Too many things are going on worth writing about. But for me something more important than all the major stories filling the newspapers and TV headlines is the one about Basant (festival of the kites). Evidently, the governor and the chief minister of Punjab have agreed that the people of Lahore will be allowed to fly kites this year. That is great news and is in its own way more important than the sort of stuff consuming the attention of our op-ed page commentariat as well as the talking heads on TV.
For me Basant and the soaring multicolour kites have always represented the irrepressible spirit of the citizens of Lahore. Festivals like Basant give ordinary people a chance to have some fun and contrary to the opinion of spoilsports, Basant is a festival that people from all social strata can enjoy equally and up to their financial wherewithal. Here I must admit that like Charlie Brown I have never been able to fly a kite myself but just the sight of kites flying around me and in the sky above me is a source of considerable elation.
Melas (country fairs), religious festivals and celebrations at the tombs of Sufi saints have always been a place where people from all segments of society came together and participated without any class distinction. In its own way these occasions fostered a sense of camaraderie and egalitarianism. Almost equally important from a slightly different perspective are the socially beneficial effects of rural as well as urban celebrations of a family nature revolving around the major events in normal lifecycles where poor people were able to get a decent meal every so often.
Basant had become a major social event in the life of the people of Lahore and the festivities provided considerable source of employment as well as sustenance for many poor workers involved in the kite flying industry. Besides that, hoteliers, caterers and traditional cooks had a field day and many made enough money to see them through hard times. I accept as valid the major objection to kite flying that the use of metal and chemically treated strings poses a serious public hazard. However, proper law enforcement can contain this threat if not eliminate it entirely.
As it is, the imposition of a grim and terrifying vision of our great faith has drowned out much of what was once the rollicking free spirit and openness that was the hallmark of being a Punjabi. Slowly but surely we are sliding down the path of moral self-righteousness and excessive public piety to the point where having fun is somehow now considered un-Islamic. Of course in our land of the pure, hypocrisy reigns supreme. Those who can enjoy things in life that do not sit well with the purveyors of righteousness do whatever they want in private while in public they are only too willing to subscribe to a politically correct subservience to religiosity.
I have said it before and I will say it again that liberals like me cannot fight the battle against religious obscurantism on our own. We must find allies among the truly believing Muslims that are a majority in this country. After all, most who are considered conservative in their religious orientation still believe in what might be called liberal ideas like participatory democracy, equality of all under the law and the right of people to live their lives free from oppressive state intervention.
It is, therefore, important for liberals to identify areas where we can find common ground with the conservatives around us. For me, Basant is one such issue where most Pakistanis and especially those of us who live in Lahore can find something to support irrespective of our religious predisposition. I realise that flying kites does not seem to be an issue of great national significance but it is definitely important from a symbolic point of view. Here we must first look at the reasons why Basant was ‘cancelled’ in the first place. Taking advantage of the problem of metal and chemically treated strings used for flying kites, the ‘spoilsports’ led by the religious parties were able to convince both the provincial government of Punjab as well as the higher judiciary that kite flying was a dangerous activity and violated the rights of individuals who were injured by these strings.
Clearly this is correct but the ban on Basant also violates the right of people who wish to indulge in what is historically a harmless activity and a source of considerable enjoyment for the ‘masses’. It is equally clear that the state must assure safety of ordinary people as best as it can. As such I might venture to suggest that perhaps liberals as well as conservatives can find common ground when it comes to Basant.
And yes if the Punjab government cannot even prevent the sale of ‘dangerous’ strings, how can it possibly safeguard the lives of its citizens when it comes to terrorism and violent crime! Let this be a test case and if the police can assure that dangerous string is not sold, I as a citizen of Lahore, will start feeling a lot better about the crime fighting capability of our police force.
That Basant will happen is not a foregone conclusion. Once the time for such activity comes closer the ‘spoilsport’ lobby will come out in full force. The issue of dangerous strings will be raised again and again as will the historically incorrect idea that Basant was started by Hindus to denigrate Islam. What kite flying has to do with religion is of course beside the point.
Whether Basant is allowed will in my opinion tell us a lot about where our government and senior judiciary really stands when it comes to issues that are opposed by religious extremists even when these issues have no connection or relevance to our faith. Let there be Basant I say!
The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Article published in Daily Times, reproduced by permission of DT