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.
Referring to the accountability of judges, Cowasjee advised Ayaz Amir not to despair of change and to follow Bernard Levin who wrote, after the Birmingham Six episode, “Lords Bridge and Lane must go, not because of dishonesty but because they consistently perpetuated injustice.” He concluded: “At this point in time, however great the provocation, however good the reason, I can hardly write and say that Chief Justice Mohammad Afzal Zullah and Justice Mohammad Naeemuddin must go, but one can hope that with perseverance, good luck and with a lot of good fortune thrown in, by the time Ayaz’s maker is ready to receive him, he may be able to write and have printed in Dawn his opinion that for specific and justifiable reasons ‘Chief Justice Mohammad Whoever and Justice Mohammad Whoever must go.’” A generous hedging of his bets notwithstanding, the hard-boiled pragmatist too could sometimes indulge in wishful thinking.
From Cowasjee’s columns one learnt quite a few things that might have remained unknown to most people, like the proposal the then army chief and head of the ISI took to prime minister Nawaz Sharif about raising funds for covert operations from the drug trade. Cowasjee does not tell us whether the matter ended with Sharif’s veto. There is much more that we learn of the ways in which those in power disposed of the property of the people.
It is difficult to suppress the feeling that though Cowasjee often criticised Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, he preferred military rulers to civilians. In September 2001, he countered Nawaz Sharif supporters’ glee at Musharraf’s perceived discomfort by posing the question: “Is his [Nawaz’s] wooden expression not invariably a sign that nothing has penetrated his head?” Saying that “so far Musharraf has taken the right decisions,” he declared: “people must support him rather than instigate riots against what he has done whilst keeping the interests of Pakistan firmly in his mind.”
But a few months after Musharraf’s assault on the judiciary in 2007, Cowasjee sounded disappointed. “Many of us considered him to be the best of worst available to lead the country,” he wrote, and concluded: “Whatever good he has done will be interred with his bones.” A year later, he expressed confidence that “we can still refloat” as “Pakistan’s second Ataturk is in command. The fact that he is a general of the army is no impediment.” While Cowasjee did sometimes take military rulers to task he apparently could not bring himself to denounce military coups.
Cowasjee sometimes used for the people the same wide brush that he employed for sweeping the irresponsible and corrupt politicians into the dustbin: “They are all the same. Some come on horseback, some via the stuffed ballot box and manipulated votes cast by illiterates who vote for symbols with their feet.” Asking people to accept responsibility for their plight he reminded them, “we have cast our ballots, we have brought in and acquiesced with corrupt and inept governments, we have welcomed in military ‘great redeemers’ with flowers and ladoos and then seen them off with scorn, as we have the politicians. We, all of us, are not worthy of being citizens of Pakistan.” He obviously had little respect for elections — Pakistan style. As one of the prominent advocates of accountability before elections, he proposed a referendum to enable the president to delay the polls for 15 months or so after Benazir’s second government was thrown out in 1996.
Pakistan’s democrats, and some were always around, were sometimes intrigued by Cowasjee’s observations. For instance, he reprimanded those who had criticised the dismissal of the Benazir government in 1990. Defending Ghulam Ishaq he wrote: “The gross public speculation against his doing so came to naught. His [the president’s] detractors said he was backed by the army. But should he not have acted in concert with the wishes of the most organised party in the land? Are the generals not Pakistanis who too can think?” That sounds like justifying the military’s intervention in politics.
On another occasion Cowasjee surprised his readers by offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. For instance, he asked the Musharraf regime to “disqualify and debar every man and woman who held elected office from 1988 to 1999 from henceforth holding any elective office ever again.” If the regime did not follow this advice, “history will hold it responsible for the accelerated disintegration of what is left of this country.”
Politics, especially democratic politics, was Cowasjee’s Achilles’ heel. While taking note of his lack of fervor for democracy one should avoid criticising him for not being what he never claimed to be. He was probably cast in the mould of the captain of a ship who reigned supreme not only over the crew under him but also over the waves of the ocean stretched endlessly before his eyes. He had imbibed the British traditions of order, legality and discipline, a system in which the best one could do for the people was to be a benign patriarch to them. Besides the champions of democracy, especially its beneficiaries, failed to offer a model of governance that Cowasjee could consider an advance on his colonial experience.
The view from his ivory tower did not extend beyond the few thousand rascals who had captured the commanding heights of politics, economy and bureaucracy. Strange though it may seem, there is little in this collection about the honest labour of millions of Pakistanis who have struggled against prohibitive odds, nor about the battles the illiterate public has fought to overthrow dictators and usurpers of power and create space for persons of goodwill, like Cowasjee, to write what they choose.
This Cowasjee reader also offers some captivating images of what Karachi used to be and quite a few fine portraits of its builders. He also introduces us to some great teachers. One of them, Dr Maneckji Nusserwanji Dhalla, has left for us many gems of wisdom, such as: “Intolerance and bigotry and dogmatism are the bitterest enemies of religion upon earth. They make religion a tyrant, a persecutor, a veritable daeva, the demoniac perversion of religion ... Sectarian bigotry is as bad as inter-religion bigotry. Bigotry stifles reason and the bigot, in his frenzy, is out to force all to believe what he believes.” In addition, Cowasjee offers a large number of insightful sketches of his dear departed, written with both affection and understanding.
Thus, if the shenanigans of pseudo-democrats have not destroyed your faith in democracy, and the wickedness of the vile you meet in Cowasjee’s menagerie has not eaten up your belief in the inherent nobility of the human person, you will find in Cowasjee a splendid companion to help you not only laugh away your miseries but also to find the courage to say what needs to be said. There is much merit in his storytelling. For example, his narration of his driver’s arrest and detention and his interrogation in the Altaf Gauhar affair will do credit to an accomplished writer of short stories.
Cowasjee was right in arguing that columns become dated when the time in which they are written passes, but the editors of this collection were also right that they “will prove to be a window into the relevant period of our history.” Vintage Cowasjee will not date.
Vintage Cowasjee: A Selection of Writings From Dawn, 1984-2011
Foreword by Amina Jilani
SAMA Publishing, Karachi