Is Basant a thing of the past?

November 24, 2013

Is Basant a thing of the past?

A night prior to the festival, the euphoria and excitement reaches its peak with all-night flood-lit kite-flying contests. The white kites shimmer and dance in the night sky while the battle cries of bo kata echo across the city. Flocks of people are seen rushing towards shops selling kites in and around the Walled City. Hotels and guest houses are fully packed as people arrive from inside and outside the country -- to ensure they are part of the most happening cultural event of the city. Rooftops bustle with women in elegant yellow outfits and young boys leap from one balcony to another.

This tempting cyclone of colours and music marking the arrival of the month of February in Lahore is now a story of the past.

The zealous sight of the most exciting and anticipated festival of Basant is what Lahore has been missing for the past seven years since the ban imposed by the Punjab government on kite-flying.

Basant was celebrated by all communities including Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in the pre-partition India. It was recognised and celebrated by all Sufi saints and in fact during the Mughal period it was a popular festival at major Sufi shrines.

However, the orthodox elements in Pakistan have always labelled it as un-Islamic.

According to Haider Farooq Maududi, son of the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, "Religion is for people. People are not for religion. Festivals can’t be seen in the light of religion. Basant has no association with any religion; it’s a seasonal festival. As for Islam, it doesn’t even approve of serving sumptuous meals on Nikah."

He suggests the government should strive to make Basant safer instead of banning it. "Hasn’t the Indian government controlled casualties with their strict laws?" he asks.

basant delhi 1

Famously known as Chinese manja in India, the kite-flying thread is made from plastic, nylon or other chemical materials that have reportedly caused severe damages to humans and birds during kite-flying festivals. Gujarat, which hosts the largest kite-flying festival in India, has banned the use and manufacture of Chinese manja under Section 5 of their Environment Protection Act. As per this section, the administrative authority can take action against the trade of any chemical substance causing harm to living beings. The suit has been followed by several cities including Amritsar, Ludhiana and Mumbai.

"Uttarayan is one of the signature festivals of Gujarat that showcases the harmonious and festive spirit of the state. Kite-flying is the main feature of this festival. With the ban on Chinese manja and the awareness campaigns, the number of bird injuries over the years has come down," says Nidhi Shendurnikar Tere, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Political Science, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat.

Devika Mittal, freelance writer and member of Mission Bharatiam, says that kite-flying in New Delhi is limited to the Independence Day and Makar Sakranti. "It is a celebration of the harvest, not a religious festival. I think banning Basant in Lahore is as problematic as the attempt of the Indian government to ban crackers on Diwali. Kite-flying is dangerous and requires serious checks. The Indian government has tried to restrict the use of crackers by formulating certain regulations. The same can be done by the Pakistan government."

It was not until the popularisation of kite-fights -- paichas -- in Lahore that the metallic thread became commonly used, increasing the hazards of injury and accidents. Henceforth, the spring season was welcomed with headlines marked by news about repeated slitting of throats, people falling from rooftops, electrocution of people and power breakdowns.

However, instead of making strict regulations and laws to control kite-flying activities, the government found the easy way out and outrightly banned the festival in 2005.

The recent incident of a stray kite-string claiming the life of a two-year-old girl in the Sabzazar suggests that violations of the ban are common. The police and local administration is unable to do much. By imposing a ban, the Punjab government is not addressing the issue -- but avoiding it.

Basant lahore delhi

Condemning the Punjab government’s decision to sideline the Kite Flying Association from the Revival of Basant Festival Committee, the founder of the Kite Flying Association and Vice President of All Pakistan Paper Merchants Association, Khwaja Nadeem Saeed Wayen says that no favourable results will be achieved unless all stakeholders are given representation in the kite revival committee meetings. Wayen thinks the problem can be solved by ensuring a complete ban on the manufacture and sale of the metallic kite string. "Awareness about public safety measures associated with kite-flying activities is equally important. Spacious zones for kite-flying, installing free wire antennas on motorbikes, the use of pinna (ball around which twine is wrapped) instead of charkhi or spool are a few measures for damage control. Kite thread should be limited to nine cords and the size of kites fixed to 45 inches."

He adds, "If government makes strict laws, our association can administer the manufacturing and trade of kites and strings."

Despite causing casualties and loss of life, Basant provided several benefits, particularly for the tourism industry. It was raised to the stature of an international festival as people would fly in from UK, Canada, Australia and other countries to participate actively. Ambassadors of several countries including the US, Germany, and France eagerly celebrated the festival. It was an occasion to prove that Pakistan is a peace-loving country. Pakistan also became famous for kite exports and the intricate kite-shaped souvenirs.

Not only was it a source of entertainment but a means of livelihood for kite-making industry. However, does the government care about the kite-makers who have become jobless because of the ban?

"Hundreds of trees have been cut down in Lahore in order to facilitate road construction. No activist or journalist has raised the issue of cutting down of trees as one major factor for stray kite threads slitting the throats of people. In the past, stray twines used to get entangled in the foliage of trees but now the trees have been chopped down," says artist and environmentalist Ajaz Anwar.

Basant was a big spectacular show, says Anwar, "It was a moment of joy when they used to cut the opponent’s twine. Basant was only celebrated during day time. A lot of safety issues occurred due to the night celebrations. Kites are always present in my paintings because nothing else can showcase the facets of our culture as truly as Basant."

Is Basant a thing of the past?