Original Articles

Islamists campaigning against Basant

(Photo taken from this excellent blog post)

This year, like before, self-righteous individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to cleanse and purify Pakistani society of pernicious and Satanic influences of Western and Hindu culture. This movement has found its expression in the various Islamic groups’ campaign against Basant and Valentine’s Day.

Shabab-e-Milli – the youth wing of JI – has announced its intention to beseige the CM House and Governor House if the Basant ban (recently upheld by the Lahore High Court) is not implemented. This is in response to Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer’s statement that he will celebrate Basant in the Governor’s House. In response to Governor Taseer’s statement, PML-N Senator Pervaiz Rashid has warned the Governor that if he does indeed celebrate Basant in the Governor’s house he is liable to be arrested.

In many ways the argument made in support of the ban on kite flying is a very interesting one. This argument has two parts – the first is that Basant is a Hindu festival and represents a corruption of “pure” Muslim culture. The second part is that kite flying is dangerous; has resulted in the loss of life of many individuals over the year and has also caused immense damage to power infrastructure. The second reason is the basis of the Lahore High Court’s decision to uphold the ban on kite-flying (in their decision, they termed kite-flying and selling of kites as a “license to kill”)

It’s not unusual for groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and other urban Islamists (who have to come into contact with and convince individuals who do not subscribe to their hardline beliefs) to benefit from and to deliberately use two lines of argument to achieve their ends. In some ways, it’s similar to how such groups describe the war in Afghanistan. They speak of it in Islamic terms calling it a legitimate Jihad against foreign invaders but also describe it as an anti-Imperialist struggle. The first argument appeals to Islamists like themselves and the second argument is meant to have a broader more “rational” appeal. Another extremely callous iteration of this argument technique is the idea that members of the Shia community should – seeing the disturbance that their Ashura processions cause every year – stop taking out public processions in the interests of peace and safety. In the aftermath of the Ashura bombing in Karachi I was shocked and saddened to observe how many supposedly moderate and rational individuals put forward this argument without a thought as to how they were essentially pushing the exact same agenda of radical groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba, i.e. the disappearance of Shias from the public life of Pakistan.

David Hume believed that moral sentiment was often what motivated moral reasoning, i.e. that often what we want to do precedes our rational justification for it and our rational justification of it to others. The behaviour of Jamaat-e-Islami and its subsidiary groups like Shabab-e-Milli and IJT regarding Basant is a nice illustration of this idea. They realize that their own visceral hatred of Hindu festivals like Basant is not going to have a widespread enough appeal to achieve a ban on the festival so they pad their own justification with the issue of safety which is much more “neutral”. Their own position is an emotive one and the logic that they present to justify it occurs after the fact of their own belief in their point of view and is more of a tool to achieve their end. As an example, read advocate MD Tahir’s argument for the ban of Basant presented before the Lahore High Court:

In 2005, an advocate MD Tahir of Lahore High Court, Pakistan, contended that Basant was purely an event of Hindu community who observed it as part of their religious rituals. He said that forefathers of Pakistani Muslims had never taken part in Basant celebrations, though they also deemed it a part of their culture. The petitioner said that Pakistan was a poor country and Basant festivities could not please them by any means. He argued that frequent power breakdowns because of kite-flying were depriving people of electricity supply for hours and they were also exposed to life threats by kite-string on roads. Aerial firing and use of firecrackers was another factor of disturbance for patients, students and the elderly people, he said. He also counted the death toll taking place every year on Basant day as a ground to seek a complete ban on kite-flying and Basant festivities in the country. The petitioner said that the government was spending millions of rupees to entertain foreign guests on Basant, rather than spending it to improve literacy rate, inadequate medical facilities and the provision of basic amenities to common people.

Look how he states his primary justification at the very beginning but then brings every argument imaginable to pad his own position.

This is not to belittle the deaths that have been caused by kite-flying. But many human activities are dangerous if not properly regulated. One is tempted to give the example of Hajj which causes many deaths by stampede and disease every year. Perhaps the members of Shabab-e-Milli will start an SMS campaign against Hajj? Let’s consider the example of driving. It’s a dangerous activity causing many deaths every year. Does that mean that driving should be banned? Using Jamaat-e-Islami logic, one could perhaps come up with a rational justification for the Saudi ban on female drivers. The logic would go as following – studies have shown that female drivers crash their cars more frequently than male drivers. Therefore in the interests of safety, women should be banned from driving.

There really isn’t any way to protect ourselves from falling prey to these double-edged arguments. Kite-flying is indeed dangerous and to many people – already indoctrinated by the anti-Hindu nature of Pakistani society – Jamaat-e-Islami’s propaganda is very effective in changing their point of view. Similarly, individuals who are anti-Imperialist in inclination find themselves inclined to support the Jamaati propaganda on Afghanistan, not stopping to think of who they are enabling by their support. The idea that individuals are responsible for the broader consequences of what they support, even if they don’t support the consequences is a somewhat troubling one that can easily devolve into a “with us or against us” way of thinking. But it’s hard not to notice it happening every day in Pakistani society.

About the author

Laila Ebadi


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  • Rabia, Thanks for writing this very well argued and critical perspective on basant, something which is hard to find in the Islamists dominated ‘mainstream’ media.

    In my view the issue of identity with regards to culture and religion is not necessarily either / or issue. It can be both. In other words, I can be a Muslim and a Punjabi at the same time. It does not have to be a matter of exclusion. The problem with the JI and other puritanical mafia is that they want to purify the religion from cultural traditions, conveniently ignoring the fact that (every) religion itself is very much culturally and contextually constructed in its very genesis.

    Having said that I am more interested in one particular aspect of the argument which remains relatively under-explored in your excellent post, i.e. , when you state:

    “This is not to belittle the deaths that have been caused by kite-flying. But many human activities are dangerous if not properly regulated. “

    What exact regulations are in your mind? How can those be enacted and implemented? And why any such measures have remained ineffectual so far?

    Thus, I suspect I am more interested in how any tragic consequences of kite flying could be avoided in Lahore and elsewhere.

  • Daily Times Editorial on this topic:

    Killing basant

    Basant is celebrated to welcome the beginning of spring. The people of Lahore and its surrounding towns have traditionally celebrated it with pride. The festival of basant had grown so exponentially that tourists came from the world over to celebrate it with the people of this city. Yet sadly, just as all good things must come to an end, the Supreme Court of Pakistan pulled the plug on this festival, citing human safety as its core concern.

    Although the above-mentioned reason is a valid one, it does not justify an outright ban on the festival. Sometimes governments and the state machinery, in order to cover up their own shortcomings, prefer to tackle problems expediently. The ban on basant does not solve the fundamental problem of finding ways to celebrate the day while ensuring the perfectly valid safety concerns are addressed.

    Lahore is known for its lush parks and vibrant horticulture. The government of Punjab would be better advised to allow kite flying in certain parks and recreational clubs that litter the city, while banning the entry of cars and motorcycles to these locales to avoid the kind of accidents that occur on the streets during the kite-flying festival. Furthermore, the Punjab government must crack down on the manufacturing of illegal chemical-coated twine (dor) — one of the fundamental problems that has led to many fatalities over recent years.

    Not only will the festival serve as a respite from terrorism for the people of Lahore but also for the rest of Pakistan. It will show the world the real — softer and peaceful — side of Pakistan and its people. The government of Punjab should rise above expedient solutions that may be convenient to it and its departments but end up depriving the zinda dillan-i-Lahore of one of the high points of their calendar. The people of Pakistan deserve better from their leaders and the leaders should let the people celebrate their favourite festival with proper arrangements. At the end of the day our people deserve some relief from their daily and abiding travails.


  • Why doesn’t JI/IJT/Shabab Milli/SSP and the whole lot protest sucide bombing. This has taken more lives in 1 year than Basant can take in a 1000! If the reason to ban basant is that a percentage of the kite strings are dangerously manufactured, regulate the string making industry. Disallow them from using dangerous material. Period!

  • That many of these absurd arguements appeal to our urban bourgeoisie speaks volumes about the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of this class!

  • Humanitarian considerations ought to outweigh all others. Any unpleasant aspects of our culture should be reformed, not perpetuated. Would you defend the hideous practice of “honour killing” simply because it is part of our “culture”? Same with basant. The shameless antics of Musharraf and Taseer do not justify continuation
    of criminal negligence when celebrating basant.

  • @Sakib, you write “Any unpleasant aspects of our culture should be reformed, not perpetuated.’

    Can you please elaborate it further with specific reference to basant. What are its unpleasant aspects, and how those could be reformed? Thank you.

  • Textbook nationalism —Sikander Amani

    It is singularly interesting to take a look at history textbooks in countries that are considered hostile. Palestine and Israel for example, or Pakistan and India. In each case, the versions presented of the very same events are so spectacularly different that an alien would think they took place on altogether different planets

    “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind,” Albert Einstein famously said. Somehow, though, it is a disease many nations like to instil in their citizens, unaware of how ugly these little red mental zits look — and how dangerous they are. A key element in the contamination process lies, unsurprisingly, in the creation of an idealised narrative on the homeland, taught in schoolbooks from the earliest age. Then the infantile disease is indeed caught at infancy: armed with the fallacious idea that nationalists will be better citizens (they are not), the state embarks on a widespread effort to mould children’s minds, at the expense of objectivity, critical analysis, justice, tolerance, and historical truth.

    In this respect, it is singularly interesting to take a look at history textbooks in countries that are considered hostile. Palestine and Israel for example, or Pakistan and India. In each case, the versions presented of the very same events are so spectacularly different that an alien would think they took place on altogether different planets. And sadly, though yet again not very surprisingly, religion often plays a devastating role in promoting this revised, nationalist, and politicised version of history — so much so that one is once again led to wonder about the amazingly destructive, divisive and vituperative power of (some interpretations of) religion.

    The most striking example is perhaps that of Israel and Palestine. Where the Palestinian textbooks talk about “uprisings”, the Israeli schoolbooks merely mention “events”. What is named the “Naqba” (catastrophe) in Palestinian books becomes the “war of independence” in the Israeli texts. Where the former insist on land, and on the homeland specifically, the latter emphasise the right to national security.

    Researchers have found some (sad) commonalities though: a common neglect for the periods of relative peace and stability, in favour of a war-oriented narrative; a common tendency to dehumanise the ‘other’, to denigrate their religion and present a laughable caricature of their culture and political claims. History is here deeply intertwined with geography, and as a result, the maps of the region presented in the two sets of schoolbooks unsurprisingly leave no space for the people implicitly or explicitly portrayed as the enemy. Palestine does not exist for one set of pupils, Israel barely appears for the other.

    Pakistan and India offer a parallel example. In Pakistan, a 2006 study showed that all mention of non-Muslim festivities had been removed in Punjab textbooks, while Hinduism was commonly portrayed as an iniquitous and deceitful religion; disturbing themes such as “Pakistan is for Muslims alone”, “The world is collectively scheming against Pakistan and Islam” and “Muslims are urged to wage jihad against the infidels” were routinely found, and the history of events leading up to partition squarely laid the blame on the perfidious Hindus, while the righteous Muslims are viewed as mere innocent victims. India is often portrayed as responsible for the 1948, 1965 and 1971 wars. Meanwhile, in India, recent textbooks (especially under the BJP government) presented Indian history through stereotypes rooted in religious identity, in order to lend legitimacy to a communalist reading of the past, denigrating the “outsider” and valorising the Hindu. The anti-colonial struggle was spearheaded by Nehru and Gandhi (with, believe it or not, the RSS being credited with a positive role in the fight for independence), while Muhammad Ali Jinnah is presented as the ‘dark knight’ of secession and division, the evil figure who led to massive bloodshed in the subcontinent.

    These two examples are far from isolated: French and German textbooks between the two world wars show the exact same pattern, as did the two Germany’s school manuals during the Cold War, or the American and Soviet historiographies in the same era. The recreation of history in the Balkan countries during the 1990s was spectacular. And the same falsities constantly reappear: defeats are turned into victories, an insignificant long-forgotten shootout becomes a nascent war of independence, some minor radical character fallen into oblivion is resurrected into a national hero before his time, we were always victims anyway, and so on. Languages are re-cast into a differentiating element, when, e.g. in the Balkan case, they were a common factor. Music, art and culture are suddenly hailed as the evidence, arrogantly brandished, of the legitimacy of political separatism. Bring in a national flag, sing a national anthem, and pffft, the trick is done: very soon, as Howard Zinn said, the Motherland becomes a burning cause for which one is ready to kill the children of other Motherlands.

    No doubt this disturbing trend is rooted in the need for a nation, especially a newly founded one, to cement a collective identity through a carefully selected and organised rewriting of the past. The aim is to create a continuity and lend a political legitimacy to the national endeavour. Textbooks have a destinal finality: to show that the nation was destined to be, and that its necessity is rooted in either a transcendent, or an immemorial legitimacy. What is more disturbing is first, the constant, and exasperating, process of whiny victimisation that goes hand-in-hand with such revisionism (it is never our fault, “they” are the big bad guys), and second, the openly antagonistic presentation of this common memory — as if the self could not be defined except as opposed to the other, as if there are friends only if there are foes. Carl Schmitt is famous for having defined the essence of the political as the friend-enemy distinction: politics is essentially, and not just accidentally, about antagonism, and you cannot have a political community without the designation of an enemy. But this desultory perspective is unsatisfactory morally, intellectually and politically, apart from often having disastrous large-scale consequences and, literally, creating generations of brainwashed and perhaps even brain-dead children.

    The good news is that such revisionism is now strongly opposed by many quarters of civil society, and that nationalists no longer monopolise the field. Israeli and Palestinian historians have gathered under the auspices of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) to write a bi-national narrative of the Middle East conflict (they have not yet managed to write a common history though); similarly, a joint South Asian history textbook is being prepared by a group of Indian and Pakistani scholars. UNESCO is also active in promoting a less war-prone, less biased perspective on national memory. What is at stake is not just instilling a less conflictual approach to our neighbours, and teaching a more tolerant and respectful view of other ways of life, other cultures, other religions (no, we are neither the best, nor the brightest, nor the chosen ones). It is also a scientific and intellectual issue: how can we teach the value of truth, of scientific reasoning, of objectivity, to children, if we so blatantly distort facts and events to suit our narrow, petty, mental measles?

    The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at sikander.amani@gmail.com


  • @Sarah Khan

    Hamid Mir has said it all for me (see my post of two days ago). We need to respect laws which minimise human suffering and we should dissociate ourselves from the actions of people who trample those laws underfoot.

  • Basant or any cultural activity for that matter evolves with time among people. People find a way to entertain themselves and get away from their day-to-day worries for a short span of time. This provides that necessary element of relaxation in human life which is necessary for a healthy life. I just cannot understand that why would religion become an obstacle in any sort of entertainment until it is not harmful to humanity. Just because a particular sect in our country doesn’t go well with it, we deprive everyone of small pleasures in life is just callous.

  • @Sarah,
    The stance of the Islamofacists who are against not only our faith but our culture is very clear. They will oppose kite flying but continue to justify sucide bombing against innocent civilians. The same people who justify the murder of thousands of Pushtoons due to a “Pushtoon Nationalist” “liberation” movement will also oppose kite flying. The sucide attacks on Pakistani civilians have caused the WILFUL and PREMEDITATED death of thousands of Pakistanis in the last year alone; it will take a thousand years of ACCIDENTAL deaths due to kite flying during Basant to tally that number. (even these deaths can be avoided with a few regulations that still allow for our ancient and joyful festivals to continue).
    Those who romantasize the stark, austere, intolerant Wahabism will always oppose basant and continue to support sucide bombing.

  • Pakistan kite ban grounds Lahore’s festival plans

    Thursday, 25 Feb, 2010

    Families gather on rooftops in Lahore to celebrate the tradition of kite-flying on Basant. – APP (File Photo)

    LAHORE: A ban on a decades-old and colorful tradition of kite-flying has riled many Pakistanis, but authorities say the sport has killed people and encourages “immoral” celebrations.

    The annual kite-flying festival of Basant, which marks the start of spring in eastern Punjab, involves aerial duels in which participants try to bring down each other’s kites using string coated in a sticky paste of ground-up glass or metal.

    Women dress in their most brilliant colors for what’s become a major festival drawing thousands of celebrants to Lahore as well as multinational companies that rent rooftops for clients and guests.

    “It’s our culture,” said Shoaib Mehmood Naqeebi, a shopkeeper in Lahore. “Our forefathers were celebrating it. It’s an event where we share happiness with family and friends. It’s fun. It’s harmless.”

    But Pakistan’s Supreme Court banned kite-flying nationwide in 2005 in response to an outcry over injuries and deaths caused every year by the glass-coated string. The court added that the ban could be lifted for a limited period if a city requests it.

    But last month, the Lahore High Court turned down a request for lifting the ban for the Basant festival.

    Every year, Pakistani media report dozens of deaths and injuries caused by the high-flying duels, mainly of children and motorcyclists whose throats are sometimes cut by the string.

    For many fans in Punjab, it’s an unfair decision, one that costs the city and its merchants money.

    “Look at what’s happening in this country,” said Syed Nazim Ali, a student of business administration at Punjab University.

    “Everyday you hear news about blasts, suicide bombings and war. So what if I get a day or two for entertainment with my family?”

    The government should concentrate on more serious crimes instead of bothering with banning kite-flying, he said.

    Sajjad Bhutta, the top district official for Lahore, told Reuters that the government would defend the ban because the issue is not only public safety.

    “Immoral acts like drinking and dance parties have become part of it,” he said. “You cannot raid each house so an event that spreads immorality and causes death cannot be allowed in a Islamic society.”

    Extremist groups also oppose kite flying, branding it a Hindu festival that promotes gambling. In the 1990s, the Afghan Taliban infamously banned kite-flying, a restriction that figured prominently in the popular novel and movie, “The Kite Runner.”

    But the ban also affects kite merchants, the Punjab Kite-Flying Association says, causing unemployment and financial losses in the millions of rupees.

    After the ban, Naqeebi said, he rented out his shop and started selling beads in the driveway of his home. “Nobody cares how difficult my life is now.”

    Another merchant, Shahid Hussain, said his earnings had been reduced by 75 per cent from what he used to make selling kites and string.

    Bhutta, the district administrator, dimissed claims of lost business.

    “There is no big economic impact, as people were mostly selling kites as a side business,” he said.

    The controversy has become political. Punjab governor Salman Taseer in mid-February announced on local television that he would celebrate Basant in defiance of the ban.

    Lahore police also detained the kite-flying association’s secretary general Sheikh Salim on Feb. 20 after he announced that Basant would take off on March 7.

    The district government won’t listen to his arguments, he said. “They don’t care about us and people attached to this business,” he added. “They have made up their minds.”


  • Ban the ban on Basant
    By Irfan Husain
    Saturday, 27 Feb, 2010

    ONE would have thought that with all the political turmoil and full-blown Islamist insurgency Pakistan is passing through, our courts and state officials would have more to occupy them than to ban Basant.

    But yet again, this centuries-old kite-flying festival has become the focus of controversy. In 2005, the Supreme Court in its wisdom decided to ban the spring celebrations, but until last year, people got around this edict by applying for a brief suspension. This year, the Lahore High Court has joined the act by refusing to permit any temporary relief from the original ban.

    The official reason given for this judgment is that kids cut themselves on the sharp, ground-glass-coated string, and some people get killed by falling off roofs. So instead of directing that the city administration regulate the festival to make it safer, the Supreme Court slapped a blanket ban on the event.

    However, Sajjad Bhutta has recently come out with a novel reason for the restrictions. According to this senior Lahore district official, Basant was also the occasion for ‘drinking and dance parties’. And since his goons could not break into every home where these activities were going on, a complete ban was essential.

    This attitude is in tune with the annual chorus from the mullahs who denounce the festival as having Hindu origins, and thus somehow un-Islamic. Basant is a festival that heralds the coming of spring, a season of rebirth and renewal in all cultures. Different societies celebrate the end of winter in different ways, but they are all joyous occasions, and normally have no religious connotations.

    In Iran, nouroz, the Persian new year, is marked with joyous celebrations, despite the efforts of the ayatollahs to put a damper on the festivities. Sensibly, the Iranian clergy realised the futility of trying to kill off an ancient tradition deeply rooted in Iranian culture and history.

    Our clerics, more influenced by Afghanistan’s Taliban, have been doing their best to prevent people from having fun. Innocent pleasures are denounced from the pulpit, and people are forced into enjoying the simplest forms of pleasures behind closed doors.

    Over the years, this ‘Deobandi-Wahabi-Salafi axis’, to borrow Pervez Hoodbhoy’s term, has been pushing us further and further away from normalcy. Intolerance and hypocrisy are now the norm, and extremist thugs have a tight grip on university campuses to make sure nobody has any fun.

    Those denouncing Basant as a Hindu festival would be surprised to learn that many of the marriage rituals that have become central to Pakistani weddings have their roots in Hindu society. The singing and dancing that takes place on the occasion of mehndi, for instance, would not be out of place in Delhi and Mumbai. And if one is going to be literal about the scriptures, there is nothing Islamic about the dowry a bride is expected to bring with her.

    Our judges, officials and mullahs need to realise that there is more to life than long lists of do’s and don’ts. The Taliban in Afghanistan based their entire rule on what people were and were not allowed to do. When their Pakistani cousins grabbed territory in Swat and elsewhere, the first thing they did was to shut down video shops and slap a ban on music. And of course, education for girls was strictly forbidden.

    When we talk of eradicating extremism, we forget that it cannot be done simply by shooting a few terrorists. A change in mindset is needed. When Zia imposed so-called Islamic laws on Pakistan, he set into motion a chain of events that has culminated in the chaos we see around us.

    If we are serious about winning our country back from the zealots who have seized control, we need to starve them of oxygen. This takes the form of our school curriculum that teaches intolerance; the large section of our media that stifles rational discussion; and our public discourse that makes a virtue of hypocrisy.

    When we ban the shared enjoyment of traditional festivals like Basant, we are only strengthening the extremists who have come to shape our national agenda. Each time they gain one concession, they immediately demand another. We had long ago ceded New Year celebrations to the extremist thugs who went around smashing up hotels and clubs on Dec 31 if there were any signs of festivities. Is Basant going to follow the same path?

    I do not always see eye to eye with my old friend, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, but when he declared he would go ahead and celebrate Basant, and forget the consequences, my spirits lifted at his defiance. Almost immediately, Senator Pervez Rashid of the PML-N threatened to have Salman dragged out of the Governor’s House in handcuffs if he defied the ban. This, alas, is the level of persons who fill our assemblies.

    For far too long, we have accepted the edicts of our moral police without raising an outcry. One by one, simple pleasures have been legislated away.

    Bhutto started the trend by banning certain forms of entertainment in 1977. He admitted his mistake in his last days in a condemned cell when he wrote a moving document called If I Am Assassinated. Zia built on these changes, introducing flogging and public hanging during his murderous rule.

    Critics of these injunctions are silenced by branding them as somehow anti-Islam. And yet, there is nothing in religion that bans music. Indeed, dance, music and the visual arts have often flourished in Muslim courts. From Andalusia to Delhi, Muslim rulers encouraged and rewarded artists and performers.

    Somehow, our growing army of clerics have convinced themselves that Pakistan is more Islamic than the rest of the Muslim world. As we pride ourselves on our piety, we would do well to heed this voice from an Iranian blogger writing in 2003:

    “Twenty-five years of religious rule has had one long-term benefit … for generations to come no Iranian will ever want to mix matters of state with religion…. And if only those … in our neighbouring countries knew about our failed experiment with an Islamic government they would come to their senses too … It’s a joke they want to do now what we miserably failed at 25 years ago… But it is finished … and when these mullahs are dethroned … it will be like the Berlin Wall coming down… a little patience … our dawn is near.”

    Seven years after this was posted on the Internet, Iranians are still struggling for their freedom. But at least they are fighting against the forces of darkness.



  • A kite-less Basant?


    Friday, March 05, 2010
    Ahmad Rafay Alam

    Recently, I heard an advertisement for a Basant festival being organised in Lahore. Visitors to the festival were going to have the option to enjoy sheesha and other forms of entertainment. Meanwhile, the Parks and Horticulture Authority is going ahead with a full itinerary of events to celebrate the jashan-e-baharan. Of course, kite flying is prohibited, and so it is possible to think of this year’s Basant festival/jashn-e-baharan events in a new light.

    Basant is, of course, a cultural festival to welcome in the spring season. It was celebrated by wearing bright colours and flying kites as early as the 12th century when it was brought to Lahore from Delhi by the poet Amir Khusro. Lahore being an entirely walled city, more or less, until the British showed up in the middle of the 19th century, Basant was celebrated within the city’s walls, on the rooftops of homes.

    Basant remained very much a tradition of the Walled City during most of the 20th century. Even as late as the 1980s, Basant was a private affair; something celebrated with great fervour and passion predominantly by the residents of the city. It was this passion that lured suburban Lahoris to the Walled City to participate in the atmosphere and to soak up the history of the city so glaringly missing in those suburbs.

    In the 1990s, Basant’s popularity grew and the festival began to attract visitors from other cities of the country. This was also the time, however, when the first few objections to the festival were made. The first was that Basant was, somehow, a Hindu festival at odds with the Islamic traditions of Pakistan. The second was that Basant caused a loss to the national exchequer because kite-strings often short-circuited LESCO’s ageing transformers.

    These challenges were sometimes litigated upon. Our own Guinness Record Holder for most number of cases ever filed, the late M.D. Tahir, made it a point to file a writ challenging, on one point or the other, the government’s decision to “celebrate” Basant. None of these cases got anywhere, though in one, Justice Aqil Mirza observed that Basant was welded to the soil of Lahore.

    By this time, Basant had become a major event in the city’s calendar. It was attracting tens of thousands of tourists a year, generating millions of rupees in income for as many as a hundred thousand people. Also, by this time the city of Lahore had burst forward from the confines of the Walled City, grown by leaps and bounds beyond the English “Donald Town” of Krishinagar, Sanda and Mall Road, connected with the far-flung Model Town via Gulberg, Garden and Muslim Town and scaled past the University of Punjab’s New Campus and the small villages of Charrar and Amir Sidhu (where the present DHA is located). By this time, cracks in the city’s infrastructure and ability to deal with Basant had begun to appear.

    When a city’s infrastructure starts to crumble, that’s when people start to get hurt. More and more stories began to appear of people dying due to “Basant-related activities”. Some would fall from rooftops not properly secured with parapets. Others would be killed carelessly crossing streets because they didn’t have neighbourhood parks to play in. These tragic incidents would get plenty of space in the print media and the fledgling electronic media of the time, but it wasn’t until a new type of kite-string, a metal string coated with shards of glass, appeared on the scene that Basant faced a challenge it could not answer.

    The provincial government of Pervaiz Elahi and the District Government of Amir Mahmood made a full attempt to “nationalise” Basant by making the kite flying event a centrepiece of their jashn-e-baharan programme. Those were the days of Pervaiz Musharraf’s enlightened Pakistan, and Basant was very much a part of the “soft image” that was being peddlled. However, they could not overcome the sad fact that every time the festival took place, metalled kite-string would take its toll on human life. The chief justice of Pakistan took notice of the matter and directed the government of Punjab to do something about it. The court was not moved by arguments put forward by the then Attorney General Malik Muhammad Qayyum that banning the festival would harm the economy of the city.

    The government of Punjab then passed a series of legislation, the latest of which prohibits kite flying unless the permission is granted by the relevant authorities. Basant as a kite flying festival was killed by these legislation, as no elected government would like to be on record as giving permission to kite flying in case the blood of even one innocent is deemed to be on its hands.

    While it’s simple to put all of this into a box titled “Basant Kills People” and file it away somewhere, consider the fact that this centuries-old cultural festival has come to an end in the rather short period of a decade and a half. Consider that, in many ways, this festival was doomed to one bleak end or the other on account of another, often overlooked, factor: the suburbanisation of Lahore.

    The entire point and pleasure of Basant was the electric atmosphere of the Walled City on a crisp spring evening and afternoon. Such an atmosphere simply can’t be recreated on a rooftop of a house in a private housing scheme. The children growing up confined to their houses and without proper recreational space have no link with the pleasure of flying a kite, and no sympathy to the loss of a cultural festival like Basant. Basant has gone the way of the Pak-Tea House: the new city of Lahore – suburban, crowded and automobile dependent – simply has no place for it.

    However, the fact that one can’t fly a kite can’t stop one from enjoying the great weather. So be prepared, in the upcoming years, to see changes in the way Basant is celebrated. The advertisement I heard on FM radio was promoting Basant as a sort of a day out. That’s exactly what jashn-e-baharan is as well. The new Basant will remain a festival to call in spring, but it will be celebrated by participating in the other great aspect of the festival: public recreation. This, too, is crucially important for the sprawling city of Lahore. It gives its residents something they can connect to each other with. The novelty of kite flying may give way to kite flying exhibitions organised under the tight scrutiny of the local administration. It may become another one of the things that Lahore gives up. The loss of kite flying is sad, but it is part of the changes our uncontrollably growing cities are making on our lives.

    The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx.net.pk


  • Our basant —Zaair Hussain

    We must descend upon the purveyors and purchasers of illegal dor with that righteous fury reserved for those who harm not only us as individuals but us as a people, attacking our joy, our freedom, our way of life

    There is a quiet anger in the air. It stretches out from Lahore until it encompasses all Punjab, and its fingertips brush every boundary. It is the simmering anger of the victims of larceny.

    Basant, our basant, has been stolen in the night, leaving us under the drab tyranny of spotless skies.

    To dismiss basant as a petty distraction is an insult to our forebears, a disservice to ourselves and an injury to our inheritors. Spring festivals are hallmarks of healthy cultures; a culture that forgets to celebrate spring has forgotten how to celebrate life.

    We need basant. Among the worst of Pakistan’s problems is asymmetry; the rich are becoming heedless and the poor are becoming hopeless. We must address this rupture before the injury becomes irreversible. Basant is a salve, a natural, organic equaliser. Wherever we stand on earth, we are equals in the sky. It is that rare and wondrous thing that we all can point to and say: this is ours.

    Year after year, basant sundered lines infinitely more robust and razor-sharp than any dor: lines of class, of age, of ethnicity, of ideology, of belief. Young and old, rich and poor, even Pakistani and Indian would lift their gaze skywards and swallow their differences whole, fixated solely on their brilliantly winged avatars that made of the heavens a playground and a battlefield.

    The time of basant is upon us; the season is unmistakable. Cool and gentle winds glide past, nimbly pick-pocketing our cares and burdens. Sunlight drips from the leaves, and winter gives way not to summer but to the dream of summer. The glow of rebirth is upon young and old alike. We yearn, and the sky yearns with us, knowing what it was to be alive, to be ablaze with colour.

    I must confess that I was never any good with kites; what should have been poetry on a string swiftly became an inept stammering in my hands. But I remember, and cherish, and by God must have again the sight of an entire city’s worth of spirits soaring, roaring, fluttering upon the wind. We must have again the rooftops that sprouted revelry like lush trees, the million vibrant clouds that shaded the day and the nightscape strewn with a thousand pale moons like twilight on some exotic new world.

    I will not dismiss those who are appalled at the slew of basant related deaths in recent years, rendered all the more horrifying by their context of celebration. No person with passing decency will argue that innocents should be sacrificed at the altar of entertainment or even culture, their lives burnt up as a macabre fuel for the festival. But basant in and of itself is no more dangerous than most sports; it survived without controversy for centuries. The overwhelming share of the danger arises from certain kinds of dor — chemical, nylon, even surgical — that are unsporting, illegal and potentially lethal. The use of these dors is a lethal parasite that has insidiously invaded an otherwise healthy-and vital organ. The parasite must be removed, the organ preserved.

    We must descend upon the purveyors and purchasers of illegal dor with that righteous fury reserved for those who harm not only us as individuals but us as a people, attacking our joy, our freedom, our way of life. Their sociopathic greed for quick cash and empty victories cannot be allowed to claim more lives, and it cannot be allowed to claim basant.

    Aerial firing in Pakistan rains down deaths every year, but we have yet to ban weddings, parties and Eid celebrations. We recognise that neither weddings nor Eid necessitate the dangerous, gratuitous activity. And we recognise that they are too important to put to the guillotine.

    I refuse to believe that we have no option but to put down basant as if it were a rabid creature endangering the village. A thousand suggestions are forwarded every year. We could ban kite-flying near highways. Ban, for a day or two, motorcycles; their riders are always exposed to the greatest risk. Educate the public with relentless vigour about kite safety. Use whatever antibiotic, suture or surgery necessary to save basant. Our ancient and joyous festival deserves far better than to be harvested for its economic bounty and then, its golden eggs exhausted by controversy, taken behind the shed for a summary execution.

    There are also those who oppose basant on nebulous moral grounds, squinting furiously at it till they see the shape they want to see. To ideologically oppose a celebration of spring, life, family, friends, a celebration rooted in our land, a celebration that excludes nobody, requires a certain meanness, a heart perversely shrivelled by sunlight. We must give the widest of berths to the footsteps of the Afghan Taliban who banned basant in the 1990s, its vivacious hues hateful to their twisted monochrome vision.

    Attempts to culturally distance ourselves from basant are nonsensical. Basant has not only been celebrated in Pakistan since its inception, it has nestled comfortably within Muslim subcontinental culture for centuries. As far back as the 13th century, Sufi poets no less illustrious than Amir Khusro honoured basant, setting upon it verses and couplets like wreaths of flowers upon a favoured guest. Whatever its origins, basant has had no pantheon for centuries, no altar, no ideology save for celebration.

    I plan to have children one day and am already resigned to their scepticism and eye-rolling when I ramble on about streets without roadblocks, schools without sandbags, cities without fear. I implore you, do not compel me to add basant to this list of tall tales, speaking of it like a wonderfully plumaged bird of yore that slid into extinction through our relentless negligence.

    In these days of downcast gazes we need, we deserve, reasons to smile at the heavens. As the world dims around us we must respond, not by raging at the dying of the light but with mirth, with laughter, with those endless jubilant candles that basant ignited in the heart of our people.

    Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at zaairhussain@gmail.com


  • Reasons behind the basant ban — I —Nasir Abbas Mirza

    Basant is democratic and egalitarian in concept and practice. It is uniquely Lahori; no city in the world could imitate or import it. If only for a few delightful days, it removed boundaries and barriers between social classes

    For decades the religious extremists in Punjab tried to ban basant but they just could not. They tried everything in the book: called it a Hindu festival, anti-Islam, waste of time, waste of money and what have you, but basant kept on growing in popularity and participation until such time that the tourist influx in Lahore reached a point that the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) started giving advertisements in the newspapers for people in Lahore to accommodate tourists as house guests.

    The intense economic activity that went with basant (trade, travel, hotel, tourism, shopping, etc.) was touching the $ 250 million mark — not bad, for a week-long celebration. To top it off various other quality festivals started around the basant bonanza (notably the music conference and the international drama and puppet festival). Some say that the Carnival in Rio is the biggest party in the world. Only the Lahoris know that it is not true; basant is the biggest party in the world. A little more savvy marketing and it would have become a key date in the world’s calendar of premier festivals.

    Why did basant become so big? There are many reasons for it. It evolved without any help, patronage or aid from the government. It is democratic and egalitarian in concept and practice. It is uniquely Lahori; no city in the world could imitate or import it. If only for a few delightful days, it removed boundaries and barriers between social classes. Age, gender, wealth, domicile, colour of skin, religion, sect or language, did not matter at all. During one of the last years of booming basant, I once met a street kid in the walled city who had cut General Pervez Musharraf’s kite — to the delight of both, I am sure.

    Around the late 90s the government of Punjab started taking ownership of everything around basant. Since the government is forever trying to appease the religious extremists, it started to flex its muscle in getting rid of basant for good. In other words, what the extremists/jihadis/tableeghis could not do on their own, they got the government to do for them.

    To start with, the PHA re-christened the festival an inelegant but religiously acceptable ‘Jashn-e-Baharan’. What followed was “the chronicle of a death foretold”. Today, basant and all other festivals and cultural activities have gone. This year we are celebrating a farce called ‘Jashn-e-Baharan’ with ugly synthetic flowers, styrofoam kites and plastic gates. What happened?

    In the last quarter of a century or so we have lost a great deal. There is no sector or institution in the country that has not been infiltrated by people high on an overdose of ultra-conservative religion. The same people got rid of basant. The government did it; the judiciary endorsed it and the media rejoiced in it. RIP basant!

    In the true spirit of all religious hatchet jobs, it was done with a good conscience. After all, no matter what even the Taliban do, it is always done with a good conscience. Loss of life was cited as the reason for banning basant. We will come to that in a moment but spend a minute on the last resort of all incompetent governments: a ban.

    At times incompetence is imposed upon us and other times we elect incompetence. As a result we have only two forms of governance: free for all (as in a jungle), or bans. The civilised world lives between these two extremes. Between these two extremes is the realm of regulations, rights, freedoms, legislation, watchdogs, law and law enforcement and so on. Basant thrived when it was unregulated. The government banned it because it could not regulate it. The culprit here is the government, not basant.

    In the entire world, adults are permitted to drink alcohol but they are not permitted to drink and drive. That is where law and law enforcement comes in. Yet many die in alcohol-related accidents. If the world were run by the government of Punjab, alcohol would have been banned after the first accident. The media would have run riot with headlines like ‘Sharaab pi kar khoon ki holi’; they would have shown blood-strewn images of wrecked cars, smashed bodies and drunk perpetrators handcuffed in custody. Prime time TV would have shown people carrying dead bodies of their loved ones to the chief minister’s house seeking redress. The chief secretary and the judiciary would have said, “No one would be allowed to play with innocent lives.” Finally, the CM’s diktat: Slam! Alcohol banned! After such an emotional and sensational build-up to a ban, who would have said that they did the wrong thing? Good for the world, it is lucky that it is not being run by the government of Punjab.

    For the ultra-conservative leaders of Punjab, basant fell in the same category as alcohol, cinema, theatre and music. Depending upon your sectarian leanings you can add women to this list. If the extremists have their way, cricket and hockey would follow the fate of basant and these days it seems that they are well on their way to accomplishing that. Oh, I forgot Food Street and the half-finished fully-banned multiplex on M M Alam Road.

    This, dear readers, is an ideological war. The loss of basant is just another battle won by the Deobandi/Wahabi/Salafi axis. It never was and it never will be about the loss of life — ideologues are notoriously careless about human life. Just take a look at the hundreds of millions of victims in the ideological wars of the last century. Or, closer to home, consider the Taliban’s love of human life. In reality the basant ban is about “vice eradication” and prevention of “moral decay”. Under siege in Punjab are happiness and joy and entertainment. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy calls it the ‘Arabisation’ of our society. The agenda is to turn this country into a cultural desert.

    (To be continued)

    The writer is a freelance columnist


  • Reasons behind the basant ban — II —Nasir Abbas Mirza

    The electronic media in Pakistan is enjoying the same unregulated free-for-all status that basant enjoyed for many decades. We surely do not want them to face the freedom-or-ban management philosophy of our governments

    In yesterday’s column we
    talked about the fact that “death of innocent people” is just a humanitarian excuse to ban basant. The truth is that our government and its machinery are callous about human lives or human rights. From General Ziaul Haq and Maula Jat (both circa 1979) to the present day we have become increasingly dehumanised. Thriving in our culture are brutality, violence, guns, cruelty, torture, militias and murder. No need to dwell further on that but do not be fooled by the ‘protection of innocent lives at all cost’ slogan. It was not death that moved our government (and the media); what outraged the moral police were some accidental deaths because two million people were having a good time.

    Take a brief look at the four main actors in this basant drama: the politicians, the bureaucrats, the media and the judiciary. The first two are easy to understand. In order to placate the right-wing religious extremists, any weak politician would ban basant. And if a politician happens to be a right-wing ideologue himself, then the job becomes even easier. The bureaucrats are the ultimate self-preserving organism. Sitting with the chief minister, a team of bureaucrats can come up with forceful arguments to ban basant. If, tomorrow, the current governor becomes the chief minister, the same team of bureaucrats would give equally forceful arguments in favour of celebrating basant. So let’s just pass them by.

    There were always some basant-related accidents but somehow those deaths did not make that big a sensationalist impression in the print media than it does on prime time TV. The Urdu newspapers’ “Arbon rupay bo kata” and “Khoon ki holi” are headlines as old as basant itself. Somehow, the timing of basant’s downfall and the electronic media’s rise is the same. ‘News business is show business’ and ‘sensational news sells’ are hackneyed sayings now. The media is as bottom line-driven as is a sugar hoarder. So they make sure that fear or violence or sex gets our attention. These are like best selling products. The way our media sells a basant accident is outrageously over the top. It is part fear, part selling, part morality, part guilt, part theatrics, part emotions, part sensation but always 100 percent good for the business’ bottom line.

    People do not think well for themselves. The mass media makes up their perception on any issue to the best (or worst) of its ability. The electronic media in Pakistan is enjoying the same unregulated free-for-all status that basant enjoyed for many decades. We surely do not want them to face the freedom-or-ban management philosophy of our governments. A little objectivity and a little unemotional and dispassionate analysis would not hurt anyone.

    We expected the judiciary to act differently. How could the judiciary not see though this media sensationalism and extremists forcing politicians to ban kite flying — the most beautiful and unique feature of Lahore? How could the judiciary not force the government to either regulate it or let it go on? How could the judiciary fail to distinguish between accidental death and murder? For the sake of expediency the bureaucrats and the politicians either did not conduct a risk analysis and even if they did conduct a risk analysis, they did a shoddy job. Why could the judiciary not ask for a proper and realistic risk analysis?

    In the risk equation, outrage and hazard do not carry equal weight. When hazard is high and outrage is low, people under-react. And when hazard is low and outrage is high, they overreact. As is evident, driving and heart attacks fall in the first category and air crashes, terrorist attacks or basant accidents fall in the second category. In the case of basant, everyone overreacted in a massive way and jumped to a conclusion.

    Here is an expert on this issue: risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different. Risks that you control are much less a source of outrage than risks that are beyond your control. This control principle also explains why people are more scared of flying in an airplane than driving a car. Their thinking goes like this: since I control the car, I am the one keeping myself safe; since I have no control of the airplane, I am at the mercy of myriad external factors…just as important as the control factor is the dread factor. Death by terrorist attacks (or mad cow disease) is considered wholly dreadful; death by heart disease is, for some reason, not.

    Death is mysterious and misunderstood. People die all the time: stress, food, drugs, accidents, war, disease, an act of terrorism or just plain human folly could kill you. When people get together in huge numbers, chances of accidents increase. That is why there are deaths during the Hajj congregation, the Kumbh Mela in India, the Carnival in Rio, football matches, the Pamplona bull-run festival and so on. Even first world resources and security standards fail to eliminate injuries and accidents. They try to regulate, educate, improve safety and security and steadily improve standards.

    Basant’s uniqueness makes it more challenging to manage. First, there is no demarcated route or area of festivities; the entire city becomes the festival arena. Secondly, in terms of mass participation, the millions who celebrate basant in Lahore must be one of the highest in the world including hundreds and thousands of children. Accidental deaths can be eliminated or deaths can be minimised but that happens after dozens of years of hard work. A knee-jerk ban is so easy.

    According to the Journal of American College of Cardiology, non-smokers living with smoking partners face a 92 percent increase in their risk of heart attack; breathing secondhand smoke boosts LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels, decreases HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, and increases your blood’s tendency to clot. That is innocent lives; people who do not smoke yet they suffer and die. What did we do about these deaths? Nothing: a ban on cigarette advertisement and a warning on the pack sufficed. Again, psychology and perception are at work here. Slow deaths do not bother anyone. Fear and dread work best in the present tense. Dying from pollution or smoking cannot be shown on TV live via satellite. Slow deaths are not even news, they are just statistics.

    People die doing ‘wheelies’ or girls die in fire in a jail-like hostel. Did anyone hear or see a “khoon ki holi” headline? Did I miss the courts taking suo motu actions on these deaths? Did anyone file a petition to ban hostels? The chief secretary did not utter a word on these deaths. Were these lives not innocent? Is there such a headline as “loss of guilty lives”? Should driving be banned? Should death be banned?

    I could continue on risk, death, fear, dread and how human beings perceive them but I will not. This was just to prove a point. The point is that basant (and kite flying) in Lahore has been banned because people were enjoying it. Since the days of General Ziaul Haq our society and our values have been distorted to a point where enjoyments are permitted either behind chaddar aur chardivari or they are permitted abroad. Basant on rooftops is the antithesis of this hypocrisy.


    The writer is a freelance columnist


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