Shahabnamah: History from a personal lens

Sajad Jatoi

Qudratullah Shahab was a powerful bureaucrat of his time. However, there is more to his personality than meets the eye. In fact, he was a well-known litterateur who had written excellent books and produced great literary pieces such as Ma jee, one of his best short stories. His autobiography Shahabnamah tells us much about his life and  his times

Shahabnamah is a huge book and consists of about 60 chapters. It begins with a chapter titled Iqbal e jurum (literally meaning confession of crime) wherein the author has given the reasons for writing the book. He says that he had started keeping his personal diary from 1938 onwards when he was just 21. He would write down events in his own shorthand notes, which made little sense to others. One day he showed it to his friend Ibne Insha, a renowned litterateur in his own right. The latter advised him to turn it into a book. So he writes that it was his friend’s wish to produce the book, coupled with his desire to come clean on the allegations that were levelled at him. It was held that Shahab was behind  the anti-democratic activities that took place in Pakistan. Even renowned poet Hafeez Jahalandari composed a verse, which reads:

Jabb Kahein Inqilab hota he

Qudratullah Shahab hota he

(Wherever there is a revolution/ an anti-democratic activity, Qudratullah Shahab is present there)

The book contains an account of his childhood and his academic background. It also sheds light on his induction into Indian Civil Services, and his services to the leaders of Pakistan, including Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan. He also writes about his travel to different countries around the world.


The book mentions some incredible actions that the author undertook when he was part of the ICS. During the time of British-induced famine in Bengal, he got himself transferred there with a view to helping the famine-stricken people. There, he was appointed in sub-division Tamluk, a famine and storm-affected area. He noticed that a majority of the people were starving. So he wrote to the government seeking official permission to distribute the grain hoarded in government stores. When he did not get a response even after repeated letters, he broke open the stores, formulated a committee of regional leaders of political parties and tasked them with the distribution of the grain among the needy and deserving. This action of him outraged his senior officials and he was transferred back to the province of his origin.

When he was appointed as an assistant commissioner in district Bhagalpur, the Quit India movement was in full swing. An angry mob of the Indian National Congress had killed a constable in an area, which was under his jurisdiction. So he was tasked with arresting the culprits. He went to the village and camped there. He called in the regional congress leader and had a conversation, which revolved around the injustice of the British. When the villagers heard of his conversation, they came to him in hundreds and wanted him to deliver a speech. When this news reached the authorities, they were enraged. So a DIG, an SP and a collector came to set the village on fire. When they entered his camp, they ignored him. They even kicked him out of the tent when he resisted their plan of setting the village on fire. But he hit upon a plan and using his magisterial powers, detained them in the tent until further orders. He was taken to task for insulting his seniors, but he had tendered his resignation, which was not accepted. This way, he saved the village from being burnt.

Besides, the book gives insight into the lives of the heads of the Pakistani state as the author had served as secretary to three prominent personalities of Pakistan — Governor-General Malik Ghulam Muhammad, and President Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan. He is critical of the actions of Malik Ghulam Muhammad and blames him for all the anti-democratic activities that took place after him. He argues that the latter planted the seed of authoritarianism when he dissolved the National Assembly. He has shown him as domineering, temperamental and possessive. Despite his illness, he did not want to relinquish power. He has also written about the governor general’s obsession with Ms Ruth Boral, an American lady, who was his personal assistant.

The author describes Iskandar Mirza as a selfish person who tried to continue in power at the expense of the people. However, when it comes to Ayub Khan, the author appears to have a soft corner for the well-known dictator. He has painted him as a patriotic leader who was moved by the suffering of the people and was committed to reforming the entire system. He has dedicated about 9 chapters of his book to Ayub Khan. They deal with topics related to him such as his rise to power and downfall; his relations with, and attitude towards, students, litterateurs, politicians, journalists, the press, the economy, and foreign policy. Talking about his reforms, he says that Ayub Khan had revolutionary ideas which conflicted with his temperament. He was not the revolutionary type; as a matter of fact, he was the status quo type.

The author has lamented the use of religion by politicians to dupe the public. He has mentioned some incidents where the former had manipulated Islam to further their interests. He has also moaned the fact that the opposition to a sitting government is branded as treason. It has become a trend to label your opponents as a traitor.

He has mentioned that during the course of his duty, he resigned from his job four times: once before the partition and thrice after it. He tendered his resignation to Iskander Mirza and later to Ayub Khan. However, it was not accepted until he resigned during General Yahya’s era. This time it was accepted, though after much ado as Yahya wanted him to bow down before him.

He says that his pension was withheld at the behest of General Yahya for three years in a row. During that time, he faced financial difficulties. His family, which consisted of three members, including his wife and his son, lived a very poor life. His wife died a premature death for want of money, he writes. He says that she would have survived her disease had he had enough money to get her treated in the US.

Many of the incidents in the book appear exaggerated. For example, there is a chapter entitled Bimla Kumari kee bechain rooh (literally meaning the restless soul of Bimla Kumari). He has written that when he was in the ICS, due to a shortage of residential buildings in Khattak, he was offered an abandoned house on civil lines. When he moved there, he was haunted by ghosts almost every night. He has given a detailed account of his interaction with ghost(s). They used to frighten him in strange ways. Sometimes, it rained stones and bricks in his bedroom. Sometimes, they filled his room with bone and skeletons. According to the author, it was the ghost of Bimla Kumari, a young girl who wanted the news of her death to reach her mother. Bimla was a young girl who had been deceived by a civil servant over the pretext of marrying her. instead, he got rid of her by murdering her and burying her in the building where the author was living. The story sounds unreal and unconvincing.

The author has used strong language about Maharaja Hari Singh and Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. He has also written that during his stay in a rented house of a Hindu in Karachi, the landlord had left his parrot with his mother for some time. The parrot hurled invective at Pakistan in the Sindhi language. This shows bad judgment and lack of good taste on the part of the author.

The book is a treasure of rich vocabulary, words and phrases from. He has used Persian words profusely, which makes it difficult for common readers. However, he has remained proficient throughout the book. His way of narration is also worth applauding as the events have been narrated in a clear, lucid and smooth way.

Overall, the book is a fascinating read. The author has shared his experiences in all capacities. He has written about his role in almost all walks of life. He has narrated his meetings with delegates with great leaders. He has mentioned his stay in Holland, when he had been sent there to complete a particular course, and later when he was there as an ambassador of Pakistan. He has also mentioned his visit to China when he had gone there with then foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Besides, he has given accounts of his visits to Iran, Turkey, Japan, India, the US and many more countries. He has also penned down his 10-day secret mission to Israel, which he undertook on behalf of Muslim countries to expose the interference of the Israeli state in the UN-backed educational scheme.

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