The recently concluded 4th Faiz International Festival in Lahore, while attracting a significant number of people over its three-day run, was not short of controversy.
At least two scheduled panelists — professors Dr Taimur Rahman and Dr Ammar Ali Jan — have claimed that their invitation to speak at the festival was rescinded last minute by its organisers for reasons left unspecified. It was alleged that state authorities ordered the organisers to remove the panelists and threatened to revoke the festival's No Objection Certificate (NOC) if they did not comply.
LUMS professor Dr Taimur Rahman was scheduled to speak on the second and third days of the festival at sessions about freedom of expression and parallel politics. On Sunday night, he wrote on Facebook that four speakers, including himself, MNA Ali Wazir, former Daily Times editor Rashed Rahman (also Taimur’s father) and Dr Ammar Ali Jan, were prohibited from speaking and their absence was marked by deliberately placed empty chairs on the stage.
“My father and I thank the Faiz International Festival for the invitation to speak and perform. They are not to blame for what happened. Although I was not cleared to speak, Faiz Foundation pushed back to clear me to perform. And let me also thank all the people who spoke up for our freedom of expression: Osama Siddique, Navid Shahzad, Ayesha Ahmed, Muhammed Hanif and other from the hall who raised slogans. Having said that, nothing makes the case clearer of the need to fight for freedom of speech than that empty chair,” his status read.
Talking to Images, Dr Rahman claimed that "some state officials” told the festival organisers not to allow them to speak. He said the organisers tried to argue that two were university professors and one a former newspaper editor and have valuable insight to share with the audience. “The officials said they had orders and the implication was that if we were allowed to speak the festival would lose its NOC.”
Rahman added that he was informed about the decision on Friday, a night before he was scheduled to speak, which was also “when the whole conversation occurred” with the officials. “The organisers told me they didn’t ask why we were being excluded as it was a futile discussion. I have no idea what I did to tick them off this time around. The management wasn’t given any reason by the state officials and nor were we,” he added.
He wrote in his Facebook status that his band Laal was allowed to perform at the event though “with great difficulty”. He told Images: “The organisers told the state officials that I was performing on Saturday night, and they couldn’t cancel that, at least because the slot will go empty and questions raised. After consultation with their seniors, the officials told the management I could perform.”
Rahman wondered what the reason could be for banning him from speaking since a five-minute comment would not have made any difference or even remembered by anybody. “They made me a hero without me even doing anything. It was ridiculous and unnecessary. In the panel, I would have spoken for five minutes and nobody would have even remembered I was there. I’ve been participating in conferences day and night, so I’ve no clue what happened this time,” he said.
“Same for my father; I don’t know what the two of us did. MNA Ali Wazir was excluded much earlier on. The moderators placed an empty chair during my session and said it reflected the state of freedom of expression in Pakistan. Muhammad Hanif also spoke about it in his session, so did Navid Shahzad, Ayesha Ahmed, Farooq Tariq, the audience raised slogans. So what was the point of prohibiting us when everybody did talk about it? They haven’t achieved any of their objectives clearly; they don’t even know what’s in their best interest,” Rahman concluded.
Similarly, Dr Ammar Ali Jan also wrote a Facebook post that said he was informed by the organisers only three hours prior to his sessions that he was no longer permitted to speak due to "unavoidable" reasons. He also mentioned how three others panelists were barred as well.
“We live in a strange era in which we have dozens of channels but no free media, hundreds of universities but no critical thinking, and a growing number of festivals/conferences but no free exchange of ideas. And yet, nobody can call out that the Emperor is naked! I'm not criticising anyone in particular, but we have to collectively decide whether we accept this silent martial law as a fait accompli,” his status read.
He thanked all those who raised the issue at the festival and on social media for upholding “the legacy of defiance, resistance, and solidarity that exemplified the life of Faiz”.
Talking to Images, Dr Jan said he was told he wasn’t being allowed to speak as there was “too much external pressure at the pain of having the event cancelled. This is a half-hearted attempt at spreading the idea that [they're] in charge. But you see, the content of speeches at the festival didn’t change. The remaining speakers on the panel I was supposed to be in spoke harshly about it and so did Farhatullah Babar, Afrasiab Khattak and Muhammad Hanif. This isn’t an effective way of controlling the stage, but just giving the message that we can do anything, even at the last minute, and anything that happens in society at any level, we’ll have a stake in it.”
He also believed his five minutes on stage would have made no difference. He likened this to how peace activist Raza Khan had gone missing for months to just get the message out. “He wasn’t threatening [in his activism] at all but [his disappearance] was a message for everyone else to fall in line or else,” he added.
When asked about reasons for barring him, the professor said: “Broadly speaking, it could be democratic, civil liberties, constitution and social contract. These are very contentious issues and create a certain kind of antagonism. But I’m not the only one talking about them. What I understand is that the method to their madness is randomly picking up people to give a message to everyone else out there because I’m clearly not more influential than Farhatullah Babar and Afrasiab Khattak.”
Dr Jan alleged "they" were the same people who got Bushra Gohar and Mr Khattak expelled of the Awami National Party. Their message is that political parties, universities, media, cultural festivals, everything is all ours. It’s the same people imposing an undeclared martial law. Everybody knows them.”
Salima Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter and one the organisers of the festival, didn't say much about the last-minute cancellations except that “the empty chair said a lot about what happened and I’ve nothing to add to it.”
While four speakers were barred from the festival, other panelists who followed the same principles, practiced the same politics and fought for the same ideals as them were allowed to speak. And they made sure to speak vociferously against censorship and about the state of freedom of expression in Pakistan in the wake of removing progressive speakers from public platforms.
At the same time, neither the state nor the organisers seemed to mind the presence of veteran Indian lyricist Javed Akhtar, who has often snubbed Pakistan, its cricket team and artists working in India. He spoke at two sessions at the festival.
It's ironic that Faiz fought for progressive values such as freedom of expression but the same values were flouted at the festival in his memory.