Ardeshir Cowas­jee: a man of courage and acer­bic wit

The Pak Banker - - Front Page -

AMAN of myr­iad tal­ents, Ardeshir Cowas­jee, who died in Karachi on Satur­day at the age of 86, will be re­mem­bered as much for his un­com­pro­mis­ing stance on mat­ters of prin­ci­ple as for his acer­bic wit. By pro­fes­sion a busi­ness­man who turned his hand to government ser­vice on oc­ca­sion, he was for many years a colum­nist for this news­pa­per, ar­gu­ing for fair play on a host of is­sues rang­ing from en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion to cor­rup­tion ir­re­spec­tive of where it oc­curred.

Born in Karachi in April 1926, Ardeshir Cowas­jee was the son of ship-owner Rus­tom Fakir­jee Cowas­jee, a lead­ing busi­ness­man and mer­chant. He stud­ied first at the Bai Vir­bai­jee Sopari­vala (BVS) Parsi High School and then at the DJ Sci­ence Col­lege. As the Sec­ond World War broke out, he joined the fam­ily busi­ness and fo­cused on the ship­ping side, in which he had most in­ter­est. In­deed, years later, when the ship­ping com­pany was na­tion­alised by the Bhutto government in 1974, Ardeshir Cowas­jee was vo­cal in his crit­i­cism of the move and it re­mained a sore point with him.

Mar­ry­ing Nancy Din­shaw in 1953, Ardeshir leaves be­hind him two chil­dren, daugh­ter Ava who works with the fam­ily busi­ness in Karachi, and son Rus­tom, an ar­chi­tect based in the US.

In 1973, Ardeshir Cowas­jee was ap­pointed by the Bhutto ad­min­is­tra­tion as the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Pak­istan Tourism Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, though he did not stay in that po­si­tion too long. He then was ap­pointed chair­man of Port Qasim Author­ity and again, his acer­bity and straight­for­ward­ness ended up alien­at­ing the pow­ers that be and he was re­lieved of the post. In 1976, for rea­sons still un­known, he was sent to Karachi Cen­tral Prison for 72 days’ ‘rest and recre­ation’.

Dur­ing the Zi­aul Haq years Ardeshir Cowas­jee had a very brief stint as an ad­viser on ports and ship- ping but once again, his tem­per­a­ment meant that the post­ing was short-lived. In 1988, when Gen Zia was killed and the care­taker government freed the press from the se­vere re­stric­tions that had ear­lier been im­posed on it, he started con­tribut­ing to the ‘let­ters to the ed­i­tor’ sec­tion of Dawn.

The bit­ing ac­cu­racy and fear­less­ness of his ob­ser­va­tions led to the news­pa­per invit­ing him in 1989 to be­come a weekly colum­nist, pub­lished first on Fri­days and then Sun­days. This involvement con­tin­ued over the next 22 years un­til, at the age of 85, he de­cided to cease writ­ing reg­u­larly. His last piece of writ­ing as a weekly colum­nist was pub­lished on the last Sun­day (Dec 25) of 2011, though he promised to write on a case-to-case ba­sis when in­vited.

Much though he dis­liked the de­scrip­tion, Ardeshir Cowas­jee can best be de­scribed as a com­mit­ted cru­sader against cor­rup­tion and a ded­i­cated cam­paigner against all sorts of en­vi­ron­men­tal abuse, par­tic­u­larly the prac­tice of land-grab­bing of amenity plots in Karachi and the vi­o­la­tion of build­ing reg­u­la­tions. Through his col­umns — and through court as well — he ex­posed cor­rup­tion wher­ever he found it, re­gard­less of who was in­volved. He was equally im­pa­tient of in­com­pe­tence, nepo­tism, out­right or stealthy rob­bery and the in­fringe­ment of law. He spared none, from those at the pin­na­cle of power to the lower stooges who serve their pur­poses.

Ardeshir Cowas­jee made en­e­mies and was threat­ened, but his stance re­mained un­com­pro­mis­ing. He used his pen to tire­lessly raise pub­lic aware­ness against the law­less­ness and crim­i­nal­ity that has been in­flicted on so­ci­ety. A soon-tobe-launched book, Vin­tage Cowas­jee: A Se­lec­tion of Writ­ings from Dawn 1984-2011, re-pub­lishes his work. Amongst the is­sues he raised of­ten was the ur­gent need for an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary that could truly up­hold hu­man rights and the rule of law.

Mo­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah, the man and his con­vic­tions, was amongst Ardeshir’s main topics of writ­ing. Even as he quoted the man who brought about Pak­istan, Ardeshir made it his mis­sion to re­mind his read­ers what Jin­nah had wished from the coun­try he had made pos­si­ble. In his later writ­ings, as Pak­istan slid deeper and deeper into chaos, it was pos­si­ble to dis­cern be­hind the façade a heart bro­ken by what the coun­try had be­come; yet he will re­main an in­spi­ra­tion for the many who still be­lieve in a bet­ter fu­ture.

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