WHEN we are being hit by a wave of terrorist attacks, what does the government do?

Why, send the cops chasing after kite-flying kids and enforcing the ban on Valentine’s Day, of course. Never mind that we are a laughing stock around the world, with cartoons showing armed policemen grabbing red balloons with hearts painted on them.

You’d think with so much death and destruction caused by jihadists, our judges and police force would have their hands full. But never let it be said that we don’t have our priorities right: clearly, the danger from young men and women giving each other chocolates and Valentine’s cards is far greater than that posed by vicious killers.

Let’s not forget the threat from those flying kites.

And let us not forget the threat from those having fun flying kites on Basant. Shahbaz Sharif, the hyperactive chief minister of Punjab, sent out a tweet warning of dire consequences for officials who failed to crack down on those guilty of flying or selling kites.

But don’t think Nawaz Sharif is oblivious to the terror threat. In a recent security meeting, he said: “The only solution to end the continuing acts of terror seems to be an indiscriminate, immediate and ruthless operation against terrorists.” Well, hallelujah! It appears that after years of mayhem, our prime minister has finally grasped what needs to be done.

However, whether he will actually act on his own profound analysis of the situation is doubtful. After the 2014 terror attack on the Peshawar Army School that killed around 130 children, our prime minister was almost forced by public opinion and an outraged military to sign up to the National Action Plan.

Despite the proliferation of committees and sub-committees, nothing much has happened. Our TV chat shows continue to spew their message of hate; our school and college curricula are still full of their xenophobic material; and our clerics go on with their vicious rants.

And while the army has cracked down on terrorists in Fata and Karachi, Punjab remains a no-go area. The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, made his sympathies clear when he declared one group of militants kosher. Why he is still sitting in the cabinet after the scathing Justice Qazi Faez Isa report on the Quetta blast is beyond me.

By word and deed, the Sharifs and their inner circle have shown their soft corner for extremists. Ever since he tried to declare Sharia the law of the land and appoint himself the commander of the faithful through the 15th Amendment in 1998, we have been aware of his fundamentalist tendencies.

His foot-dragging over military operations against the TTP, and his insistence on protracted negotiations against an inflexible and ruthless foe was a further reminder of where he stands. Apart from personal conviction, his stance is based on his need for political support from the religious right.

This is confirmed by the appointment of somebody like Rana Sanaullah as a provincial minister. This worthy hobnobs constantly with leaders of groups known for their violence. With the Punjab government refusing to allow the Rangers to take on the vipers that infest south Punjab, attacks like the most recent one in Lahore are all but inevitable.

But for the Sharifs, this is a price worth paying for electoral success. They are afraid of being outflanked on the right by Imran Khan. The leader of the PTI — PML-N’s sole rival — has also shown his sympathy for the TTP in the past, and appeals to the same religious right constituency.

So when Shahbaz Sharif banned kite-flying, it was not because of any concern for human life: he was simply appeasing the mullahs who have always agitated against Basant. Although they claim it is a Hindu festival, it has traditionally been observed by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab to welcome the arrival of spring.

But clearly, the sight of anybody having fun is anathema to our clerics. Like the Afghan Taliban who banned kite-flying, music and sports, our fundamentalists want to erase all signs of colour, light and joy from our lives. And in the Sharifs, they have politicians who will happily play along as long as they can hang on to power.

It is true that our version of kite-flying has led to deaths and injuries through aerial firing and the use of metallic string. But it is the failure of the Punjab government to control these dangerous practices that has led to deaths and injuries. When our politicians resort to firing in the air to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a son, they can hardly stop people from the same barbaric expression of joy when they cut the string of a rival’s kite.

I have many happy memories of Basant, when friends would gather on rooftops with stacks of kites and lots of food and drink, and victorious shouts of “Bo kata!” would resound across Lahore. I am sorry my grandsons will be denied this simple, traditional pleasure.


Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2017



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