Who’s afraid of the Karachi Literature Festival?

Here we are seemingly in an age of intellectual freedom, burgeoning media industry and literature festivals. There are numerous festivals held all over South Asia celebrating books new and old, bringing people together for exchange of ideas. But these festivals seem to be wrapped in their own politics. In some cases, certain cliques that want to encourage a peculiar perspective dominate the show. I understood this through my interaction with the Karachi Literature Festival.

Not being part of any clique or gang, I slept through the preparation of the KLF. However, I was woken up by Dr Mohammad Waseem, the professor of politics at the Lahore University of Managament Sciences. He contacted me more than a month ago asking me to join him in a panel on political parties that he was organizing at the festival. I agreed and then waited to hear from Oxford University Press, Pakistan, which is the hand behind the festival. Dr Waseem contacted OUP thrice to send me an invite which never happened. Later, I was informed by an insider that I should not expect an invitation The KLF organisers, mainly the managing director of OUP over my moderation of a panel in KLF last year. The panel had showcased British journalist Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country.

In February 2012 I was invited by the managing director OUP, Ameena Syed, to moderate the session with Anatol Lieven. I agreed. It was not until I reached Karachi and saw the updated programme that I found the session was the only one with three moderators. I spoke with Nadeem Farooq Paracha and others who were part of the organising. No one had any inkling of what had transpired. Later, I found out that the change was done personally by Ms Syed on insistence of Anatol Lieven. I decided to walk out but was requested by a member of the British Council not to do so. Instead, the gent decided to intervene and arrange a session to find a way out of the problem through a meeting between Anatol Lieven who was clearly hesitant and resisted my moderating the session. The final negotiated settlement was that I would get 20 minutes and the other two moderators 10 minutes each. To my knowledge Lieven tried again to push me off the session even as we entered the hall to start the programme. The OUP and KLF’s efforts were focused on pampering the gora sahib as they never bothered to explain or apologise for the manner in which I was pushed around to bring a smile on Lieven’s face.

The issue here is not about getting invited or not getting invited to a festival. KLF indeed has the right to invite whoever they want. However, this is about preserving the precious space for exchange of ideas and defending the right to not get curbed in this manner. Literature festivals become happening places only when they encourage or allow a free exchange of views. Why should a writer get punished and ostracised because his/her views are not met with approval by the powerful military establishment of a country? Or why should the Pushtoons not get an opportunity to present their point of view and their space be taken by others not really familiar with their politics or culture?

Some tender-hearted people believe that I was harsh on Lieven. Was I? During our lunch negotiations for moderating his panel I had told Anatol that I had experienced worse when my book came out. I was accused of having been funded by India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Our conversation on the KLF floor, on the other hand, would be purely on academic merit. And this is what it was. Wonder why the tender-hearted considered me harsh on Lieven when all that I did was ask him questions about some of the arguments he made in his book. For instance, how could he claim, based on just one odd remark, that General Zia’s ten years had no adverse impact on the country? Or why did he talk disparagingly about Pakistani liberals when most positive constitutional or legal changes were because of efforts made by some genuine liberals in the country? Is it harsh to question an author when he does not mention even once the army’s involvement in creating and strengthening patronage politics in Pakistan? The argument on KLF’s stage in February 2012 was not on personal issues but academic ones.

Why did Anatol Lieven behave that way? I suppose he is smarter of the two of us in understanding how magic and glamour is created to capture the audience in today’s world. In an age when indigenous stories are dying and globalisation means converting things for an international market, the sales pitch matters. Today, writers such as Lieven understand the worth of being strategic. Publicise the book not just through dominating literary festivals but also through muzzling voices that challenge your discourse. There are influential set of writers who ensure that conferences, literary festivals and such are dominated by friendly voices.

Recently, I was informed of another event at LUMS in which my name and that of another speaker was struck off the list of invitees just because we challenged Humaira Iqtidar’s notion of LeT/JuD and JI having a ‘secularising’ influence on Pakistan. Post-modernist scholars on Islam seem to have ganged up with the supporters of Pakistan’s military establishment to create an environment where no one can challenge their perspective. I wish all power to the pens of Anatol Lieven, Humaira Iqtidar and others of their ideology. However, let these people not use their positions in British and American academia to block and muzzle alternative opinions. A free, indigenous intellectual discourse is critical for any society’s growth. My protest is not against Lieven as an individual but about an environment where an academic and media mafia has become as strong as the military in Pakistan – force people to censor, block voices and curb dissent. Literary festivals are fast growing into media fests rather than places for discussion and debate.

A couple of days ago I received a call from a senior professor asking me not to raise my concern about KLF as it may mar any future opportunity of appeasement with OUP’s managing director. My request to such safe playing opportunity-seeking professors is to not get fooled about the power of those that want to control the academia. Unless this style of doing things is not challenged they will continue to muzzle one voice after the other. For me, KLF’s behavior is an extension of a larger effort to punish me for my academic work. There are other occasions when my name was pulled out of panels on the behest of establishment-friendly lobbies. This behavior will not stop at me. This is creating an environment where no one dares question the powerful.

Note: This article originally published here.