FESTIVAL:Of politics, politicians and politicking

Updated 14 Feb 2016

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By Saif Asif Khan

BEFORE Pakistan had literary festivals, we were forced to rely on television talk shows to sate our appetite for political debate and analysis. KLF’s arrival on the city’s cultural scene in 2010 came as a breath of fresh air — it provided the perfect environment conducive to a live, interactive political discussion, thankfully sans the senseless shouting and ratings war that TV shows are prone to. Seven years down the line, KLF is undoubtedly upholding the tradition of providing the essential forum for debate, but the quality of that debate appears to have suffered to some extent.

This year, KLF hosted about a dozen sessions on politics, spread over three days. That in itself is an impressive number; what is less impressive is the diversity of topics that these sessions explored. While religious, gender and minority rights remained a hot topic (and rightly so), more facets of domestic politics could also have been examined. For instance, sessions on civil-military relations, youth radicalisation, corruption, governance, labour disenfranchisement and inter-provincial grievances would have added value to the festival.

In a session titled ‘Diversity and Dissent’, Hafeez Jamali spoke to London-based author Ziauddin Sardar about the notion of recording dissent in Pakistan versus the UK. While Sardar conceded that a most toxic version of religious ideology had taken hold over much of Pakistan over the past 30 years, he felt the rise of the right was an alarming reality straddling the Eastern and Western hemispheres. He mentioned anti-migrant sentiment in France and the Christian Zionist movement in the US as examples.

In the absence of the panellists originally announced for that particular session in the programme, Pervez Hoodbhoy made do with an impromptu panel of people who knew prominent yesteryears’ civil rights activist Eqbal Ahmad. The panellists were asked to share their memories of Ahmad at the launch of a book written about him by Stuart Schaar; Schaar was unable to visit Pakistan owing to visa issues. The following day, Nazish Brohi moderated a discussion on religious minorities in Pakistan (‘The White Stripe on the National Flag’) which featured Shaheen Atiq-ur-Rehman, Olivier Truc, John O’Brien, Reema Abbasi and Sono Khangharani. Unfortunately, the discussion largely fell prey to the familiar refrain of “minorities are suffering in Pakistan — but then so is everybody”. This drew away from the purpose of the session which was to highlight how religious minorities suffer disproportionately given their circumstances.

Foreign policy sessions remained dominated by Indo-Pak relations. Barkha Dutt was a popular crowd-puller from across the border. At the launch session of her book, This Unquiet Land, which was moderated by Ghazi Salahuddin, she spoke about the perceived rise of religious extremism in India. She dismissed the notion that democracy was under any kind of threat in India, contending that “India pushes back very aggressively against extremism”. She conceded, however, that the space for having a nuanced discussion has shrunk in India; a change she attributed to the rise of social media. She also felt Pakistan was less of an issue in Indian election campaigns than Pakistanis believed, but that this was a misperception here caused by the Pakistani media.

Earlier, Salahuddin moderated another session featuring the launch of the two-volume art catalogue Borderlines by Sehba Sarwar — both of which focus on the border regions of North America and South Asia. Sarwar heads Voices Breaking Boundaries, a Houston-based organisation which lobbies for women’s rights and against extremism. Her catalogues featured essays by Noor Zaheer, Naila Mahmood and Tehmina Ahmed (all three were present) among others who read excerpts from their writing about various communities living displaced lives. Sarwar mentioned that her objective in bringing out this publication was to create the awareness that Partition was not an India-Pakistan specific problem; rather, displacement trauma existed wherever there were borders.

The following day, there were two sessions on Kashmir with somewhat similar content. The earlier one, ‘Kashmir, the Never-Ending Conflict’, moderated by Farhan Bokhari featured Salman Khurshid, Rafique Kathwari, and Jean-Luc Racine. The possibility of looking towards Irish-British rapprochement as a model was contemplated. However, Racine pointed out that Kashmir was far more complicated than Ireland, which was mostly a bilateral issue. Khurshid felt that the lesson to be learnt from the Irish process was that rapprochement was a long, painful process.

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri launched his book Neither a Hawk nor a Dove at a panel moderated by F.S. Aijazuddin featuring Salman Khurshid, Dutt, Ishrat Husain and Najmuddin Shaikh. Kasuri was adamant that his book’s arguments had not been refuted by anyone from the country’s political or military circles, lending it credibility. He expressed confidence that the so-called Kashmir Framework was still workable, and could be revived in the future.

In a fast changing world where Pakistan is surrounded by Iran, China and Afghanistan, it appears somewhat peculiar to not have sessions on the broader region we live in. Outside of South Asia, the previous year has been an interesting one, with important developments having taken place in Russia (Crimea and Ukraine), Europe (Syrian refugees) and the Middle East (Iran-Saudi tensions). Pakistanis have sometimes been accused of being far too insulated from the broader world that they inhabit. Such festivals present the perfect opportunity to overcome this myopia.

How do we move beyond these obstacles? One could be to differentiate book launches from panel sessions, allowing room for more topics. A senior ex-diplomat pointed out that far too many books were being “relaunched”, such as Kasuri’s. Perhaps fewer book launches and more panels featuring fresh blood instead of the same old faces would infuse greater vitality into the political sessions. Also helpful would be some description of the subject of a panel; often, the title is not enough to understand what a session will be about, especially where the panellists are less well-known figures.

Finally, another desperately needed measure is crowd control. KLF is proudly free and open to all, which is fantastic. What would make the festival even better could be improved planning of entry-exit points to the various halls (ideally separate), better training for ushers and moderators, and perhaps more space, since the halls get filled very quickly, leaving not even standing room in the more popular sessions