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More thoughts on corruption

Published Sep 08, 2012 02:03am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

NASAH (USA) Sep 09, 2012 12:49am
Dear Irfan Husain -- you don't mince words, you are a realist incarnate. Corruption is one of the legs that supports the minimum wage Asian economy -- not only economy it is ingrained in the snail paced Asian culture -- nothing moves without greasing the palm -- you try pulling the leg and the economy will fall on its face -- especially if you try the improbable - in '90 days'. Great blog.
Rahman khattack Sep 08, 2012 10:31am
As expected very pro-British prose where you spend most of your time these days.
Sajad Hussain Sep 08, 2012 12:27pm
When 80% of the populace is illiterate or functionally illiterate then corruption is the inevitable product. Only and educated and alert populace can root out corruption.
Pradip Sep 08, 2012 04:19am
Lovely article usual reflective and thought-provoking. My only pet peeve is that, like the Republicans and Democrats locked into their own ostrich like positions in my adoptive country, your logical deductions would not shock the people in Pakistan (and in India, for that matter) out of their reverie of "good ol' time in the land of milk and honey"! Stay well.
Aminullah Chaudry Sep 08, 2012 03:20pm
I have had the pleasure of reading Mr Hussain's articles from time to time.Understandably his views are slanted. Let it not be forgotten that the gentleman only had a limited experience of government as an Accounts officer although this did not prevent him from getting appointments abroad under the remit of the Information Ministry courtesy his connections in Mr Z.A.Bhutto's secretariat.He seems to be perpetually annoyed with Pakistan, in deference I am sure to those who have secured him a foreign citizenship.
AK Sep 08, 2012 09:24am
Does that mean that honesty amongst government officials is only a European colonial invention? And the Asians and Africans on their own were just incapable of producing an honest non-exploitative government? In that case how come India had a GDP equal to 25% of total world back in 1700s? Or was economic success not dependent on honest/efficient governance back then?
Rajeev Nidumolu Sep 08, 2012 06:58am
transparency international has ranking of corrupt countries. developed Countries with small population, good social safety net and well paid civil servants have the least corruption like Scandinavian countries and Singapore . Countries with large resource to population gap like China, India, Pakistan and Nigeria are the most corrupt
Ajay Sep 09, 2012 01:54am
I always enjoy reading your articles because they are well researched , interesting and give a frash perspective on the issues in the subcontinent
Gopal Patel Sep 08, 2012 06:59am
What applies to Pakistan also applies to India. A very readable article, indeed.
Falcon Sep 08, 2012 06:10am
Very informative.
Muhammad Akbar Sep 08, 2012 05:24am
Excellent article Sir .The root cause "Corruption" behind the debacle of the legendary Mughal empire is correctly highlighted History is perhaps one of the most poorly taught subject in our country .
Agha Ata Sep 08, 2012 01:14pm
Everything will be alright, Sir. Just let them count all the waves, first.
p kumar Sep 08, 2012 08:34am
i jumped at the thought of gleaning the secret of our corruption but was disappointed by Finer's commentary.Aurangzeb used to cover his expenses by stitching prayer caps.As regards expenditures on royalty and in campaigns,was that different from other parts of the world at the time.It has generally been suggested that east india company entrenched corruption in india in it's present form and it may be unrealistic to compare a medieval regime with the administration given by a civilisation that was far superior in many other respects and the dominant on the world stage.