I’d like to congratulate the Punjab government, and especially Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, on a great feat accomplished. At a time when Pakistan had begun to manage a better perception of security in the country, the Punjab government’s hard work and persistent efforts have managed to dent the fledgling impression foreigners might have been developing. Literally two days before kickoff of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), now considered an iconic event that takes place in the Alhamra Arts Center, Punjab government withdrew the No Objection Certificate (NOC) to hold the event for ‘heightened security reasons….. in the larger public interest’. Upon robust protest from civil society and media circles, and obviously behind the scenes efforts of the organisers, the government changed its stance to an even more bizarre one: within hours, the government changed the NOC from holding the event on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Alhamra Arts Center to holding it on Saturday and Sunday only, but not at Alhamra.

At a day’s notice, the organisers truncated a 67 session event spread over three days to 56 sessions over two days and moved it to the Avari Hotel, which is located exactly 12 seconds away from Alhamra on the same main Mall Road, separated by Khayaban-e-Aiwan-e-Iqbal.

What the Punjab government did must be described in the inimitable Mohammed Hanif’s words, who was attendant as a panelist at the LLF: ‘So… we have the tremendously popular Sharif government … one Sharif at the center a third time Prime Minister …. another Sharif running the Punjab province for as long as one can remember …. they said there are threats … and we can believe that … and it’s their job to provide security … by the way, just to come meet writers and poets no one should get killed … I wouldn’t recommend that of course … so they said, “we cannot keep you secure on Friday, but we can keep you secure on Saturday and Sunday … and we cannot keep you secure in the Alhamra, but we can keep you secure across the road.”’

With these words Hanif had a few hundred people laughing and clapping whilst he brought home the thinly veneered attempts of the Punjab government to bring to nought yet another good thing of the people, by the people and for the people. Ironically, he said this in a session on the peerless George Orwell’s works whose most famous and allegorical works are prophetic novels on state control of narrative, thought, culture, and expression. Hanif drove home the point saying the LLF being truncated and moved to the Avari was a living reminder of why George Orwell was relevant to Pakistan even today.

A most interesting point raised by a visitor to the LLF was that the government could not provide security to the delegates and visitors at a government owned building (the Alhamra), but could do so at a privately owned hotel. It is noteworthy that the Alhamra is a purpose built and beautiful venue that is exactly suitable for an event like the LLF. It has several auditoriums that afford fabulous audio-visual experience for the audience and jigged up with appropriate airconditioning and/or heating arrangements. It also has vast and well landscaped outdoor spaces for mingling, eating and hobnobbing for the 75,000 or so people that attend the LLF. Not so the Avari, which is, at the end of the day a hotel and not geared for such events.

The last minute withdrawal and then change in the nature of the NOC reeked of an attempt to kill, or at least damage, the LLF. Let’s face one fact: when the government, any government be it federal or provincial, is serious about securing an event, it does. It doesn’t cancel the event – it just throws everything including the kitchen sink at it and makes it secure, no matter what the day or the venue. And if the LLF was indeed under threat (entirely possible), the Punjab government could have secured it at, and on all, of the original days and at the original venue. But it preferred not to. The question here is why not. Why is cultural and intellectual activity not important enough for the Punjab government to secure? Only a few days prior this festival, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) presided at the Corps Commander’s Polo Cup in a very open, public venue in Lahore. Who could be a better or higher target of Islamist extremists than him?

However, the layers and layers of security for that event ensured that not only did the event take place at the date and time it was billed for, but also that no untoward incidence took place.

Only a few weeks ago, the Punjab government told the public it was shutting down all schools because of extreme cold whether. In actuality it was a real security threat. The whether wasn’t all that cold anyway. We laughed at them. Now they told us they wanted to cancel the LLF because of a security threat. We laughed at them. They really need to stop lying. Who do they think they are kidding?