After much anticipation and headline grabbing, a petition filed by three infants, demanding a ban on festive firecrackers in Delhi, was quashed by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.  Chief Justice HL Dattu and Justice Arun Kumar  ruled that banning fireworks during Diwali could lead to a "dangerous situation", because some people could claim that they have a right to burst crackers.

Delhi is notorious for being dangerously polluted on the average day, but in October and November – when festivals like Dussehra and Diwali are celebrated – fears about pollution seem to reach a peak. This year, in anticipation of the problem, three concerned fathers in Delhi indirectly petitioned the Supreme Court through their babies. Arjun Gopal, Aarav Bhandari and Zoya Rao Bhasin, aged between 6 months and 14 months, approached the court with their fathers as “next friends”, demanding a clean-up of Delhi’s toxic air, which hurts the health of children the most. The public interest petition asked for a ban on the dumping of pollutants, the implementation of more stringent Bharat-V emission norms and an independent body to review the government’s anti-pollution work.

But the petition was most publicised for one demand in particular – a ban on any form of fire crackers during the celebration of festivals. Increasing eco-consciousness has led to a definite drop in the sale of Diwali fireworks in the past few years, and last year, the Delhi government attempted to address pollution concerns by banning poor-quality Chinese crackers and the bursting of fireworks after 10 pm.

However, demanding a complete ban of festive crackers often ruffles community feathers. In response to the infants' petition, for instance, an association of cracker manufacturers filed a counter case in the Supreme Court claiming that a ban on fireworks during Diwali would affect Hindu tradition and hurt religious sentiments.

A brief history of fireworks in India

Those who emphasise that fireworks are a part of Hindu religious tradition are both right and wrong.

Gunpowder, the explosive chemical that forms the basis of fire crackers, was invented in 10th century China, several centuries after the Ramayana is said to be dated. “When the festival of Diwali started out, there were no firecrackers – people just lit lamps and diyas,” said Mahant Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a temple priest in Varanasi and a professor at Benaras Hindu University. “Fireworks were incorporated later, over time.”

The earliest known Sanskrit text to mention fireworks was from the early 16th century, possibly dated between 1497 and 1539, academician PK Gode noted in his book A History of Fireworks in India, published in 1953. The text, Kautukacintamani, by Gajapati Prataparudradeva of Orissa, contains a few Sanskrit verses on the ingredients needed to manufacture fireworks, including sulphur, charcoal, saltpetre, quicksilver, a hollow piece of bamboo and cow urine.

Before this text, in 1466, fireworks were said to be introduced in Kashmir, according to a Persian treatise on the manufacture of fireworks by Kashmiri king Zain-ul-Abidin, who reigned from 1421-1472.

Gode also found a treatise from Karnataka dated after 1400 describing a form of fireworks for display for the king, and a text in Marathi from the early 1500s describing the use of fireworks in a wedding procession. Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese voyager who travelled to India in 1518, made a reference to firecrackers in his own writing, where he described a Brahmin Gujarati wedding that included “firing of bombs and rockets in plenty, for their pleasure”.

Fireworks and Diwali

One of the earliest written references to fireworks during Diwali, according to Gode, was from the Peshwa period of the mid-1700s. They were described in Marathi as “Daruchi Lanka” (a Lanka of fireworks), the crackers were set off during the Diwali festival to be displayed for the king.

Evidently, the tradition of bursting firecrackers on Diwali has been around for a good 300 years or more, even if it may not have been a part of the festival in ancient times. Incorporating fireworks into the celebrations of Diwali made symbolic sense. “Sound and light were traditionally meant to scare away misfortune,” said author and mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik.

For people like Mahant Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, this is reason enough for preserving the tradition. “I understand pollution concerns, but it is not right to impose rules and regulations by targeting religion,” said Mishra. “Today, many more people in cities are bursting crackers compared to 40 years ago, but there are other ways of convincing people to curb air pollution.”

On October 22, Delhi did manage to bring down air pollution levels – by an impressive 59% – on Dussehra, by banning not crackers but cars on a 5-km stretch of road for a day.

Does that mean fire crackers should be given leeway for the sake of religious sentiment? The guardians of the three infants who sought a ban from the Supreme Court don’t think so, and their petition cites Article 25 of the Constitution to argue the point: Indians have the freedom to practice religion “subject to public order, morality and health”. According to Pattnaik, the debate is, in essence, “a conflict between tradition, modernity and civic sense”.

Going by the apex court's latest ruling, tradition seems to have won the battle for now.