got his certification passing a mukhtearship examination after completing high school. The mukhtears practiced only in lower courts. Some of them were very wealthy since they largely practiced in criminal cases, and obtained huge fees simply by obtaining bail for their clients. (The law graduate lawyers usually practiced in higher courts.)
Initially, I was amused by the mukhtears' conduct of a criminal case. Unlike the Judge's Court lawyers the mukhtears rarely wore black robes; they dressed in black jackets instead and wore a black tie, usually very tattered, hanging from very dirty collars. They would address the magistrate as "Huzur," or sometimes as "Your Honour," yelled out their speech, very rarely read from any briefs, and engaged in often lengthy argument with their adversary, the CSI. But they were quite shrewd in their trade, and often outwitted the less competent CSIs, who were usually a decrepit bunch of police officers. When the CSI presented evidence establishing a prima facie case against the accused, the defending mukhtear would pretend he had had not heard the evidence, and request the CSI to repeat the story. The ploy was to catch the CSI with inconsistencies in their plaints.
A case that I remember involved charges of theft against a hapless young man. The CSI had argued that the fellow had been caught red-handed while pilfering from a clothing store where he was employed as a store-keeper. The complainant, the store owner, had reported this to the police who had arrested the young man from his home and promptly put him under detention. The owner alleged that he had caught the young man red-handed when he happened to be checking the store that hour. This was a seemingly iron-clad case, and therefore, the CSI argued that the request for bail be denied. The mukhtear asked the CSI to state once again the alleged time the young store-keeper was found in the shop. The CSI repeated that the alleged theft was late in the evening, the time when the accused was sighted by the shop owner in the shop. The old mukhtear immediately brought out from his pocket a copy of the first information report lodged with the police by the store owner, and pointed out that the time mentioned there was early morning, and not evening. A flustered CSI mumbled some words to the effect that there could be some mistake in writing the report. But the apparent inconsistency between the paper and CSI statement was enough grounds for a bail, if not outright dismissal of the case. A jubilant mukhtear left the court to get the papers signed for bail for his client.
But hearing applications for bail were only a part of my magisterial saga. More often than not, I had to plough through reams of court documents (first information reports, investigation reports from police, medical reports, preliminary orders from other magistrates in the cases transferred to me, etc.), before I would be ready to hear the petitions. In other cases that were ready for trial I would have to listen to arguments on both sides, even though the cases were very minor. As a magistrate of the second class, I was able to try offences that could lead to a maximum punishment of six months of jail and a fine of less than five hundred rupees that time. This meant mostly trying cases involving theft of paddy, a goat or a cow, and, it may sound ludicrous, sometimes theft of fruits from trees. There were cases of a more serious nature also that came up to my court, but I had to pass these on to a magistrate of the first class or the judge's court after a preliminary hearing, for trial.
It would have been a happy memory if all my perils as a novice magistrate were to be confined to hearing of petty criminal cases and bailing out the hapless victims of police cases. My travails as a novice magistrate, however, did also include enquiries into complaints by visiting the places of occurrences, all of which were not very pleasant. Narration of these experiences in Jessore would not be complete without the harrowing account of my ordeal of inquest of an alleged murder that included disinterring the dead body of a young woman and arranging its post mortem.
On a Sunday morning when I was trying my hands at billiards at the officers club in Jessore, I was called to the club telephone by a bearer. The call was from the sub-divisional officer of Sadar, a much older gentleman from the provincial service, who apologised for disturbing me on a Sunday, but he had an important message from the DC. The DC had asked him to convey to me his orders that I proceed to Sharsha, a police station bordering India, where in a village a woman had been reportedly murdered by poisoning, and buried there. The matter was later reported to the DC who then ordered a magisterial inquest. This would involve first taking out the dead from the grave, having it transported to a hospital for a postmortem, reviewing the results of the postmortem, and then having a formal murder case started against any suspect. The DC had designated me as the magistrate since there was no other magistrate available in the headquarters that day.
I had not the foggiest idea how an inquest was done, least of all digging out a dead body from a grave. The SDO assured me that there was on established procedure for that, and that the local police would help me. I thought it was a big joke; but soon a policeman came to the club with an order from the DC conveying the task that the SDO had alluded to. Apparently this policeman, a sub-inspector from Sharsha thana, was familiar with these dealings as in the past he had helped in such inquests (he did not look to me like an undertaker or a grave digger). I was still in a state of denial and was hoping a last minute change in DC's orders. But I was called to reality when a second call from the DC confirmed the order, and I proceeded outside to a jeep waiting for me.
The first thing my police companion said we must do was to recruit a "Dom" (member of a low Hindu caste who were engaged in cremations, sanitary cleaning of public places, etc). There was a Dom settlement near Jessore hospital where we descended looking for a recruit. To my surprise, no one was willing to go with us even with a cash payment of about fifty rupees (equivalent to perhaps two thousand takas now). With great difficulty, and after much cajoling and some threat on consequences of non-cooperation from the police officer conveyed to the leader of the community, an aged Dom agreed to accompany us.
It took us about an hour or so to reach Sharsha travelling the marvelous Jessore Grand Trunk Road that led to Calcutta. The road was canopied by huge rain trees dating back from British days, and was rather sparse of vehicular traffic. After we reached the thana, a police constable informed us the OC was already in the village waiting for us.
We found the OC at the village graveyard surrounded by a dozen other men. The OC was a little taken aback seeing me there. He expected a more seasoned magistrate who would not be turned off by this unsightly and gruesome experience. However, he had to do with my presence, and therefore asked my permission to proceed with the digging. Among the men present was also the father of the victim, who had complained to the police suspecting murder of his daughter by her husband. Before the Dom was asked to dig up, the OC placed a handful of lemon tree leaves and asked that I twist the leaves and place them over my nostrils to ward off the foul smell that would come out after they dig up the three-day old dead body. What about my eyes, I wanted to ask him. But then I remembered I was there to witness the digging and the identification of the body by the relatives. A fetid smell overwhelmed the area when the bloated corpse was brought up. I wished I could keep my eyes shut, and I think I tried to do so until I was prompted by the attending OC to ask the father to identify the body.
The rest of the story is too raw and horrific to describe. Suffice to say that it took us the rest of the day to have the whole body transported to Jessore hospital in a separate truck with me leading the caravan of two transports. I had nightmares remembering this horrific experience, my baptism by fire of sorts, for many months to come.
I left Jessore in the middle of 1970 for another district, but memories of that dreadful Sharsha experience would stay with me forever.
Ziauddin M. Choudhury is a former Civil Servant, and is currently working for the World Bank, Washington DC.