Thursday, 1 March 2012
Basant is around the corner. And so are Basant controversies. Actually, let me change that. Basant controversies are already upon us.
First it was the Punjab government announcing that they would set up a body to ensure safe kite-flying. Then there was the proclamation that Basant WILL be celebrated in Lahore with traditional ‘fervor.’ And now there is news that the Supreme Court has called in the Punjab government to explain why they would defy a stay order that had been issued.
Just to keep the record straight, let me first say what this story is NOT about. This is not, yet, a story about whether Basant is ‘Islamic’ or not (as if kites have religion!). At least, it is not about that YET. I have a feeling that it soon will be.
I use the picture above (originally from Zakintosh’s currently dormant blog), partly because I find it both silly and funny, but also because it reminds me to point out that the Supreme Court that has just questioned the Punjab government on why it is going ahead with Basant plans despite its (the Supreme Court’s) orders is currently lead by Acting Chief Justice Rana Bhagwandas, a Hindu (see picture on left). The layers of meaning - most of them uncalled for, and unimportant - that can and will be derived from this are legion.
The story, at the moment, is about safety. Personally, I think that is a much more important story. Last week, according to the Daily Times, the Punjab government decided “to give legal authority to a registered body of kite manufacturers and traders to ensure safe kite-flying.” It was further reported that:
The body will have a constitution and self-defined regulations and will be legally authorised by the provincial government to issue licences to the kite and string manufacturers and vendors. The body will determine the rules relating the types and sharpness of string and the size of kites. The body will be held responsible for violations of its rules. There is a proposal to fine it if it fails to identify and stop the violators.
A BBC story (January 5) explained the context of the decision:
The Supreme Court outlawed the sport in 2005 after several people were killed by glass-coated or metal kite strings. Basant, which begins on 25 February, is popular with tourists but religious leaders say kite-flying is un-Islamic. Metal or glass-coated strings help cut the strings of rival kites - the main objective of the sport. But they can catch unsuspecting bikers across the throat, at times with fatal consequences. Metal string can also cause short-circuits in overhead power cables, leading to heavy losses for electricity utilities.
It is in this context that the Supreme Court has now intervened. According to The News (6 January):
The Supreme Court (SC) has taken strong exception to the Punjab government’s announcement about allowing kite flying and Basant festival celebration, citing it as a violation of the court’s directives. The SC on Friday served notices on the Punjab chief secretary and the advocate-general, directing them to appear in the court on January 22 to explain the Punjab government’s position in this regard. The full bench of the Supreme Court, comprising acting Chief Justice Rana Bahgwandas, Justice Saiyed Saeed Ashhad and Justice Hamid Ali Mirza in Karachi issued the orders on the reports of the Punjab government’s decision of granting arbitrary permission to flying of kites. “The decision of the Punjab government appears to be violative of the court direction,” rules the order of Justice Rana Bhagwandas… The Supreme Court had banned the making, selling and buying and flying of kites across the country…. The Punjab government, however, held a Basant festival last year in the name of Jashn-e-Baharan after seeking due relaxation from the Supreme Court. The apex court had granted 15-day relief period for kite flying starting on February 25, 2006, that was to expire on March 10. The Punjab government, however, had sought extension for another five days that the Supreme Court had granted.
Of course, this is not likely to be a major conflict between the court and the Provincial government. Accoridng to The News:
A spokesman of Punjab government, while clarifying the news item appearing in the national press regarding celebration of Basant in Lahore, said in a press release that that the ban on kite flying will remain intact and the government has allowed celebration of this festival only on the night of 24th February and the day of 25th February, 2007. The spokesman stated that Supreme Court will also be consulted in order to adopt a strategy regarding Basant and all measures would be taken in the light of Supreme Court’s decision and instructions issued in this regard.
The Province will probably argue that it has thought through new rules which will make the festival safe. The BBC report suggests what the Punjab case might be:
Officials said the regulations, announced by the government on Thursday, would be presented before the Supreme Court for approval. Under the new proposals: metal-reinforced and glass-coated strings are banned; only cotton strings up to a certain thickness are allowed; kites larger than 2×2 feet, that require a thicker string, are prohibited; kite strings can only be coated with wheat-flour glue, dye and soft, finely-ground glass. In an attempt to regulate kite-making and kite-flying, the government says it will issue licences to retailers selling kites and strings, and only those dealers and manufacturers who are members of a single association registered under the Companies Act would qualify.
My own prediction on this is that the safety related story will soon fizzle out, and a religion based argument will again ensue. This, I think, is unfortunate because safety is a very real and pressing concern.
Personally, I like the idea of Basant but have never liked the festival itself. This is largely because I actually saw a little kid killed right in front of me one depressing Basant in the mid-1980s. That image is forever imprinted on my mind.
The solution, however, is not to ban the festival. It is, instead, to take real and meaningful steps to make it fun but safe. Some of the steps suggested above could be good. But one wonders about the likelihood of implementation. This business about giving licenses to kite and string sellers will, most probably jack up the price for over the counter sales while creating a new - and possibly more dangerous - black market for ‘bootleg’ kites and string. However, the idea of a citizen’s committee - if it could truly be a citizen’s committee - to oversee things is a good one and just might enforce things in ways that the official custodians of regulations possibly cannot.
When nip of winters yield to moderate and pleasant spring season and when trees start wearing new leaves, festive frame prevails all around, Lahories mark the advent of the season with Basant Bash -- kite-flying festival now famous as one of the annual tradition of the historic city, some controversies notwithstanding.
From mid-January to mid-February the clear blue skies over Punjab and Lahore in Pakistan, come alive with the gaiety and colour of paper kites – in all hues, shapes and sizes. The yellow of mustard flowers and the Amaltas trees is the first colour to be sighted after the severe winters of the north. Poets have penned romantic verses, and artists, both of the past and contemporary, have painted the Basant skies.
Over the years it has become an event where above and beyond resident of Lahore, their friends and families from across the country and fun loving people form all over the world assemble in Lahore to be part of this unique occasion. Every one is dressed in colourful attires. Multicolour and decorated kites are flown in the backdrop of traditional music.
Here is how we celebrated Basant last year: The event started up with kites, and rounded off with music, fun, colour galore and a whole lot in between. The Main Campus of the Lahore School that is known for its beautiful gardens, exquisite environment was specially decorated for the occasion. The whole premises gave a look of a big flower basket. In addition, brightly dressed flocks of folk entertainers performing for no particular audience added new touch to the landscape. In some other corners, music played.
Walking along the walkways -- from spanking new parking spot to the café -- shining in pristine glory gave an idea of aesthetic sense of all those who belong to the Lahore School. Even the bushes and decorative trees were singled out with special kits, giving walkways a dazzling look.
Good food customarily goes with Basant festival. Sizzling and spicy foods -- a mixture of culinary delights by the best food vendors in the city was served to every one.
It was in this milieu that students, faculty and their families flew colourful kites. Calm air and a sunny day were most suitable for kite flying. One could see every one looking up and simultaneously shouting while the kites oscillated in the sky. Even those who were not flying kites were part of the rhythm -- unfazed by cheerful crowd and the bustle.
Usually, nighttime kite-flying in the walled old quarter around the 16th century Badshahi mosque and Lahore fort opens the festival. Ancient mughal palaces throw open their doors for all-night parties to view the kites, illuminated by spotlights slashing the sky. Stars from the local 'Lollywood' film industry perform with classical Qawali musicians at parties in traditional haveli homes.
White paper kites shimmer in the night sky, diving and soaring as rival fliers joust in duels marked by battle cries of Pecha! and victory shouts of bo kata! Bursts of drums and trumpets mark the cutting of a kite's cord. Men drape themselves in embroidered shalwar kameeze with matching ankle-length scarves, little boys strut in three piece suits, and women coat their hands with henna and stack their arms with bangles.
But even such a joyous festival has a dark side, as hospitals invariably are packed with kite flyers who fell off roofs and children who were hit by cars as they ran down the streets, their faces turned towards the sky to watch the kites. Quarters of the city are plunged into darkness when razor-sharp kite cords rolled in powdered glass or made of steel cut electricity wires. "If there are 50 one-hour breakdowns, it costs us 2.5 million rupees (43,00 dollars)." More will come on this. Stay tuned.
Way past midnight at this sleepless city’s bustling food street in Gowalmandi, the Nite Kite Shop is running up brisk business. Visitors take breaks between handis of brain curry and glassfuls of salty tea to pick up mementos.
There are just a few cities around the world that have a knack for celebrating themselves. Lahore is one of them, and akin to the miniature carnival masks of Venice, it sums up its unique joie de vivre in colourful kites. At the Nite Kite Shop, they come in small sizes and diverse colours.
So, it this it then? Will Lahore hereafter, now that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has made an unambiguous statement by banning the manufacture and flying of kites, be content with these flightless souvenirs? Will those cries of “bo kata” as a kiteflyer snaps an opponent’s string be echoes only from the past?
No, chirp the busy attendants, the date is set. Basant has been postponed to March 5, to avoid an overlap with Moharram. The festival, they say, is on.
The Punjab government and the Lahore City District government are all set to appeal to the court to relax the ban for a few days around Basant when it takes up the case once again on January 25.
Lahore has fought hard-or as most things go in this city, it has lived it up exuberantly - to preserve symbols of its urban identity. Basant, celebrated to signal the arrival of spring, has been welcomed here since longer than anyone can remember with the flying of kites. Fundamentalists once tried to stop it, saying it was a Hindu festival.
The court late last year took suo moto action, banning kite flying on reasons of loss to life and property.
Many kite-fliers coat the string with broken glass or simply take metal strings, damaging electricity wires. And as they race across rooftops, there is the possibility of electrocution and tipping over perilously. Last year, for instance, the toll was 19 dead and more than 200 injured.
So, what is the importance of Basant for Lahore? “Massive,” says Murtaza Razvi, Lahore editor of ‘Dawn’. “The mullahs gave up on trying to stop Basant. Zia ul-Haq did not even try.” The popularity of the festival, he explains, is reflected in the rainbow coalition that has formed to ensure its preservation. “The nazim and the Pervez Elahi government feel the people are going to defy the ban, so as a face-saver they are seeking an exception of 15 days a year.”
And President Pervez Musharraf, notes Ejaz Haider, news editor of ‘The Friday Times’, has been winning popularity with Lahoris by speaking for Basant.
The real pressure on the streets has come with those associated with the trade. On December 9, for instance, when the court upheld the ban in Lahore, hundreds of men, women and children involved in kite manufacture gathered outside in a protest that turned violent. “Lahoris,” says Razvi, “saw it as a Lahore-specific ban.”
On and before Basant, many rooftops in and around the Old City are taken over by corporates and event planners for lakhs of rupees. Among the most prized properties then is Lahore’s immensely evocative restaurant, Cooco’s Den - on the edge of Hiramandi and with its terraced rooftops overlooking the Badshahi Masjid and the Fort.
“As always, a bank will book the roof again this year,” says a waiter. So how will it go this spring? Shrugs Razvi: “Joie de vivre is a part of this city. Even Zia could not crush it.”
posted by S A J Shirazi @ Thursday, March 01, 2012,
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