Tuesday, 19 June 2007

The Elocution Contest

Back in my school days, the annual elocution contest would roll around towards the end of the school year. Class by class, the whole school would be marched down to the large covered ‘shed’ in the yard and seated on mats laid out before the stage. The event would be greeted with a mixture of relief and indifference. Relief from escaping the usual routine of classes and indifference because of our complete lack of interest in what we were supposed to witness.

The elocution contest was also referred to as a ‘debate’ by some, but that was a debatable label. Picked students would prepare speeches on a given topic and then recite them before the bored and listless crowd. The point was not to debate with, or in any way engage with the ideas of the other speakers, rather it was to speak loudly, passionately, and clearly. While the judges then tallied up points, the podium would be handed over to any one from the student body who wished to add a few comments.

This was undoubtedly the most exciting part of the whole affair. Heads would go up as people strained to see who was volunteering. Groups of friends would try to cajole, flatter, bribe or threaten one of their band to go up and say something. Volunteers would spring up and set forth, grinning impishly at some inspired witticism they had thought of, or clutching a piece of paper with a few scrawled words on it nervously to their chests.

These volunteers were driven primarily by one of two impulses: to seek to impress the headmistress and senior teachers in the hope of getting noticed for plum posts of responsibility or, more often, to seek to impress their peers by providing some kind of relief from the tedium of the whole affair. This second group was the one that really sparked the audience's interest. Outrageous statements were made, witticisms passed on something a previous orator had said and absolutely nothing was added to the understanding of the topic on hand. The audience would roar its approval and clap loudly – the more provocative the statement, the louder the applause - and the volunteer would return to the crowd to appreciative slaps on the back and giggles from his friends.

I was reminded of this sordid ritual of my youth when reading about the Pakistani parliament’s passing of a resolution to condemn the knighthood of Salman Rushdie. MNA after MNA came up to the floor to make one outrageous statement after another. One can imagine the appreciative back-patting and giggles when they returned to their seats. The level of ‘debate’ is obviously not very different from what it was in my school all those years ago.

But in the whole distasteful affair there is a silver lining. Ten years ago, even five years ago, this ‘debate’ would have been mostly hidden from the eyes of the public. Newspapers might carry the highlights, but in a country where newspaper circulation has always been pitifully low, even amongst the 40-odd percent of the population that is literate, there was little awareness of what our elected representatives said or did on our behalf. Furthermore, parliamentary correspondents could be leant on to present sanitized accounts of proceedings. The proliferation of television news channels has had a major impact on political reporting and the impersonal eye of the camera is difficult to contradict or discredit.

In days gone by, Mr. Ejaz-ul-Haq would simply claim that he was misquoted. Now he has to backtrack and offer “clarifications” and perhaps, be a little more guarded next time with what he says. At least that’s a step forward. Its no longer just his superiors in the administration, or the bored, listless crowd seated in the National Assembly, that he is addressing, but the world.


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