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     Volume 7 Issue 35 | August 29, 2008 |

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A Fine Teacher and an Illustrious Civil Servant
Shafiul Azam

Azizul Jalil

Shafiul Azam

Despite his brilliant academic record and an equally outstanding civil service career, Shafiul Azam's was perhaps not a widely-known name in the public arena. A meritorious student who stood first in the first class in English and Law in the Dhaka University, a vice president of the S. M. Hall, who also stood first in Pakistan in the first Central Superior Services examination, he had an aura around him. He was considered as one of the top civil servants on an all-Pakistan basis, having worked in both the provincial and central governments. In 1969, he became the first Bangali CSP officer to become the chief secretary of East Pakistan, a unique and important position those days. In Bangladesh, he did not enjoy the favour of the government in the first few years, but later emerged as a cabinet secretary, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and thereafter, a minister in the government. Shafiul Azam was my teacher in college and a superior in the civil service.

He taught us English Literature at the Dhaka College in 1948-49. Wearing an intelligent smile and looking sharp in a suit and tie so typical of him Shafiul Azam would enter the class and ask us to read poems by the romantic poets- Keats and Shelley from the “Cambridge Book of Verse.” He would then eloquently provide the context and the underlying philosophy. He would quote from famous critics like Matthew Arnold, adding his own reflections, which made the class all the more interesting. One day, there was a heavy storm with deafening sounds of thunder and the power went off at our modest college building. Shafiul Azam would not lose any time and continued to immerse us in the best of English literary works. He would tell us the story of London during the Second World War, when the resilient and stoical English people would carry on with their regular educational and other activities in candlelight, as electricity had to be turned off or was lost during the frequent and heavy German bombings.

He was a disciplinarian and emphasised timely attendance in class. One day I came in minutes after he had completed the attendance register. At the end of the class, I approached him with the request to mark me present. He said he will, provided I promised that I would never be late again. My response was that I will try but could not, in all honesty, promise that I will never again be late. He appreciated my candour- but the strict man that he was, did not give me the attendance. He was dignified and reserved and even though courteous, he was not very friendly with his students.

Shafiul Azam (3rd from left) in Washington in 1987 with friends.

Shafiul Azam left us in September 1949 for training in the Civil Service Academy in Lahore where I followed him after nine years. I used to meet him in the intervening years, but infrequently. As a civil servant, in 1961-62, I worked closely with him in the then Commerce and Labour Department in the East Pakistan government. As secretary of the department, he was a very efficient and demanding officer. When we sent a file to him in the morning, it would come back soon after lunch time, with his clear and crisp decisions in fine handwriting. Sometimes he would add a word of praise or call me to his room to make incisive observations about the subject matter. He would maintain his distance but started to become a more open and friendly person.

In 1966, as chairman of the East Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation, he visited me in Kushtia where I was the deputy commissioner. As we sat in the veranda of the DC's 100-year old official bungalow by the river Dakatia, to my delight, I found my former teacher appreciative of a junior colleague's development initiatives and ideas. One of them was the successful campaign to encourage farmers to dig field channels to take water from the Ganges- Kobadak irrigation system. He also frankly discussed with me the problems of the Mohini Cotton Mill and the Jagati Sugar Mill in the district. Next year, when he became the additional chief secretary of East Pakistan in charge of development, he called me from an on-going meeting about an expanded provincial tree-plantation programme. He asked me to send him a practical plan, which we had locally drawn up and successfully implementing in Kushtia. Throughout his service career, whenever there was a novel idea and an opportunity to do an effective and excellent job, he would seize on it, encourage and challenge others to adopt it and persevere. A go-getter, he would not stand nonsense and would not be dissuaded by lame excuses from demanding good and timely work. That was one quality of his that impressed me the most.

In early 1970, I met him in the chief secretary's office, and took the liberty of mentioning that there were some whispers that he was less than sensitive about East Pakistan's politico-economic demands and cultural assertions. He furiously denied these rumours, saying they were being spread by his adversaries. He maintained that he had a consistent record of always standing firm for the province's interests, in whatever position he had served. Despite the adverse opinion of some people about him during the difficult period of 1970-71, having observed him and his work for a long time, I would not doubt that within the prevailing framework he tried to serve the best interests of our people.

I still recollect that when he was the health secretary of East Pakistan in the early nineteen-sixties, he made a valiant effort to address the shortage of MRCP and FRCS doctors by providing about fifty foreign scholarships a year. Consequently, in a few years the province had an ample supply of such doctors to enable the government to assign some of them even to the district hospitals and beyond. While working in the President's Secretariat, Establishment Division and in the Economic Affairs Division in the government of Pakistan during 1967-70 in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, I had many occasions to closely work with him in matters concerning the appointment, promotion and postings of officers from the then East Pakistan to high central government positions, and in economic and planning matters. I found him extremely eager to promote the cause of East Pakistan and enthusiastic about placing Bangali officers in key jobs, particularly in central government's finance, economic affairs, commerce and planning ministries.

In early 1969, when he was promoted to the rank of a central secretary, I was there assisting the central selection board as its secretary. It was clear from the comments of the board members, all senior central secretaries, that Shafiul Azam was held in the highest esteem as an officer of outstanding qualities and efficiency. He easily sailed through and was appointed as the chief secretary of East Pakistan. He happened to be visiting Pindi when the orders were issued. Incidentally, I had the pleasant duty of signing the gazette notification, under the authority of the president of Pakistan. It was with some pride that I personally handed it over to him at the East Pakistan House where he was staying. A West Pakistani CSP officer who was senior to him in service wanted to be his additional chief secretary but Shafiul Azam declined the request. He selected his Bangali CSP batch-mates, Abul Ehsan and Keramat Ali, for the two available posts.

Shafiul Azam visited our house in the late nineteen-eighties when he came to Washington for medical treatment after retirement. At that time, we had a long discussion on the experiences of his life. I requested him to write at least a brief monograph on his reflections on government and politics, before and after the independence of Bangladesh. I volunteered to collaborate and assist him in this regard. He, however, was modest and averse to writing all these down-saying he was no writer. He did tell me that serving in Bangladesh was a different and difficult experience and unless one actually worked there, it was impossible to fathom the system under which the government was operating. He regretted that, in fact- there was no goal, no system and no order. I could see his frustrations, even though he himself occupied high government positions. A few years after his return from USA, Shafiul Azam passed away on December 4, 1991

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