His name means, ‘Best’– and he was – Syed Mohammed Afzal. One day we all go. To Allahﷻ we belong and to Him is our return. That is our way of responding to any loss. And that is what I said when Faheem bhai (Mr. Faheem Siddiqui – Director of Al-Barkaat) called me and in one short phrase in a voice choked with grief said, “Ab wo hamaray darmayan nahin rahay.” (Now he is no longer among us). Indeed, he isn’t. He is with His Rabb, and it is our belief that he is in a far better state and situation than he could ever have been.
I first met Afzal in 1990 when I went to the SVP National Police Academy in Hyderabad for the first time as a Facilitator for a one-week session on ‘Sensitivity Training’ for the 43RR. 1990 batch. This training had been mandated by the Home Ministry (I am not sure if there was an HRD Ministry at that time) and so it was carried out. Not everyone was convinced that it was needed but ours not to question why. To begin my session, I asked the group to define what the police is. And someone said, “Police is the coercive arm of the government”. That is sadly, still the truth. I say ‘sadly’ because if this were colonial police, operating on behalf of an occupying power, that definition would apply. But for the police in a free, sovereign, democratic nation, the police must transform to become the “Law enforcement arm of the nation”.
That means that the role of the police must be dictated by the Constitution and the Law of the Land; in our case IPC and CrPC; not by any government or its agents i.e. politicians. The police force is for the citizens, to protect them from crime, to solve crime, to bring criminals to book and to ensure that there is an atmosphere of safety, compassion, and justice for every citizen, irrespective of anything other than that he/she is a citizen and/or resident of our land. And irrespective of whichever government may be in power. In a democracy, governments change; not laws, unless they are enacted by Parliament. Therefore, implementation of the law cannot and must not depend on anything other than what the Constitution and the Law itself dictates.
Afzal was a part of this group and from that week in 1990 we remained close friends. Most of the time the phone would ring, and Afzal would say, “Yawar bhai, Salamu-alaikum, yeh sher suniye”, and he would recite some Urdu poetry, usually hilarious. But sometimes serious, full of pathos, struggle, and hope. At other times he would say, “Are you free to speak at this or that forum?” In September 2018 he called me and told me that he wanted me to speak at the Police Headquarters in Bhopal as a part of the DGP Lecture Series on October 23, 2018. I asked him what the topic would be. He told me, “The entire top brass of MP Police will be there, whoever can attend. So, anything you think that will be appropriate for them will be good. I leave it to you.” I chose: ‘Being a Standard Bearer’, because in my mind, that is the overall position of the IPS Officer, to be a Standard Bearer of the best qualities of us as a nation. This is not something restricted to the IPS, but by virtue of being a uniformed force, it is the most visible of the Civil Services and so has the potential to make the highest impact. Here is the link to that lecture for anyone who is interested.
Afzal introduced me in his usual way in Urdu of such sweetness and fluency that as always when listening to him, I would wish that he would never stop speaking. Humor is a double-edged sword and can prove lethal to those who try to use it without enough thought. But Afzal was a master at using it. He would use humor to make you laugh, to make you think, to make you reflect deeply on his message and to cushion the shock of seeing your own face in the mirror that he would hold up to your face. He did all this with a huge smile on his face in the politest of language. That trip was memorable for me also because I had every meal with Afzal and every meal was a study in Lucknowi, Bhopali and Aligarhi cuisine. Bhabi is a cook par excellence and both have hearts filled with boundless hospitality and a love of taking care of their guests. The evenings I spent in their home were filled with energizing conversation, poetry recited appropriately to underline what was being said, joyful humor and great food.
Afzal was not just highly educated but thanks to the span of his education he was well versed in history, literature, politics, and many other disciplines. He brought them all to bear when he spoke. His life as a police officer, educator (Aligarh Muslim University & Jamia Millia & Al-Barkaat) and a member of a highly illustrious family of ancient and high lineage added color to ordinary everyday matters and enabled us to see them in perspective.
If there is one thing that can be said about Afzal as his primary quality, it was his willingness to go out of his way to help others. His last posting as ADG – Welfare, was a classic case of the right man in the right job. As he used to say himself, “As long as it is not illegal or immoral, I will help anyone without fail.” There are, I don’t know how many people out there who would bear witness to this. He told me a story when he was traveling somewhere and his car passed by a man who had been injured and was lying by the side of the road and his daughter was sitting by his side, weeping. People just drove past without a care. Afzal ordered his driver to stop. Picked up the man and his daughter, took them to the hospital in the next town and ensured that the man was cared for. Two or three years later, he said, he received a letter from some village in Madhya Pradesh, saying, “Sir, I am the girl whose father you helped that day. I am getting married and I want you to come and give me Ashirwad (blessing).” Believe it or not, Afzal went. My Indian readers, who understand our culture and its feudal nature, and the position of an Inspector General of Police (Afzal was IGP at that time) will appreciate how this reflects on the character of the man.
Afzal invited me to visit their family’s educational institution, Al-Barkaat, in Aligarh. He told me that they had established that institution especially to focus on the education of girls and to help the poor in the area where it is situated. I went, expecting to see what I have found to be normal in most such institutions, a big gulf between good intentions and quality delivery. I had been invited to deliver two lectures at AMU at the HRD Faculty to Assistant Professors from universities from all over India and we scheduled the visit to Al-Barkaat at that time. But when I went there, I was delightfully surprised that it is an institution where intentions are matched with delivery. The credit for this goes to the man that Afzal’s family selected as the Director of Al-Barkaat, Mr. Faheem Siddiqui, who I mentioned at the beginning of this article. A man of vast experience as an educator, administrator and above all a man of enormous energy and total integrity. He was ably supported by Afzal and his brothers and the results are there for all to see. I delivered several seminars there and that is where I met Afzal for the last time.
Afzal would make it a point to be present every time I went to Al-Barkaat. On our last meeting, we had lunch together, as always, a most enjoyable time. I was due to go to the United States to visit my family here. Afzal and I planned to meet on my return. But we plan and our Creator plans and His plan is better than ours. Little did I know that I was never going to see my friend again. And so, it happened. Almost as soon as I arrived in America, Afzal fell ill, and it was a steady decline until the end when it came. We accept the decree of destiny, but the pain remains. I am most grateful for the company of this wonderful friend which I was granted and pray every day for his forgiveness and the highest stations in the Hereafter.