The Indian media widely publicised the Faiz Festival 2023 held in Lahore, Pakistan, between 17 and February 19, after the famous Indian lyricist Javed Akhtar, who attended the event, said in response to a question that the accused in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack are roaming freely in Pakistan. India’s media published this remark with sensational headlines such as ‘Javed Akhtar Tells Pakistan Off Clearly’, and ‘Javed Akhtar Entered Pakistan and Thrashed it’. However, the headlines and stories never mentioned that Akhtar’s audience, primarily Pakistanis, also clapped at this remark.
The significance of the support in Pakistan for Akhtar’s thinly-veiled criticism of the Pakistani establishment cannot be underplayed in the context of recent developments in India. The slightest criticism of a government decision or leaders of the ruling political party can end in attacks by troll armies, if not action by the State, against those who express the contrary view.
The media has been part of this suppression of ideas in India, which is probably why it did not highlight—or chose to censor—Akhtar’s emphasis on Indo-Pak friendship at the event either. The Faiz Festival is Pakistan’s most beloved literary festival, attended by people from around the world. Akhtar also suggested that India and Pakistan should strive to understand each other better. This would have been anathema for most of the mainstream Indian press and the ruling establishment in both countries.
Later, in an interview with an Indian TV channel, Akhtar said the government of India and the Indian people might have differences with the rulers of Pakistan, but why should they harbour anger towards the people of Pakistan? He also said the Pakistani general public wants friendship with India. It hardly needs an explanation why much of the mainstream press has suppressed or underplayed this information. What Akhtar said—he even acknowledged that the people of Pakistan showered him with love during this visit to the country—is against the trend in India to critique not just Pakistan’s State, which has undoubtedly been the source of worries and losses in India, but to blame every Pakistani for the actions of its governments.
The childish way in which a large section of the Indian media handled Akhtar’s visit cloaked the numerous merits of the Faiz Festival, primarily to show how the educated sections of society can pave a path of resistance to oppression. The 7th International Faiz Festival ’23, related to literature, art, music and progressive ideas, was organised by the Faiz Foundation Trust in collaboration with the Lahore Arts Consulate at the Alhamra Art Center Mall Road. Personalities associated with art, literature, music, the film world and progressive thinkers from Pakistan, India and other countries participated in this year’s event.
The chief managers of the festival are Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughters, Salima Hashmi and Muneeza Hashmi. This time, apart from Akhtar, litterateur Atul Tiwari from Mumbai and Arvinder Singh from Amritsar participated in the event. For three days, from 11 am to midnight, the participants thronged the three big auditoriums of the Alhamra Center to recite and discuss Faiz’s poetry and discuss the progressive movement in Pakistan. Each session involved conversations with eminent personalities from a variety of fields. For example, Pakistan’s famous ‘Lal Band’ won the attendees’ hearts at the music session.
New Urdu, English and Punjabi books were released, and there were informed discussions on them. The poetry session especially attracted crowds, but so did sessions on ‘Children’s literature in contemporary times’, ‘Role of women in Pakistani politics’, ‘Politics of Economics in Pakistan: An Alternative Perspective’, ‘Role of Women in Pakistani Cinema’, and others. The cuisine also fascinated people, but the most crucial point of this festival is attendees openly discussed the India-Pakistan relationship.
Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi told me over the phone, “This was the seventh festival organised in memory of progressive poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisers could not hold it for the last few years. In simple words, it is a festival of Faiz lovers spread all over the world. There is talk of knowledge, culture, music and poetry, people’s concerns and pro-people politics here. I believe this event can play an important role in the friendship between India and Pakistan. It is our endeavour that a delegation from India reaches every edition of this festival.”
She said, “Javed Akhtar attended this time, and celebrities like Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah attended the previous editions. Even today, Faiz’s poetry is loved in both countries. It inspires us to fight against plunder, injustice and exploitation, and that is why, when the youth of both countries raise their voice against injustice, they sing ‘Hum Dekhenge’. If many other countries worldwide can forget their differences and live in peace and brotherhood, why not us? We have a lot in common. Our common language, our common culture, our common sorrows….”
Ali Usman Bajwa, a young Punjabi storyteller who lives in Lahore, Pakistan, also shared his experiences about the festival. He said, “This is an important event in Pakistan, guided by leftist ideology, though people of all ideologies can, and do, visit. Apart from literature and art, the event allows people to toss up ideas and debate them. They especially discuss the Pakistani left—its future and how it can develop. Faiz was a poet of Urdu and Punjabi. He wrote some poems in his mother tongue Punjabi, which is why the session on Punjabi poetry is the most interesting.”
In 2019, Sukirat, a Punjabi litterateur from Indian Punjab, attended the Faiz Festival. Remembering the visit, he says, “It was a very impressive event. Such literary events are rarely seen in India. It simultaneously hosts discussions, music, and readings, and you also find young people getting politically engaged, distributing pamphlets and books, while revolutionary slogans echo throughout the venue.”
Sukirat said that when he visited in 2019, the Pakistani media was filled with news of a boy’s kidnapping in Balochistan. Progressive youth at the festival went around making people aware of this issue. Any festival implies a barrage of colours come together, but at the Faiz Festival, you also find people of different colours coming together by the thousands. It is for Indians to understand why most of the media sought to underplay this aspect of the event dedicated to one of the world’s foremost literary figures.