A people’s bureaucrat

Parvez Dewan
A doctor’s misdiagnosis almost ensured that Iqbal Khandey would never get into the IAS—indeed, any senior central government service.
Those who are selected for the senior all- India and central civil services, after a written examination and an oral personality test, are sent for a medical test, normally to Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. For those who are cleared for the Indian Police and Railway Traffic services the medical test is critical and carries a veto. Candidates who have a flat foot or are colour blind cannot be allotted to either of these two services, even if they have done very well in the written examination and oral personality test.
However, for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and most central services, the medical standards are not so high.
Iqbal appealed against the doctor’s misdiagnosis. Fortunately, the appellate medical board cleared him. The fact that Iqbal had no noticeable medical problem for the next seventeen years shows that the first diagnosis was wrong. However, all this meant that Iqbal missed several weeks of his probation at Mussoorie and had to receive that training with the next batch. (His seniority was not affected but this was certainly an irritant.)
Iqbal was allotted to the Tamil Nadu cadre of the IAS. (There was only one ‘insider’ slot for J&K in 1978, and Anil Goswami, having secured a higher rank, had been allotted to the state as that insider.) In those days (and, to a lesser extent, even today) officers of the All- India Services (AIS) were not allowed to change their state cadres. Those who were very influential (and two of our officers were that) managed to get postings in their home states, but there was no question of a permanent change of state cadre (except for very severe medical problems or marriage with an AIS officer of another cadre).
Sheikh Abdullah saheb was the Chief Minister at the time. He made a personal request to the Government of India. Some sympathetic officers at the Centre got a rare exception made for Iqbal. He was then allotted to the J&K cadre.
Iqbal’s first substantive posting was as the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Kishtwar. He quickly gained the reputation of being a friendly and likeable SDM. He identified himself thoroughly with the people and culture of Kishtwar—especially the legendary Jaanbaaz Kishtwari Ghulam Nabi Dolwal’s unique chalant style of music, which he was particularly fond of (and which he introduced me to).
Iqbal’s brilliance was first revealed to his seniors and colleagues when he was transferred to the Secretariat as Additional Secretary (Planning).
In 1983, while going through all- India developmental indicators, Iqbal noticed that Jammu & Kashmir was not doing as badly as was then assumed. In fact, in some spheres, the state was doing extremely well. Mr Ashok Jaitly, the then Planning Commissioner, commended Iqbal’s report and cited it at several forums to show the progress that the state had made, always crediting Iqbal with its authorship.
Meanwhile, Iqbal, now in his late twenties, had become a role model for Kashmiris younger than he. He was only the fifth Kashmiri-speaking officer from the Valley to have been allotted to the state cadre (after Messrs Moti Lal Kaul, Mohd. Shafi Pandit, Vijay Bakaya and Shiban Lal Bhat). Apart from that, youngsters would cite Iqbal’s incorruptibility in financial matters, clear-headed decisiveness and cheerful nature.
Indeed, Iqbal was above material things—though he was fond of good clothes, and had an unusual sense of fashion. He was a generous tipper and looked after his domestic employees. Iqbal would often talk about taking an early retirement. To do what, I would ask? To write poetry, he would reply.
Iqbal was a caring father. Despite having led scrupulously upright lives, his wife Kaneez Fatima and he made sure that their daughter Seher could go to the UK for her higher studies, even if it meant taking a bank loan for that.
We would often discuss history, communal approaches to it and renaming places along religious lines. Iqbal was strongly opposed to this. He would insist on calling Srinagar’s tallest hill the Shankaracharya Hill (and not the Takht é Suleiman, an alternate name given to it around A.D. 1382).
In the mid-1980s, during discussions on matters of nationalism, Iqbal would be a votary of Kashmiri sub-nationalism within the Constitution of India, as protected and guaranteed by the Constitution’s Articles 35-A and 370. He had been schooled in Uttar Pradesh and learned to speak the dialect of Eastern UP quite fluently.
Iqbal was a very good judge of people. I would sometimes bounce my questions on relationship issues off him. So, when I wrote my first rock opera, Jennifer Merchant I created a character called Ike (short for Iqbal), whom I described as my ‘friend, philosopher and guide.’ (The pop-music oriented opera was released as a compact disc in 1994 with the help of KODA. which is Denmark’s counterpart of our cultural academy.)
Militancy broke out in our state in late 1989.
Around 1994, Mr Hindal Tyabji, one of the highest ranking officers of the state, called me to find out if Iqbal had indeed resigned from the IAS in order to become the ‘Simranjit Singh Mann of Jammu & Kashmir.’ (Mann was an IPS officer who left the service to become a radical Akali politician.) Iqbal had often spoken about joining politics. Therefore, this story spread like wildfire even in a pre-WhatsApp age. Mr Tyabji wanted me to talk Iqbal out of such plans.
I invited Iqbal over to my hut in the Raj Bhawan campus in Srinagar, where I was the Governor’s Principal Secretary. He brought a friend along. Over dinner, we agreed that politics could be a long-term, but not immediate, goal for Iqbal.
(I will give the same advice to other young officers who face similar dilemmas: We can serve our people far more effectively by remaining within the system, than from outside, especially in a state like ours where, unlike, say, Mumbai city or Gujarat, the government affects almost every walk of life.)
Iqbal had a meteoric rise within the state government. He became the youngest Home Secretary not only in the history of our state but also any major state in India, especially one in which the Home Department has such a big role. However, given his very sensitive nature, he asked Mr Jaitly, who by then was the Chief Secretary and had been instrumental in giving Iqbal that post, to relieve him because Mr Jaitly had bypassed him on some issue of middling importance. (History would repeat itself a decade and a half later when Iqbal put in his papers as Chief Secretary for having been bypassed in the matter of the holding of a meeting of the state cabinet.)
I once called Iqbal to tell him about the posting of his brother-in-law, Asghar Samoon. His PA told me that Iqbal was in a hospital because of a lung infection. Because Iqbal smoked cigarettes I assumed that it was some routine ailment. However, his health did not improve and Iqbal was shifted to India’s foremost cancer hospital, the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, where he was operated upon for lung cancer.
Things did not improve there either, and Iqbal went to the best-known cancer hospital in the USA, accompanied by his dear friend and batchmate Anil Goswami.
On his return to Srinagar when I went to meet him, Iqbal was beaming with good health.
‘I am told that you have been cured completely and that the doctors in the USA have removed all the bad tissues,’ I told Iqbal.
Iqbal revealed that he had never had cancer at all and that he had been misdiagnosed at the Tata Memorial Hospital. No, the doctors at Tata were not at fault, he added. This was a classic mistake that many lung specialists made. In the first chapter of their textbooks they are taught that there is a condition of the lungs that mimics the symptoms of cancer but is not cancer itself, he informed me.
Today, when Iqbal has left us at such a young age, how all of us wish that there were a higher appellate medical board to which we could appeal against this misdiagnosis.
(The author formely of the IAS, is the founder of Indpaedia.com, the free, online encyclopadia of India and South Asia)