An evening of horror

February 23, 2020

Harassment, assault, and injury at the Solis Festival in Islamabad: who all are culpable?

Chaos at Solis Festival.

Solis Festival markets itself as Pakistan first and biggest concert series. The February 15 event at the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) was the fourth of its electronic dance music events featuring international performers. But things did not go as planned.

As scores of men broke through barricades after being denied entry, an evening of music and festivities turned into a nightmare. Many climbed onto a VIP stage which collapsed and resulted in injuries. There were several accounts of women who had gotten harassed at the event.

“All I remember is me struggling to get up and a guy starts snatching my bag, (I was wearing a crossbody bag and it was in my neck). I thought I’d suffocate or my neck’s going to break but the guys there picked up the grill and started pushing it back while we were stuck in it,” one Shanza wrote on Instagram. “We were panicking, getting stamped upon and no one’s helping because in this moment, these filthy frustrated men get a chance and start touching, groping and harassing us. It took me a moment to realise what they were doing because I was in absolute hysteria.”

She said that the DJs did not stop the music and that her brother whose forehead was bleeding, had to rescue them. Other testimonies also poured in, detailing horrific scenes at the festival.

Ali Raza, an eyewitness to the fiasco said that “it all started after 9.00pm. Female attendees were groped and harassed. Clothes were torn. The stage was under attack. And there was no one there to stop it.”

He said the programme started at 6.00pm. There were one or two security guards to keep the venue secure. There was nobody to stop, he recalls, the people who forced their way into the VIP pavilions.

“Foreign DJs were performing at the event. It was the responsibility of the PNCA and the organisers to secure the venue. But they did not. As a result, even the DJ was attacked with a bottle,” he says as he shows a video he made of the incident.

Ali Raza tells TNS that some traffic policemen helped rescue women and others. “They opened the roads professionally and we were able to get out,” he says.

The incident has remained underreported in the mainstream media. However social media was flooded with videos and debate. There were questions and discussion relating to what is to blame for the incident – the organisers or societal decay.

Umber Shah, the PNCA official who deals with the media was reluctant to speak on the topic until told that the office of the PNCA director general had referred TNS to him.

“The audience consisted largely of youth,” he says. “The audience were young and from upper class. The tickets were very costly, ranging from Rs5,000 to Rs10,000. Ordinary people do not buy that costly tickets.” He believes that socioeconomic class and stratification is the reason that the event turned sour.

“A sizable part of the audience was from outside of Islamabad. People from Rawalpindi, Lahore and Faisalabad were also among the attendees. The situation turned so ugly that even the PNCA staff took over two hours to evacuate. Cars were lined up to D-Chowk,” he says next. His comments reveal that the numbers were unforeseen and hence, the security plan did not suffice.

Shah says it was for the first time in the history of PNCA that such a thing had happened. He says the drugs some of the people used were of a variety that had not been seen in the city before.

“Since the PNCA had rented out the venue to a private organiser, it is not responsible for this incident,” he says. Asked about the terms of the rent contract, he says the form is available on their website.

When asked about the terms of the contract, Amna Ismail Pataudi, the executive director of the PNCA, says that there is a dire need to make the clauses in that form stricter. “There has to be a reasonable fee for arrangement of security and there is a need to make it tougher for private organisers to use this space. Only then will things be streamlined,” she said.

TNS sent a question about the precautionary measures the PNCA would take to stop a repeat of such an incident but had not received a reply till the night of February 19. TNS also examined Twitter and Facebook pages of the PNCA and failed to find even a brief mention of the tragedy.

“We chose the venue and our security based on the number of tickets sold and made arrangements based on this. We warned against fake tickets on numerous occasions. However, we underestimated the sheer volume of “fake tickets” that had been sold. These people were denied entry, but broke through our barricades and forced themselves in, climbing on VIP platforms which couldn’t take the weight and destroyed our stage putting everyone’s safety at risk” read an Instagram post by Solis Festival.

The management apologized for the safety and security risk and pledged to “learn” from this incident. It said its losses into crores.

Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat has now referred the matter to police and banned the organizing company. He tells TNS that a transparent inquiry is under way and that action will be taken against culprits and the organising bodies will also be held accountable.

“The PNCA has also been issued a notice in this regard. The city administration had allowed this event to take place after verifying the necessary paperwork,” he says.

The writer can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

An evening of horror: Harassment, assault at Solis Festival in Islamabad