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November 12, 2017


Raza Rabbani speaking at the Sindh Literature Festival | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Raza Rabbani speaking at the Sindh Literature Festival | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

Festivals are not a new phenomenon in Sindhi cultural and literary traditions. In fact, this is one of the major moving factors that have time and again given impetus to literature in particular and society in general. Of late, there has been a wave of literature festivals occurring in every other city of the country. The recently concluded Sindh Literature Festival (SLF) can rightly be termed as the most successful show of such kind of activities on two grounds: first, appearances by some of the country’s top intellectuals and journalists helped remove the tag of it being a regional language’s literary event; second, the discussions were arranged in an order that offered a serious, sequential debate — a rare phenomenon in Sindhi-language literary gatherings.

Formally inaugurated by Syed Sardar Ali Shah, Sindh’s minister for culture, tourism and antiquities, the three-day event was a mixed bag of art, literature and music, pulling in a substantial crowd from across the province. However, the proceedings actually kicked off on the second day with a powerful speech by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy who spoke on ‘The Idea Of Pakistan: What it Was in 1947 and What it Should Be Now’. Dr Hoodbhoy gave an incisive analysis of history with his usual wit: “Unfortunately, we have no guidance from the past. The founding fathers of the state said many different things which suit the ideologies of both the liberals and conservatives at the same time; hence, even after 70 years we are still confused.” According to him, if we want to come out of this quagmire of confusion, we should become a “normal country.”

But Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, the federal minister for maritime affairs, appeared to reject this notion with his speech on the last day of the festival: “The country is not created the way normal states come into being; hence its problems are also of a different kind.” Bizenjo maintained that when civil society and media fail to educate the people, it results in a strengthening of the usurping feudal class. Participating in the same session, Ayaz Latif Palijo lashed out at Sindhi civil society: “Most of the time it laments the bad governance of the incumbents, but ends up voting for the same as there is no alternative available.” According to Palijo, we have only imported the idea of democracy; its essential ingredients such as equality and social justice are still missing.

The recently concluded Sindh Literature Festival successfully jettisoned the baggage of previous festivals

This discourse of what ails our democracy dominated subsequent proceedings. Noted writer Amar Jaleel also spoke at length about bad governance in the province and linked it with the awakening of voters who are hostage to the system that Palijo indicated.

Chairman of the Senate, Raza Rabbani, came up with an altogether different perspective in his widely attended session. “Unfortunately, the political worker class has turned inactive after being ignored by the political parties which become hostage to ‘sky labs’ (influential individuals who help a party win elections and who overshadow the genuine political workers) once they come into power. These sky labs change the political ideologies of the parties. This results in the de-politicising of society on the one hand, and the fanning of extremist elements on the other.” Though he also indicated towards the skeletons in the cupboards of civilians, he extensively elaborated how the Zia regime changed the political landscape of the society. “[Gen Ziaul Haq] banned student and trade unions and eliminated the coffee house culture so that there would be no intellectual thought and no Faiz, Jalib or Jaun Elia could emerge and give a counter-narrative to the ideology he was propagating.”

Senior journalist Wusatullah Khan was of the view that even terminologies have been changed: “What we refer to today as the counter-narrative was actually the narrative before July 1977.” While in discussion with journalist Mubashir Ali Zaidi in the session ‘Zara Hat Kay’, Khan said that people appreciated the courageous way they talked about issues in their program, but before the Zia era these things were commonly discussed in society and no one needed to appreciate the courage involved in it. “Freedom of speech and our society’s level of understanding were suppressed to an extent that even a normal discussion now looks like an act of courage.”

In the session titled ‘Kya Media Ko Aisa Hi Hona Chahye’ the discussion revolved around electronic media and panellists were clearly divided. Prominent journalist Azhar Abbas was in agreement, while Hamid Mir opposed, and both had arguments to cement their notions. “The media reflects what is actually happening in society,” argued Abbas. “There is a fight of narratives and everyone is engaged in it. Everyone has established proxies where they invest and the media is no exception. We are trapped in a grid of political discourse where real social issues hardly find any space.” Mir, meanwhile, maintained that though there were no more “no-go areas” for the media, there were still plenty of “no-go issues”: “Food security, clean drinking water and malnutrition are some of the issues which are hardly discussed in the mainstream electronic media,” he said.

Novelist Mohammad Hanif once remarked that even cities that lacked proper running water facilities had their own literature festivals these days. Interestingly, this turned out to be true when renowned lawyer Shahab Usto revealed in the session ‘Killer Water’ that the population of all the major cities of the province was consuming hazardous water. Name any city and you have unsafe drinking water and a literature festival!

Generally, the problem with Sindhi literature festivals is that either the speakers are not related to the subject being discussed or they are not well prepared. The organisers of this event tried to address this issue and were largely successful. Even so, certain exceptions persisted. For instance, pop singer Saif Samejo, with his irrelevant and paradoxical remarks, deviated from the discussion at hand in ‘Sufism and Society’ which was otherwise turning out to be a constructive debate in the presence of erudite panellists Nazish Brohi and Riaz Sohail.

The writer is a freelancer

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2017