The hope that one day Pakistan will escape from the clutches of jihadist terrorism, corrupt politicians and an overbearing army presence came alive last weekend at the Lahore Literary Festival, where mostly young audiences averaging 25,000 people a day applauded criticisms and wider worries about the functioning of the country as well as enjoying other sessions on literature and the arts.
The festival took place in the shadow of a bomb blast in the city on Feb. 17 that killed six people, but it matched the famous Jaipur Literature Festival for the mood, the energy, and the excitement in the relaxed surroundings of the Alhambra Arts Centre, and it beat Jaipur for passion.
The enthusiasm during the three days was evident not only from the audience participation, but also from long lines of people waiting outside the five auditoriums and a queue that stretched 100 yards at a well-stocked bookshop. People remembered and celebrated how Lahore had always been a centre for the arts.
The secret that the organizer kept to themselves till the end was that the Punjab state government, worried about security risks, had cancelled permission for the festival to take place on the afternoon before it was due to start, just as people were arriving from abroad and other parts of Pakistan. It took Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister and elder brother of Punjab’s chief minister Shabaz, to intervene and give the permission at 9pm that evening.
Some music and other outside events were cancelled, but otherwise the festival went ahead without fuss and included a stimulating exhibition that displayed the country’s vibrant contemporary art scene. There were several rings of highly visible security around the venue, though the police and other guards looked relatively relaxed and showed none of the officious heavy presence one would expect in India. A couple of foreign governments and agencies, including the British Council, panicked because of the bomb blast and withdrew approval for their sponsored speakers’ presence.
“People are almost surprised to see themselves here,” I was told by Salima Hashmi, a painter and writer, and daughter of the famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. “They see it almost as an act of defiance, and they are speaking with the freedom to say what they want”.
Hashmi was talking about the volatile and engaged audiences, especially in the biggest of the festival’s five venues that housed over 700 people and staged the main political subjects. There were debates on all aspects of Pakistan’s troubled history and current political, religious and social realities, and those of the region. People were not consistent in their views, judging by frequent contradictory cheers and applause.
My over-riding impression was that, having been buffeted by everything from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan just over 34 years ago to the current jihadist terrorism, and with its own ineffective military and elected governments and their confrontations with India, the people of Pakistan are no longer sure who to trust, at home or abroad.
“We are a confused nation in the process of getting clarity,” Asma Jehangir, a leading human rights activist and lawyer based in Lahore, told me.
Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani historian and author, said that the Pakistan Taliban’s killing of 134 children in Peshawar two months ago had upset the usual Pakistani narrative that such things (including the 9/11 US terrorist attacks and the killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden) could not be done by Muslims and must have been done by an external (ie US) hand.
“Denial is now being addressed and people are looking for answers,” she said. That had led to the festival having “a dynamic you don’t often see in Pakistan”. Her recent new book, The Struggle for Pakistan, explains, among other things, why the army-dominated country has failed to match India’s democracy.
The audience at one session voted with a bigger show of hands for China to have influence in Pakistan than for the US, though they inevitably thought no interference the best. Equally mixed were views on Afghanistan and India. “The problem is deciding who the enemy is, we need to sort it out,” said Ayesha Jalal. Pakistan’s relationship with US, its chief economic aid source, has been tortuous for decades, worsened recently by drone strikes, so the show-of-hands vote was not a surprise.
China by contrast has been a lower key strategic ally providing nuclear and other defence support. That seems to be about to change, and China is stepping up its economic support at a time when the US is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and thus losing some of its interest in Pakistan.
It is also emerging as a likely mediator and facilitator in Afghanistan’s peace process, mobilising its contacts with the Afghan Taliban. As debates at the festival indicated, this is partly to increase its regional clout and partly because it is concerned about growing unrest and terrorism in its mostly Muslim western province of Xinjiang. Inevitably, this might lead to India being side-lined, though it is not yet clear how strongly New Delhi would object to China’s role. One Indian view I’ve heard is that “Afghanistan needs all the help it can get”.
Authors and others came from various countries. Those from India included veteran historian Romila Thapar, 83, who delivered a memorable opening address on the need to keep the writing and interpretation of history free from political interference – a potent subject in India with its current Hindu nationalist government.
There was a heavy presence of two policy specialists from the US – Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist who several times said he did not know Pakistan well, and Barnett Rubin, a former US government adviser based in New York University – who seemed out of sync with the mood.
In a raucous final session in Hall 1, Rubin apparently upset many in the audience when, I’m told, he said “use your brains.”
Peter Oborne, a British political columnist and a cricket enthusiast who has just written Wounded Tiger on Pakistan cricket, was better versed – with the added spice that he was escaping from a furor he’d created in the UK a few days earlier by resigning from the Daily Telegraph, accusing it of pandering in its editorial coverage to HSBC, the scam-scarred bank.
At the end of a debate on Afghanistan, the ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, painted a rarely heard rosy picture of a “transformed country” and a “young democracy” with education and a vibrant media.
He looked forward with the “hope next year of a Kabul version of the Lahore Literary Festival”. That’s an intriguing prospect, given the lasting impression from the festival discussions of a growing roles in Kabul for the Taliban and China.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant, which can be found at the bottom right of Asia Sentinel’s home page.