For more than 20 years, Ardeshir Cowasjee diligently functioned as his country’s honorary conscience-keeper. Week after week he beamed his search-light on the wrongdoings of the custodians of state power in Pakistan and their collaborators in various fields — their insatiable greed, their shamelessness, and their contempt for law and good manners. The result was a stream of scintillating columns in Dawn that not only offered the readers information but also regaled them with thoroughly enjoyable writing.
In this relentless record of political scams and shameless corruption, as Amina Jilani has put it, political leaders, government ministers, generals and judges were as pitilessly and fearlessly exposed as land grabbers and petty thieves. Many of the stars in his rogues’ gallery were driven to despair but found themselves unable to do anything. Most of them saw safety in preferring discretion to valour. Even the Supreme Court that hauled Cowasjee up for contempt chose not to press the issue. His success in censuring the various regimes Pakistan has had to suffer was unmatched by his peers.
He could do all this because he could smell a rat from a mile off and had no inhibition going after those tainted by corruption regardless of their rank or reputation. His intrepidity was sustained by his respect for truth, and his command over facts. He used every possible means available to him to dig out stories of corruption and abuse of authority in the name of management. A stickler for detail and precision, he liked to quote from official records — orders, memos and letters — to nail the culprits. “We must read to remember,” he once wrote, and he religiously followed the rule. He read widely, he kept reading, and he remembered what he read. He also had leading jurists, lawyers and subject specialists on call to reinforce his gut reaction to scams. In time he became free of the need to search for the issues that needed to be taken up; all the information he needed travelled to him as more and more people recognised in him a forum of redress where nobody’s plaint was dismissed without a hearing.
Cowasjee’s strength also lay in his total allegiance to Mohammad Ali Jinnah and an unshakable faith in his vision of a secular Pakistan. He often recalled, on the nation’s independence day and the Quaid’s birth anniversary, what Pakistan was meant to be and what it had been turned into by opportunists and self-seekers. He valued this belief and often referred to the inspiration it provided Zoroastrians who became famous for their public service, respect for law and charity. But his outlook on politics and governance was completely secular. That is why he was unsparing in his criticism of “the lethal mixture of state and religion” in the Objectives Resolution that ensured that “bigotry and intolerance would flourish.”
In his columns, Cowasjee covered vast areas and took up issues as they came. In some cases he was appalled to such an extent that he kept returning to them, such as Asghar Khan’s complaint against the involvement of the then army chief and head of the ISI in the rigging of the 1990 election or the storming of the Supreme Court by PML-N leaders (of which fate had made him an eye-witness) or the activities of the land-grabbers and disposers of Karachi Port Trust lands. Where corruption was an issue, Cowasjee did not spare any institution or individual. Bureaucrats were easy targets as their crimes had been in public debate for decades. The high priests of the media too were pulled up, for their greed and spinelessness, both. The military also came under attack, especially the naval officers involved with ports and shipping. He could write “the man who rides the rickety Pakistani omnibus has not forgotten or forgiven the wide reach of the military’s leading brass who have in the past proven to be as greedy and grasping as the political classes. Contemptible (sic) of all but themselves, they have willingly or unwillingly never been at a loss to flaunt their corrupt ways.”
But it is politicians on whom Cowasjee poured sizzling scorn. For denouncing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto he had more than one reason and he found much against Benazir and Zardari to go after them mercilessly. The Sharifs, apart from getting lambasted for misdeeds, tickled his robust sense of humour (see the list of laws/declarations Nawaz Sharif might have issued after the adoption of the 15th amendment). To denounce the two mainstream parties he used an especially broad brush: “Is there any objective non-party person in Pakistan who will deny that both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, their cohorts, their governments were corrupt to the core and collectively responsible for the robbery and plunder of this country and its people?”
The judiciary too attracted his attention. He once lamented that the Quaid, while stipulating that the first and paramount duty of any government was the maintenance of law and order, did not envisage “the deterioration of the judiciary of his country,” but his comments on the institution varied with the fluctuations in its fortunes. He repeatedly chided the judiciary for keeping Asghar Khan’s petition in cold storage for long years, cut Justice (retd) Tarar to size by tearing one of his judgments (one of the only two he wrote as a Supreme Court judge) into pieces, exposed judges who grabbed plots or were caught in land scams, went into raptures over the judgment in the Judges case, ridiculed the process of selecting judges, and at the same time, was also prepared to hail the judiciary’s triumph.