Friday, Dec 02, 2022

Bhangra, books and bonhomie

The Islamabad Literature Festival gives reason for optimism about India-Pak reconciliation

islamabad, islamabad lit fest, ilf, islamabad literature fest, pakistan lit fest, pakistan literature fest, Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan news, India Pakistan, India news, Indian express Hina Rabbani Khar (above)  drew ovation also when she said Pakistan should develop friendly relations with all its neighbours, including India. (File/Express Archive)

Pakistan is going through a difficult period in its history. “We are engaged in an active war,” said Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s articulate former foreign minister, in her keynote address at the just-concluded Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF). She was referring to the Pakistan army’s offensive against terrorism and religious extremism — a self-created problem — which, many Pakistanis admit, poses an “existential threat” to the country. “We’re on the right track now,” Khar remarked. “Though belatedly, we’re correcting a wrong.” There was big applause from the packed audience.

Khar mentioned that there was only one case of suicide bombing in Pakistan before 9/11. Since then, the number has crossed three digits. Pakistan has lost nearly 50,000 people (over one-tenth of them military personnel) in terrorist attacks in the past 15 years — more than 10 times the number of terror victims in India. “Why are we where we are?” Khar asked, and answered the question herself: “Because we in Pakistan decided to fight other people’s wars.” Again, loud clapping. Surprisingly, Khar drew ovation also when she said Pakistan should develop friendly relations with all its neighbours, including India.

There were many such introspective voices at the ILF. In a session on the troubled Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, Nasim Zehra, an astute Pakistani journalist, said, “Pakistan adopted a bad policy of supporting the Taliban, and today we are in a catch-22 situation.” Other speakers observed that “Pakistan should not allow the Taliban to use our territory for terrorist acts in Afghanistan.” I wondered why terrorist acts inside India were not mentioned. Just then, Tahira Abdullah, a courageous activist for India-Pakistan peace, rose from the audience and made a comment: “The road to peace in Kabul goes through Islamabad, but it also goes through New Delhi and Srinagar.” What she then said astounded me: “Pakistan should enter into a peace treaty with India.”

Even though the fight against terrorism is complex, and unlikely to yield a quick victory, we in India should know that Pakistan’s army — the most dependable guarantor of the nation’s unity — has started to wage this battle decisively. India and Pakistan should join hands in this battle because it is in our common interest to do so. Notably, almost all political parties in Pakistan today are for friendship with India.

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During the discussion on my new book, August Voices: What they said on 14-15 August 1947 and its Relevance for India-Pakistan Rapprochement, the audience reacted positively when I called for peace, reconciliation and cooperation, on the basis of a determined fight against extremist ideologies in both countries, and a just solution to the Kashmir problem. My book argues that none of the main protagonists of the Freedom Movement wanted post-1947 India-Pakistan relations to become what they have.

The audience clapped when I quoted Gandhiji’s audacious statement: “Both India and Pakistan are my country. I am not going to take out a passport for going to Pakistan.” To my surprise, they also clapped when I cited references to show that Jinnah wanted India-Pakistan relations to be akin to US-Canada relations and, further, that he wanted to go back to Bombay and live in the house he had built on Malabar Hill.

In the same session, there was also discussion on Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. I had been reading this deeply moving book as I travelled on road from Amritsar to Lahore. Due mainly to British culpability, Partition led to the killing of over 5,00,000 people (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh) and rendered 14 million people refugees — the largest episode of transborder migration in human history. Punjab, as the book proves with exhaustive documentation, suffered the most.


I was struck by one bold passage in Ahmed’s book, and I read it out at the ILF. Describing the culture of Punjabi Muslims as “easily excitable, but generous and forgiving to a fault”, he writes: “It may be heading for destruction if ‘Arabisation’ of the Punjabi Muslim identity manages to take root under the juggernaut of petro-dollars from the Persian Gulf and state-sponsored Islamisation measures, which have been brutalising society for a long time.” Again, to my surprise, the audience welcomed this warning with applause.

That Pakistan’s — and Pakistani Punjab’s — identity and culture can never be “Arabised”, and that it is inseparably linked to the Indian subcontinent’s syncretic civilisation and culture, was unmistakably evident in the concluding session of the ILF, which was devoted to Sufi music. The audience was enraptured when Qurban Ali Niazi rendered the songs of Bulleh Shah, the 17th-century patron saint-poet of undivided Punjab’s syncretic (Muslim-Hindu-Sikh) culture. When Niazi’s three grandsons, boys under 10, sang and danced, the audience shouted “Once more, once more.”

And when grandfather and grandsons rendered “Damadam Mast Qalandar”, many in the hall, including women, took to the floor for a bout of bhangra. The revelry ended with all of them joining in shouting “Pakistan Zindabad!”


The finale of the ILF was a kathak performance by Shyama Saiyid in praise of Kanhaiya (Krishna). She is the daughter of Ameena Saiyid, managing director of Oxford University Press, Pakistan, and co-founder of the Karachi and Islamabad Literature Festivals.

As the curtains came down on the ILF, I went up to Ameena and confessed, “When the audience shouted ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ after paying tribute to Bulleh Shah and Kanhaiya, I too said in my heart, ‘Pakistan Zindabad!’” She gave me an appreciative hug.

And when I said the same thing to F.S. Aijazuddin, an erudite author-columnist and a great friend of India, he quipped, “This is the Pakistan that will survive.” Both Pakistanis and Indians should know this precious truth.

First published on: 20-04-2016 at 12:10:57 am
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