A Parliament of Owls

A murder of crows. An exaltation of larks. A parliament of owls.

The English language is a commodious beast, packed with all sorts of strange words gathered from all corners of the earth. Take, for example, the multitude of terms available to describe more than one bird of a particular type. Some of them are noted above. But we also have a charm of finches, a deceit of lapwings, a lamentation of swans, a pitying of turtledoves, and my personal favourite, a murmuration of starlings.

Coming back to owls and parliaments, the term parliament comes from the French “parler”, which is the verb, to speak. Parliament is therefore a discussion or where one goes to speak. More specifically, since the Oxford Parliament of 1256, it has been the name given in England to that great institution of state which guides and counsels the sovereign in the exercise of power.

Parliament, then, represents the collective wisdom of the people. And since owls in western culture have long since been venerated as symbols of learning and wisdom — owls being the symbol for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom — the term “Parliament of Owls” flatters both Parliament and owls. Tellingly, the other phrase for a group of owls is a “wisdom of owls”.

The aim of this extended linguistic exercise is not to make the obvious point that in our culture owls are symbols of stupidity and not symbols of wisdom. Yes, calling somebody the “son of an owl” in Lahore is likely to be met with a different “son of” compliment. However, the point here is not that we also think our Parliament is full of owls but that it is important to have the right perspective — cultural, linguistic or otherwise.

I mention all of this because a few days ago, the leader of our provincial Parliament was sworn in after being elected unopposed. I have a lot of respect for Mian Shahbaz Sharif and am genuinely happy that he has become the Chief Minister of the Punjab. He did a lot of good things for Lahore earlier and demonstrated a serious commitment to public welfare. According to one famous (possibly apocryphal) story, he drove the then head of WASA at four in the morning to an especially deep puddle in the middle of a main road and turfed him out of his car to deal with the problem. Most importantly, he had the good sense to surround himself with some genuinely smart people, including people that I have subsequently come to know and respect.

After getting sworn in as Chief Minister, Mian Shahbaz Sharif gave a speech in which he went back to the favourite themes of the day, about how the dark deeds of eight years of dictatorship will soon be wiped out, and how President Musharraf remains the source of destabilising conspiracies.

My problem with Mian Sahib’s speech is that he makes me feel like a Nazi collaborator and I don’t like that. I can understand that after eight years in exile, Mian Shahbaz Sharif feels compelled to construct a narrative for himself in which he and his brother, like De Gaulle in exile, proudly held aloft the banner of a free Pakistan while the rest of his compatriots remained shackled and supine, crushed under the heel of a dastardly dictator. Cue the music from “The Great Escape,” as the Mian Sahibaan jump the walls of Attock Fort on a stolen motorbike.

But, the truth of the matter is that we did not spend the past eight years suffering in extreme agony. Yes, General (now President) Musharraf made some really dumb mistakes. Failing to provide for growing electricity demand being Exhibit A. Firing a popular chief justice, showing himself in military uniform while firing the chief justice, and then having the chief justice physically mauled before an independent media being Exhibit B. But go back ten years and we also had a prime minister then who thought assaulting the Supreme Court was a good idea. So, let us not forget that we all make mistakes. Let us, instead, find a different perspective.

From my point of view, the operative fact is that nobody forced Mian Shahbaz Sharif either to become a member of the Provincial Assembly or to become Chief Minister of the Punjab. It is a job that he has sought. And it is a slot which, I repeat, I am happy to see him occupy. But, having attained his goal, it does not behoove him to spend precious time whinging about the inequities of the past. I want my leaders to tell me how things are going to get better. I want them to get cracking. I do not want to them to act as if they had campaigned for the role of Chicken Little.

Mian Shahbaz Sharif today has an unparalleled opportunity to put his undoubted talents to good use. Much has been done in the last five years — whether he cares to acknowledge it or not — but much remains to be done. If he makes the most of this opportunity, then someday we too may be able to use the phrase “parliament of owls” as a compliment and not as an insult

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