Bullied bureaucrats

Updated 11 Nov 2018


The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

“IF we are happy in a dream, does that count?” This sentence from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is apt when it comes to the PTI-led dream. Prime Minister Imran Khan has recently complained that the bureaucracy is not cooperating with his government. This is a half-truth. If the honourable prime minster dared to speak the whole truth, he would say that we have managed to make the bureaucracy so apprehensive by our bullying that it is reluctant to implement the government’s agenda for fear that, two years down the road, they could be questioned for any decision taken.

If Wasim Akram, the great fast bowler, had come up to his captain and coach to seek advice before every bowl he bowled or feared an inquiry committee probing the possibility of match-fixing and corruption every time he was hit for a four or a six, he would have never achieved the excellence that he did.

It is the norm all over the world to keep investigations of white-collar crimes secret and to prevent the manipulation of evidence to avoid implicating anyone who is not guilty and to avoid alerting the other culprits. On the contrary, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) issues a handout and photograph of the accused behind bars before anything else.

There is another paradox. A couple of years ago, the then army chief dismissed some army officers from service on charges of corruption. No one, not even the finest among investigative journalists, dared to ask any details. No pictures behind bars, no handouts detailing their corrupt practices, no media bashing, no discussions implying overall dwindling moral standards. And no lengthy primetime TV programmes on their general conduct and bad habits. I wonder under such circumstances, why the military’s media wing even released the news of their removal.

Do nothing, say nothing and one would never make any mistake.

In contrast, take the recent example of couple of civil servants — Mr Ahad Cheema and Mr Fawad Hassan Fawad — both high-profile officers who are under investigation for alleged corrupt practices. But an investigation is just that — ie an investigation — nothing more. In Pakistan, the cardinal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ does not seem to hold for civilians. In fact, truth be told, their punishment starts right from the day they are accused. The way these officers have been maligned in public leaves a lot of doubts about the accountability exercise. Even if NAB gives a clean chit now or holds them guilty, it would not matter at all. The damage has been done. This difference in the manner that corrupt civilian and non-­civilian individuals are treated in Pakistan is an art that has been perfected over 70 years of independence — it is the wicked art of a ­discriminatory accountability.

Ask any retired civil servant who was at the helm of affairs in the 1970s or 1980s. He or she would emphasise the merits of taking the initiative, even if wrong decisions are made, because sitting idle would never highlight the need for a service or the presence of a loophole. ‘Done in good faith’ was another name for informal leniency while scrutinising decisions of civil servants and giving them the confidence to go about their work, but now this rule has been replaced by ‘done in bad faith’. Only angels dare to get involved in something with this kind of skewed scrutiny.

When you hire officers through a ­stringent recruitment system like the competitive exams, and then make sure that they undergo numerous trainings and acquire the relevant experience before moving on to senior positions, then for heaven’s sake, trust their judgement to some degree as well.

The state entrusts a civil servant with certain powers and he or she should be given the freedom and confidence to exercise this power in their domain. There is a need to differentiate between misappropriation and embezzlement. Sometimes the issues are procedural, but the way the media and NAB play around with them to malign the ­concerned officers has left the whole bureaucracy in a state of paralysis.

These days, it seems like honesty has become the prerogative of only those associated with the PTI, NAB, the judiciary and the armed forces. The only way for civil servants to be labelled honest would be to become one of them, which is not an option; unlike some institutions, the civil service does not allow ‘political activity’ in an official capacity. The only workable option for civil servants is not to work at all. Do nothing, say nothing and one would never make any mistake — ever.

Perhaps the following lines, again from The God of Small Things, would explain our current predicament: “And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”

The writer is a former civil servant.

Twitter: @SyedSaadat52

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2018