A thinkfest in Karachi forces us to consider why hierarchies still thrive in progressive politics

Published 14 Dec, 2018 05:50pm

IBA's 'Thinkfest' was generally dynamic and inclusive, but still, something was amiss

IBA's 'Thinkfest' was generally dynamic and inclusive,  but still, something was amiss
IBA's 'Thinkfest' was generally dynamic and inclusive, but still, something was amiss

As the winter sun set on Karachi this past Saturday, a number of academics, journalists, activists and discourse enablers found themselves wrapping up a series of conversations with an audience of inquisitive Karachiites.

Afkar-e-Taza ThinkFest, a Lahore based conference, invited audiences to ‘Come, Think, Question’, as it made its foray into Karachi's progressive spaces for the very first time. Discourse at the conference was structured, relevant and accessible to audiences who were given the leeway to participate in conversations that are often restricted to academic spaces.

However, despite the air of inclusivity and accessibility that was on display at the conference itself, there were decisions made on the basis of ‘seniority’ behind the scenes, according to certain panelists, who were left questioning why arbitrary, age-based hierarchies were being used to determine representation in progressive spaces.

The information materials handed to audiences at the entrance prefaced some of this contradictory inclusivity as they boasted: "ThinkFest is open to all – from the shopkeeper to the business elite, from the highly educated to the matric pass, from the residents of Nazimabad to those of Clifton/DHA." Perhaps in an effort to exhibit an understanding of the societal dynamics of Karachi, the organisers ended up establishing rather condescending and uninformed binaries.

For starters, even from a purely statistical standpoint, ‘matric pass’ students are considered a part of Pakistan’s ‘highly educated’ population. To suggest otherwise is not only insulting to the abilities of those who have done the labour of attaining that education, it is also alienating for anyone with those educational credentials to walk into a conference in which they’re being pitted against an arbitrarily defined ‘highly educated’ group of people.

However, this condescending tone in the information materials was perhaps made up for by the inclusivity and representation exhibited in the programming of the conference, which allowed for a healthy level of engagement from the audience.

"It was one of the rare events where I actually saw a gender balance on the panels – and not just those that related to women’s issues!” says Professor Nida Kirmani

Professor Nida Kirmani, who was a moderator for the panel on ‘Contemporary Urban Challenges’ shared: “The event managed to bring together some excellent speakers from across Pakistan and internationally. Several fields and disciplines were represented, and it was one of the rare events where I actually saw a gender balance on the panels – and not just those that related to women’s issues!”

A number of panels were even moderated by women. The panel on internal and external threats faced by news media in Pakistan consisted of four men, but it was refreshing to witness Najia Ashar moderate and direct a conversation often dominated by men. Most sessions consisted of panelists who were able to present a diverse set of experiences and perspectives, and they were nicely complemented by moderators who ensured that conversations were structured and accessible, allowing audiences to think through ideas and issues with specialists tackling areas such as women’s activism, Neoliberalism, Urban development and censorship.

Journalist and Labour party politician, Christian Wolmar, who travelled from the UK for his panel on ‘Railways and the Raj’ shared that despite having an early morning slot, those who attended his “lecture were very engaged and asked challenging questions.” This sentiment was shared by Professor Akbar Zaidi, panelist and committee member of the conference, who compared ThinkFest to other literary and academic conferences that are held in Karachi, such as the Karachi Literature Festival.

“KLF [Karachi Literature Festival] is rubbish. It has diluted discourse, become very crass, and there’s very little ‘literature’ left in the conference. ThinkFest is a very different platform – you have academics talking to other academics, but in a language which allows an interested audience to participate,” said Akbar Zaidi, pointing out ThinkFest’s greatest success: an ability to understand and engage with its audience, along with generating discourse that is meaningful for the community it caters to.

It was difficult to not compare ThinkFest to other conferences in Karachi, and yet organizer Yaqoob Bangash stated, “We were glad to see that there was interest in this sort of programming in Karachi. The KLF already caters to literature and the Urdu conference focuses on Urdu and related themes, and therefore we steered clear from those topics so as not to be seen as a competition. Our aim is to foster deeper and greater thinking and dialogue in the country and we want to achieve it through robust interaction with national and international scholars.”

And so then, what, if anything, went wrong?

ThinkFest aimed to foster dialogue, and it appeared to have successfully done just that, arguably even better than festivals and conferences that have become part of Karachi’s social fabric.

Why then were certain members of civil society left feeling undermined and disrespected by the organizers of the conference? The answer lies in the last minute ‘postponement’ of a panel on progressive politics.

Abira Ashfaq, prominent feminist and activist who took to Twitter to share her disappointment with the conference, shared with us that she was contacted about the panel on Monday evening, six days before the conference was to take place. The panel on progressive politics was put together hastily, as a response to an article written by Professor Akbar Zaidi on how resistance politics in Pakistan is dead.

As members of civil society and progressive communities took to social media to refute some of the ideas presented in the article, the organizers of the conference decided to create a structured space within which some of the issues and questions raised, could be engaged with.

The idea of ‘seniority’ in a progressive space is an uncomfortable one, since progressive politics comes hand in hand with a rejection of hierarchies and power structures that oppress. ‘Seniority’ is perhaps one such power structure.

The afternoon before the conference, however, the panel was cancelled. Participants were told that the ThinkFest committee had decided that the panel ‘required more germination, thought, and the presence of some senior activist who were unavailable for the panel in Karachi.’ They were also informed that ThinkFest would work on the panel for the Lahore edition of its conference.

These participants had spent the days leading up to the conference preparing for a panel they had been asked to be a part of on very short notice. Being told that their experiences and ideas required the legitimacy and the presence of a ‘senior activist’ – whom panelists believed is academic Asim Sajjad Akhtar – left them feeling undermined and undervalued.

Abira Ashfaq shared her frustration with us as she questioned, “I’m not sure what they mean by seniority. If it’s a number then I have that, if it’s not your age but the amount of work you’ve done then I even have that. It’s not about age or a number, it’s just something they’ve thrown at us to shut us up,” she went on to add, “I’m 46 years old. That’s not a joke. I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve done a lot of activism. “

Rahma Mian, a faculty member at Habib University, who was supposed to moderate the panel told us: “The last minute organization and then cancellation of the event, and their framing of it is not surprising but rather another unfortunate reminder on how discourse and narratives in Pakistan are shaped and controlled and power is reproduced.”

Moneeza Ahmad, another member of the panel shared the sentiment as she said, “Ensuring the presence of ‘senior activists’, without whom a panel cannot go ahead is dismissive of other speakers, their experiences and reinforces problematic politics.”

The idea of ‘seniority’ in a progressive space is an uncomfortable one. Progressive politics comes hand in hand with a rejection of hierarchies and power structures that oppress. ‘Seniority’ is perhaps one such power structure, often arbitrarily defined and used to reinforce and support an establishment in any given space - silencing newer, progressive, and often radical, ideas.

What is perhaps most ironic, is that while I was investigating the cancellation of the panel in order to ensure the accuracy of this article, I was told by a friend on the organising committee of ThinkFest, that I was young, and if I criticised those who had made a decision in favour of the cancellation – well published, older, established, men - I would face a backlash.

While his words were framed as friendly advice, he unfortunately exposed the very problem ThinkFest has been refusing to acknowledge since the cancellation of the panel. A problem that can only be addressed if they too ‘Come, Think, Question’, some of the ideas they take for granted, with the audiences they invite.

Even Professor Akbar Zaidi, a member of the committee that made the decision to cancel the panel shared with us, “I’m not sure what the word senior means here myself. I wouldn’t like to be referred to as ‘senior’ or ‘former’, it’s important to be ‘relevant’.” He shared with me his reservations on the entire matter as he stated, “my article was about progressive politics and not about activism. Progressive politics needs activism, but the distinction between the two needs to be clear.”

He felt that the panel, which ended up comprising of Jibran Nasir, Moneeza Ahmad, Abira Ashfaq and Rahma Mian would’ve ended up being more about activism, and might not have done justice to the topic at hand.

He also clarified that he was not aware of the cancellation until the day of the conference itself.

ThinkFest released an official statement about the panel cancellation, a number of days after the panel was cancelled and participants had written to them, sharing concerns. While the statement clearly outlines a lack of ‘germination’ as the primary reason for the cancellation, it also highlights ThinkFest’s commitment to hosting the panel in Lahore with ‘broader representation and thinking’, clarifying that the decision ‘was no reflection on the work or ability of those who had agreed to be on the panel’. And yet, it fails to address or deconstruct ThinkFest’s relationship with the idea of ‘seniority’ and the space they seem to think it requires in spaces of progressive discourse.

It is important to note that the organizers of ThinkFest are members of a community of gatekeepers of progressive discourse, a discourse that is consistently threatened and endangered. And that perhaps, is what makes it so essential for us to closely examine and sometimes respectfully question their choices of gatekeeping.

I am excited to see a reimagined panel on progressive politics in Lahore, and I hope it is as successful as the group of conversations it was supposed to be a part of in Karachi, specifically in its ability to generate inclusive and accessible discourse.