PART CLXXVI

The symphony of our times

Published: 00:05, Jun 19,2017 | Updated: 00:23, Jun 19,2017

 
 

Survey and settlement training
AN INDISPENSABLE part of the training of newly recruited civil servants was the practical drill in land survey and settlement work. Not only the members of the CSP but also of the EPCS and junior judicial cadres were required to receive this practical training. They had to take this training in the first phase in an exclusive area on which tents were set up in the countryside. It was called the ‘joint camp’. This phase usually extended slightly over one month. The second phase consisted of what was known as ‘split camps’. Usually, the trainees were split into groups of two or four for undergoing hands-on training in measuring surveying and recording land titles.
One of the early recorded survey and settlement operations in the subcontinent were undertaken at the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. His famous revenue minister Todarmal, centrally supervised the empire-wide survey and settlement of land. For correctly measuring land, Todarmal introduced a measuring rope, treated with hemp which ensured that the measuring instrument did not differ because of expansion in heat and contraction in cold. In later times, Todarmal’s rope was replaced by the standard Gunter’s chain made of iron. State employees working to measure and record land such as ameens used the chain to correctly measure land.
Shahed Saadullah and I received a government order to proceed to the four-month survey and settlement training in early November 1968. So did friend deputy magistrate Fazlul Haque and his colleague Abu Saleh. We joined the ‘joint camp’ at Premtali, Rajshahi during the last days of November.
Joint camp at Premtali
The joint camp held during the first phase of our survey and settlement training was a virtual army encampment. A large number of tents were set up on a grassy piece of land adjacent to the mighty river Padma, some 13 miles from the Rajshahi town and on the way to the sub-divisional town Chapainawabganj, Premtali was proximate to the Lalgola Ghat on the eastern bank of the Ganges-Padma. On the opposite bank in the west was located the historic Bhagabangola Ghat where the last sovereign king of Bengal, Bihar and Odissha, Nawab Sirajuddaula, was captured after his defeat in the Battle of Plassey (1757).
History records that it was the soldiers of Nawab Mir Qasim, son-in-law of the betrayer general Mir Jafar, an ally of the East India Company, who arrested the nawab and his queen and children as they were passing the Bhagabangola Ghat in a country boat. Mir Qasim’s troops spotted the expensive pair of royal shoes of the nawab and captured him as he was on his way to Patna to seek help from loyal ally Raja Janaki Ram. Sirajuddaula was later killed in prison by Mohammadi Begh under order from Mir Jafar’s son Miran. Siraj’s queen Lutfunissa and her children were drowned deliberately by the underlings of Mir Jafar by cutting a hole in a boat in the River Buriganga near Dhaka. Bhagabangola across the Ganges-Padma now in West Bengal, India, reminded us of the tragic events with haunting sadness.
The white tents of the sprawling camp reminded us of army encampments throughout untold centuries. One remembered the chronicles of the vanguard civil servants of British colonial times in the subcontinent. For me as well as my colleagues, it was a new and novel experience living in the tents. My tent was a single one with just enough space for a cot and a table with chair. There was no window and the flap in the front acted as a door. In the fairly cold winter of Rajshahi, the windowless tent was a comforting cocoon. The winter nights made the bed with warm blanket irresistible. It was difficult to get up in the morning and carry on the everyday work of survey.
I cannot avoid the temptation of recollecting how Shah Md Farid beat us all in procuring his cot for free. While we each had to buy a fairly expensive cot, Farid escaped the process by procuring ‘on loan’ a cot from a friend of his acquaintance, a havildar of the nearby boarder outpost of the sentinels of frontiers, the erstwhile East Pakistan Rifles. Farid’s smile of victory at clinching the deal was a treat to watch.
Colleague and class friend Waliul Islam, the then assistant commissioner, Jessore, was in a neighbouring tent. So was Shahed Saadullah, my colleague in the Dhaka collectorate. Shahed and I had an orderly called Quddus. Like all the other orderlies, he was at once our cook and bazar sarkar. I remember that Shahed and I had to spend more than Rs 300 on our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Incidentally, that was the monthly expenses for food of a family of eight or 10 in those days of cheap commodities.
Yet the orderlies fleeced us financially and made lucrative business. The self same orderly Quddus one day caused misunderstanding between me and friend Wali. Usually, cool and composed Wali was irate, almost angry. He told me that my orderly had asked him last night to wake him up early (Wali was an early riser) so that he could wake up his sahebs, that is Saadullah and me. An annoyed Wali justifiably charged us, ‘If you want to insult me, do it directly. Do not use the orderly for this purpose!’
The daily routine of the month-long joint camp was of the same pattern. After bath and breakfast, we went out in groups of three or four to practically survey the adjacent land as a part of our training. A few ameens used to supervise the work of the group by turn. The ameens during their words had the advantage of assistance of gang coolies who pulled the Gunter’s chain for them. So rigorous was our training that we were denied this facilities and had to work as coolies ourselves. Our group consisted of Akbar Ali Khan, Kazi Rakibuddin and me.
One morning, we were assigned to measure and record what the local people called a Chhonkhola, a field of tall, thorny and dry straw-like plants. The growth was thick and almost impenetrable. Akbar had an impressive pair of gumboots covering his legs up to the knees. One had to enter the thicket with the head of the Gunther’s chain. On demand from Rakib and me, Akbar hesitantly approached the Chhonkhola. As he was about to enter the bush, a group of little Santal boys and girls started laughing to their heart’s content. Akbar turned around and said to them, ‘What’s the matter? Why are you laughing?’ Unafraid, the children shouted ‘Chhonkholar madhye daras sap achhe. Saheb ke katle dekhti maja hobene (There are venomous snakes inside the bush, it would be fun to watch them bite the Saheb).’ A grimfaced Akbar Ali Khan turned towards us and said, ‘Under the circumstances, I will never enter this nest of snakes come what may. If I lose my life in this exercise, the government will only say that I was a fool to follow the book in exceptional situation.’ Kazi Rakib and I agreed and consulted our supervising ameen. He said, ‘You can use the tripod and the “nal” (a measuring pole) to measure the piece of land without entering it.’ That was how Akbar did not die prematurely of snake bites and became the learned Dr Akbar Ali Khan of today.
To be continued.

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, is a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).

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