Afkar-e-Taza, the ThinkFest gave a chance to people from all walks of life to meet – and question – their heroes freely and boldly.

Two marvellous things happen in Lahore in winter to distract us from the lack of gas in our heaters and our cooking stoves. One, everyone scurries to get married or marry off all eligible men and women in sight they have any emotional and familial hold on. Two, our cultural events calendar goes into overdrive. Every weekend there is a festival; literary, music, cultural, for children, and everything else you can imagine. So, like all optimists who still somehow believe in climbing out of bed to go listen to enriching talks by people smarter than us, we rush to these festivals in the mornings. And as we attend the aforementioned weddings in the evenings, we allow some of that festival-achieved revolutionary drive and intellectual enhancement to dissipate, the uniformly pleasant conversations paling into a polite and unmoving hum at the back of our minds, with only spectacular Instagram photos as reminders.

But then there are festivals like Afkar-e-Taza, or #ThinkFest if we’re being pithy, that go a step further. And how did #ThinkFest accomplish that? Let me count the ways.

In its second year, the Centre for Governance and Policy at Information Technology University-organized “academic literary festival” took place on a bright, sunny weekend in Lahore at the historic Alhamra Art Centre. Government of the Punjab, Punjab Higher Education Commission, Destinations Magazine and Daewoo Express supported the festival among other sponsors. With more than 110 Pakistani and international scholars, academics, poets, documentary filmmakers, researchers, artists and authors conducting more than 35 sessions in total, the festival was a veritable intellectual feast for students from universities across the country and enthusiasts. A feast, which also frustrated many attendees simply because it had too much to offer with sessions packed in a tight, back-to-back two-day schedule.

Kicking off the #ThinkFest weekend was a qawwali hosted by Asma and Shaheryar Chisty on behalf of Destinations Magazine and Daewoo Express a night before the event to welcome all of the participants. The evening brought together the visiting speakers, the local participants, students, entrepreneurs, and Lahore’s indomitable fashion and literary best. It was organized in partnership with the Walled City of Lahore Authority and was held inside the newly restored forecourt of the historic Wazir Khan Mosque. There couldn’t have been a more fitting setting for Rizwan and Moazzam’s powerful renditions of several traditional qawwalis, invoking the spirit of their late, great uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Dr. Umar Saif (ITU) and Dr. Nizammudin (PHEC) inaugurated the first day of the festival. Their welcome notes were followed by a rousing keynote speech delivered by Yemeni human rights activist, politician, journalist and Nobel Peace Laureate Twakkol Karman. In a country where recent political turmoil has brought democracy to the brink of chaos, it was interesting to hear how lack of political will to righting wrongs of a society have similar results all across the globe, and in other countries which have suffered from a rise in political uncertainty. Mrs. Karman reminded the audience that without justice, there can be no equality, and certainly no revolution and change in the fortunes of ordinary people. At the same time she said that all dictators are terrorists because they derive their philosophy from creating divisions and mistrust, and nations should be wary of them in whatever guises they appear.

The first day proceeded with riveting talks across the halls. Francois Burgat (French Institute of Near Eastern Studies) discussed the impacts of colonial past on present-day Middle Eastern politics and turmoil in the region with Nasim Zehra (Channel 24). The partition of British India was dissected by Nisid Hajari (Bloomberg View), Syed Jaffar Ahmed (Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi) and Newal Osman (IBA Karachi). Nabeel Qadeer (PITB), Rabeel Warraich (Sarmayakar), Abdul Rehman Talat (BlueEast) and Sheharyar Ali (Treet Group) discussed entrepreneurial ventures and the start-up culture of Pakistan. A session about the US/China rivalry featuring Khurram Husain (Dawn), Frederic Grare (French Foreign Ministry) and Ishtiaq Ahmed (Sargodha University) ran parallel to a discussion about urban gardens and Lahore’s depleting water resources with Daanish Mustafa (King’s College London) and Rafay Alam (lawyer and environmentalist). Dr. Tariq Modood (Bristol University, UK) gave a taste of his classroom to attendees at his academic talk about equality, multiculturalism and secularism. Another engaging talk, which the students particularly enjoyed, was about visual arts and the five pillars of Islam. A worthy topic, since the recent wave of Islamization on campuses has seen a lot of youngsters questioning their cultural identity in favour of their religious beliefs.

While the talks took place back-to-back, and side-by-side, those who were at the event for more visually enticing fare were treated to a number of documentaries made by Pakistani documentary filmmakers. The filmmakers were also available and mingling freely with people who had come out to see their work. In fact, the master stroke of the organizers was to arrange an open-air “speakers’ corner” in the space between the halls were many speakers took a seat either before or after their talks and sessions. This not only allowed them to interact with each other, it also offered open access to hundreds of people attending the festival. Students asked questions, took photos and had their notebooks signed by the speakers. The no-holds-barred approach to making distinguished guests available to the attendees was the highlight of the two-day festival, since for many the hour-long sessions were just not long enough for deeper, more meaningful interaction. Even the most hardened of cynics (this writer) couldn’t help but smile at this.

Out of all the sessions on Day One, the one that I personally was looking forward to was titled “Standing Up to the Field Marshal: Fatima Jinnah of Pakistan,” featuring Reza Pirbhai (Georgetown University) and renowned journalist and critic Nadeem F. Paracha. Fatima Jinnah is the underappreciated Jinnah, lost somewhere in the dust of time, buried neatly by the long shadow her brother cast. Although labelled “Mother of the Nation,” there is nothing much that we know about her beyond the official, benevolent stance about her: that she lived, that she supported her brother, that she outlived said brother, did some charity work, and then died quietly. Her fiery political career is seldom talked about, and this is why this session was not just interesting, it was essentially a little act of rebellion in itself since the focus of discussion was a political biography of the Mother of the Nation that Professor Pirbhai has written.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the book isn’t available in Pakistan just yet, so many in the audience didn’t know what exactly is written in it. However, the in-depth discussion between Professor Pirbhai and Mr. Paracha made up for it, and poignantly so. Professor Pirbhai shared his thoughts on why, despite being one of the most active champions of democracy, human rights, women’s rights and the rule of law, Ms. Jinnah seldom makes it to any lists featuring great women of the world. Her othering, as he described, is the fault of not just Pakistani establishment but also the people who bought into the posthumous narrative of an acerbic recluse whose only accomplishment was being the younger sister of the Father of the Nation. Prompted by Mr. Paracha, Professor Pirbhai recounted his meticulous research to build an accurate portrait of a sharp, erudite and intelligent woman who, instead of enjoying retirement, stood up to Field Marshal Ayub Khan for the sake of democracy. At 71, she gave the dictator a hell of a political fight that compelled him to retaliate with sexist remarks and religious fatwas. Paid goons were also sent to her political gatherings to pelt stones at her and her followers, but she was unbowed and unbroken, and spoke of hope and democracy to millions who supported her. Although she lost the elections amidst controversy and allegations of rigging of polls, she left behind a rich political legacy that paved the path for the likes of Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Day One concluded with a talk about Lahore’s heritage, culture and continued evolution as a modern city and the launch of a biography of a colonial traveller, explorer and soldier called “The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner” by historian John Keay in discussion with F.S. Aijazuddin. Before attendees enjoyed a ghazal night featuring the legendary Ustad Ghulam Ali, the last talk I heard was a surprisingly pensive panel discussion about the state of media in Pakistan and where it is headed featuring Fahd Husain (Express News), Suhail Warraich (Jang Group), Owais Tohid (Capital TV), Arif Nizami (Pakistan Today) and Mubashir Zaidi (Dawn TV).

Day Two started with a keynote speech by British politician and barrister of Pakistani origin, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Speaking frankly about her experience of growing up as a minority in the UK in a working class family, Baroness Warsi shared how she rose through the ranks because of hard work and dedication. She admitted that she persevered in the face of bigotry and racism because in the UK, the system still functions on merit that provides a chance for many people like her, from minorities, to realize their dreams. Baroness Warsi then posed a question to the rapt audience members: would she have risen through the ranks similarly in Pakistan with her socio-economic background? The answer, of course, that everyone thought of but didn’t speak out loud, was no. And this neatly drove her point home. She called upon Pakistan to treat its religious, sexual and ethnic minorities and its vulnerable citizens like women and children with justice and equality. She further urged to hold our politicians accountable. Baroness Warsi was the first Muslim woman to serve as the Minister of State for Faith and Communities. She resigned from her position when she disagreed with the Government’s policy on the Israel–Gaza conflict in 2014. In retelling the events that led up to her resignation, Baroness Warsi provided a simple formula for Pakistanis to judge their leaders: do they say what they believe in, and do they do what they say? If not, they are not worthy of our vote.

From this hopeful reminder of the power of our vote, I moved on to the launch of Dr. Pippa Virdee’s book “From the Ashes of 1947: Reimagining Punjab.” Punjabi poet and radio host Afzal Saahir artfully moderated the session entirely in Punjabi. Dr. Virdee also spoke Punjabi and essentially delighted all in the audience members who weren’t expecting this linguistic turn of events. Division of Punjab, the separation of loving neighbours and innocent residents of the divided province who thought they could return to their homes after the “rolla” ended brought tears to the eyes of many audience members. The state’s curious disenchantment with teaching Punjabi and people’s own reluctance to converse in Punjabi in Pakistan was discussed. The sly politics of making Indian Punjabi identity synonymous with Sikhism were also touched upon. The session was conducted in the smallest hall of Alhamra (the Adabi Baithak) but so many students from different universities showed up that there wasn’t enough room to accommodate them all, so they patiently listened at the door.

“Whither the White in the Flag” was a session that also managed to fill all the seats in Hall I. Featuring Farahnaz Ispahani (author “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities;” Wilson Centre, USA), Jibran Nasir (lawyer, human rights activist), Peter Jacob (Centre for Social Justice) and Arafat Mazhar (Shehri Pakistan), the session was a detailed insight into the state of minorities in Pakistan. The political apathy, religious bigotry and judicial inaction when it came to minorities came under discussion, and where the conversation veered to questioning the state of the government, Ms. Ispahani was quick to remind audience members that she and her husband were subjected to political targeting and trials by the recently deposed Prime Minister, but in the spirit of democracy they still stand by him, and for democracy. The panelists were united in their belief that only strong political will, rule of law and enforcement of Jinnah’s vision for minorities can help us heal the religious fissures in the country.

Dr. Yaqoob Bangash, one of the main organizers of #ThinkFest, said in one of his brief speeches during the day that Afkar-e-Taza was meant for open discussions, no matter how uncomfortable, and for students from all sorts of public and private universities to engage. This was seen at a session dedicated to the young socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh. Daniel Elam (University of Toronto) in conversation with Dr. Ammar Jan (Punjab University) presented his research about the life, time and politics of Bhagat Singh. That he fought passionately against colonialism and the empire, and for the rights of Indians for self-determination was a moving reminder to the youngsters in the audience about the power of ideas and the will to bring about a change in society. Many students from public universities in attendance keenly asked the speaker about how they too could emulate some of Bhagat Singh’s ideals. I was moved by the question because only a very short time ago Lahore’s students had been galvanized to attack protestors who wanted a chowk to be named after Bhagat Singh, since he was hanged there in 1931 for his revolutionary acts against the colonial government.

From revolution I trudged on to Hall III for discussion about the book “Aye Pure De Wah” (The East Wind Comes) by author and lawyer Nain Sukh. This session was very well attended but disintegrated into a shouting match between a few audience members and Nain Sukh when said audience members blamed the author for misrepresenting the sexual orientation of a female poet in one of the stories in his book. The author calmly tried to explain that he had merely written about what he had found in his research, but the argument escalated, the discussion got heated and despite the organizers’ attempt to calm all sides down, a few members of the audience had to be escorted out of the hall by security staff for their refusal to let the discussion proceed. Surprisingly, most of the audience members supported the author in his stance, which was somewhat reassuring. A little revolution in Hall III!

From political revolution, to literary revolution, and finally to matrimonial revolution: I ended up in another session featuring a Jinnah – Muhammad Ali, this time around, and his scandalous marriage to Ruttie Petit. Indian journalist Sheela Reddy talked about her book “Mr & Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India” with journalist Jugnu Mohsin in front of an enthralled audience that had never quite delved deep into the private life of the Father of the Nation. Ms. Reddy and Ms. Mohsin discussed the age difference between Mr. Jinnah and Ms. Petit and how the latter’s father did everything in his power to keep the two apart, including filing a case against Mr. Jinnah for having abducted his daughter. To this, however, his daughter proudly responded in court that it was not Mr. Jinnah who had abducted her but rather it was her who had abducted Mr. Jinnah! Ms. Mohsin was curious to know how Jinnah, a “distant and taciturn figure” according to her, had given in to the charms and warmth of someone so young. Ms. Reddy responded that for the very reason that her charm and warmth had him wrapped around her little finger. They were, according to the author and her research, very much in love but perhaps not right for each other because of their different goals in life, which chipped away at their peace until, entirely dejected, they separated and Ruttie tragically died. The fascinating talk delighted the audience members with every little factoid that the author shared; however, she stopped short of commenting on Mr. & Mrs. Jinnah’s intimate life as demanded by a member of the audience!

The last few sessions included a discussion about honour killings and the fate of women in South Asia with Fauzia Viqar (Chairperson Punjab Commission on the Status of Women), and a talk by Nadeem-ul-Haque (Former Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission of Pakistan) about his book “Looking Back: How Pakistan Became an Asian Tiger by 2050.”

And so, here’s the thing.

I couldn’t attend all of the sessions, and I wish I could have. Festivals, as previously discussed, have given us much to think about over the years. But unlike other festivals offering stars, music, bestselling popular authors and actors, #ThinkFest dared to offer something more. “Do you have musicians? Actors? Entertainers?” Someone had asked Dr. Bangash on the first day of the event. Hearing no, the person had asked him then what did the festival have? Well. #ThinkFest had an uninterrupted, uncensored, unvarnished look into the state of Pakistan and the state of the world outside Pakistan. A bold offer to go beyond our mundane social interactions and tread bravely into landscapes dotted with differing and varied points of view. To think about the Rohingyas, the minorities, the political revolutions we could stir, to imagine our founders and heroes as fallible human beings, to question authority, to ask hard questions, to contest the popular narrative… away from Alhamra, well past a week, amonth or even a year since the end of the festival.