After the horrific accident in Bahawalpur, one of the key questions everyone is asking is who is responsible for it. Is it the poor lot of people collecting fuel from the old tanker? Or the state that leaves its citizens in such a destitute condition that they have to risk their lives to fend for themselves?
Indeed, with the JIT verdict just around the corner questions around what constitutes good governance and what is to be done when rulers do not fulfill their responsibilities are at the forefront of our minds.
Specifically, what are the ethics of good governance? What responsibilities does the state have towards its citizen? What must happen when these responsibilities are not fulfilled?
While there are several texts and theories about good governance, Imam Ali ibn Abi-Talib’s (AS) guidance provides crucial insights.
Regarded as the first male to embrace the message of Islam, Imam Ali (AS) is known in the Muslim tradition for his intellectual and spiritual authority. We find numerous hadith of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) signalling the high spiritual and intellectual stature of Imam Ali (AS). Shias in particular have developed elaborate theological, intellectual, literary and poetic traditions around the spirituality of Imam Ali (AS) and his progeny. Within the mystical traditions of Islam, Imam Ali’s (AS) teachings are considered to be foundational.
In 656 CE Imam Ali (AS) also became the fourth caliph of the emerging Muslim ummah. His short-lived caliphate, from 656 CE to his death in 661 CE, is considered an exemplary representation of governance inspired by Muslim ethics.
Imam Ali’s (AS) letter to Malik al Ashtar, the newly appointed governor for Egypt, in particular, provides details about the ethics of governance. It outlines the duties and responsibilities of the rulers, as well as of institutions of society such as judiciary, army, and the market.
According to the letter, a key responsibility of the ruler is to advance the quality of life of his subjects — otherwise, he can neither attain their goodwill nor be seen as legitimate. Imam Ali (AS) notes,
“…a ruler can create goodwill in the minds of his subjects and can make them faithful and sincere to him only when he is kind and considerate to them, when he reduces their troubles, when he does not oppress them and when he never asks for things which are beyond their power.”
He suggests that al Ashtar surround himself with people who are pious and keep his distance from sycophants and from those who seek to point out, as opposed to conceal, the faults of others.
Particularly relevant to the present moment is Imam Ali’s (AS) guidance about the common man/woman and his/her welfare:
“…a policy which is based on equity will be largely appreciated. Remember that the displeasure of common men, the have-nots and the depressed persons, over-balances the approval of important persons, while the displeasure of a few big people will be excused if the general public and the masses of your subjects are happy with you.”
But what does it mean to care for one’s subjects? Here an incident narrated by Reza Shah-Kazemi, in his book, Justice and Remembrance, is instructive.
According to Shah-Kazemi, Imam Ali (AS) once came across an old, blind beggar and inquired about him. He was told that the beggar was Christian. He told those around him, “You have employed him to the point where he is old and infirm, and now you refuse to help him. Give him maintenance from the public funds (bayt al-mal).”
In other words, the state has a responsibility to create systems, programmes, and policies to support those who are in need and oppressed, regardless of their caste and creed. This is in contrast to the privatisation that we observe today, where public services for citizens are contracted off to those who do not have the interest of the public at heart but seek to generate profits.
Not caring for the poor, according to Imam Ali (AS), can lead to the devastation of a country. He said,
“The poverty of the people is the actual cause of the devastation and ruination of a country, and the main cause of the poverty of the people is the desire of its ruler and officers to amass wealth and possessions whether by fair or foul means. They are afraid of losing their posts or positions and sway or rule, and want to make the most during the shortest time at their disposal.”
The words of Imam Ali (AS) could not have rung truer today. As we await the JIT verdict and mourn the Bahawalpur tragedy, it is time for us to scrutinise our past that has led to our current state of affairs, and take action.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2017.