It was the greatest festival of Lahore, Basant was. A celebration of the arrival of spring, the festival was one of the last remnants of our pre-Islamic culture, popularly associated most with kite flying. Across the city, wherever there was an open ground or a garden, and there were plenty, it would be taken over by kite flyers. On the streets, little children in tattered clothes would chase kites descending from the sky. All manner of shopkeepers, whether selling groceries, books or cloth, would stock a pile of kites, for there were never enough. Many Lahoris abroad who could afford only one trip home a year would visit around Basant. For a day or too, a deeply religious society that had gradually shunned its non-Muslim heritage after Partition would suspend its inhibition and make merry. The final show would last a night and day.
There were always people who held any association with the country’s non-Muslim traditions as anathema, and they would protest, asking for the festival to be banned. But the state, otherwise never shy to concede ground to the religious right, would turn a deaf ear. The festival was just too important to be abandoned; it was essential to being a Lahori. It was also celebrated in other cities around Punjab, but there was nothing like Lahore’s Basant. Karachi had its sea, Islamabad had its mountains, Lahore had its Basant.
On almost every rooftop, music would blare from loudspeakers as men, women and children flew colourful kites while others gorged on food or lazed around. It was as if the entire city was swaying to the arrival of the spring breeze, with the kites littering the sky jumping along to the beats of the music. Around the turn of the century, as the military ruler Pervez Musharraf ushered in multinational corporations, the festival was highly commercialised and an industry of event planners, sponsors and concert organisers grew round it. For serious kite flyers, however, all this was peripheral to kite flying competitions. And that was not all fun. People had been killed as a result of rivalries that started in such competitions; many had fallen off their roofs, their eyes glued to the sky and holding firm the strings of their kites as they fell to their death. As competitions grew fiercer, stronger and sharper strings arrived that could cut through one’s fingers if pulled too forcefully. But the kite flyers injured thus wore bandages on their fingers like warriors their scars. Eventually, there emerged the supposedly unbreakable “chemical-coated” strings. Those using it were invincible, it was said, for their kites could not be cut free.
The Supreme Court, though, was not amused. In 2005, it ordered the state to ban the celebration of Basant, saying that it endangered public safety. Turned out the stray strings were cutting through the necks of innocent bikers on the roads. Many had died in this manner over the years with both the makers and users of the deadly strings oblivious to the great harm they were causing. After the ban, the festival dwindled.
It made a comeback in 2007 when the local government lifted the ban, only to witness more deaths from stray strings. In 2009, Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab, again lifted the ban in an attempt to dampen the “Long March” that Nawaz Sharif was planning against the federal government of Taseer’s Pakistan People’s Party. Again, there were a few deaths and the ban was reimposed.
Since then, every February has been greeted with rumours of the Punjab government lifting the ban. This year too, there were such rumours and a host of organisations lobbied for the ban to be lifted, but in vain. Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif – a Lahori who once patronised the festival like his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – has categorically rejected the demand to remove the restriction.
That is unfortunate, not least for a generation of young adults that has grown up in Punjab without witnessing its greatest festival. The older people, of course, cherish the memories they have of celebrating it. But, if the ban is not lifted, and soon, Basant will become a fading memory, another cultural treasure lost. Only a handful of people in Punjab today remember celebrating Lohri or Baisakhi like festivals were meant to. Is the same fate awaiting Basant?
Haroon Khalid is the author of Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.