Bureaucratic ills

Published June 17, 2024
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

IF there is anything that can expose one’s place in our society, ie, one’s social standing, it is the interaction with the country’s smug, complacent and rotten bureaucracy, particularly the police.

It is not that the country’s bureaucracy is completely dysfunctional. Or that it does not serve anyone.

It remains functional, and it does serve a few. But it does not put itself into motion when it comes to the plight and predicament of the ordinary citizens, who may, at times, muster the audacity to show up at the doorsteps of the officials with their problems, pain and tears.

Here they are greeted by the official’s hardened staff members, many in number and serving the primary and important function of further dehumanising the already dehumanised.

The officials and their staff members, in their interactions with the public at large — the ordinary ones, who come without a reference of another official, a politician currently in favour with the military, or the mother-of-all-references, that of a military official himself — have to sweat it out, outside closed doors.

There is no real sense of public service.

The ones served are the ones at the top of the food chain. Whether it concerns rights, dignity, respect, governance, security or any other amenity that flows out of the state institutions in Pakistan, the people who have broken into the top echelons of society are usually the only ones who are served — they and those who get a chance to rub shoulders with them.

The bureaucracy swings into action only when the phone rings and on the other side is the voice of someone high up, not requesting, but ordering that something be done.

Because if you don’t know the right person, or a person who knows the right person, even registering an FIR regarding a crime becomes a huge project, capable of completely draining one’s energies.

There remains the high likelihood of the FIR not being registered. The victim of a crime often leaves the police station convinced that they deserved the crime committed against them.

The police are totally capable of convincing the victim that the criminal had a right to do what they did because the victim was not vigilant enough, was at the wrong place at the wrong time, was not wearing the right clothes, or was overly naïve and gullible.

Amor Towles, in his short story The Ballad of Timothy Touchett, mentions that we live in an era where “the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter are experienced in a thousand gradations”. But it is not only food, clothing and shelter.

In Pakistan, access to basic governance, security and even respect is also experienced in a thousand gradations. Those gradations, in turn, are determined by whether one has connections in the corridors of power. There is someone one needs to know for just kick-starting the vehicle.

Additional connections are required to keep the wheels turning. And if one wants to actually get something done, then there has to be a connection with the one and only institution in Pakistan.

Austin’s theory of positivism, despite having been reformulated and refined, or dismantled, depending on one’s jurisprudence, is reinvigorated in Pakistan. If Austin were alive today, he would only have pointed to that one institution, to help us understand what he meant by ‘sovereign’, whose commands are habitually followed by others, but that itself does not follow anyone else’s commands. The ‘sovereign’ with a gun would have hit too close to home. And it is only that ‘sovereign’ which can make the bureaucracy actually scramble into real action.

The rot is deep, indeed. There is no real sense of public service. There is no real sense of empathy among the bureaucrats, numbed by their obsequious efforts to appease the demands of those up the food chain.

And there is not an iota of respect for the ordinary citizens in the eyes of the bureaucrats and their slavish staff members, who avidly serve as belligerent gatekeepers, shooing away the common folk.

Kafka’s Germany pales before our Pakistan. The bureaucracy, probably, can do without the misplaced focus on learning how to don a waistcoat, or use a fork and a knife like a Rockefeller. What they need to be taught, instead, is some Ronald Dworkin, and his basic thesis that in a society everyone — each one of us — is deserving of equal respect and dignity.

But then, riding horses in exclusive clubs, and dining in expensive restaurants with their patron politicians, or members of the ‘sovereign’ institution, rarely instils this sense of equal respect and dignity.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
awahid@umich.edu

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2024

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