After months of vacillation, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government in Punjab finally decided against lifting the 10-year ban on Basant. Lahore’s greatest festival, Basant, which celebrates the arrival of spring by flying kites, was banned because it had become a bloody sport. With the kite strings becoming sharper and stronger, many unaware pedestrians and commuters were injured and even killed, mostly by stray strings cutting through their necks. The strings also damaged power transmission lines.

Yet, the Tehreek-i-Insaf, ruling with a hair-thin majority in the country’s most populous province, wanted to do what no political party could in the past decade, not even Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, which has long been established in Punjab and considers Lahore its citadel. In the end, the party chose to maintain the status quo.

Though several cities celebrated Basant, or their versions of it, Lahore’s was always the grandest. Thousands of revelers from across Punjab and beyond would converge on the city to take part in the festivities. Of course, there were always those who vehemently opposed the “pagan festival”. But they were largely ignored by the public.

Basant, like several other “seasonal festivals” of Punjab, has a pre-Islamic origin. In modern times, it received state patronage during the reign of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh when it was conjoined with Mela Chiraghan, or the festival of lights, a celebration of the life of Sufi poet Shah Hussain. While Partition abruptly halted many “cultural traditions” of Lahore and Punjab, Basant continued to be celebrated.

After 1947, as Lohri, Baisakhi and other such festivals started to fade away, Basant continued to capture the imagination of the people. It served as one of the last connections to pre-Partition multicultural Lahore. Thus, even as criticism persisted of the festival not reflecting Pakistan’s “Muslim culture”, its popularity only increased. One may well argue that when all their other cultural festivals were taken away in the name of promoting “true culture”, the people of Punjab poured all their energy, and nostalgic sentiment, into Basant.

So, it was a shock when the festival was first banned by the Supreme Court, not for being “un-Islamic” but dangerous. Basant was Lahore’s identity, uniting a society fragmented along the lines of class, ethnicity, religion and gender.

Our culture?

It was feared the city’s sociocultural fabric might not survive the banning of its greatest festival but survive it did, mainly by keeping alive the hope the ban would be lifted, if not this year then the next. Every January and February for the last 10 years, there would be hushed street conversations about how the government was contemplating reviving the festival. Every year thus, people’s spirits would be lifted only to come crashing down. The festival was never revived. It may never be now.

Soon, Basant would be a faded memory in Punjab, much like Lohri and Baiskahi are. Pakistan’s “cultural capital”, the city of Lahore, would lose another of its cultural assets.

Just as discussions about reviving Basant were going on earlier this month, Pakistan’s then chief justice was redefining “Pakistani culture”. Rejecting a review petition for allowing Pakistani TV channels to show Indian content, Justice Mian Saqib Nisar declared that such content was damaging to “our culture”.

The controversy over Pakistani TV and cinema airing Indian soap operas and films is intertwined with the story of Basant. Around the time Basant was banned, the government lifted a decade-old ban on cinemas screening Indian movies – a move that helped revive Pakistan’s cinemas and its film industry.

As Indian movies and shows mushroomed on Pakistani TV, however, voices of opposition to them grew louder. Critics started arguing how Indian entertainment was threatening “our culture”. What “our culture” was, of course, needed no defining. It was that same abstract notion of culture that had been bandied about several times since Pakistan’s creation. It was in the name of this culture that Saadat Hasan Manto’s literature was deemed vulgar, even “anti-Pakistan”.

History, it seems, came full circle in 2019. Manto was in the limelight once again, more than six decades after his death. Indian filmmaker Nandita Das’ new movie on the writer’s tragic life was censored in Pakistan for being “anti-Partition”. An event celebrating Manto’s life and works in Lahore, his adopted city, was “postponed” for similar reasons.

It is such a depressingly different situation from just a few years ago, when the entire country was celebrating his birth centenary, with the state giving him the highest civilian award, posthumously. That was 2012.

In 2019, with a populist government in power and the judiciary also slowly moving in that direction, culture has become a political battleground, along with poverty, education and security. In this context, “Indian culture” will always be a threat to be countered in order to protect “our culture”, never mind what these terms actually mean.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.