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SACM vs Assistant Commissioner: Abuse Of Power And Internalised Misogyny

The Firdous Ashiq-Sonia Sadaf incident has created so much hue and cry of different shades that it appears like multiple pressure cookers on multiple social media platforms have started releasing their personal vents. The discussion started with ‘oh she did it again’ and this ‘she’ was for both Firdous Awan and Sonia Sadaf – an unelected political representative and a public servant. The discussion started from ‘is it right’ and has turned into ‘who is right?’. And as always, from this point has drifted many a miles taking the shades of political affinity to turn into ‘s/he also did the same, why didn’t you speak up then’? From this point it turns into groupings on one side we have ‘all of them are corrupt, uneducated and uncouth’; the other group is of  ‘these civil servants are demi Gods, colonial masters, they don’t care about the public and they deserve it’. Another group states ‘both are ill-mannered and do the same to others, so good they have gotten a taste of their own medicine; and then there is a group that ring fences on of their own – ‘ my batch mate I know her’. In between all these groups is a small group calling out for lack of mannerism and decorum.

During these discussions, the real issue at hand is lost, which is exactly what happened in the Firdous-Sonia saga. So let us try to construct and deconstruct the issue:

What happened?

An unelected Special Assistant to Chief Minister (SACM) Punjab on Information and Media goes to visit a Ramzan Bazar in her constituency in Sialkot. The Assistant Commission (AC) is deputed to conduct the visit. Incidentally, the AC is also responsible to ensure that Ramzan Bazar is put in place, has quality and COVID protocols are followed. The SACM was unhappy at quality and arrangement of Ramzan Bazar and visibly annoyed that led to harsh verbal admonishing. The AC, apparently, deescalated the situation and walked out; which further riled up the SACM.

What went wrong?

It appears that being part of administration, the AC was designated to establish a quality Ramzan Bazar with COVID SOPs. It appears that quality of the stuff i.e. vegetable and fruit was not good, and that irked the SACM. Fair enough. The quality could have been affected because of hot weather as it was an open bazar and these perishable products were there since dawn. Ir it was actually low grade/substandard stuff being sold on a government-controlled prices. Further to this the AC was probably not tailing the SACM as is a norm in such visits which angered her as it affects her political clout. The SACM choose to seek explanation form the AC on the spot. Presumably, the SACM was unsatisfied by the AC’s responses on both counts and resorted to verbal admonishing that not only crossed professional and personal lines but was also verbally abusive.

What is the issue here?

There are multiple issues and the foremost is affecting public good and service delivery (i) substandard stuff in a government facilitated Ramzan bazar; (ii) presumed apathy of a public servant to ensure quality in Ramzan bazar (iii) violation of COVID protocol by district administration to allow a political visit-cum-gathering. 

The incident is reflective of high handedness of political representative by (i) flaunting her political clout; (ii) abuse of power i.e. misbehaving with the AC and having the visit orchestrated. 

The incident is reflective of the fact that Rule of law (rules/ law/ orders) is not even handed i.e. a public gathering is not allowed; opposition is yanked for political rallies; civil society is not given permission to hold an event; community is threatened with FIR if seen unmasked; FIRs & Fine are imposed on public but a political visit by an unelected political person representing sitting provincial government is not only allowed but assisted by the administration. Thus a display of total disregard of the COVID precautionary protocols by both representative of sitting provincial government and administration. 

The incident justifies misperception that public shaming of public servant is an acceptable form of personal and institutional accountability. Disconnect from community and weak service delivery by the district administration and field officers deepen this misperception. At community level, it then lends weight to rising mob justice that is reflective of mistrust on institutional justice and accountability

What is actually wrong? 

Foremost both the political representative and the AC – custodian and implementor of the rule of law – violated highest government instruction ref COVID that did not allow for any such event-cum-visit during high positive ratio. There was no ambiguity that it will have media, political aides and a gathered crowd once the political person was on location. Why the Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner allowed it? Why the AC did not put it in writing that she is being asked to violate the law? Why didn’t the DC or commissioner take it up with Chief Secretary or the CM that with about 14% positivity ratio it, holding the event will endanger lives. This unfortunately proves the point that when it comes to rule of law public servants are complacent to higher political authorities but arrogant with general public.

Being a designated administrator to establish and supervise Ramzan bazar at the behest of the government the buck stops at AC if the promised public good is not delivered. In actual fair pricing and such bazars are job of local government. In absence of the local government, district administration carries out these functions and with are over burdened with pandemic situation. The unsatisfactory performance upon complaint can result in necessary disciplinary action to a penalty. The political representative could have taken a civil route of conveying displeasure in civil away, share advise and later report the incompetency through the proper channel. But a political dog and pony show was preferred.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered that an unelected political person — being advisor to PM or CM — cannot lead on discharge of executive duties; and their jurisdiction is limited to advisory only. The federal government had to remove Hafeez Sheikh in compliance. The SACM gave two-hoots and violated the clear SC orders in public eye and in presence of media leading the incident to go viral. If the SACM’s intentions were robin-hoodish i.e. to ensure relief to public she could have undertaken an under stated visit to the Ramzan bazar, collected facts and reported on it. But she actually misused the government resources to cultivate her lost constituency. The observer of constituency politics will bear out with me that being stern with district administration and police is the added political weight. So it’s a case of abuse of power on all counts.

Above all, it is a glaring reflection of patriarchal mindset of our society and a deeper malaise; where women, also, not only internalise misogyny and misogynistic attitudes but when in position of power display the same power card. This is a classic case of validating internalised patriarchy by a woman that believes that to be in a political avatar, she needs to act and behave as rowdy as a man because that’s an acceptable political posturing. She flaunts her power (rather abuse of power) to her constituent through her verbal onslaught on the AC that you care for your own life and want to be in air condition than be on a visit; and shame on the dishonorable person who has posted you here. (tum ko jan visit sey zeyada aziz hae; kis bagherat ney lagaye hae tumhein yahan pe?)

She goes a step further to make a spectacle out a female officer as it rings well with general perception that women should not be in a public space and are ill suited for field work like administration. She capitalises on the societal practice (as being turned into a household narrative thanks to our entertainment industry) that a woman can be pushed around and insulted at the drop of a hat; and even if misbehaved and abused she would bear it quietly. The AC stayed quiet and walked away.

Such incidents have become a daily routine thanks to social media. Like anything else there are two sides of social media as well. The good side of social media is facilitative, calls for rule of law and raises the bar for service and accountability. The bad side gets abusive, distorts and maligns. The immature use of social media by the serving young officers has become butt of all jokes and generated hashtags to memes. The worst is that an issue which needed to be raised for abuse of power, violation of law and incompetence has become a political spitting competition. 

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Naya Daur