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Writers take centre stage

February 26, 2015

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THANK goodness, February has become Pakistan’s month of celebrating literature and the people’s successes in expressing themselves in other media. This year’s Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) appeared to have come of age.

The KLF retained its position as the largest national event of its kind. It filled its two-day programme with 73 working sessions (18 book launches) while the LLF offered over a slightly longer period 76 sessions (10 book launches). A search for diversity was evident at both festivals. The KLF themes included besides literature, art, politics, urban planning, and education. The LLF also chose similar themes, with a somewhat greater emphasis on the arts, music and sports. The KLF was quite open to debate and controversy — for instance Arif Hasan taking the rich of Karachi to task for their cruelty to the disadvantaged and the administration’s arbitrary methods.

Tributes to the dear departed were paid at both festivals — to Habib Jalib, Rashid Jahan and Musadiq Sanwal in Karachi, and to Faiz, Nur Jahan and Imran Mir in Lahore. New layers in art appreciation were explored. For instance, one learnt to see a war song (Nur Jahan) as an anti-war cry by a humanist mother.

At both places, Indian guests — Nayantara Sahgal and Ritu Menon in Karachi and Romila Thapar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shobhaa De in Lahore — won applause for the clarity of their views and the felicity of their expression. They and their Pakistani counterparts formed a bridge of mutual respect and fellow-feeling that the myopic leaders of both countries are hell-bent upon destroying. Festivals like these can bring the two estranged cousins closer together and one should like to work for a free visa regime for literary festivals.


Literary festivals can bring the two estranged cousins, India and Pakistan, closer together.


Perhaps the issues most relevant to Pakistan’s current crisis discussed at the festivals were retreat of democracy at KLF and ‘Living with internal differences’ (LLF), the latter held by Khaled Ahmed with Romila Thapar, Ayesha Jalal and Asma Jahangir. The discussion unavoidably revolved around belief-dominated politics.

Romila Thapar’s assertion that there could be no democracy without secularism could not be challenged nor could one disagree with Ayesha Jalal’s plea for a critical appraisal of the concepts of democracy, tolerance and the dominant Muslim mindset. Asma Jahangir applied a democratic test to Pakistan’s Constitution and its political structure. Perhaps a discussion on politics in South Asia can be more fruitful if the interdependence of democracy and secularism is accepted as a historically established fact and political systems are tested from the democratic and rights perspectives and not necessarily from the minorities’ point of view.

What cannot be denied is the minorities’ role in defending secular ideals for which Aitzaz Ahsan chose to describe them, with his customary exuberance, as better Pakistanis and hailed Rana Bhagwandas as a most outstanding judge. This was only a day before the ascetic judge passed into history.

The day Rana Bhagwandas’s presence on the Sindh High Court Bench was challenged on the ground of his belief was one of the darkest days in the history of Pakistan’s judiciary. The target was a Sindhi steeped in his motherland’s Sufi traditions, who had taken his Master’s degree in Islamic studies, who had written poems in praise of Islamic values, and who probably knew more about Islam than his dyed-in-vitriol detractors. This in a country where many generations of lawyers had learnt of Hidaya from Hamilton (an Englishman) and of Mohammaden law from Mulla (a Parsi).

If this was a bad side of Pakistan the good side was offered by the Sindh High Court’s decision to dismiss the challenge to Bhagwandas and clear the way for his elevation to the Supreme Court. This confirmed Pakistani people’s capacity to accommodate internal differences if those in authority could subdue the demons of violence and obscurantism ensconced in their bosoms. He belonged to the vanishing breed of judges who speak only through their judgments not only due to his adherence to judicial ethics but also because of his vulnerability in an increasingly intolerant Muslim society.

The sacrifices made by Bhagwandas compel us to take note of the burdens, vulnerabilities and disabilities imposed on non-Muslim Pakistanis by the majority community’s reckless drift towards ideologising the internal differences. And what fills one with dread is signs of more and more Indians too upholding belief-based discrimination and violence.

Both KLF and LLF are building on their experiences. The KLF broadened its inclusive character by offering space to ‘I am Karachi’ and an exhibition of posters. The former is a consortium launched by 30 citizens of Karachi to develop an indigenous movement to claim public spaces for the promotion of peace, culture, arts and sports. The latter effort is part of a movement to promote human rights through annual international poster competitions. Abro exhibited at the KLF 100 posters selected from a five-year collection.

Both festivals provided increased space for writers in national languages other than Urdu but they are likely to demand greater attention. It will be good to offer at such festivals focused programmes on Balochi-Brahvi, Punjabi, Pashto and Sindhi literature and literary aspirations, one at a time by rotation.

There were quite a few references to the youth’s trials and aspirations, though there is need to let them speak for themselves. Young writers were also there. The best new find at both festivals was Ali Akbar Natiq who already has to his credit a novel, a book of short stories and translations of his stories and poetry in English.

The organisers at both festivals had their security scares. The lesson is that the fight against intolerance and violence is necessary, among other things, for reclaiming the people’s right to write, paint, and sing the way they want to and wherever they want to. Without that right human life will be no better than a wild growth of grass.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2015

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