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Patwari, thana and Titanic

Published Jul 01, 2013 08:12am

IT is customary for our leaders to hold the patwari and thana culture responsible for the indignities suffered by the people. Every politician pledges to put an end to it.

The so-called culture persists, nevertheless. The explanation is simple. Most leaders don’t mean what they say and those few who do, have no alternative to offer to the age-old patwari’s revenue circle or to the police station headed by a station house officer (SHO).

The plain fact is there is no alternative for either. In a society where the vast majority of people own small land holdings, (or plough the larger holdings of others) and crime is rampant, the officials who keep the land records and those who are supposed to take cognisance of crime should be at hand and accessible.

Seemingly, the worry of the leaders is corruption in the system. That is no justification for depriving peasant farmers of a service that no one else can provide at a lesser cost or a lower rate of bribe.

Corruption is a national phenomenon. The higher one goes, the bigger is the demand and the lesser the access.

Village folk would be travelling longer to reach, say, an office with computerised records and only to pay more for a service that is available at their doorstep.

Notwithstanding the abuse of authority and the resultant bribery, it is hard to overstate the usefulness and ready accessibility of these two institutions that are rooted in our history.

As the British colonised India, they followed two golden rules to gain trust. First, the people must rely on the virtue of the rulers, not their ability; and second, and more important, whatever was working should not be disturbed. Those remained the cardinal principles of their long rule.

The age-old local institutions of the patwari and SHO were thus protected. Some myths grew around both. Like ‘ooper Parwardigar nichey patwar’ (God in the heavens and patwari on earth). And when a deputy commissioner treated a village woman kindly she prayed for him to become a thanedar one day.

The two officials may no longer be the recipient of such tributes but their pivotal role in a backward and troubled society remains undiminished especially in the rural areas.

The SHOs hold sway even in larger cities like Karachi. That explains ministers fighting over their appointments.

Some time ago, this writer needed help from the police. Having once been head of the provincial administration, I spoke to the inspector general of police (IG).

The SHO of the area came to ask why there was need for me to bother the IG when “this humble servant is always there at your service”. That was indeed a polite rebuke for ignoring him. After all, the IG could do no more than to tell him to attend to my problem.

All of us, whatever the level of our profession or commitment to the public good, have some grand notions of reform. Personally, I subscribe to the colonial wisdom which was not to disturb whatever is working.

That, by and large, was the ruling thought till Z.A. Bhutto — a barrister, a rabble-rouser and a feudal chieftain all rolled into one — transformed that ‘fatalistic’ thinking into Islam, socialism and all-power-to-the-people. Ironically enough, as a landlord he himself could not ignore neither the patwari nor the SHO.

In due course of time Bhutto’s version of Islam degenerated into religious strife, his socialism ended in a bungled nationalisation effort and the elite, not the common man, challenged the writ of state at every turn. Some lawyers think that he would not have been hanged had the SHO refused, or even delayed, registering an FIR against him.

Starting as mere slogans, Bhutto’s actions caused enough public discontent to pave the way for the emergence of Ziaul Haq and later Pervez Musharraf.

We live in a Pakistan forged by Bhutto, Zia and Musharraf. It is not the country that Jinnah had envisioned. Elections are held to bring stability to democracy. Here they have shaken the democratic structure to its core. The emerging lesson is that in order to function, a democracy must be underpinned by a strong and secure civil service.

Westminster cannot function without Whitehall. If our political leaders are not prepared to follow the essential features of a parliamentary democracy, they should give earnest thought to the presidential system which largely blurs the line dividing politics from administration and public representatives from civil servants.

Altaf Hussain thinks, and Imran Khan agrees, that the Titanic of the ummah is sinking. The ummah will surely survive, but Pakistan, the self-styled champion of Islam, may not.

It is said that once the hull and lower decks of the “unsinkable” Titanic were filled with water and the vessel’s sinking appeared certain, the band playing to the cruising gentry on the upper deck struck the tune Nearer my God to Thee and went to the bottom of the sea.

Revelling on Pakistan’s upper deck are the nobility who imagine their Titanic is also unsinkable.

There is no orchestra to strike the fatal tune. Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan, the two leaders who always march to the beat of their own drum, should be heeded this time round.

kunwaridris@hotmail.com