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More thoughts on corruption

September 08, 2012

FOR many Pakistanis, present-day corruption is an aberration from some ideal period in our history when rulers and civil servants were honest and diligent in their duties.

Our current efforts to somehow, anyhow, clean up the system is a recurring fantasy. In this vision of an idyllic past, citizens paid their taxes and in return, were looked after by the ruling class.

Here’s a news flash for these utopians: there never was such a golden period. The Mughal era is held up to be the epitome of good governance, with justice and prosperity for all. One academic to have studied the Mughal Empire was S.E. Finer. His magisterial three-volume work, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, remains the definitive study of the evolution of statecraft throughout history.

In his chapter on the Mughal Empire, Finer writes:

“Its [the Mughal Empire’s] institutions were unoriginal, it was a conquest state that lived on continuous plunder of enemies, and it was entirely exploitative — a revenue-pump which diverted the produce of the cultivator and the merchant to the exclusive use of a narrow and wasteful ruling circle. Short descriptions of this empire give it the appearance of efficient administration….

“… As we might expect … administration was slack, ill-organised, confusing, and corrupt. In brief: in not one of the great Asian polities is the gap between the display of wealth and leisured culture, as contrasted with the slovenly and corrupt administration so marked. Of all of them, the Mughal Empire is the worst.…”

In other accounts of the Mughals, Aurangzeb’s unending wars across his empire, and especially against the Marathas, have been mentioned in some detail. I used to wonder why these campaigns took so long, even in those days of slow-moving armies.

The reason, I regret to report, is rooted in corruption. Generals were paid cash according to the size of the force they commanded. But by fielding a smaller army than the one they billed for, it was possible to skim off a sizeable sum every month. Often, these numbers were insufficient to achieve victory. Also, by remaining in the field without forcing a decision, a general could eventually return to Delhi a rich man.

In the Mughal era, if you wanted anything done, your application would have to be accompanied by a nazrana, or gift. We have all heard the story of the notoriously corrupt Mughal official who was transferred to a position specially created for him: ‘Counter of the Waves’.

It was thought that there was no way he could take bribes here. But his boss overlooked his ingenuity: he soon began stopping passing vessels and demanding a bribe from their captains. His reason was that the passage of their ships disturbed the pattern of the waves he was supposed to be counting.

Although apocryphal, the story does contain an element of truth. As Finer describes it, the system functioned as a kleptocracy in which every state functionary grabbed what he could. The jagirdar was appointed at the emperor’s whim and frequently rotated so he would not put down roots in any district. He thus squeezed the cultivators and merchants for all he could. And he certainly had no incentive to improve things for taxpayers.

Things didn’t get much better under the East India Company when officials of the Company Bahadur set out to maximise profits for their shareholders back in London. Along the way, they feathered their own nests.

Even under this exploitative regime, Warren Hastings was impeached for corruption in parliament, only to be cleared. Whatever the truth of the accusations, he retired a very wealthy man, as did many of the White Nabobs who served with the East India Company.

It wasn’t until the British Crown assumed power directly in India after the uprising in 1857 that an attempt was made to rule with a degree of efficiency and honesty. Under Queen Victoria, morality became the central pillar of governance, and Raj officials were expected to set examples of probity for the natives.It is these brief Victorian and subsequent Edwardian periods that introduced the concept of clean administration in India. This is the era our present-day utopians keep harking back to without realising that it was hardly Islamic.But while it is largely true that British civil servants and their Indian colleagues recruited to the Indian Civil Service through a highly competitive exam were honest, the same cannot be said for the lower ranks. For the patwaris and the police, it was business as usual. ‘Upar ki kamai’, or illicit income, was the norm, not the exception.

One factor in the relatively low level of corruption among the senior bureaucracy in British India was their high salaries.

Another was the low expenditure on development. Even though the money spent on public works was much higher than under the Mughals, it was a small fraction of what it is today.

With multi-million rupee construction and purchase contracts go large bribes. Historically and traditionally, the state is the bountiful mother at whose teats suckle politicians, public officials and businessmen alike.

In an ideal society, it should be possible to stop corruption entirely. Indeed, several developed states have succeeded in greatly reducing dishonesty in their system. All of them have relied on an impartial enforcement of laws, and an utterly honest judiciary.

Sadly, neither of these conditions exists anywhere in the Muslim world, and certainly not in Pakistan. In our societies, ties of kinship and biradari permit many lawbreakers to go free. Once it is established that the system is unequal, everybody tries to find a loophole, and soon, it’s a free-for-all.

When I joined the civil service in 1967, corruption was still relatively rare among the higher levels of bureaucracy. After overthrowing Bhutto in 1977, Zia tried his best to find evidence of corruption against him. But in his White Paper, he was unable to bring a single such accusation against his benefactor and foe. Now, there are nothing but corruption charges against successive rulers over the last two decades.

None of this is to suggest that we should not try to cut this cancer out of our system. But we need to understand that it cannot be done in isolation. A clean, efficient judiciary is essential, as is a political class that wants to serve the people, and not just their own narrow circle.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com