Of Reducing Rush and Ranks: Rendezvous with a Career Civil Servant

Former IAS Officer, Sheikh Mushtaq. KO Photo by Taha Wani.

Unlike the feverish rush created by a certain poster boy for civil services exams a decade ago, the recent Kashmir Administrative Services exam date has drawn an apparent lukewarm response in Kashmir where last year’s UPSC debacle has prompted the decorated administrator and topper of his batch to simplify the complex.

By Asma Majid

WHILE retreating in the quietude of his drawing room and basking in the felicity of his post-work years, Sheikh Mushtaq glances at the souvenirs of his achievements.

He may have hung up his hat as a civil servant but he’s not unaware of the alteration of pattern in the field of civil services — the exam he topped in 1984.

The career bureaucrat is well-versed with the kind of decline Kashmir has been witnessing in registering selections in the coveted field.

Over the years, the candidates from Kashmir valley have been lagging behind in qualifying the Civil Services Examination (CSE), as the number of selected candidates in the year 2021 turned out to be the lowest in the past decade.

“The disturbed conditions of Kashmir are the main reason that the students have not been able to make much progress in this regard,” explains Sheikh Mushtaq (IAS), former Commissioner Secretary to Higher Education Department. “The students are under constant stress and deprivation.”

Citing economic devolution triggered by lockdowns as another major hurdle for the students to actualize their dream of becoming civil servants, Sheikh Mushtaq goes on to explain as to how the income of Kashmiri people has significantly reduced to a great extent, which plays a key role in determining the kinds of careers students opt for.

But for this suave and nuanced man, who has served in different departments in the administration throughout his impeccable career, cracking civil services is all about one’s will power and an innate desire to serve the people.

The ex-administrator recalls his own emergence as a lad born and brought up in his humble abode at old town, Baramulla to an IAS, crowned with the recognition of being the “most upright” officer.

Being the youngest in a joint family, Sheikh Mushtaq recalls how he never craved to ascend the social ladder, but did harbour the wish to make life better for his dear ones. The retiral of his father even before he could pass his matriculation marked the beginning of a struggle which had to continue till he could set things right in his career.

Nursing the desire to land in Medical profession someday, the love of his dear brother was enough to drag him to Humanities, a decision that he took without the knowledge of his family and which brought forth severe reproof.

Taking the college phase of life with a canty attitude and little seriousness with regard to studies, Sheikh Mushtaq was awakened to the realisation of studies being the only way out of the travails of life. After having thus emerged as a gold medalist in his post-graduation from the Department of English, University of Kashmir, he never looked back.

Although diligent to his duties as a government teacher, he felt far from satisfied with the mechanical lifestyle that he was supposed to adhere to and thus decided to give up the job. But the consideration of being a helping hand to his family overswayed his desire.

So, while serving as a teacher and later on as a lecturer in the Department of Education and as a CTO (Carpet Training Officer) in the Department of Handicrafts, the zeal of his passion for civil services only grew until he relinquished all the other choices in favour of his sole love.

“I had a passion for Civil Services and I qualified KAS in 1984 with the support of my family,” the former officer says as he unbosoms himself. “It was a dream and its attainment led me to overcome the difficulties and depravity that my immediate family and my hometown at large was facing.”

Securing the top position in his batch, there was much more to his dream than a mere gratification of desires.

He looked at civil services as a medium through which he could help not only his family but a lot many people around him who he had always seen to be in need of a continuous assistance from officers and bureaucrats.

“In my entire service career,” reveals the topper of his batch, “wherever I worked, it was my intention and inclination that I should be beneficial to my people and do as much as I can to solve their problems.”

Swept by a wave of nostalgia, Sheikh Mushtaq recalls the days when he had already embarked on his journey to crack the civil services and the kinds of difficulties he had to face in order to sit for the enterprising exam.

“There was a shortage of books and reading material. I vividly recollect that during my post-graduation, I wanted to read The Romantic Agony by Sir Mario Praz but it wasn’t available either in the Departmental Library or the Central Library of the University of Kashmir,” he says as his face contorts in a grimace of pain.

But unwinding right away by a flurry of fond memories, he remembers being particularly grateful to his late friend, Ghulam Muhammad Aajir who, amid that crisis, happened to have a good collection of books and never refrained from sharing those with his friends.

The former IAS officer is happy that students nowadays have an access to all sorts of books and reading material via the internet. Yet, he believes that only reading does not suffice when it comes to civil services.

“I had a good number of friends and we would always have discussions on topics of General Knowledge, Philosophy, Politics, etc,” he says with a sparkle.

He later on realised that those discussions were not in vain and did serve their purpose in the long run. Without those, he may not have succeeded with such flying colours in life as he did.

In fact, the much-coveted civil services is not looked at by Sheikh Mushtaq in the same vein as many of the aspirants nowadays do. He believes that the core of the field is to deliver one’s responsibilities properly and thus facilitate things for the masses.

“The job of a civil servant is to assist, guide and provide services to people, particularly to the poorer sections of the society,” he asserts.

He goes on to say as to how a civil servant has to operate within the set parameters and framework of rules and any laxity or transgression on his/her part can create a state of total chaos in the administration.

Nonetheless, he’s aware of the limitations of the predefined norms that many a times cripple the civil servants in the proper deliverance of their duties, making the indigent suffer.

Recalling the moments of anguish, he says, “I used to feel deeply pained in such situations. But keeping in view the objective of serving people, one is bound to proceed accordingly.”

Although he doesn’t hold any grievance towards the system of administration but does look forward to a standardized practice to be laid down in accordance with the set framework to make things more feasible for general public.

He’s of the opinion that serving people is a two-way process: “When people are properly served and guided, they also contribute towards the betterment of the society.”

But like in any good story, Sheikh Mushtaq had his high and low moments in life as a civil servant. “Sometimes one feels very happy and at other times, completely disappointed,” he says. “But I deem it all as an integral part of the career, the remedy of which is a complete devotion to one’s duties.”

He recollects the support of comrades like M. Shafi Pandit, Former Chairman, JKPSC and S.S Rizvi, Former Additional Chief Secretary, Kashmir, recalling them as ones who always propped him up in such situations.

Looking at the present scenario, Sheikh Mushtaq is upset with the way civil services is widely extolled and deemed as the one profession which over-rules all the other.

He idealises the concept of a multi-faceted society which carries equal weight in terms of different professions.

“We can’t have a better society without professionals who excel in medicine, engineering, research and in different aspects of life,” he says with a straight face.

Denouncing the servility of mind which looks at civil services as the only glorifying profession, he feels that it is this mindset that disables the experts to opt for their respective fields and eventually incapacitates the administration, the resultant of which is a bloated bureaucracy.

Having himself served as a teacher, he holds high regards for the teaching profession and lauds it as the “master of all professions.”

He looks up to the European society and particularly the Scandinavian culture wherein ‘teaching’ is considered the best, both in the estimation of the government as well as the general public.

Sheikh Mushtaq especially wishes the civil services aspirants to be aware of what they are going into. He’s not hesitant to share his own compunctions of conscience while having served in the administration in his 30-year long career.

While reminiscing the last phase of his tenure wherein he held the post of the Commissioner Secretary to Higher Education and several other positions in an ex-officio capacity, he says, “I then realised that I shouldn’t have left the field of Education. With my hardwork and passion for English Literature, I would’ve become the Vice Chancellor of the University of Kashmir through academic excellence and contributed to the field of Education in a better manner.”

But with reminiscence comes the sense of reflection on the current affairs.

Sheikh Mushtaq is well-versed with the recent selections in the administration from Jammu Division. While rhapsodizing over the success of those students, he comments on the diminishing selections from Kashmir Valley as well.

“In Jammu, there’s a continuous environment and milieu of studies and coaching centres, providing facilities to students round the year,” he says, highlighting the fact of an easy access to other national institutions via Jammu.

He attributes much of the lack of productivity in Kashmir to the dormancy of winter season coupled with a lack of infrastructure and facilities.

All these factors, according to him, falter the pace and proficiency of the civil services exam preparation in Kashmir—where students are otherwise gifted with a “sharp and fertile mind”.

In the hush of his room, the sparkling accolades of the former IAS officer serve to be the testimonials of his exemplary service career.

Presently serving as a part-time faculty in JK IMPA (The Jammu and Kashmir Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development and also associated with NIRD (National Institute of Rural Development), he has some prudent words to offer to all those who seem to him as his former reflections.

“One should take all the difficulties coming in way with stamina, determination and perseverance,” asserts the erstwhile topper.

Having ingrained the concept of civil service, he believes that life is only worth living when one facilitates things for others; in terms of money, advice and relieving them of their pain.

Quoting a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H), he says, “The best among mankind is one who brings benefit to others.”

This, he believes, has always been the one affirmation of his life. “When we live for others, life becomes charming, peaceful and in fact glorious,” he says with a smile.

Clearly, Sheikh Mushtaq is still doing his bit and anticipates the fruition of his dream of a dynamic society with the spirited efforts of the next generation.

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