After spending 1,009 days behind bars, Ahad Khan Cheema, the bureaucrat who served in different prime positions, was exonerated, retired, and finally appointed as Advisor to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Once called the right-hand and blue-eyed officer of former chief minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif, Cheema was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau in February 2018. People also called him ‘Metro Man’ because he played a key role in building the Metro Bus in the provincial capital. He also served as Deputy Commissioner Lahore, Director General Lahore Development Authority, and Secretary Higher Education Department, besides holding other key positions during the previous PML-N political setup.
Cheema was posted as Secretary Higher Education Department when he was a grade 18 officer. Many officers who were senior to him had to serve under his command during his secretaryship in Punjab. They also accused him of being the man of the then Chief Minister Punjab in different projects. After three years in jail, the Supreme Court released Cheema on bail, observing that the anti-graft giant could not produce a shred of evidence against him in the said references.
Officers raise their fingers at the effectiveness of the accountability system. They said that when there was not enough proof of corruption against a ‘dutiful and hard-working officer’ why was he kept behind bars for nearly three years. Who was to be held responsible for his suffering and loss of his prime time in the superior service?
However, after the regime change, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif-led government exonerated Cheema of all the accusations and charges of corruption. Moreover, all inquiries against him were closed. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif asked him to serve his government but he refused and decided to call it a day. Sources disclosed that Cheema continued to attend meetings the prime minister chaired on energy-related issues, etc.
Cheema was also nominated as a member of the committee constituted by the Punjab government, with Aleem Khan as its convener, to reform jails. Finally, the prime minister approved his resignation on January 4, 2022.
Lastly, he was appointed advisor to the PM. A senior bureaucrat close to Cheema disclosed that he was forced during the previous government to become an approver against Shehbaz Sharif but he declined. He claimed that Cheema was punished for his close relations with the powerful Sharif family of Jati Umra.
Asghar Ali, a senior advocate, said that the civil servants should be loyal to the system and the state rather than to the ruling political families. He questioned why Cheema was posted out of turn as a secretary. The officers should serve the people and focus their energies on resolving issues and facilitating those who approach their offices for remedy. He said that when officers become more loyal to the political personalities, their conduct is deemed as unbecoming of an officer.
The new entrants should study the British Indian Civil Service (ICS), which has left innumerable examples of personal character, statesmanship, honesty and dignity. They never indulged in any sort of taffy of any maharaja for momentary benefits. He said that our bureaucracy was not designed to serve people but to rule over them, which has become very fatal. Cheema was a brilliant officer who was politicized and had to go behind bars while losing his integrity.
There are also questions on the conduct of NAB and its poor prosecution in the courts. Such examples where courts had to release the accused on bail raised fingers on the accountability drive in the country. Both the civil service and the accountability system need to be reformed, the earlier the better. Otherwise, the nation’s tax money will be wasted on these futile exercises that are counterproductive.
A federal secretary commented on Cheema’s rise and fall recalling Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken,’ which is about the choices and opportunities in life. The poem highlights the sensation of regret that accompanies all the roads that a person doesn’t take.
There is a big lesson for new officers in the story of a seasoned bureaucrat who had to quit the superior service for reasons open to all now. It is up to them to adopt which way, the one was taken by Cheema or the one aptly practised by the colonial masters representing the ICS.