LAHORE: Day 2 of the Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest kicked off with a plenary session on the controversy surrounding the supposed ban in Pakistan on Indian filmmaker and actor Nandita Das’ ambitious film, Manto.

The session was moderated by journalist/analyst Raza Rumi with historian Dr Ayesha Jalal as the speaker.

Beginning with a brief introduction to the controversy around the film and the subsequent ban, Dr Jalal was asked what may have changed in the last 70 years as Manto was and remains controversial for some. She mentioned the Pakistani film on Manto directed and acted in by Sarmad Khoosat, saying Nandita’s film was more historically accurate, yet was banned though still available online, so the ban doesn’t make sense. She also said social critique was different from criticism on Partition and if one doesn’t have the capacity to bear critique then it’s not about Manto, but one’s own self and interpretation of literature than what’s in the text. At this point, she quoted Manto talking to students in January 1944 defending himself and his approach towards social issues.

Mr Rumi mentioned decolonisation and how the laws used against Manto before Partition are still applicable, but Dr Jalal added that “their context has changed” and that Manto may have been charged under various laws in his life, but acquitted of all charges with small fines.

The speakers returned to the objection over Nandita’s film that it allegedly shows Manto as an unhappy man or implicitly says that his move to Pakistan was not good for him. Dr Jalal said whatever decision Manto made, he reconciled with it, but what he did complain that his status in his new country was never clarified. “One day he was called the best short story writer in the country and the next day asked to abandon the one flat he was given. That’s what Nandita has tried to convey, but since it’s an Indian film made by an Indian filmmaker I think that’s the objection that how dare an Indian tell us that a Pakistani man who moved to Pakistan was unhappy.”

The talk would on and off veer to the broader issue of censorship and control of various media across the region, and attempts to muzzle dissenting voices -- which also manifested in ban on the film.

“As a historian, I see these attempts to control the media a sign of failure, not because it’s succeeding,” she added. “The more desperate we’re getting, the crazier the laws are getting.”

Mr Rumi then talked about Manto’s works challenging official Partition narratives in both countries to which Dr Jalal said he gave a different view, saying the greatest tragedy was not even the perpetrators of violence, but the societal breakdown.

In another session, panelists discussed two books written on the life around the Line of Control (LoC) by Indian academic Happymon Jacob. The writer could not make it to the event despite being given a visa but denied political clearance by the India government. But he did join briefly through Skype.

Former ambassador Aziz Ahmed Khan moderated the talk that included Dr Rabia Akhtar of the University of Lahore and Dr Saadia Tasleem of the Quaid-i-Azam University.

Amb Aziz, while giving his own intro to the two books – The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies and Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India–Pakistan Escalation Dynamics, said Mr Jacob travelled to both sides of the LoC and traversed the entire length of the line, which was a unique endeavour. He described that Line of Control was more of a narration, a travelogue of living with the army officers on both sides, describing their feelings, the enmity for the other side as well as courtesy during flag meetings, why and how there are flare-ups on the border, its local causes, the difficulties and hardships the officers face, miseries of the population living even on the zero line, especially in Pakistan, during ceasefire violations.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2019