The Lahore Literary Festival held last week was an event to relish and remember. Its many features included coverage of a remarkable range of themes—literature, art, music, sports, cities, media, politics and international relations with special reference to India, China, USA and Afghanistan. There were also special sessions held in remembrance of great Pakistanis, this year relating to Manto, Faiz Imran Mir and Nur Jehan. Luminaries came from all over the world. To name a few: Lyse Doucet of BBC, New York Times leading columnist Roger Cohen, Andrew Small (USA), renowned historian Romila Thaper, Shekhar Gupta (India Today), actor Nasiruddin Shah, Shobha De and Rahul Singh from India as well as British journalists Peter Oborne and John Elliot.

The articulate Afghan ambassador posted in Pakistan was also amongst the attendees. An important participant was Ziauddin Sardar, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars in the world today. I need not mention the names of Pakistani novelists, poets, politicians, conservationists and media men and women present at the event.

There were 76 sessions simultaneously held in five jam-packed halls. Add to this, 10 book-launches. No VIP blues. Come first, first seated was the rule followed. According to one estimate, 70 thousand attended the festival. Despite apprehensions, the event passed off peacefully. Hats off to competent organisers.

Indian historian Romila Thapar set the tone on the first day of a sober, serious and meaningful discourse. Her theme was “The Past is Present”. She shared a chunk of her research on ancient India and various accounts of Mehmood Ghaznavi’s raids of Somnath temple. She made the point that the Aryans did not come from outside, that they were indigenous and thus Hindus can claim a 5000 year old uninterrupted record. It is interesting to find her investing her energy to rebut facts unanimously accepted by historians worldwide. Her other topic relating to Somnath seeks to build the thesis that it was only after the matter was raised in the House of Commons in 1843 that the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims started on this account. She asserts that Mehmood Ghaznavi did desecrate the temple. It is only obvious that this desecration must have traumatised the Hindus and to say that such feelings arose only after the British spoke about seems somewhat farfetched. Another point she made was that it was the first census held by the British which divided the people on the basis of their religious identity without taking “sects” into consideration and if this had been done, the Bhugti-Sufi sects would have been the majority. This again is stretching a notion a little too far.

In a following session moderated by Khalid Ahmad, Romila made a categorical statement that there could be no democracy without a secularised society. Ayesha Jalal spoke on the process of nation-building and observed that keeping Pakistan’s experience in view there was a need for an open-ended analysis on the concepts of tolerance and democracy. Ayesha was at her brightest later when she talked about her book The Struggle For Pakistan. This book needs to be widely read in Pakistan. Asma Jehangir in her usual vibrant manner stood for diversity and quipped that the next election in India might well go to the Aam Aurat Party.

Three of the most memorable sessions relating to international relations were: 1) No Permanent Friends or Enemies, moderated by Lyse Doucet. Participants included author of the book Pakistan-China Axis Andrew Small, Roger Cohen and Rashed Rahman.

2) Do All Roads Lead to China compered by Peter Oborne where Mushahid Hussain spoke eloquently about Pakistan-China’s growing relations and how India as an ally of USA was adjusting itself to a new role in the Asia Pacific.

3) Anticipating Peace: India and Pakistan. Hina Rubbani Khar, Najam Sethi, Khurshid Kasuri, Shekhar Gupta and Julia Elliot participated. Hina and Najam were brilliant in their presentations while tracing the course of the two countries’ fluctuating relationship. Gupta was upbeat about India’s emerging status in the region and beyond and observed that Modi would take up pending issues with Pakistan in his own stride. Kasuri anchored his insights on the near-agreement, which he claims was almost reached with India on Kashmir during Musharraf’s days.

In India, Gupta said there was little left of obsession with Pakistan. As for Pakistan, it was observed that not much was said about India during the last elections.

There is much food for thought for our worthy professors, newspaper columnists, think tanks and concerned government ministries in the discussions held at Al-Hamra (I understand most of these discussions have been recorded and CDs thereof could be available sometime later).

It would be ungenerous not to mention sessions devoted to book-launches, Urdu literature, poetry, translations, Punjabi/Seraiki language narratives and sittings with Pakistani English novelists including Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie.

Last but not the least, there was a most stimulating interaction between Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ziauddin Sardar, a leading Islamic scholar based in London. The subject: The Wonder that Was Cordova: The Legacy of Tolerance. Reference was made to this golden age of Islamic culture when in southern Spain art and literature flourished, there was peace and above all Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and worked together. Those were the days when books written by great scholars like Ibn-e-Rusht and Ibn-e-Arabi were avidly read and used in the western educational institutions.

While Hoodbhoy acknowledged the pursuit of peace and knowledge as well as the tolerant culture of the times, he said that the era could not be emulated as politically Christians and Jews did not enjoy an equal status with Muslims. Ziauddin Sardar responded by saying that Cordova’s period of peace, tolerance and flourishing of ideas should be viewed as a part of the universal history and not run down because of a particular deficiency. If this line were followed, most of the progress made in the past would be viewed with reservations. One has to recall the inquisitorial courts, expulsions of Jews and almost extermination of Muslims by the Christian rulers after the fall of Cordova. Hoodbhoy, our brilliant scholar, may well persuade himself to be a little more charitable in his judgment of the Cordova culture and achievements.

Roger Cohen, after returning from Lahore, has made some interesting observations about Pakistan in his column for the New York Times. Here are a few excerpts for my readers:

There is a bit of a hermetic feel to Pakistan these days, as if the country that lies on the ancient road from the West to Asia, a natural bridge, had somehow contorted itself into a self-imposed isolation.

Nobody in Washington frets any longer about balancing visits to New Delhi and Islamabad.

India is a democracy and a great power rising. Pakistan is a Muslim homeland that lost half its territory in 1971, bounced back and forth between military and nominally democratic rule.

China needs Pakistan to keep India busy; it does not want an India freed of its Pakistani headache.

There is a wealth of talent and energy in Pakistan. A Taliban suicide bomber killed five people in Lahore this month. The people of Lahore responded by bravely hosting the Lahore Literary Festival, a wonder of creativity, eclecticism, ideas and dialogue. Openness is what Pakistan needs. It is time to emerge from the fog and lay to rest outdated ghosts.