An age-old festival associated with the advent of spring season and the farm activity that it heralds, Basant is celebrated on both sides of the Punjab and in India is banned by a court order. The ban came during the reign of military leader Pervez Musharraf and perpetuated by the PPP and Nawaz Sharif Governments. Thus, all are guilty of smothering an essentially cultural festival that allows celebrations to the common people…writes Rifan Ahmed Khan
Blinded by religious tenets as it perceives them and afraid to challenge the Islamic clergy that perpetuates them, Pakistan is unlikely to lift a 12-year-old ban and celebrate the Basant festival this year as well. The Basant date will fall towards the end of this month or early February. But the Imran Khan Government is still dilly-dallying before the court where its tentative decision, announced on December 18, has been challenged.
Assuming it is lifted, there is hardly any time for women to get their yellow salwar-kameez ready, the men their yellow turbans and the makers and sellers, their colourful kites, manja, ‘phirki’ and all that goes into the celebrations.
We are not even talking of Gaajar (carrot) halwa and laddoos that go with Basant. Or, for that matter, musicians and drummers on his lusty beats the Punjabis, anywhere, dance their Bhangra and Gidha.
Down the ages, Basant or Basant Panchmi, falling on the fifth day of the lunar Maagh month, is celebrated by all communities. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had made it into a colourful event and Mela lasting days.
Historically, Maharaja Ranjit Singh held an annual Basant fair and introduced kite flying as a regular feature of the fairs held during the 19th century which included holding fairs at Sufi shrines. Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his queen Moran would dress in yellow and fly kites on Basant.
The association of kite flying with Basant soon became a Punjabi tradition with the centre in Lahore which remains the regional hub of the festival throughout the Punjab region. Indeed, Maharaja Ranjit Singh held a darbar or court in Lahore on Basant which lasted ten days during which time soldiers would dress in yellow and show their military prowess.Other traditions of the Basant in Lahore included women swaying on swings and singing.
An age-old festival associated with the advent of spring season and the farm activity that it heralds, Basant is celebrated on both sides of the Punjab and in India, also Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. But for various reasons, Punjab remains the principal hub.
Within Punjab, the bigger part being in Pakistan today, it has traditionally been the biggest festival of Malwa region and covers Lahore and Kasur, but also India’s Amritsar, Ferozepur an Gurdaspur districts on the India-Pakistan border. And when it comes to kite-flying, it goes beyond Rawalpindi and Peshawar.
So far as Pakistan is concerned, it is a sad part of contemporary history in that a ban was impose in 2004 on the specious ground that a lot of people die flying kites or rooftops, terraces or on the roads and that the ‘manja’, the glass or metal-laced string used for flying kites, has many birds getting entangled and killed.
While these are the facts, instead of assuaging them by creating greater awareness among revellers about safety measures or by increased and quicker medical assistance, the festival was banned through a court order that remains in force.
For the record, the ban came during the reign of military leader Pervez Musharraf and perpetuated by the PPP and Nawaz Sharif Governments. Thus, all are guilty of smothering an essentially cultural festival that allows celebrations to the common people.
Behind all this is the campaign that it is ‘un-Islamic’ to celebrate. The festifal is given a Hindu label. The 2004 ban came after a petition by newspaper chain Nawa-i-Waqt. Someone opposed the festival on the ground that it was an ‘insult’ Prophet Mohammed by Hindu Raja Haqiqat Rai.
Nobody challenged it and everyone fell in line, ignoring pleas of civil society, cultural bodies, the young and those whose business interests were hurt.
This remains the case even today– only multiplied since Imran Khan’s sympathies for the Islamist zealots are too well-known to be ignored. He has made compromises, even taking U-turns on appointing non-Muslim people in prominent posts and generally, succumbing to the various Sunni extremist groups.
Interestingly, there is a suggestion that if at all Basant is to be celebrated, it should re re-named “al-Basant” — given an Arabic twist to make it acceptable to the mullahs.
If his government made the announcement to lift the ban, critics say that is to divert public attention from failing economy, energy crisis in all areas and beginning of challenges to his much-promised, much- hyped but dismal governance.
The mullahs reacted to the December announcement and as always, someone not clergy propped up by them challenged it. The decision was challenged in the high court, where the petitioner had claimed that it was “unconstitutional” to allow a leisure activity “that results in the loss of human lives”, and accused the government of lifting the ban to divert attention from public issues.
The petitioner had asked the court to declare the government’s decision as illegal, and initiate contempt-of-court proceedings against Punjab Information and Culture Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan, the provincial chief secretary, and the Punjab police chief.
When it came up for hearing before the court, the Punjab government’s stance on the festival appeared to have softened as its counsel told the court that “the decision to celebrate Basant was “merely a recommendation at this point.”
Writing in Dawn newspaper (January 6, 2019), Majid Sheikh has sought a “cultural status” for Basant like those in parts of Europe that celebrate bull-fight and throwing tomatoes at each other. Even if people are hurt or die, they are held with adequate safety and public awareness. The solution, he pleads is not ban innocent fun.
But the problem lies elsewhere. His plea is opposed, as in the case of court petition, on religious ground. In a country where hundreds die each year in terror attacks, militancy, attacks specially on the minorities by Sunni extremists, besides natural calamities and common criminal activity, excessive emphasis is being given to the casualties that Basant festivities cause.
Sheikh notes that when the Punjab government announced the holding of Basant in 2019, “there was widespread happiness among those who understand the spirit and history of this ancient spring festival.”
“Pakistanis in Europe and the USA started to book flights back home. Amazingly in London’s Southall a travel agent started advertising a five-day ‘Basant Holiday’.
“But then bad news could not be far behind when it comes to Basant. A legal gent went to the Lahore High Court claiming that it was a “dangerous pastime” that kills young children. Bizarre that such a claim is, the PTI government added to the disillusionment of the people of Lahore when it told the honourable court that a “decision on the matter has yet to be made”.
“The political decision-making paralysis one can understand, but it spoke more of the incompetent bureaucrats who run the city and the province. More so it also spoke of a police force that now completely lacks imagination and is incapable of creating serious well thought-out strategies at problem-solving.”
Sheikh points out that in “every country of the world spring brings with it a variety of festivals. Basant depicts the colours of our countryside fields when the yellow flowers of the ‘saag’ fields are in full bloom.”
The police records tell us that in Lahore in 2018 over 130 persons were killed crossing roads, with 97 being hit by speeding motorcycles. Had there been proper footpaths and people educated to cross at zebra crossings only, all these could have been prevented. Accidents related to kites come to a mere five, with four being speeding motorcycle related and one falling off the roof. Do not the official figures speak for themselves?”
But Sheikh’s plea, like that of many others in Pakistan, not speak of the silent desire of the people to relieve themselves from religious and social constraints and let their hair down, are likely to fail. That, at least, is the situation now. Unless, the Imran Khan Government takes courage and does a U-turn to its earlier U-turn.