The recent hullabaloo over the leak of the Abbottabad Commission report has made me think about the real point behind such commissions and how they are treated in Pakistan.In Pakistan, such commissions are set up under the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1956, which empowers the government to set up a commission to inquire into “any definite matter of public importance”, granting it powers of a civil court in terms of summoning witnesses and collecting evidence. Such commissions, of course, are not peculiar to Pakistan, but as expected, are derived from the “Royal Commission” precedence. These Royal Commissions (and their derivatives) were specially set up to have a deeper knowledge or understanding of things of public and governmental interest — to find out the “truth of the matter”, so to speak. Hence, they could range from police reform (e.g., Malaysia 2004), to governance (New Zealand, 2009), murder (Pakistan, 2012) and even historical manuscripts (the UK, 1869). The point was that they revealed the true nature of the topic and thereby, improved governance and life through their recommendations.
However, in Pakistan, commissions have had a slightly different life. I was intrigued to read the Abbottabad Commission’s reasoning behind such reports. It stated, “Inquiries into situations involving national embarrassment, humiliation and trauma generally take place in one of two national contexts: (a) regime change ... and (b) regime continuance, where the regime is desperate to distance itself from any responsibility for the national disaster that occurred on its watch ... The Commission of Inquiry on the Abbottabad incident ... was established in the latter context.” The indictment of the sitting government in the failings around the incident were such that the report was never released and only had to be leaked out a few days ago. This leak, however, should not shock us. Most important commission reports in Pakistan have been leaked, with the most recent example before this being the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report (1974), when its supplementary report was leaked just over a decade ago via India-Bangladesh news media. Some, like the Munir Commission (1954), still haunt us, while others, like the inquiry into Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951, are still secret.
So, the basic question is: why do we set up a commission to “know” something, but refuse to release its report? Of course, the basic answer here is that the government does not release the report of a commission when it argues something the government does not like.
But there is another reason, too, I think. The other reason is our collective (people and government) attitude towards such reports and the “truth”. In a country where government (and increasingly, common life) is run on and through “expediency”, we simply do not have any appetite for the truth. We intrinsically want to know the truth but once it begins to appear, we refuse to acknowledge it. We want our cake and want to eat it too. With such an attitude towards truth, we approach each commission with suspicion from day one and are uneasy with anything it notes.
Our attitude towards officially released and leaked reports is also interesting. Pakistani governments usually release less controversial reports, which excite the public for a few days and then gather dust. Remember the Saleem Shehzad report submitted in January 2012? Then, we have leaked reports, which are mired in controversy, with the people expecting some explosive revelations. Most of these though never have something that dramatic — like the Hamoodur Rehman Commission admitting that West Pakistani troops committed atrocities in East Pakistan, or that there are people “responsible” for the OBL debacle in the Abbottabad Commission report. Such leaked reports excite people slightly longer but they, too, end up in the dustbin of history. No commission has ever brought any significant change in any facet of Pakistani life.
So, what to do? I am not an expert here, but perhaps, giving commissions some enforcement powers might be a start. If the commissions have the power to implement, at least, some of their recommendations, some change might occur. More importantly, we need to change our attitude towards them. We might have adopted a lot of Western models, but without internalising the philosophy behind them, we will never grasp their real meaning and remain muddled in this quagmire of confusion. Ultimately, we also need to change our collective attitude towards truth.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2013.
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