Being bigger than the law - Hussain H Zaidi - Monday, February 28, 2011

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When the singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan was held up by the authorities in India, the reaction back home was, how could an artiste of his stature be meted out such treatment. It was also alleged that what lay at the bottom of his detention was traditional Hindu antipathy towards Pakistanis and Muslims going back to the bifurcation of India more than six decades back, and beyond that.

Rahat, no doubt. is a singer par excellence, whose popularity transcends geographical boundaries. With the film industry of Pakistan in a hopeless condition and that of India booming, every Pakistani artiste—singer and performer—is panting for making his or her name in Bollywood. However, few of them have matched or even come closer to their countryman Rahat in the appreciation and following that he commands across the borders. That Rahat at the moment is the most sought0after male singer in Bollywood testifies not only to his tremendous talent but also to the fact that a good voice is appreciated, irrespective of its country of origin.

But great talent, whether in science or literature, sports or showbiz, is not bigger than the law of the land. Therefore, no one should break the law and get away with that on the flimsy ground that he or she is someone special. In a way, since the stars are a role model, they need to show greater respect for the law than the ordinary citizen.

Coming to the case of Rahat, every country places some restrictions on the movement of foreign exchange and a person who is leaving the country with forex in excess of the permitted amount has to make a declaration to that effect before the customs. India, of course, is no exception. Rahat did transgress his host country’s laws while trying to leave the country without declaring that the dollars that he was carrying well exceeded the amount he was allowed.

The singer confessed to the transgression but maintained that he didn’t do so intentionally. And there’s hardly any reason one shouldn’t agree with him. But wittingly or unwittingly, he did violate the law and was detained and fined for that. Rahat subsequently apologised to his Indian fans for what he called letting them down. It was a simple case in which the writ of the law was enforced irrespective of the status of the person on whom it was enforced. Reading any ulterior motive into that is unwarranted, uncalled-for.

That episode, however, was evidently rather amazing for us Pakistanis, who believe that one’s exalted status in society entitles one to special treatment. Therefore, the reaction which Rahat’s detention precipitated was quite normal and brings out a singular feature of our culture—that the rich and famous, the high and mighty, are bigger than the law.

Take an ordinary example. If someone runs the red light and is stopped by the traffic constable with the intention of handing down the penalty for the violation, the typical response is: You can’t do this to me; don’t you know I’m a politician, a parliamentarian, a councillor, a lawyer, a government officer, a serviceman, a journalist, a showbiz or sports star, or someone closely related to any of these so-called VIPs? In case the poor constable is brave enough to do his duty and insists that the errant driver pay the fine, all kinds of threats are hurled at him. The message is loud and clear that even if ”I“ have broken the law, because of my position or connections, ”I“ should be allowed to go scot-free.

This exactly happened sometime back when a silver-screen star, better known for her real-life anecdotes, got into an argument with a policeman who dared to stop her for driving a car with the blinds pulled on in violation of traffic rules. Instead of acknowledging her mistake and quietly paying the fine, the lady lashed out at the constable: how come she, a celebrity, was being treated like an ordinary citizen.

In our VIP culture, being powerful or influential means being above the law. If you are a VIP, you needn’t pay a single penny in taxes or return bank loans, and of course you can stash away as many dollars, pounds, euros and francs as you want. Rest assured, neither tax nor customs nor bank officials would lay their hands on you. How little our millionaire politicians, business tycoons and leading sportspersons and entertainers, who always brag about their patriotism, pay in taxes is all too well-known to mention. The authorities wouldn’t dare bring them into the tax net, because they are special persons and need to be given special treatment. Little wonder, then, that we have one of the lowest tax-GDP ratios and one of the highest loan defaults in the world and public revenue always lags well behind public spending.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email: hussainhzaidi@

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