I WAS willing to forgive this government a lot when it announced that it had set aside the ban on Basant, and this year, kites would fly triumphantly over Lahore.
But almost inevitably, we saw yet another PTI U-turn, and it seems we’ll have to wait for at least another year for the revival of this popular festival. But don’t hold your breath: the committee set up to examine the issue has decided it needs more time to ensure that the skies do not fall if Lahoris celebrate the first day of spring.
Having enjoyed several Basants with friends on rooftops in Lahore, I can only feel sorry for the younger generation who are missing out on this fun-filled festival. The argument given for the ban imposed 12 years ago was that every year, there were a number of deaths and injuries caused by glass-coated and metallic string, as well as by falls from rooftops as kids chased kites that had lost duels in the sky.
Clerics believe that having fun turns minds away from religious duties.
This is a bit like saying that cars should be banned because there are so many road accidents. I have never been able to understand why the Punjab administration cannot put a stop to the manufacture of glass-coated string. After all, if the Punjab police can brutally disrupt protest rallies, surely it should be capable of arresting a few people who produce this lethal string.
My long experience in the bureaucracy has taught me that when a government wants to duck a decision, it forms a committee. This is a time-tested way of kicking the can down the road, and avoiding personal responsibility if a decision goes wrong.
So when the ‘Basant committee’ said there wasn’t enough time to take the “administrative measures necessary” to hold the festival, it sounded like the members were being asked to organise the Olympic Games. The fact is that Basant used to be a people’s initiative, with no input from the administration required.
This government has been very gung-ho about its plans to promote tourism. What better way to attract local and foreign tourists than the lively, colourful occasion that is Basant? Imagine a clear blue sky full of swooping kites, much food, the occasional drink, and the sound of drums drowned by a triumphant ‘Wo kata!’, or, in the vernacular, simply ‘Bo!’ as a rival kite’s string is cut by a more skilful flier.
This used to happen at this time of the year for centuries in cities across Punjab until the killjoys stepped in. For successive governments that care little about the welfare of citizens, banning a popular festival like Basant had to have a more pressing reason. In this case, it was the pressure of mullahs who see the celebration of spring as a Hindu festival. And like the Taliban, they abhor the sight of ordinary people enjoying themselves.
As we all know only too well, when the clerics oppose something, it isn’t long before our rulers fall in line. Instead of making sure the festival is as safe as possible, this government has caved in even before a religious edict was issued. This is despite the fact that the Supreme Court decreed that the celebration of Basant could go ahead, provided it remained within the ambit of the law.
The ban, and its continuation under the PTI, shows just how weak successive civil administrations have grown over the years. Not only do they fail to crack down on the manufacture of illegal kite string, but they crawl and cringe before the might of a handful of agitators who shut down cities in the name of religion.
The Taliban in Afghanistan had also banned kite-flying when they were in power. Ditto music, cricket, chess and anything else that brought a little joy in a war-ravaged country. The last straw that united the world against these mediaeval zealots was the destruction of the giant rock carvings of Buddha at Bamiyan.
No wonder many view religious practices in the Muslim world as joyless, where simple pleasures like kite-flying are banned. Even though the scriptures are silent on the subject, ultra-orthodox clerics are convinced that having fun turns minds away from their religious duties, and should therefore be prohibited.
And so we live according to a list of do’s and don’ts compiled by clerics who seek to control us. For many fundamentalists, the Taliban and the Saudis are role models to be emulated. While they have succeeded in driving many pleasurable activities underground, kite-flying is not something that can be concealed in the privacy of homes.
When this government proceeds with its plans to increase tourism, it should remember that foreigners travel to distant lands to enjoy local festivals and explore ancient sites. If we can’t exploit our most colourful cultural events to pull in tourists, we are doing something very wrong.
Ultimately, we need to address the growing tension between extremism and innocent fun.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2019