The Pakistan State has a unique ability to find itself in farcical situations.

On Monday, the Islamabad High Court banned Valentine’s Day celebrations across the country on the eve of the festival of love. The rationale was a familiar one – that the celebration is against Pakistan’s culture and religion and promotes indecency. It is also a part of Western culture, imply members of the judiciary and parliament even as they are dressed in so-called Western clothes, holding power and ruling the country through institutions setup by the Westerners.

Even as police officials spent the next couple of days snatching heart-shaped balloons and trying to wipe all traces of Valentine’s Day from the country, catastrophe struck Pakistan. On the day of the ruling, a bomb ripped through a crowd gathered outside the Punjab Assembly in Lahore, killing at least 13, including top police officials, and wounding several others.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, thousands of people prepared to converge at Islamabad to commemorate the first death anniversary of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed on February 29 for the 2011 murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. Millions were collected in donations from all over the country to construct a shrine here for the assassin, by devotees who believe that by killing Taseer for opposing the country’s strict blasphemy laws, Qadri had done a service to his religion. Facing this structure is a newly planned housing scheme that markets itself on its proximity to the shrine. As his death anniversary nears, banners are coming up across the country celebrating Qadri.

This week has also seen at least three more terror attacks, most recently on a Sufi shrine in Sehwan on Thursday, which killed at least 70 according to initial reports.

But while hate is seeping into the land, it is the celebration of Valentine’s Day the State has deemed a threat to its culture.

Fighting for love

More often than is required, different institutions of the State bring up the culture of the country, which perpetually seems to be under threat – sometimes from contraceptive ads or from TV discussions on child abuse and at other times from educational institutes teaching comparative religion. Quite conveniently the world “culture” seemingly captures the essence of the multi-religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the country.

A few years ago, I drove to the small city of Chistian close to the Bahawal Nagar district in the Pakistan’s Punjab. The city is named after the prominent Chisti order of Sufism, which boasts prominent saints liked Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar and Nizamuddin Auliya. It is believed to have been established in the 13th century by a grandson of Baba Farid.

The Chisti order reflects the eclectic nature of Sufism and its religious syncretism, which drew into its folds devotees from different religious backgrounds, including Hinduism and Sikhism, thereby becoming popular. Qawwali, devotional Sufi music, for example, is believed to have been introduced in undivided India by this sect.

On an empty road, enclosed by darkness on both sides, we drove towards the shrine of Tajuddin Chisti, the founder of this city. Far away in the distance was a single ray of light emanating from the shrine. The darkness around us was a graveyard, “the largest in Asia”, we were later told.

In the graveyard, which extended into the shrine, were graves of family members and rich and powerful devotees who received the honour of being buried next to the saint.

In a corner of the massive shrine complex was a small building covered with pink tiles, at the centre of which was a modest grave. This was the grave of a nephew of Tajuddin Chisti, we were told. There were a few mud graves outside this small shrine, perhaps of the devotees of the saint who were from humble backgrounds. Several burnt out lamps that once kept alive the memories of the deceased were scattered around them.

On an uncovered part of the nephew’s shrine, a small heart had been made out of pink tiles and around it, names of couples had been scribbled using oil from these lamps. Couples who are unable to marry because of social opposition come to this shrine and write their names on its wall. The saint, it is believed, then helps them iron their difficulties out.

Heer-Ranjha's tomb in Jhang, Pakistan. [Photo: Khalid Mahmood via Wikimedia Commons]
Heer-Ranjha's tomb in Jhang, Pakistan. [Photo: Khalid Mahmood via Wikimedia Commons]

There is a similar practice at the shrine of Heer and Ranjha in Jhang, Central Punjab. Standing on a small mound, this single-storey structure covered with blue and white tiles, crowned with a green dome, is said to contain the graves of Heer and Ranjha, the legendary lovers who were interred together to honour their timeless love.

If there is one thing that forms the essence of Punjabi identity irrespective of religious affiliation, it is the story of Heer-Ranjha. Every day, thousands of devotees gather at the courtyard of this shrine to pay homage to this legend of love. The wall here too is covered with names of couples whose love story faces societal hurdles.

Even as some Pakistanis were debating whether Valentine’s Day is in keeping with our culture, other citizens, far away from the urban centers, gathered at the courtyards of these shrines to pray for their relationships. Someone forgot to tell them celebrating love is not part of our culture.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.