By Zubeida Mustafa
SO Ardeshir Cowasjee has decided to call it a day. He was one of Dawn’s longest-serving columnists and certainly the most feared because nothing could stop him from speaking out against what he perceived to be wrong. And in this calamity-stricken country of ours there was always much to provoke AC.
For over two decades he irritated and angered many of the high and mighty mandarins in their ivory towers because he was not afraid of unearthing their corruption. He had no qualms about naming names. His knack of raking up controversies and making the power-wielders cringe delighted the readers as long as they were not at the receiving end. It testifies to his courage that he did not change his style even when he received threats.
Having regarded him as the voice of society’s collective conscience, I found it painful when he declared in his last column (Dec 25) that he was “old … tired and disillusioned with a country that just cannot pull itself together in any way”. So he was winding down.
This is how many others also feel. Ardeshir Cowasjee, however, is wrong when he dismissively describes his columns as one that are “read, may be digested and discarded”. No, his writings are not of a transitory nature for two reasons.
First, in a country that refuses to keep records, all the wrongdoings he dug out and documented so meticulously will always be of value to chroniclers and researchers — and activists fighting for the same causes he espoused. Hence these columns are worthy of being archived and indexed on the web — a testimony to his hard work of 23 years. Secondly, Pakistan is a country that has a distinguishing quality. Things never change here and that includes the rulers’ propensity to exploit the people.
Since his mission has been to expose this exploitation, the columns will remain relevant.
Have the sins committed against the people — land theft, abuse of the environment and cheating and dishonesty — about which Cowasjee wrote with so much punch been eliminated? As long as we need the press as a watchdog we need the Cowasjees of our day. The aggrieved, who could have come to harm had AC not given them unstinted support, know what this means.
For him it has simply been a matter of upholding what is right. More importantly, the issues he has championed are human-interest issues that, unlike politics, are of direct concern to people like you and me.
Take the case of Aquila Ismail, so pertinent to today’s MP’s degree scams. Ismail was a member of the NED University syndicate in 1994-5. So was Cowasjee. This body was faced with the dilemma of awarding degrees to two students who had fraudulently obtained admission to the NED by filing forged certificates. Since they were well connected, the university senate was willing to overlook the transgression. The syndicate nearly agreed as Cowasjee was not present at this meeting.
Ismail dissented and incurred the wrath of the powers-that-be. Her home was attacked by some goons. She recounts her ordeal, “It was a harrowing time for me and my family. When Cowasjee learnt about the syndicate’s questionable decision he wrote about it in his column and expressed his respect for me for taking a stand on the issue.” He approached the chancellor and the matter was closed with the degree not being granted.
There are numerous such cases which received the Cowasjee touch through the power of his pen. Others have received help through his generosity — displaying the gentle heart beneath the gruff exterior.
As chairman of the Cowasjee Foundation he has supported causes he feels are just. When Zamir Niazi’s The Press in Chains was published in 1986 by the Karachi Press Club — the only institution willing to do it in Zia’s draconian era — AC bought scores of copies to present to journalists. That amounted to extending a helping hand to the KPC.
All the years while he was writing for Dawn’s OpEd, life was not easy for whoever was handling his copies. There were arguments in abundance. His presence in the Dawn office on Monday, the day after his column was published, invariably spelt disaster. He has never liked what he terms ‘self-censcissorship’ — he is quick at coining smart expressions.
He began writing when the hated press and publications ordinance was struck off the statute book. His very first (Nov 11, 1988) column was devoted to press freedom. He had called on the “disunited men of the press in Pakistan” to develop “a conscience and a spine”.
Cowasjee had spoken with great hope of the press council that was on the cards way back in 1988. But he wanted the regulatory mechanism to be devised by the press itself. “Let its institutionalists not select, elect or nominate to it even by ‘popular acclaim’ a toady, an acquiescer or a boneless man”. Where is the press council? Small wonder AC is a disillusioned man.
When I visited him last week he was sitting with a big notepad before him. It was blank. I asked him what he was writing. He said he was recording his thoughts. However, he did recite to me a stanza by the 19th-century Gujarati poet Dalpatram. It was lyrical. I couldn’t understand it fully.
‘Garda, lula, andua gharib maa ne baap;
Mahadev teno dikro seva kare hum aap.’
But what I did understand was that the poet talks of self-help even in the direst times of helplessness. That touched a chord in me.