Three days before the start of three-day Lahore Literary Festival everything seemed to have gone haywire. There was security threat and the venue had to be changed at the last moment. But all went well and LLF lived up to its reputation of drawing people of all ages and classes to its 55 sessions in the event reduced to two days. It ended yesterday on a positive note with hope that next year it would be better and bigger affair.

Art, literature, politics, culture and ethics all came under discussions. The two halls, marquee and the Tollington where the sessions were held were jam packed during the sessions that were in English, Urdu and one in Seraiki. There were some book launch events that were well attended and book lovers could be seen getting their copies signed by the writers. It all showed the star power that literary figures still carry like the celebrities of silver screen. The launch event included Lucy Peck’s ‘Lahore: The architectural heritage’, Anissa Helou’s ‘Levant: Recipes and memories from the Middle East’, Sorayya Khan’s ‘City of spies’ and Tania James ‘The tusk that did the damage’. A play ‘Love letters’ by AR Gurney and performance of Fariduddin and party won the hearts of Lahoris and the guests from other cities and different parts of the world.

There was something for everyone to remember. Those who love poetry had their favorite poets in different sessions while those who wanted a taste of realpolitik heard it from those who had seen it from close quarters. The literary star cast included Syed Nomanul Haq, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Zehra Nigah, Kamila Shamsie, Alexandra Pringle, Amjad Islam Amjad, Kishwar Naheed, Mubashir Ali Zaidi and Bilal Minto. There were many sessions that concentrated on current issues and topics. There was a session ‘Contemporary great games’ that was moderated by Ahmed Rashid. The panelists were Hina Rabbani Khar, Qaisar Mahmood, Roza OTunbayeva (former President of Kyrgizistan), Steve Coll and Viviana Mazza. ‘Friends not masters’ a session about addressing the post Obama US-Pakistan equation was held with Sherry Rehman and Shuja Nawaz with Fahd Hussain as moderator.

There was an interesting session ‘Inside the labyrinth: A take from Pakistan on David Bowie in which the panelists were Kamiar Rokni, Leon Menezees, Mona Eltahaway and Shahid Zahid. There were sessions about the art of storytelling, how to mobilize new readers. Bridging the poor-rich divide and the American dream in the arts. There was a session ‘The woman who took curry global’ with Madhur Jaffrey. The festival began with a conversation with legendary Indian actress Sharmila Tagore. LLF paid tribute to legend Intizar Hussain, who recently passed away.

Yesterday the scribe attended the session ‘Lurching Rightwards: South Asia in the Balance’. The panelists were Bangladeshi scholar Dina Siddiqi, former India’s Foreign Secretary Salman Haider and parliamentarian Sherry Rehman, who has also served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to USA. The straight talk at the session and the people’s response in the question answer time was testimony to the fact that platforms like LLF provide people their right to freedom of expression and the strength of true democracy.

Khorsheed Hall was already packed to the capacity 10 minutes prior to the start of session, which went beyond the allocated one hour. We are living in a global village where communication has become very easy. Humanity has made great strides in development and science. Life is comfortable in many parts of the world than it ever had been. Even then there is resurgence of religion that is identified as the rightist whether in USA, Africa, Europe, Middle East or South Asia. It is matter of concern when in contemporary times people are seeking their new identities on the rightist ideology that is definitely religion.

Sherry said in USA ultra nationalism is lurking and people are identifying themselves as they never did before. “Donald Trump and Fox TV are leading the way and religion is being bundled up in the whole thing. Pakistan and Israel are the only two states that were made in the name of religion. Religion has always been used here to secure power. When religion is appropriated it is always for power. There are delusions about the past. We don’t have multicultural identity that we are entitled to and there are new waves of identity issue. It will reignite communal lines, which is something very dangerous,” Sherry maintained.

She was of the view that left of the 60s had their time and were gone for good. “In India it survived in some places especially Bengal. Benazir Income Support Programme and India’s rural development programme were examples that governments’ attempts to provide help directly to masses like the leftist ideology. Democracy has not fulfilled its agenda. Whether it is Takht-e- Lahore or from interior Sindh the democracy failed to deliver. It was not only BJP but people voted Modi to power,” Sherry said.

To this Salman replied that Gujrat example was said to be the factor. “The Gujrat model was not accepted in India and also within Gujrat. It was a presentational success rather than having any substance. It shows the weakening of the state. It assumes that people have to look after things themselves,” he opined.

Dina said the religion had never disappeared from the scene. “There was no engagement of classes in politics and religion provided an opportunity for aspiration. Right is always about religion,” she maintained.

Sherry questioned as to whether the decentralization of power worked. “It is all about power and people will continue to resist. Benazir Bhutto died because of resistance to right. I see resistance in many cases everywhere. Malala and Arundhati Roy are examples. Four people were killed in Kashmir today but there no hue and cry. India never makes headlines. Had that happened here all the attention would have been on that. People will continue to resist whether in campuses that is currently happening in India or elsewhere,” she said.

To this Dina said it was very difficult for people to resist. “Some people who are rich and have resources may be able to do that but not all the people. State has become extremely authoritarian. The rulers would just put them into jails or those resisting may simply disappear,” she said.

Sherry agreed that states had become more authoritarian. “Dissent is not tolerated in all of South Asia, which has a large population. We are one fifth of the world’s population. We are the only non-trading block. Our states are like the dinosaurs of the age. Two are nuclear powers but not ready to invest in human resources development,” she said.

The Q & A part of the session prolonged but young people came up with interesting questions. For example one youngster said people were talking about Modi’s silence to extremist actions but what about ZA Bhutto who through an amendment in law made Ahmedis a minority. “Modi has not changed any law for any community,” the young guy said. There were queries about Balochistan and other issues related to extremism. In all the charged audience showed that was more about freedom of expression that LLF platform gives. Hope does not have a plan. Let’s hope more such events bring more awareness among the masses.