IF we had our way, we would have had our Basant bash last Sunday, the second Sunday of February being the day when we would all climb up to the rooftops in a popular welcome to spring.
The digression has been checked. We are in the process of rooting out all wasteful acts that have corrupted our system. It is a tribute to the clean air we breathe and the danger-free times we live in that Sunday, Feb 12, found the law of this land coming to the rescue of a young soul.
Muhammad Arsalan is an eighth-grader being crafted into a responsible citizen in fun-loving Gujranwala. He was held for wanting to fly a kite. Luckily, the government took note. Following an assurance by the provincial law minister, a district and sessions judge arrived in the Gujranwala jail and accepted the one-rupee surety bond which won the 13-year-old his freedom.
The story hardly requires artificial drama. But as trends go, there is no escape from the beaming images of a desperately frightened boy in handcuffs crying out: “Please forgive me. I will never touch a kite again.”
The boy’s father comes up with additional information of his own for effect. He clarifies to the press that Arsalan did not belong to any kite-flying “criminal group”. He was arrested catching a stray kite when Gujranwala only allows its inhabitants to catch a bunch of migratory birds, barbecue them and savour and sell the cultural experience.
The folly, indeed the alleged crime, landed the teenager in jail and, reportedly, prevented him from sitting in an exam for promotion to the next grade. It also exposed a few policemen and a magistrate who wouldn’t let the boy go on bail to a bit of a probe by the media and the district courts.
The Punjab Prohibition of Kite Flying Act was created in 2001 and amended in 2009. It says “no person shall commit or abet an act of kite-flying, manufacture, sell or offer to sale a kite; and manufacture, store or offer for sale metallic wire, nylon cord, any other thread coated with sharp manja or any other injurious material for the purpose of kite-flying”.
The act did offer the incorrigible kite-flyers some hope when it said, “The nazim concerned may, through a notification issued with the prior approval of the government, allow kite-flying and sale of kites for a period of 15 days during the spring season in a year.”
The nazims have since been shunted out, which was expected as they were a creation of Gen Musharraf’s messy entanglement with local-level governments. The ban continues to hold without relief. On Feb 5, for example, five arrests under the Kite Flying Act were reported from Faisalabad.
Each violator is liable to imprisonment for up to three years or a fine not exceeding Rs100,000 or both. This is an extreme scenario. Yet, in routine situations, the ‘alleged’ kite-flyers may end up bargaining for a longer time than the one night and few hours that Muhammad Arsalan spent behind bars — unless the media intervenes in its search for fillers to run between events involving the real high-flying people.
Even when the cause of a lone kite-flyer is taken up by the sensitive, little energy has been spent in finding a way that could help return to Lahore and other Punjab cities their Basant festival. The ban may have been a result of deaths caused by the sharp string that some cruelly thoughtless enthusiasts had chosen for their kites amid growing, as it were, cut-throat, competition. But the debate goes much beyond and inevitably culminates in Basant being described as a cultural-religious digression we must refrain from in the name of purity.
The debate is as religious as it is political and governed by the classic political-cultural divide that refuses to disappear. It is ideological. When the PML-N government imposes the ban, the PPP man in the Governor’s House must lament the Sharifs’ lack of understanding of all things cultural. The two sides remain at loggerheads, dashing hopes of a meaningful discussion for an acceptable solution.
The Punjab government demands strict adherence to the law. Station House Officers have been told that violations in their area would not be tolerated. SHOs and police officers of higher ranks have been deemed to have been punished over their failure to rein in the kite-flyers.
In November 2011, for instance, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif suspended the officer in charge of the Sabzazar area in Lahore after the unfortunate death of a bike-rider due to a kite-string injury. An official handout had the CM vowing he would not spare a police officer who could not ensure an effective ban on kites.
The thana the officer was working at was all too willing to spare him, though. The officer was back in service the next day, this time working with the less visible anti-terrorism beat with the investigation squad in the adjacent Allama Iqbal Town locality, but not before he had instilled the fear of the angry Punjab rulers in the heart of his colleagues all over.
The police who caught Muhammad Arsalan in Gujranwala are beholden to the law, just as they might be a bit wary of an administration that works by humiliating those it holds guilty of not performing their duties. After a hearing yesterday they now face an inquiry by the city police chief.
Officially, the incident should fulfil the purpose of boosting the people’s confidence in a government that knows best what to ban and which violator to save with benevolent intervention. It should also restore Pakistanis’ trust in the Pakistani currency, so long as it is wisely spent.
In the book, it took just one rupee for Arsalan to come out of jail — just as a rupee that a barrister charges as his fee does not, cannot, guarantee a prime minister an acquittal. The PPP you can never trust with money.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.