Photo Credit: Afia Aslam
On a column in the lobby of the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi, an image of my dead friend Sabeen Mahmud looked out at the crowds pouring in for the Karachi Literature Festival 2016. Sabeen had been selected by popular vote as Herald magazine’s Person of the Year. It was the cover of this magazine that was taped up on the pillar in the lobby.
The year before, too, Herald’s Person of the Year was a young person who had become a casualty of religiously motivated terrorism. The list of unwitting heroes and shaheeds in Pakistan’s face-off with indigenous terror outfits grows longer, and the dead ever younger. Appropriately, this year’s literature festival in Karachi saw themes of communal and religious violence run concurrently in a number of sessions.
Of intolerance here there and everywhere
Among the people who would have recognised Sabeen on the magazine cover when walking by were the festival delegates from India. Sabeen was always a champion of better relations between India and Pakistan, and had arranged or collaborated on several amazing initiatives to promote civil-society dialogue and understanding between the two countries. And because it can never be far from the issue of communal and religious divisions, another major theme at this year’s KLF was relations between Pakistan and India.
In fact, Sanjay Rajoura, a stand-up comic from Delhi who performed on Friday evening at the KLF, had first performed in Pakistan in 2012 at a Pakistan-India Social Media Mela arranged by Sabeen’s organisation, PeaceNiche; and Barkha Dutt, consulting editor at NDTV, who launched a book at this year’s KLF, had been denied a visa for that same Social Media Mela.
It is events like the KLF and the SMM that provide small, precious opportunities for citizens from the two countries to interface and to examine each other from what can sometimes be an uncomfortable proximity, an example of which festival goers saw on Friday.
Rajoura intentionally came out on stage at the KLF with satirical guns blazing, referring to the Partition, Hindu-Muslim relations and Jinnah sahib’s political motivations pretty much within the first five minutes of his performance. When a lady in the audience just couldn’t take it anymore and hotly shouted, “Don’t you say anything against Jinnah!” the rest of the crowd shushed her, and when Rajoura appealed for a more questioning approach to political authority, the crowd cheered him on.
This became one of the many moments in this year’s KLF that were cause for hope on the mottled spectrum of Indo-Pak relations. What initially started as a depressing scenario, with the controversy over visa applications and cancelled sessions with celebrity actors, eventually turned into something far more positive. Dutt and transgender rights activist Laxmi Tripathi easily emerged as the stars of KLF 2016, both speaking to jampacked halls and bringing the focus back onto important issues while maintaining their status as celebrities in their own right.
At a session titled “Words and Images of the Day”, Dutt overshadowed fellow panelists Olivier Truc and Farhan Bokhari in terms of popularity, so much so that when it was time for the Q&A, every single question from the audience was directed at her.
It was obvious from the audience interaction that people were watching Indian news channels, and were concerned about developments in India that pointed towards a growing culture of religious intolerance, especially towards minorities. But Dutt refused to be defeatist, and suggested that the stronger culture that prevailed in India was one of criticising the State and speaking out against oppression and intolerance. “I don’t know why the idea persists that one cannot be patriotic and support the armed forces of one’s country (as I do mine), and still criticise the government and be anti-war,” she said.
When questioned on the role of media in propagating misunderstanding and hatred between India and Pakistan, she acknowledged that media on both sides of the border did play this card for ratings, but reminded the audience that privately owned media was still very young in South Asia, and that it would take some time yet to find an equilibrium. She also maintained that it was not the medium that was the problem – it was the people behind it. Anchorpersons and producers had it in their power to propagate a pro-peace message, using the same medium, and there were those within the industry who did use it for that purpose.
And how will we have peace?
Similar areas of focus emerged at other sessions in the festival. At a book launch marking the 60th anniversary of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, which was printed by the Oxford University Press for the first time in this country (prompting one of the session’s eminent panelists to quip, “Looks like the train has finally reached Pakistan,”), the discussion turned towards communal violence.
Artist and film producer Naz Ikramullah vividly recalled how quickly the mood had turned ugly on the streets in Calcutta at the time of the Partition. She was a child then, living in a Muslim neighbourhood, and she remembered talk of dressing the children up in Western clothes and sending them out into the crowds so as not to give away which community they were from. She also remembered a Sikh neighbour who had come to warn them when a large cross was painted outside their house to mark their family as a target.
This was not the case always, of course, as there were innumerable cases of neighbours having attacked each other rather than extending their protection to families who were at risk. Historian Barbara Metcalf, also on the panel, commented on this particular aspect of communal relations in the subcontinent and the horrifying ease with which people who had lived in the same street for years could suddenly turn on each other.
There was reason to believe in a better outcome, though. The one thing that had emerged with certainty over years of research, she said, was that communal violence could be virtually eradicated if there was political will to eradicate it.
These questions of political will and the role of government and policy in preventing violence and discrimination against minority communities were also raised in “The White Stripe on the National Flag”, a session on the status of minorities in Pakistan. The infamous blasphemy law was mentioned prominently for having provided legal cover for action against members of minority communities, as well as mainstream Muslims.
Author and Christian missionary Father John O’ Brien stated with conviction that every single case brought against Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, when investigated, had turned out to be motivated by matters of property, caste, personal jealousy, or money. The Christian community was unable to depend on the government for any real remedial action on this front or in the matter of communal violence, he noted sternly. “After every incident, there is a noble apology and the promise that this will not happen again – until, six months later, it does.”
Never one to be cowed down by political correctness, social worker and politician Shaheen Attiq-ur-Rahman gave a blistering critique of city elites, stressing that if minorities were in a poor shape in Pakistan today, it was because not enough of the elites took notice or spoke up when they should have. “We must take responsibility,” she asserted, to ringing applause from the audience.
Adding an interesting perspective to this, Sono Khangarani, Director at Thardeep Rural Development Programme, brought up the valid point that minorities’ representatives in the political arena were also to blame. There seemed to be the same faces appearing over and over again, favoured by political parties, and forming an elite of their own – bringing their ability to represent minority communities into question.
Many of these underlying themes (division, community, identity, representation, violence, the role of elites, and the connection of all of these to the State) came full circle in one of the final sessions of the festival, titled “What keeps us apart? – India-Pakistan relations”.
Wonderfully moderated by FS Aijazuddin, the final question put to the panelists was: who were the two parties on either side of the border whom we could feasibly put our faith in to finally usher in peace between the two countries?
Congress politician Salman Khurshid, said that in his view hope lay with the people of both countries. If the citizens were to demand better relations, governments had to comply. Former Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar responded that she would take a more pragmatic view. In her opinion, it would take two leaders who were willing to stop being politicians and to start acting like statesmen. If that were to happen, Khar said, it would be a matter of months for peace to be a reality.
Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who served as Foreign Minister in the Musharraf Administration, said the answer was simple: India and Pakistan. Only genuine efforts across the board by both stakeholders to achieve peace could actually bring it about. Intentions were everything.
At this point, the moderator decided to abandon the customary Q&A segment in favour of a small exercise. He posed a few rudimentary questions about Hindu and Sikh religious beliefs and rituals to the audience, to test its general knowledge of two of the largest faiths of the region, represented by millions of South Asians. Out of a crowd of many hundreds in the main garden of the Beach Luxury Hotel, perhaps two people raised their hands to show that they knew the answers.
There could not have been a more compelling demonstration of the desperate need for communal and cross-border interaction.
One of Sabeen Mahmud’s favourite mottos (subverted from a popular message on the back of Pakistani trucks) came to mind, more poignantly than ever before: