The Dawn: April 29, 2016

Punjab Notes: Corruption: as old as pyramids

Mushtaq Soofi 



No, it’s older than Egyptian Pyramids, older than Harappa’s underground sewers if we go back in history. It’s hidden in the entrails of social order. It’s organically linked with the innards of power. Misuse of office has been there since the day it came into being.

Power has been used to gain greater control over others ever since it came to be wielded by human beings. Human nature and power structure need to be looked into if we wish to understand the origins of what is generally considered corruption especially of financial variety.

Human nature carries the vestiges of immeasurably long past defined by scarcity and search for resources. The greater the scarcity, the bigger the search for material means of survival.

Scarcity necessitated the search and search in turn compelled humans to create some order without which it was almost impossible to collect what was needed for survival as a species and a group.


Consequently some people with special features were catapulted to the positions of authority due to a whole myriad of reasons; biological and historical.

Authority enables its wielder on the one hand to take decisions independently and on the other invests him with power to punish those who dare question the use of authority however inappropriate it may be.

Ability to act on behalf of the collective and power to lacerate and incarcerate those who doubt and challenge the validity of the actions taken creates grey area from which springs up the temptation for corruption.

Impunity prompts indiscretion. What makes the people with authority commit financial corruption is firstly conscious and subconscious fear of scarcity which they try to eliminate through amassing wealth, legitimate and illegitimate.

Secondly, closely related with the fear of scarcity is a morbid sense of possessiveness that in their opinion creates around them an aura of being impregnable with the prospect of enhancing their socio-material power further.

If we look at the politico-economic history of our part of the world, corruption is neither something new nor unusual. During the last one thousand years official and non-official historians have recorded innumerable episodes which testify to rampant corruption witnessed at royal courts and in the ranks of bureaucracy.

Anybody who was somebody when presented to king or emperor was bound by royal dictate and conventions to offer him the most expensive gift he could afford.

It was accepted practice to offer gifts to influential courters, governors, generals, police officials, revenue collectors and host of other power wielders.

Not doing so would be taken as an insult inviting the official wrath. Corruption in the garb of gifts was necessary to curry favour with royal court and get some position of authority.

History books are replete with cases of corruption which are portrayed as expressions of highbrow cultural exchange.

Bulleh Shah in early eighteenth century lays bare the corrupt and their corruption when he says with utter disdain: “you take out the dagger to butcher (the innocents) if paid a dime/what you eat is suspect”.

You could hire an official assassin if you were able to offer a pittance as bribe. Waris Shah few decades later has no hesitation to call a spade a spade.

Qazi (judge) who acts as arbiter diddles Ranjha out of his share in his ancestral lands because he has been bribed by his scheming brothers. “The brothers got the honourable Qazi and the elders assembled, and ordered the measuring of the lands/they inherited fertile lands by offering bribe/a barren plot was Ranjha’s lot”.

So much for the judges! It reminds one of a Bertolt Brechet’s character who declares: “so for judges have been the scoundrels, now scoundrels will be the judges”.

The perception that during the colonial period there was no corruption or bribery is highly misleading. Officials generally accepted gifts. They took bribes but discreetly, away from the public eye.

The fact is that the volume of financial corruption increased manifold; proportionate to the increase in the number of government departments. New departments opened fresh avenues of corruption.

Departments such as police, revenue, agriculture, district administration and judiciary indulged in corrupt practices. Most of the so-called respectable families which hold their head high these days owe their riches to the corruption their elders were guilty of during the colonial period.

We are a part of the capitalist system. And capitalism, old and new, is sustained by institutional and non-institutional corruption. The powerful and the powerless all know it’s corruption that keeps the capitalist machine oiled.

It’s a sophisticated structure that you will never find lacking in guile in political, economic and cultural spheres.

What the elites of advanced capitalist societies have in common is the consensus that in order to safeguard the system tilted in favour of the rich; red line must not be crossed. It means corruption must be kept at a tolerable level.

There is no such realization among the power wielders and power brokers in the developing countries. That is the problem.

All the zealous reformers on the political stage of Pakistan who shout themselves hoarse to have a corruption free society need to be told: you cannot have it as long as you don’t challenge the system that breeds corruption.

You cannot be spared the stench unless you get rid of the cesspool. You can’t change the people without changing the conditions they are condemned to live in. Hypothetically speaking, if you end corruption and keep the system, everything will come to a grinding halt. If you want somewhat smooth running of the skewed system, you will have to live with corruption.

Haven’t you ever glanced at a popular slogan painted at the back of slow moving Pakistani trucks? Here it is: “pass kar ya bardasht kar (bear with me if you can’t overtake me)”. —

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