HARKING BACK: Getting to grips with celebrating Basant

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 26, 2014


On the high single-brick fifth-storey ledge he ran at full speed after a stray kite on Basant, the now banned Spring festival of colour, fun, food and festivity. Lahore was its centre for as far back as memory can take us.

But then with a pet name like ‘Motoo’ this slim child was what Basant meant to us as a family, and by that I mean the entire ‘mohallah’ in the old walled city. For days before this glorious festival Motoo and his friends would prepare their bush-stick kite-catchers, as would women who stitched yellow suits and prepared excellent food.

Kites were central to this great Spring festival. There is a mention of kite-flying in the Ramayana. The entire world learnt from us and we have forsaken our happiest moments.

Hazrat Amir Khusro enjoyed it immensely and called it the blessing of Allah “that humans can be so happy for it flows from within where the Almighty dwells”. But then we live in the Age of the Islamic Inquisition where people fear the wrath of the mullah who equates this festival of the soil with those who do not believe in the Almighty as they see them.

Ironically, all religions believe in the Almighty. After Muslim rule ended in Spain, more because of strife among ruling Arab chiefs than Christian resistance which in itself was understandable, the joke was that if Inquisition priests ever got their hands on Christ, they would surely burn him alive.

Today if a kite string hurts a child it is ‘breaking news’. If nine people are murdered in Karachi, as they are every day, it is no longer ‘breaking news’ or even the lead. We live in very sad times where TV anchors, mostly of the rabid Right ‘pious’ variety, feel they are more important than their guests.

All these facts of life matter and are central to the uncalled for debate on whether Lahore should celebrate Basant or not. Our police certainly represents the status quo and it is because of their fear of failure that last year Basant was not allowed.

Come 2015 and the debate will continue. It is now a settled issue that this is not a religious debate, but is a sort of law and order matter, and even that of containing the use of ‘illegal string’. How does one tackle this definite menace? The first step is to understand the exact nature of the problem.

In our youth a few ‘khicha’ boys would use a thick ‘tandi’, which was frowned upon. Those prats now use surgical thread which needs a chemical coating for the ‘manjha’ to be applied. In my books this is not in the spirit of Basant. The police has tackled the supply issue and all that is left is to contain it. I request that they go through their very own records and read a report the British wrote on how to conduct Basant.

The issue then was how to stop youngsters from running on high ledges, the sort Motoo ran on in our youth. The lure of a stray kite is an uncontrollable one, and the very sight of a kite sends excitement running through even the old. So every household elder was asked to remain home and control their children, and that is all that was needed.

My suggestion, very much in line with a report submitted by a senior police research officer last year, is that the festival be contained to the old walled city only and that the elders of a household be asked to be vigilant about the use of chemical string on their rooftop only. It also makes sense if such use is reported on a ‘helpline’ and a small reward be attached to it if the report is genuine. Surely the police can manage this small task.

In 2013 the caretaker chief minister tried his best to have a Basant, but the police refused to take on this task. The problem is that isolated incidents of ‘illegal string’ do not mean that the authorities string up the police officer in charge of that area. Such ham-fisted governance is surely to blame for a lot of ills in our society, and the reason tolerance has grown to ‘Inquisition’ levels.

In 2014 they wanted to take it to Chhanga Manga, and hence oblivion, ending up with the move being cancelled. But even that settled the matter that it was a governance issue only ... and we are weak in this department relying only on the insulting habit of transfers and suspensions of good officers.

The tactic of trying to take the festival to other locations was a bogus one. It is time to take governance to a higher competence level. If the report submitted by a senior police official on ‘how to conduct Basant in Lahore’ is seriously studied, there is no reason an incident-free Spring festival cannot be enjoyed by the people of Lahore.

If anything, it can kick-start the local economy. It is time the Lahore Walled City Authority takes on this challenge, and why not.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2014




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