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April 8, 2019

Burden of truth and lie

Opinion

April 8, 2019

Moral values originate to fulfill the demands of different classes of a society. Lie and truth are two important values which contradict each other. Lying is used by the weaker section of society to defend their weaknesses and by the ruling classes to hide their crimes and misdeeds. Both lie and truth are the products of civilization and there are still some tribes living away from modern culture and civilization in far-off mountains and forests unaware of lie and truth. Some anthropologists point out that there are no words in the vocabulary of such people’s languages to indicate lie and truth.

It is believed that truth is bitter and lie provides peace and serenity in Life. Sheikh Saadi (d1291), the famous Persian poet, held that to avoid conflict it is preferable to lie. Sophocles (d406 BC) in his famous drama Oedipus analyzes the impact of truth and lie when Oedipus became king of Thebes. Oedipus wanted to know about himself and his family. When he requested the blind prophet to tell him about it, the sage retorted that it is better not to know the truth which was bitter and disastrous. On Oedipus’ insistence he told him that the man he killed on his way to Thebes was his father and the queen he married was his mother. At this Oedipus blinded himself and left the city and the queen committed suicide. As long as he was in a state of ignorance life was peaceful. The truth destroyed his peaceful life.

In history we find that, in the age of kingship, the courtiers trained in order to please the king, to tell him lies about his popularity and exaggerate his virtues. Therefore, Kautilya (d283 BC), the adviser to Chandragupta Maurya (r321-298 BCE), in his book titled ‘Arthashastra’ advised the rulers not to rely on his courtiers and appoint spies to report to him directly about the condition of the country and the opinion of the people. The rulers who acted on the advice remained well-informed about the affairs of their subject and took appropriate actions to ameliorate the grievances of people. Those who did not care to know the truth and believed falsehood suffered and sometime had to abandon the royal power.

A case in point is the Ming dynasty (r1368-1644) of China that built the city of Beijing as its capital and the Forbidden City as its place of residence. The Ming rulers confined themselves within the four walls of the palace, not knowing anything about the people. The courtiers through lies kept him ignorant about what happened in the country. During the rule of the last king of the dynasty, when a rebellion broke out in the country, he was misinformed by officials who assured him that everything was in order. The king came to know about it when the rebels had already scaled the walls of the palace. Realizing it was too late to do anything, he killed all the members of the royal family and hanged himself. The tragedy was the result of sycophants lying to the ruler.

During the colonial rule in India, the British authorities here misinformed the British parliament in their reports about Indian affairs. One example is what was said on the conquest of Sindh. Similarly, during the first Afghan war, the reports sent by officials from India distorted facts to justify their invasion. In Pakistan, during the dictatorship of Ayub Khan (d1974), bureaucrats presented him with newspaper reports that praised him and his policies. It is said that sometime newspapers were forged for his perusal. Ayub Khan had a rude awakening when there were demonstrations against him throughout the country, which finally forced him to resign.

In Pakistan, lying is prevalent in every section of society. There are liars roaming the courts ready to bear false witness in cases. There are merchants and traders accustomed to lying to sell adulterated commodities.

History is distorted not only by the ruling classes but also by political, religious, and ethnic parties. The main object of these parties is to falsify events and facts to justify their policies. When state documents and parties’ records are full of lies, it becomes the historian’s job to sift out the truth from the bundle of lies. Sometimes truth remains unknown and lie becomes an ‘authentic’ historical source.

When a society is ruled by lies its moral values decay and its traditions and institutions collapse. Consequently, that society is further corrupted and its social, economic and political system becomes unable to sustain the burden of falsehood.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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