Karachi Literature Festival: Bigger & Better!

By Abdullah Zaidi

downloadOne thing which was clear from the onset as KLF approached was that it was going to be bigger and better than before. There were new exciting writers to look forward to: Omar Shahid Hamid and Bilal Tanweer. Then scholar Ashish Nandy was making an appearance at a Literature Festival in Pakistan for the first time. Lastly, the presence of regulars such as Mohammad Hanif offered nothing but good.

Geo-Political Value of Pakistan – Zafar Hilaly, Hussain Haroon and Ashraf Jehangir Qazi

The subject of debate revolved around how Pakistan is in the habit of making mistakes and moving on. However, one has to pay for the consequences of these mistakes and then move on.

Hilaly stressed that our foreign policy is a reflection of our internal policy and that we should forget that India will think about our interest. ‘If you are weak India will use it against you because you would have done the same’ explained Hilaly.

It was said that India is acting up because the Indo-US nuclear deal will ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is neutralized in case of a war. This means that our nuclear power status will no longer help us in conventional war.  There is a question over whether India has made the final decision of moving over Pakistan.

Talking about the Afghanistan Hilaly reminisced how in 1996, when he was advising Benazir, she reinforced her policy about no interference in Afghanistan. But then the Generals in the military talked about taking over Afghanistan and even Central Asia.  The participants were in general agreement that if Pakistan does not turn over a new leaf, things will be very bleak.

In Conversation with Rajmohan Gandhi & Ashish Nandy

From-Left-Author Ashish-Nandy-Moiz-Siddiqui
From-Left-Author Ashish-Nandy-Moiz-Siddiqui

One of the many themes at the KLF this year was the partition. It was signified largely by the presence of two towering scholars from India namely Rajmohan Gandhi and Ashish Nandy. Historian and autobiographer Mr. Gandhi said that autobiographies are very limited and individuals seldom make history but it is important to look at how these important individuals understood the events that transpired in front of them.

He discussed the frivolity which was exhibited by stakeholders in division of the subcontinent and also talked about how Mr. Radcliff came to draw the India-Pakistan boundary because there was no consensus between the local members of the Commission. The members did not go beyond their specific communal interests to try and develop a consensus.

He also told the audience about his new book and the Gujrati Raja who had a very progressive outlook towards his subjects. He was unique in the sense that he dealt with minorities and women.

The conversation with Ashsih Nandy was probably the most anticipated session at the KLF. What would one expect from the man who is arguably India’s biggest intellectual. Mr. Nandy talked about how he envisages the future of South Asia. ‘The Taliban are not the last word’, said Nandy. I think there is great potential in our region.

Nandy mentioned that during his study of the communal violence at the time of partition he asked questions from Hindus whether they were offered any help from Muslims and vice versa. Forty percent (40%) of them answered in the affirmative. He claimed that this figure is not above 4% in any genocide around the world. He further said that genocide is more violent and bloody when two communities who were interlinked come against each other, because you are exorcising a part of your own self.

Mohammad Hanif, Asma Jehangir and Asim Sajjad Akhter on Human Right and Wrongs

Put Asma Jehangir, Mohammad Hanif and Asim Sajjad Akhter in one room and least you can expect is great debate. Along with these three academic Ms. Cabeiri deBergh Robinson was also present in the session on Human Rights & Wrongs in Pakistan.

Human Rights & Wrongs in Pak -  Roland, Cabeiri, Asma, Asim & Hanif
Human Rights & Wrongs in Pakistan: Roland, Cabeiri, Asma, Asim & Hanif

Cabeiri talked about how the State or Empire has appropriated the term “Human Rights” to justify Intervention and how we should look to fight this abuse of the concept of Human Rights. Asma started by mentioning bad laws that are made in the name of terrorism. “The Protection of Pakistan Act & the Action in Aid of Civil Power will not be used to catch people like Fazlullah but me and you” said Asma. Talking about the women rights she said that ‘Us women will not be put into shuttle-cock burqas, instead we shall put these mullahs into these burqas’ to thunderous applause.

Asim Sajjad Akhter talked about fighting politics with politics. He said that since right wing is organized why cannot forces on the left put up a better show? He also talked about the fact that the state has been co-opted by the right wing and we must put up a fight.

Mohammad Hanif, with his witty candor, claimed that since I am a Sunni, Male and Punjabi, my life-expectancy is greater than a Shia or a Baloch!

Public Knowledge & Private Learning (Asim Sajjad Akhter, Ishrat Hussain & Faisal Mushtaq)

The session was interesting because there was a debate over the role of private sector vs. the State in Education.

The session led to some heated debate between the panellists with Asim asserting that role of the state cannot be shrunk and something as basic as education could not be outsourced to the private sector. ‘The reason why the private sector exists is that it wants to earn profits and minimize costs’ reminded Asim. ‘Therefore, it is only the state which can truly uphold the value of education for all. In modern day Cuba, doctors and taxi drivers earn the same amount of money and nobody thinks that it is weird so we must also look at what kind of values we shall inculcate in through our education system.’

Dr. Ishrat and Faisal Mushtaq insisted that the good work private sector has done in Pakistan cannot be discounted. Dr. Ishrat highlighted how the private sector, including his institution IBA has led the way in accommodating some needy students without any government help.


As clichéd as it may sound, the KLF has really come of age. While it would be a stretch to say that Pakistan is not a failed state because it has literature festivals, it can certainly be said that the KLF is nothing short of a special gift, given Karachi’s turbulent nature. The event’s maturity can be gauged from the fact that despite an MQM strike, which brought the rest of the city to a standstill, the event continued unabated and the attendance kept increasing. According to estimates of authorities some 70,000 people attended the session.

The icing on the cake was a Kathak performance by Nahid Siddiqui. Watching her dance to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry one could not help thinking how hard we have tried to destroy this part of our history and identity.