The Unwitting Archivist: Shahid Hamid

Updated: Mar 7

Mehvash Amin


In the lineup for Lahore Literary Festival 2021, earlier on this month, one of the sessions was an interview of the author of Treasured Memories, Shahid Hamid. The author holds a degree in economics from the University of Cambridge and is a barrister at law from the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. He was a civil servant for the first fourteen years of his working life, during which he also served in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.


He has been a member of the elite Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP); senior advocate of the superior courts; federal minister of defence, establishment and law; governor of the Punjab province and a public-spirited citizen who has served as chairman or member of a large number of educational and medical institutions, think tanks and social welfare organisations.


What is noteworthy in this memoir is that what began as a personal re-visiting of the past, after the pandemic we are all living through had ‘incarcerated’ Mr Hamid, became an archival piece about the years that he experienced in some very high offices in Pakistan. It is a piece that rings true because of his reputation as an above-board, honest, apolitical person. His book touches on historical personalities and political dramas in the corridors of power with a simple and direct approach, not shying away from a refreshing frankness that becomes, perhaps unwittingly, an honest archive of some of the most important periods of our history. To say that an archive is a page-turner sounds far fetched, but as someone who has also been a far-off witness to the events that he mentions, I say that genuinely. These serious events are offset by behind-the-scene observations of some great international personalities, be they heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth of England or thespians such as Shabana Azmi, or beloved Pakistani figures such as Maheen Khan, the designer.


In the end, it is a necessary, easy-to-read book for anyone wanting a glimpse into the machinery that has created the chequered history of Pakistan. For my interview below, therefore, I dwelt on the archival aspect of his memoir.


Mehvash Amin: I noticed while reading that there is a remarkable attention to detail: names, places, dates, etc. Have you been in the habit of writing a journal or did you go over all your facts as you wrote?


Shahid Hamid: I never kept a diary. Thought about doing so once in a while, but never found the time. I did keep some treasured letters, like the one that I received from the late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on Independence Day 1976, saying that the work I was doing as Director General LDA would be rewarded in this world and the heavens. I have reproduced the full text of this letter in my book. Another treasured letter that I have preserved was from my cousin Pervez Bashir Nawaz. He was a young army officer at the time of my father’s arrest in 1978 and offered to seek an interview with General Zia ul Haq for my father’s release.


I have a good memory, though not a photographic one. My friend, President Farooq Leghari, commented about this when, after showing me the large bundle of reports which were to form the basis for the Dissolution Order under Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution on 5th July 1996, he said, “You can’t take them with you as we to have preserve secrecy, but I know you have a good memory and won’t need them.” I don’t know about others, but with me there are any number of incidents, both pleasant and unpleasant, etched in my memory bank and I have recounted some of them in anecdotal form in my book. My wife, Sarwat, and I also have many albums of pictures from our earliest days to the present. My book includes 60 pages of pictures. Nothing revives memory better than a look at the pictures of the past. These albums are the pictorial diaries.



MA: Your memoir is more than a personal journey… it also navigates some crucial twists and turns in our nation’s history that you had access to because of your high offices. In that sense, it becomes a memoir of the country. How aware were you of the historical importance of your memoir when you were penning it down?


SH: My primary purpose when I started writing my book was to tell my daughters, and even more so my grandchildren, about their ancestors and the early years of my life in various parts of Pakistan and abroad, and the turning points and combination of events that led to my holding high constitutional offices. When I got to the point of writing about my tenure as Defence, Establishment and Law Minister of Pakistan, and later as Governor of the Punjab, I decided that I would not hold anything back and that I would give a true and honest account of the events of which I was a part. It is for you and the readers to judge whether my narrations ring true. While doing so, please remember that I have never been an office-bearer or member of any political party and have no political ambitions. It is for these reasons that my memories and revelations of events within the inner corridors of power may have, what you call, ‘historical importance’ greater than some other recollections of those times.


MA: I notice that you have always been apolitical, and not afraid of giving criticism. Were you afraid of any backlash from some of the people that you criticised?


SH: No, never. I have always spoken my mind on the issues important to me. On some occasions, not many, President Leghari, whom I dealt with on a daily basis as a federal minister, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom I met on an average of once every ten days as Governor Punjab, never resented my advice because they knew it was honestly given without any underlying motives and also because I never publicised disagreements. I don’t recall any disagreements with Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. I firmly believe that the president of Pakistan and the governors of the provinces should play a non-political role once they are in office, regardless of their past political affiliations. Their concentration should be on issues of education, health and matters directly affecting the welfare of the common man, on policies and not contentious politics. Like the British monarch, they should play the role of advisor and, where necessary, of a warner. If they do so they will meaningfully contribute to the unity of our Islamic republic and serve as an invaluable bridge, when occasion demands, between the government and the opposition.


MA: It is said that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Generally, what do you think is the importance of archives?


SH: Archives are primary source documents that have an enduring evidentiary, cultural or historical value that are worth preserving in perpetuity. Self-evidently archived records are invaluable for researchers in different fields of study, especially history. The main storage facility in the Punjab for archived records is the archives department in the Lahore secretariat of the provincial government. Archives can certainly help in learning the lessons of history and the mistakes made in the past.


It is important to remember that mistakes are made not only by individuals who hold high office, but also by people as a whole. We blame Yahya Khan and his senior generals, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman for the breakup of Pakistan, forgetting that initially the army crackdown in East Pakistan had majority support in West Pakistan. Have we learnt any lessons from that disaster? I think so. The lesson was and is that in a federation the grievances and demands of the smaller provinces must not be ignored, and the devolution of power under the Eighteenth Amendment in 2010 is heartening evidence that we, as a people, have learnt the lesson of 1971. As for individuals who hold high office, their mistakes seldom get repeated because, more frequently than not, they do not get another chance to hold such office again. Also, I think we should be careful not to over-stress the importance of ‘learning from the lessons of history’, because over a span of time, no two seemingly similar situations are exactly alike.


MA: You have written: “Father was concurrently accredited to Jordan. There was no separate embassy in Amman. The West Bank was part of Jordan. Jerusalem was in Jordan. I travelled with my parents all over the West Bank. We prayed in Masjid Al Aqsa. We went to Hebron, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, Jericho and Galilee and all along the River Jordan.” I find these lines fascinating, that in a single lifetime Jerusalem, the pivotal centre of three religions, has been all but banned to Pakistanis. Do you think we will see a change in the present status quo any time soon?


SH: I am normally an optimist, but not in this case. The late King Hussein of Jordan was quite possibly not altogether unhappy about losing the West Bank in the 1967 War with Israel, because the Palestinians were never his supporters. The late Yasser Arafat lost his best chance for a liveable settlement when he declined to accept the terms negotiated by President Bill Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Rabin at Camp David. The only progress made by the Palestinians since then is the Israeli vacation of the Gaza Strip. On the other hand the increasing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank have altered the demography of the area and there is no sign that this will stop at any time in the foreseeable future, especially when more and more Arab states are making their separate peace with Israel. For us in Pakistan, the fate of the West Bank, especially Jerusalem and that of the Palestinians, is a very emotional issue, but there is very little we can do to affect the course of events there.

MA: You also wrote: “There was in my generation and in the generation of my elders, who were even more responsible for what happened than those of my age, a touch of racism and superiority. We were fairer, we were taller, we were better looking, they were under the influence of the Hindus who dominated their teaching profession, they were trying to break Pakistan, how dare they, and much more.”


You have been extremely open about former East Pakistan, the ’71 war and Bangladesh. Do you think that as a nation we should apologise to Bangladesh?

SH: The Pakistan Resolution of 1940 was presented by A. K. Fazl ul Haq, the then Prime Minister of Bengal. Several prominent Bengali leaders, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, for example, were in the forefront in the struggle for Pakistan. For the first 24 years of our existence as an independent country, they were part of us. I served in East Pakistan from 1967 to 1969 and bear witness that the preponderant majority were as patriotic as we in the West. They continue to be our brothers in faith. We wronged them when we did not accept the democratic mandate thrown up by the 1970 elections and much more by the military crackdown of 1971.


It is irrelevant whether over the years they have exaggerated the number of casualties they suffered in that year. Our Islamic faith teaches us that the murder of one is the murder of all humanity. So should we apologise? Maybe, maybe not. Many in present-day Bangladesh were not blameless, especially in their treatment of Biharis who stood by their allegiance to Pakistan then and later. There has to be a national consensus on this matter developed through an informed debate in parliament. Any apology must be premised on the understanding that it will lead to complete normalisation of relations and permanent closure of this tragic chapter in the history of relations between the two countries.


MA: Who were the main editors of your book? Your wife Sarwat seems to be at your side in every step you take. How instrumental was she in the production of this book?


SH: My book was edited again and again by my wife Sarwat and my daughters Asma and Alia, as well as my grandson Akbar Ali. The grammar, the punctuation, the spellings, the selection of 60 pages of pictures—all four of them contributed to the point that I was ready to offer them co-authorship. But the memories are mine.


Note: In Lahore, the book is now available with Readings, Liberty Books, Anees Book Corner and Punjab Law Book House. For home delivery, please contact Nawaz at 0321 3629650.

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