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No room for the truth

Updated October 05, 2017

The lover of the wine cup who blurts out the truth in a state of abandon is better than the jurisconsult who seeks refuge in expediency.
— Zafar Ali Khan

MUCH water has flown under the bridge, assuming that what flows into the Ravi these days is water, since Khawaja Asif began to be lambasted for speaking truthfully about some of the problems that involvement in the Afghanistan conflict has saddled Pakistan with. This is not surprising. Indeed, it only confirms Bulleh Shah’s axiom that when the truth is out, a commotion must follow.

What is surprising, and quite painful, is the fact that not many people have had the courage to speak in support of the foreign minister. Barring a couple of rational comments, the media overwhelmingly joined the chorus of calumny. While the minister’s party members chose to discover the virtues of silence, the opposition stalwarts jumped at the opportunity to play to the gallery. The Foreign Office’s clarification that the minister’s statement had been quoted out of context amounted to denying him credit for being honest.

The habit of denial has found a permanent place in the minds of Pakistanis.

The affair will sooner or later be superseded by another meaningless controversy. What should not be forgotten is the bitter reality that the habit of denial has found a permanent place in the minds of Pakistanis.

The terrible consequences of living in denial are well known. By denying a fact that is known to many, if not to everyone, you invite being called a knave or a liar, or both. Worse, persistent denial will more often than not convince you that the problem is not real. And you cannot try to solve a problem if you believe that it does not exist. Subsequently, you may become aware of your mistake, but by then, the issue might have become insolvable or the cost of setting matters right unaffordable.

This is also what has happened in the case of Balochistan. Persistent refusal to see the real causes of discontent in that province from the point of view of its people, and attempts to force the latter to sing patriotic songs under the shadow of bayonets, have made all parties sink deeper and deeper into despair. A fair settlement of Balochistan’s grievances that seemed possible 40 years ago has been made almost impossible by preferring falsehood to the truth.

There is, however, a need to take up with Khawaja Asif the question of the manner in which the truth, especially of the unwelcome variety, can be told most effectively. He is known for speaking in unnecessarily high tones and often off the cuff. This style won’t help him as foreign ministers are expected to be firm without appearing to be unreasonable. They should be able to convey the most bitter of messages after coating it with sugar. The reason is obvious: truth’s hardest blows will have no effect on those steeped in falsehood, whereas a persuasive rendering of the truth can at least make the other party reflect on what it has been told.

But where does a Pakistani politician acquire the art of speaking persuasively? Unfortunately, our party platforms have become notorious for being used only to abuse rivals, and our legislatures are rarely treated to insightful speeches that could command the respect of both friend and critic. It is difficult for anyone to pick up the finer points of parliamentary oratory if assembly proceedings are reduced to the glorification of one’s own labours and the demonisation of the other. It is necessary — not only for the pleasure of listening to a finely worded address but also for making democratic norms stronger — that parliamentary debates be made thematically richer and the scope of discussion extended to include whatever is relevant.

Maybe, the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services should do something in this regard. This useful institution has attracted notice with the latest issue of its periodical publication, Parliamentary Research Digest, for July-August 2017.

The slim newsletter tells us of an event described as parliamentary dialogue on ‘youth building peace’ held on Aug 8 this year. The participants included members of parliament, academics, diplomats and students from 25 universities and colleges from different parts of the country. Making our youth familiar with parliament’s working is a sound method of deepening democracy. In fact, there is much to be said for taking all students on the opening day of each academic year to a national or local hero’s monument, a democratic institution (from union council office to provincial assembly to parliament) and/or a historical/ anthropological museum. Children should start learning about their identity, their history and democratic governance as early in life as possible.

The next feature is a recollection of the proceedings of the constituent assembly of Pakistan on Aug 10, 11 and 12, 1947, including the Quaid’s historic address on being elected president of the assembly. This is followed by the report of a function held on Aug 10-11, 2017, to celebrate parliament as Pakistan turned 70. Finally, one finds a refreshing though preliminary paper on ‘gender-responsive budgeting’, a subject that is most relevant to Pakistan and yet very rarely discussed. The writer offers us useful examples of how the subject is addressed in Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India.

In a country where state institutions seldom win approval for their labours, this institution deserves to be commended. And that is why it is asked to develop as rich as possible a library of books, videos and films on parliamentary practices where our legislators could, individually and collectively, equip themselves with the means of making their debates livelier, informative and educative and thus advance the conventions of democracy more effectively. They will help make the truth more palatable and also establish a tradition of facing it squarely.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2017