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April 19, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

ONLY if the National Accountability Bureau was taking part in a competition aimed at boosting the morale of certain groups of people, this would be some kind of a record. The campaign has been relentless, as it has been selective.

This week again NAB Chairman retired Justice Javed Iqbal descended on the plains of Lahore from his high post in the capital to have a frank heart-to-heart with those about whose performance he appears to be most concerned. The NAB chief’s assurances to the group — the Punjab bureaucrats — were accompanied by certain measures to lift the spirits and have the officers up and running without any unwanted inhibitions. The most vital piece of advice from Justice Iqbal to the government officers: have an effective system of accountability in your departments so that you can avoid probes by agencies such as NAB.

But the relief the resourceful visitor had for the bureaucrats far outweighed advice. For example, it was announced that the bureau that has earned itself quite a reputation for handcuffing people and raiding the houses of some famous (ruling) families is not going to summon bureaucrats until there is ‘strong’ evidence against them — whatever ‘strong’ meant in this case. Instead, at a preliminary stage at least, these upright servants of the public can have the exclusive luxury of being served a questionnaire to record their responses to an affair being investigated.

If this is a concession in this phase of the loud NAB drive to root out corruption, even bigger favours are being extended in general to the bureaucrats, whose smooth functioning has to be ensured for the government’s working. NAB director generals are no more allowed to arrest officers working in Grade-17 and 18, who are, for want of a better term, categorised as junior or young bureaucrats. The power to arrest any officer between grades 17 to 22 now rests solely and totally with the NAB chairman himself.

Talk of NAB’s special treatment towards the bureaucrats will only add to its reputation as a tool against the most maligned souls in this land of the pure: the politicians.

Another concession recently given to bureaucrats is that, unlike others, they will not be handcuffed while under investigation by NAB. Many of these reassuring measures were introduced in the wake of Justice Iqbal’s meeting with the bureaucrats in Lahore on Tuesday.

The handcuffing of ‘suspects’ has been hotly debated, public uproars following the images which showed university professors among others attending NAB hearings with their hands tied. In recent days, the Council of Islamic Ideology has declared handcuffing by NAB as un-Islamic. Now that bureaucrats can appear in the accountability courts without handcuffs, it can be reasonably presumed that the same relief will soon be provided to all NAB suspects without discrimination. In case this does not happen, the bureau risks exposing itself to greater protest and allegations of leniency, even favouritism.

The most crucial question raised in the meeting between the NAB boss and the Punjab bureaucrats on Tuesday, inevitably, was about the ‘impression’ the officers were believed to have: that the bureaucracy’s work was hindered because of NAB being around in its current mood.

The NAB chief’s reference to ‘strong evidence’ for moving against any bureaucrat obviously brought into the discussion the original NAB brief, the justification for the birth of the bureau all those years back.

The bureau had to be different to justify its existence and it was originally distinguished from other official investigation agencies because of its supposed independence and the very different probing protocol it had to follow. NAB was required to first thoroughly probe and then charge those tasked with proving their innocence before the bureau had their work cut out. In the recent dash for quick accountability and amid increasing allegations about selective accountability, those distinct qualities have increasingly been cited — as a contrast to what goes on at the bureau now. The noise against NAB has been growing and the talk about special treatment towards the bureaucrats will only add to its reputation as a tool against the most maligned souls in this land of the pure: of course, the politicians.

As he pronounces relief steps for bureaucrats, Justice Iqbal does order his charges to show restraint during their swoops on suspicious people and places. Indeed, he does refrain his staff from raiding the residences of a certain few ladies related to the officially most dubious politicians. Not just that, the NAB chief is also found extending a reassuring hand to businessmen as part of a hectic-looking exercise to restore as far as possible his organisation’s image as an autonomous authority seeking to do its job without fear or influence.

This is not at all an assignment that would make many envious of the retired judge. Even if no fresh evidence was furnished of selective accountability under the current system, there is plenty in the Pakistani past for the people here to receive all campaigns initiated in the name of accountability with a deep sense of cynicism. Things are not helped when the current accountability machine is justified and backed by the politicians in power selectively.

The chorus for punishing the corrupt is growing louder with time, as the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is rather conveniently accused of trying to conceal its failures to address the real issues faced by Pakistanis in the unending chants for accountability. The loudest of these loud slogans are reserved for the politicians — the political opponents of the current rulers, their rivals.

As pawns in the hands of the players, the politicians, an easily divided group, continue to act as the ultimate symbols of corruption. Even if they are yet to be convicted, the people are convinced of their crimes. They are not worthy of sympathy or respect that anyone would normally have for a fellow human being. They are not deserving of the concessions that are being extended to those who had started off as equal suspects. That is how it has been for as far back as goes the accountability juggernaut.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2019