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Making a difference

28 January, 2011

By Shafqat Mahmood


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So, this is how an independent judiciary works! We can be forgiven for being slightly bewildered, because the way the corrupt are being held accountable is entirely new.

Political wrangles between the politicians and the judges have been there in the past. The most recent example is the NRO imbroglio, but there was trouble also in the nineties between the then governments and the Supreme Court.

What has not been experienced in any sustained way is the impact of judicial accountability on corruption. Seeing it unfold graphically, with all the details being laid bare, is not only surprising (and satisfying) but opens up immense possibilities.

For one, the state of governance in our country that fed deep pessimism suddenly seems capable of reformation. The internal checks that were never visible before in the system have now come aggressively to the fore. And are beginning to leave a mark.

The corrupt will not give up, but they must be quaking in their boots, worried that the Supreme Court would take notice and haul them to the public glare with their pants down. In at least two cases, National Insurance Corporation and the Haj scam, this has already happened. The next, hopefully, will be the Steel Mill plunder, because the court is not giving up.

By the by, if Moonis Elahie has fled abroad with two hundred and twenty million rupees, he must be relentlessly pursued through Interpol and other means. The corrupt need to get the message that by just hightailing it to foreign lands they do not become untouchable. The Hamesh Khan repatriation was an important signal, but it needs to be pushed further.

Another impact of the Supreme Court proceedings is on the bureaucracy. Honest officers are beginning to take heart and understand that their dedication will not go unacknowledged. Officials like Zafar Qureshi cannot be got rid of, although the government has tried twice, because the apex court is standing behind them.

Also, by ordering the arrest of the director general of the FIA in case he hinders the arrest of the NICL accused, the Supreme Court has also put on notice less-than-straight officials. The net result is that there is now much greater impetus for the civil servants to insist on doing the right thing, whatever their political bosses may feel.

In fact, this is institutional building by judicial diktat. In any proper functioning democracy, the civil service must be independent of political influences. This doesn’t mean that it does not follow the policy line coming from the political leadership. But, that in its institutional role it must be independent.

If a crime takes place, the police must pursue the investigation professionally and without political influence. If a government contract has to be given or an item procured, it must be according to rules. Indeed, in a thousand other cases where the state has to act as a regulator, its officials must play their role, ignoring political interests.

If we get to the point, where the judiciary is independent, as it is beginning to show, and the bureaucracy is determined to play its role according to rules, the ship of the state has a chance to come out of troubled waters.

Again, it is important to emphasise that for the bureaucracy to stick to the straight and narrow does not mean that it starts challenging the political leadership on everything. The politicians have been elected by the people to determine the policy direction of the state and ensure better delivery of services. This role is not open to challenge, only the political intrusion into institutional functioning.

While on the subject of accountability and the Supreme Court’s stellar role in making a difference, the issue of exceptions from the net also needs an airing. It is true that the military has its own institutional mechanisms to deal with corruption and other deviations, but it is also part of the state structure. Its officers and men cannot, and should not, be beyond the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.

Obviously, since the important issue of discipline is involved, a degree of autonomy in matters of accountability must reside in all uniformed forces. And this principle is, I am sure, understood by the superior courts.

But, having said that, no part of the state structure can or should be outside the ambit of the Supreme Court. While it may not normally intrude, keeping the principle of discipline in mind, it must remain a forum to redress grievous wrongs or pursue, if necessary, ignored cases of corruption.

This column is about those people, policies or institutions that are making a difference. In this context, how can one ignore the sacrifices of those members of the armed forces and police who are laying down their lives to protect us.

Just in the last week, police officials died in Karachi and Lahore protecting Chehlum processions. These brave people died for you and me and we must acknowledge them. I was particularly touched by the story of a constable in Rawalpindi who diligently chased a car thief and, in the process of arresting him, was killed. These profiles in courage would ultimately save us.

And now to a more contentious matter of the Daanish school, recently launched in Rahim Yar Khan by the Punjab chief minister. Some think it is a revolutionary initiative and others that it is a huge waste of money. Whatever it is worth, here is my take on it.

What is this Daanish school? In simple words, it is an initiative to give quality schooling, of the level of famous schools in the country, to the children of the poor. The criticism is that a large amount of money has been spent to build and run this school and it will benefit only a few.

Having visited the school and seen its raison d’être, I think the critics are missing an important point. This school and others that will follow are not for any poor children. They are for the gifted children of the poor, selected through a competitive process, who would otherwise never get an opportunity to realise their potential.

It also does not mean that the normal state schools should not be fixed. That should remain a high priority, and talking to provincial officials it seems that it will be. What Daanish schools would do is to give a boost to poor and orphaned children who have huge potential but no means of realising it.

In this context, it is a grand initiative. If anything, it reminds me of Military College, Jhelum, which was started to give quality education to children of non-commissioned officers. Just look at the talent it has nurtured, and one can understand the need for such undertakings.

So instead of throwing stones at anything that breaks the mould, let us wish good luck and Godspeed to Shahbaz Sharif for this venture. It is a creative attempt to make a difference, and let us hope it will.

 

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