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A display of loot culture

July 06, 2017

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THE Bahawalpur disaster has generated a debate on the conduct and motives of the people who rushed in droves to steal petrol. Questions about the common code of morality raised by the incident need to be examined.

What we saw in Bahawalpur was one of the ugliest demonstrations of the popular culture of loot, ie the practice of looting victims of disasters. Whenever accidents involving trains, automobiles or aeroplanes occur, some good people extend succour to the victims but in many cases the dead are robbed of their valuables. Why do some or many Pakistanis behave in this manner?

Poverty and ignorance have been described as the major reasons. This is largely incorrect. Some poor and ignorant persons may not be morally upright but by and large they are incapable of wrongdoing. They do not have the modern means of plunder and they do not enjoy the services of corporate lawyers and tax advisers (especially chisellers), who play important roles in sustaining the loot culture. We can safely assume that the loot culture is sustained by well-to-do people, especially persons enjoying some kind of power and those connected with them.

Citizens see in the services’ corruption proof that the state thrives by looting what belongs to the people.

We Pakistanis have since long been promoters of the loot culture. We are among those who gave the word ‘loot’ to the English language and quite a few of our heroes were celebrated plunderers. During the colonial period, the people of the subcontinent were mercilessly robbed of their wealth and resources and they also learnt to loot the belongings of weaker compatriots.

Partition gave the culture of loot a huge boost. The story of the not-so-mad a rush to grab evacuee property is well known. Besides immovable property, the loot included household goods (carpets, furniture, electrical appliances), books (including law books), films lying in the godowns of non-Muslim distributors and manuscripts of MA and PhD dissertations left by scholars who had migrated from the new state of Pakistan.

The tradition of sarkari loot in Pakistan can also be traced to the colonial period but in those days the measures of loot were fixed. For instance, the contractors of the Public Works Department paid the divisional accountants two per cent of the project cost and the spoils were honestly distributed among all layers of the administration. After independence, the rates of bribery, called commission, were raised exponentially. Over the past seven decades, few things have flourished more than the culture of loot.

The essential issue is: to what extent is the state responsible for allowing and promoting this culture of loot? A correct answer will help in devising corrective measures.

The Punjab chief minister was right up to a point when he attributed the oil looters’ behaviour to 70 years of corruption — and he could not have been unaware of the length of his and his brother Nawaz Sharif’s reign in Punjab — but he would have been closer to the truth if he had mentioned poor governance instead of corruption as the cause of the public lack of integrity. The biggest charge against the state is its failure to bring up a free, conscious and dynamic citizenry.

A thorough debate is needed to fully understand the state’s role in sustaining the culture of loot and at the moment we can touch upon only a few aspects of the matter.

While a majority of the people may fear the state, they do not respect it. The reasons are many. The state doesn’t talk to them and doesn’t listen to them. They identify the state with the tyranny of the thanedar and the coercion of the revenue collector. They do not own the state because the symbols of authority — laws, institutions, the ways of the bureaucracy — still bear the colonial stamp. Many people think they are free to flout manmade laws and standards of morality as they are answerable only to the higher sovereign.

The main reason for the ordinary people’s refusal to accept the state as a moral mentor is the belief that it does not do justice between the poor and the rich, nor between the weak and the strong, nor between man and woman. This is considered a decline from the colonial policy of doing justice among all classes of the natives though not always between the natives, and the Englishmen or the colonial power. The ordinary citizens see in the services’ corruption proof that the state thrives by looting what belongs to the people.

The statement that the state reflects values and fads followed by the people is only partly true; truer is the maxim that citizens reflect the character of the state. As a well-known Arabic saying affirms, the people adopt the ways of their rulers.

Further, the common citizen doubts that political leaders, ministers and legislators as well as big landlords, traders and state functionaries amass wealth through fair means. They see no harm in following ‘successful’ models and they hold the state responsible for whatever the resourceful can get away with.

In a religious society such as Pakistan, belief is expected to curb ordinary people’s greed and moral laxity. The ulema should ponder whether this is possible in a country where mosques call upon the people to lynch a suspect or to collect petrol from a disabled tanker. The only other curative can be provided by the state. But the state will achieve little by preaching alone. The people will give up the loot culture only if they realise that nobody, however rich or influential, can prosper by looting the state or the people.

If the state wants an end to the loot culture it has to mend its ways first and become honest, transparent and accountable. It must also establish the rule of merit and a justice system that treats all citizens equal in their rights and responsibilities and before whom all state functionaries and private entrepreneurs are equally answerable.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2017