06 Oct 2019


Anna Suvorova, Iftikhar Arif, Vafa Yazdan Manesh and Harris Khalique at the 6th Islamabad Literature Festival | White Star
Anna Suvorova, Iftikhar Arif, Vafa Yazdan Manesh and Harris Khalique at the 6th Islamabad Literature Festival | White Star

Writing about the role of intellectuals in society, Eqbal Ahmad — Pakistan’s noted public intellectual — pointed out that intellectuals and artists can serve as a beacon to the most beleaguered people in history. It was an intellectual’s special responsibility, Ahmad averred, to affirm the good and just and resist the bad and unjust. Most importantly, the intellectuals, he wrote, would have to “make their moral and political choice. The choices they make will affect, perhaps in determining ways, the future of state of society in Pakistan.”

The primary objective of literary festivals is celebration of scholarship and creativity. But such festivals also provide a forum for discussing and debating ideas and concepts and provide an opportunity to people with different points of view to interact and engage in discourse in a civilised manner. The 6th Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF), organised by the Oxford University Press and held from Sept 27-29, fulfilled its promise of bringing together intellectuals, writers, satirists, musicians, dancers and artists from different geographical areas of Pakistan.

A wide range of topics — India-held Jammu and Kashmir, foreign policy, economy, poetry, historical writing, education, Sufism, regional literature, women in politics, literature and dramas etc — was debated in a candid and lively manner. Performances by satirists and artists attracted large crowds who were also entertained by musicians and dancers. The most striking feature of the festival was the open discourse and bold views, critical of the government and the establishment, expressed by experts and writers.

The most striking feature of the 6th Islamabad Literature Festival was that it provided a forum for open debate and bold views, critical of the government and the establishment

Given the prevailing circumstances, Kashmir and foreign policy were the dominant themes of many sessions. Although panellists differed on a number of policy prescriptions, there was a consensus that the foreign policy of a country is reflective of its domestic realities, its weaknesses and strengths. Only a country which is internally united and economically strong can pursue a dynamic and consistent foreign policy. Even on Kashmir, Pakistan’s policy has been, at times, contradictory and confusing as ‘Kashmir is the jugular vein of Pakistan’ and the ‘future of Kashmir to be decided by Kashmiris only’ mean two different outcomes and Pakistan’s policy has lacked clarity on this.

It was also pointed out that Pakistan needs to resolve its internal contradictions — freedom of the press and media, deprivation and disgruntlement among regional ethnicities, treatment of minorities etc — before its criticism of India’s military solution of Kashmir and the abysmal condition of Indian Muslims will be taken seriously by other countries.

Although all political parties in Pakistan have a consensus on the country’s principled stance on Kashmir, our foreign policy was described as ad hoc and tactical instead of being consistent, focused and strategic. In the session ‘Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Challenges’, Abdul Basit, former high commissioner to India, summed up the dilemma of Pakistan’s foreign policy in Sun Tzu’s famous dictum: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Pakistan’s military establishment’s obsession with India also came up for discussion. In ‘Striking Peace in a Nuclear Charged Environment’, eminent educationist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy opined that the establishment is not interested in resolving issues with India as, because of a nuclear arsenal, Pakistan, after resolution of issues, would not need a big army. However, this view was countered by another panellist who pointed out that none of the nuclear armed countries in the world had significantly reduced the size of their conventional armed forces after acquiring the nuclear option. Dr Hoodbhoy also made an interesting comparison between Pakistan and Bangladesh from 1971-2019 and how the contrasting policies pursued by the two countries have led to divergent trajectories, with Bangladeshis now enjoying better human development indicators in addition to being one of fastest growing economies in South Asia and having higher exports (nearly twice as much as Pakistan’s exports) and currency reserves (four times as compared to Pakistan’s reserves).

Pakistan’s economic situation and outlook was also debated. In ‘Perspectives on Economic Reform: Agenda for Pakistan’, noted economist Dr Hafiz Pasha was of the view that, given the current stabilisation policies being pursued under the International Monetary Fund programme and depending upon external shocks, Pakistan’s economy will grow between the range of 2-3.5 percent in the next year or so and only in 2020 will inflation perhaps come down to single digit level. He also highlighted steep external financing needs during this fiscal year with a high level of debt repayment in the coming months. He also believes that the current exchange rate is undervalued by around 10 percent and should be reflected in a slight improvement of the rupee position in the very short term before the $1 billion debt repayment to the United States comes up in November 2019.

Describing Pakistan’s economy as elitist and assessing the extent of state capture by elite groups in the session titled ‘Pakistan: The Economy of an Elitist State’, the prime minister’s adviser on institutional reforms Dr Ishrat Husain referred to his 1999 book on the topic when he identified four elite groups — the military, the bureaucracy, the landed class and the industrialists — occupying the commanding heights of the state and the economy. According to Dr Husain, as of 2019 the number of elite groups has grown to seven, with religious leaders, professionals (lawyers, accountants and doctors) and media personnel (owners and anchors) being the three most visible additions in the last two decades.

In order to dilute the strong grip of these elite groups on state resources, Dr Husain suggested a number of reforms and steps that need to be taken to break the prevalent patronage-based economic model: making markets work, making the government responsive and accountable and ensuring that pro-active civil society keeps an eye on both the government and the private sector. He also suggested broadening political participation through internal democracy in political parties, judicial reforms, devolution of power to local governments after the 18th Amendment, civil service reforms, synchronisation of the education system with the employment market demand, and financial inclusion policies so that the poor have access to credit.

A number of sessions highlighted women’s role and participation in political and literary activities as well as the performing arts. In a thought-provoking discussion by women panellists at the launch session of Russian writer Anna Suvorova’s book Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship and Power in South Asia, which examines women leaders in the region, topics such as power, politics, history and patriarchy were examined through the lives of Fatima Jinnah, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Sirimavo Bandranaike among others.

It is generally believed that the election of Benazir Bhutto opened up space for women in Pakistan. However, educationist and gender studies expert Nida Kirmani pointed out that, based on her reading of the book, the reality is not as clear-cut in South Asia. A number of women leaders, such as India’s Indira Gandhi or Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina Wajid, did not pursue policies aimed at women empowerment. Gandhi was an authoritarian leader who denied political space to other women leaders. Wajid has relentlessly pursued the policy of political vendetta against rival woman leader Begum Khaleda Zia who is presently in prison.

Famous poetess and feminist Kishwar Naheed revealed that the setting up of the First Women Bank — a flagship project pursued by Benazir’s government — should be attributed more to the efforts made, and interest taken, by Begum Nusrat Bhutto and not Benazir herself. Panellists were of the opinion that women belonging to political dynasties or elite classes are not necessarily interested in women empowerment as their politics are mostly about personal power aggrandisement and not the uplift of downtrodden women or the interests of women.

The writer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 6th, 2019