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April 23, 2018

Lions near the river


April 23, 2018

In the nearly 200,000 years history of our evolution as modern, thinking species, one of the most significant turns came when, between 70,000 and 32,000 millennia ago, our language developed and communication levels surpassed all other living things.

This explanation of our ascendency to unbeatable superiority in the animal kingdom is elaborated in the landmark work of Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind’. According to the author, communication of information created awareness about surroundings and allowed the homo sapiens to dominate their opponents. All other animals, whose communication with their kind and about the world they lived in was limited, remained at the mercy of events or accidents. They became subservient because they did not share enough vital information with each other nor understood what threatened their existence.

“A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion and hunt the bison.”

The author calls this “there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory”. What the theory says in effect is that those creatures (or tribes, or species, or herds or societies) that are able to converse and process information on time, or ahead of time, beat down all their competitors. Those who live in the closet of their ignorance suffer and perish. This sets the context of the debate about freedom of speech and the latest episodes in our own country involving attempts to force a shut-down of mediums of expression.

Governments and leaders with large antennas and tuned to large flows of information have always found themselves most strategically placed to devise timely reactions to parlous situations as compared to those who pretend to be in the know but exist in the la la land of lies and self-deception. Societies that have intense and extensive internal dialogues and fight long, tiring – and at times even fruitless – battles of conflicting viewpoints have a tendency to heal their wounds quickly. We have all read enough history to now acknowledge that in East Pakistan, more than a collapse of politics, it was a failure of communication and the inability of the ruling elite to relate to heightened frustrations of the majority that caused the eventual cataclysm.

Consider more recent examples. Nawaz Sharif’s refrain that he has been ejected out of power on account of a deliberate design looks like an afterthought when you set it against his absolute disinterest in governance and performance-related issues when he was in power. From party matters to the task of managing a vast and complex country, the ex-PM was hopelessly out of sync with realities and seldom set foot out of his comfort zone, dominated by courtiers. He was lazy and idled away vital months in power wishing things could be different. He was ill-informed on his decisions on crucial appointments and ran a cabinet that felt no shame in not having a foreign or full-time law minister.

The whole world was shouting about the gathering storm and yet he was not prepared to act decisively, improve his governance standards and carry out crucial legal reforms to survive in power under the protection of the law and with the backing of democratic institutions. He was not governing well because he was not conversing well with his surroundings. He was inadequate and poorly-placed when the tide turned against him, partially because he had stopped listening.

There is weight in the argument that his fate was foretold because that is the fate of every civilian leader in a country whose ruling idea is praetorianism, but there is reason to believe that a better-informed, more aware and more active Nawaz Sharif running a tight government with public welfare on its agenda would have been a harder nut to crack.

Other political parties or leaders have also suffered for banishing debate from their midst and not paying heed to timely assessments. The PPP as a political entity may be enjoying a short rise to relevance, and because of its hold in Sindh can still play the tough game of national politics but organisationally it is facing a long unfolding disaster that all of its leaders have been in denial about. The Punjab rout of the party has been in the making for years and not one but dozens of red flags have gone up on that repeatedly – except that the party isn’t really fine-tuned to that side of the argument. The PPP has shrunk to a sad shadow of its past because it has refused to adapt in light of abundant information pointing towards that dire need. It continues on the same path of stale rhetoric and pointless slogans as its leaders refuse to acknowledge the gnawing political decadence in their midst.

The MQM is a classic example of self-destruction caused by absence of reform and change and the total arrogance of its leaders to warnings that the time for goon and gun politics was up. Its favourite method of handling criticism and feedback was to beat up and kill. The less violent response was shutting down media houses and forcing and foisting its narrative upon reality. This went on for years, coming to a point where its members actually sat with media house owners and told them whom to hire and fire. Now they all (factions) feign innocence and love for democratic principles, but in reality cut sad and sorry figures. Others have absconded, leaving the villainous seats from where they perpetrated brutalities upon their detractors. Altaf Hussain is history dealing with disease and decay, a fading victim of his own ignorance.

At the peak of his power, General Musharraf contemptuously ignored the lawyers’ movement and the new dynamics that the movement had generated; in the end, he was enveloped by its consequences. General Kayani took extension of tenure against sane advice and lived to regret it. General Raheel Sharif ignored critical assessments of his love for fabricating a larger-than-life image and in the end saw his stature dwarf in size and respect lost.

On other fronts, too, the lion-near-the-river theory holds great value. When the Taliban were taking over Fata agencies one by one and the state was on retreat, it was reporting from those areas that brought to the fore the untenable situation that had emerged. We sat in the midst of this takeover by forces of terror and beamed to state and society what we saw – and we saw some terrible things there. This information flow was painful. It was averse to the image of the country and painted a picture that showed Pakistan in really bad light; but, to the credit of the civilian and military leaders of the time, it was taken seriously. A long decisive war followed and today we are all reaping the fruits of that big start of Fata cleansing.

In areas where warnings were ignored and information was curbed – such as Balochistan’s sectarian strife, or over the backlash to the killing of Nawab Bugti – both state and society have paid a heavy price in sweat and blood.

Shutting down media, cutting down information flows, polluting genuine debate and muzzling irritating views might look like sexy power display when it is done but it is a road to hell. The lions near the river will not go away via the shutting down of vital systems that bring news of their presence. They will become more ferocious and deadly. Beasts feast on the ignorant. Intelligent species dominate and survive by debating information freely. A debate shutdown today is disaster tomorrow. It’s a no brainer. Ignore it today, cry tomorrow.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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