Lahoris are famous for their passion for kite-flying — a passion that survived strong opposition from the influential religious right for decades, but couldn’t manage to withstand ‘corporatisation and official patronage’ of the sport for very long.
More than six years after the sport was banned and Basant celebrations heralding spring prohibited in the wake of deaths in kite-flying related accidents, the people still try and cling every year to the slightest and the weakest signal from the city administration for the revival of the festival that once was part of their growing-up experience in the city.
“What the orthodox religious lobbies could not achieve by decreeing Basant festivities as an un-Islamic and Hindu ritual came into being because the government didn’t have what it takes to protect the citizens’ right to enjoy their life the way they want to,” says Ihsanul Haq, a businessperson from Mozang.
“Instead of implementing the laws regulating the kite business to minimise the risk to human life, the inept bureaucracy and the police hierarchy have convinced the politicians to outlaw the sport. This kind of thinking dictates most actions of our rulers who would ban pillion riding and switch off our cellphones in the wake of a terrorist attack in the city or even in anticipation of it. Easy solutions to complex issues cannot solve our problems,” he argues.
Deaths caused by celebratory gunshots, falls from the rooftops, electrocution or road accidents related to Basant celebrations had always been an ‘accepted’ part of the game. But the images of motorcyclists and children with their throats cut by razor-sharp twine lined with abrasive chemicals and excessive crushed glass or killed by gunshots shown by television channels in the early 2000s triggered widespread public outcry against the ‘killer’ sport. It also provided fresh ammunition to the religious groups for their campaign against the ‘pagan’ festival. Those feeling angry over repeated power breakdowns due to kite-flying too joined the chorus.
The first ban on kite-flying, though for a period of three months only, was slapped by the then city Nazim Mian Amer Mahmood, a former activist of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) who enjoyed close links with the generals. As the entry of multinationals, big banks, generals, bureaucrats, politicians, media groups and film and sports celebrities, as well as organisation of Basant celebrations at official level created a cut-throat competition, the use of banned materials in the preparation of lethal string used to bring down the rival’s kites increased.
As the number of deaths rose, the Supreme Court banned kite-flying/Basant festivities until a legal framework was put in place to regulate the business as well as the game itself. The government made extensive regulations, banned the use of chemical and metal reinforced string and proposed stringent punishments for the violators to get the Court’s ban lifted for 15 days for the Jashan-i-Baharaan in 2006. But the relief period was cut short by more deaths as law enforcers found it impossible to chase the violators and the sport and the business —manufacturing and sale of all kinds of materials used for making kites and string — was banned for an indefinite period.
Ever since, many have approached the courts for removal of the ban for 15 days each year as provided in the Punjab Kite Flying Prohibition Ordinance, pleading that the revival of kite flying business was crucial to save thousands of families associated with the trade. “It is surprising that the petitioners have never pointed out the significance of Basant and this centuries-old tradition for the cultural life of the city,” says Mubashir Bashir, a financial expert by profession. “What matters most to me is not jobs — although they remain a major concern, but the revival of the tradition that cuts across religious, economic, social and other divides.”
Ihsan points out that the way Basant is celebrated in Lahore is unique. “The city’s weather — cool breeze blowing under a clear, blue sky — in February, just when winter is departing, and the architectural layout of the Walled City and its residents’ unmatched passion for kites provide a perfect setting for this sport. It is the culture of the old city that has helped the people defy the decrees by religious groups against Basant. Therefore, it is no surprise that no other city in the entire subcontinent has ever attracted kite lovers from around the world as Lahore has. Even Basant festivals organised in Indian cities like Jaipur have failed to catch the attention of the world.”
As the time for traditional Basant celebrations is approaching with the beginning of February, Lahoris are once again asking: Will their sky ever be dotted with colourful kites and their rooftops resonate with the shouts of ‘bo kata’? More importantly, will their children be allowed to experience what they had in their childhood?
There are no easy answers to these questions because no-one would want loss of another innocent life for the sake of pleasure. Still the old days can be revived provided everybody — the administration, the police, the people, etc — agree to play the game according to the rules.
After all, those trapped by the sharp twine could be anybody’s friend or family.