Samuel Martin Burke (1906-2010): Civil Servant, Diplomat, Historian

Posted on December 1, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, History, People
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Adil Najam

I wish I had heard of Samuel Martin Burke before he died at age 104 a few weeks ago (on 9 October, 2010).

He was, by everything I have now found about him, a remarkable man. I am sure there are other Pakistanis who have also never heard of him. For them, I wanted to write this belated obituary post so that they may be introduced to him. I hope there are also those amongst our readers who have not only heard of him but know more about him and his life. I write this belated obituary post for them too; in the hope that they may share their own thoughts and rememberances of Samuel Martin Burke with us.

This obituary of Samuel Martin Burke, published in The Telegraph, gives us the rich essentials of his rich life. It is worth quoting in full:

Professor Samuel Burke, who died on October 9 aged 104, was one of very few Indians to become a senior official in the Indian Civil Service under the British Raj; following Partition, he helped to set up the Foreign Office in Pakistan and became an ambassador for the country, serving in 11 different capitals. After retirement from the diplomatic service he became an academic in the United States, publishing a number of books on the history of India and the politics of Pakistan.

Samuel Martin Burke was born on July 3 1906 at Martinpur, a small Christian village near Faisalabad in what is now Pakistan. His father was the headmaster of a school and wrote poems under the pseudonym Burq (“lightning” in Urdu), which was adopted as the family’s surname. Exceptionally bright, Samuel took a first class degree in History and a masters at the Government College of Lahore before passing the Indian Civil Service (ICS) exams in 1931.

He rose to be a High Court judge and, in the closing phase of British rule in India, served as chairman of the three-man election petitions committee for the Punjab, set up to consider appeals against the results of the general election of December 1945, which had pitted the Congress Party, supporting a united India, against the Muslim League, campaigning for an independent Pakistan.

The commission had been appointed on the recommendation of the then prime minister of the Punjab, Sir Khizer Hayat Khan, whose Unionist Party was propped up by the Congress Party, and was thus regarded with suspicion by the Muslim League. But Burke did not hesitate to give judgments in favour of the League where he felt they were warranted.

While the commission was still sitting, Indian political parties agreed to the formation of Pakistan, and a circular was sent to members of the ICS asking whether they wished to serve India or Pakistan or to retire. Burke felt that the only way he could assure leaders of all the political parties of his continued impartiality was to make it plain that he was not interested in government service in either country. Accordingly, he became the only Asian civil servant who decided to retire on August 15 1947.

By this time, however, his reputation was such that he was invited by both Congress and the League to come out of retirement. Since he had been born in what became Pakistan, he decided to serve in Pakistan.

The West Pakistan government offered him a ministry to represent the Christian minority, but he chose to join the newly-created Foreign Service. He was given charge of the two most important portfolios: India (with which innumerable partition disputes were in progress), and the United Nations (where the Kashmir dispute was being debated in 1948).

His first appointment abroad was in 1949 as counsellor to the High Commission in London. At a time when Pakistan was still wrestling with matters arising from Independence this was the country’s largest foreign mission. In 1952, he was transferred to Washington as counsellor, but was soon promoted to the rank of minister.

Because of recurrent crises with India, Pakistan had decided to request military assistance from the United States, and to earn American goodwill Burke and his English-born wife Louise undertook nationwide speaking tours, his own Christian faith helping to undermine negative stereotypes about his country. His efforts soon began to bear fruit. In the food crisis of 1953, America promptly shipped a large quantity of wheat to Pakistan as a gift.

After Washington, he served as Chargé d’Affaires in Rio de Janeiro, and as Deputy High Commissioner in London. He then became the first Christian head of a Pakistani diplomatic mission, as Minister to Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark from 1953 to 1956. When the Commonwealth heads of mission in Stockholm gave a reception during a state visit of the Queen, they chose Burke to escort her during her walkabout.

After a spell in south-east Asia as first resident ambassador to Thailand, Burke was appointed to his final diplomatic posting, as High Commissioner in Canada from 1959 to 1961, when he signed an agreement for the peaceful uses of atomic energy which enabled Pakistan to purchase uranium from Canada.

Burke retired from Pakistan’s Foreign Service to take up a new chair in South Asian Studies created for him at the University of Minnesota.

His books include Foreign Policy of Pakistan, and he also advised on the compilation of A Historical Atlas of South Asia. Burke continued to write after he and his wife moved to England. Akbar the Greatest Mogul, published in India, won a commendation from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. With Salim Al-Din Quraishi, he also wrote Bahadur Shah, the Last Mogul Emperor of India; The British Raj in India; and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, His Personality and His Politics, in which he argued that, contrary to received wisdom, it was Gandhi, not Jinnah, who introduced religion into Indian politics and ultimately drove Muslims and Hindus apart. Burke was appointed to the Sitara-e-Pakistan, Pakistan’s highest honour, by President Ayub Khan.

He was predeceased by his wife, whom he married in 1933, and by a daughter. Three other daughters survive him.

Another obituary, in The National, adds some more details (some excerpts):

Samuel Burke was the longest lived member of the Indian Civil Service and one of the few Punjabis to have served in a senior position under the Raj. He went on to distinguish himself as an incorruptible jurist, one of Pakistan’s first ambassadors, an academic and an author… he was the son of Janab Khairuddin, a headmaster and the village’s first graduate. Burke’s grandfather had been the first Christian convert in his family. Janab Khairuddin wrote poetry using the nom de plume Burj (Urdu for “lightning”), which was anglicised to Burke.

Young Sam won a scholarship to Government College in Lahore (now Government College University). He initially studied science with a view to medicine, but found it left little time for cricket. He switched to history, philosophy, Persian and Urdu and achieved first-class honours. A master’s degree in history followed. In 1928, he sat for the Indian Civil Service exams and was selected to study administration and law in Britain. He returned to India and made progress as a rare, non-white “burra Sahib” in British India. As a district head and sessions judge he was hailed for his honesty.

… At 103, by then in a nursing home in Watlington, Oxfordshire, near one of his daughters, he recalled, eight decades earlier, bowling out the maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, a passionate cricketer. In awe of the maharaja and in spite of Burke’s appeal, the umpire claimed not to see it.

A third obituary, written by Nisar Ali Shah on the FT website adds yet more detail and nuance (some excerpts):

… As a young man he helped rule what was then British India, first as a district officer and later as a judge. At the time of partition – when millions were on the move, often amid great violence – he won the respect of politicians in both India and Pakistan for his scrupulous fairness, not least in settling disputed election results. As a diplomat representing his fledgling state to countries that had barely heard of Pakistan, he put his nation on the global map, forging strong ties with the US in particular. As an academic he wrote the biographies and the histories for which ultimately he may be best remembered.

… He pressed Pakistan’s interests in the US even after becoming an academic. In 1970 he had an extraordinary confrontation with Chester Bowles, the US ambassador to India, who wrote in the Minneapolis Tribune urging the US against supplying military hardware to Pakistan. Burke took him to task in the same newspaper, sending both articles to President Richard Nixon of the US. The sale to Pakistan of 100 tanks went ahead.

…He was approaching 100 but still writing when I last visited him at his home in England. In his autobiography, never made public, he wrote: “If I had the chance of living my life all over again, I would like to marry the same woman and have the same careers in the same order in which they actually happened.”

18 responses to “Samuel Martin Burke (1906-2010): Civil Servant, Diplomat, Historian”

  1. Taimur says:

    Very interesting. Glad he had a long and fulfilling life. May he rest in peace.

  2. Usman says:

    @Proud Christian Pakistani: Without going into any argument about Dr. Aafia, I want to clarify that she is not US citizen. Please do your research before getting excited to post.

  3. Why does Pakistan feels like a country persecuting & prosecuting a poor Christian woman-a Pakistani citizen but spending hundreds of thousand dollars on legal bill for a convicted terrorist who is a US citizen?

  4. Samdani says:

    So glad you highlighted this story. In our current age of everyone for himself and make as much as you can mentality it is always a good reminder to know that things were not always like this.

  5. Deeda-e-Beena says:

    “SUB KAHaan Kuch Lala-o-Gul Main Numayaan Ho Gaieen

    Khaak Main Kya Surataen Hongi, Kay Pinhaan Ho Gaieen”


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