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Pakistan: Ban the ban on Basant

by Irfan Husain, 6 March 2010

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From: Dawn, 27 February 2010

ONE would have thought that with all the political turmoil and full-blown Islamist insurgency Pakistan is passing through, our courts and state officials would have more to occupy them than to ban Basant.

But yet again, this centuries-old kite-flying festival has become the focus of controversy. In 2005, the Supreme Court in its wisdom decided to ban the spring celebrations, but until last year, people got around this edict by applying for a brief suspension. This year, the Lahore High Court has joined the act by refusing to permit any temporary relief from the original ban.

The official reason given for this judgment is that kids cut themselves on the sharp, ground-glass-coated string, and some people get killed by falling off roofs. So instead of directing that the city administration regulate the festival to make it safer, the Supreme Court slapped a blanket ban on the event.

However, Sajjad Bhutta has recently come out with a novel reason for the restrictions. According to this senior Lahore district official, Basant was also the occasion for ‘drinking and dance parties’. And since his goons could not break into every home where these activities were going on, a complete ban was essential.

This attitude is in tune with the annual chorus from the mullahs who denounce the festival as having Hindu origins, and thus somehow un-Islamic. Basant is a festival that heralds the coming of spring, a season of rebirth and renewal in all cultures. Different societies celebrate the end of winter in different ways, but they are all joyous occasions, and normally have no religious connotations.

In Iran, nouroz, the Persian new year, is marked with joyous celebrations, despite the efforts of the ayatollahs to put a damper on the festivities. Sensibly, the Iranian clergy realised the futility of trying to kill off an ancient tradition deeply rooted in Iranian culture and history.

Our clerics, more influenced by Afghanistan’s Taliban, have been doing their best to prevent people from having fun. Innocent pleasures are denounced from the pulpit, and people are forced into enjoying the simplest forms of pleasures behind closed doors.

Over the years, this ‘Deobandi-Wahabi-Salafi axis’, to borrow Pervez Hoodbhoy’s term, has been pushing us further and further away from normalcy. Intolerance and hypocrisy are now the norm, and extremist thugs have a tight grip on university campuses to make sure nobody has any fun.

Those denouncing Basant as a Hindu festival would be surprised to learn that many of the marriage rituals that have become central to Pakistani weddings have their roots in Hindu society. The singing and dancing that takes place on the occasion of mehndi, for instance, would not be out of place in Delhi and Mumbai. And if one is going to be literal about the scriptures, there is nothing Islamic about the dowry a bride is expected to bring with her.

Our judges, officials and mullahs need to realise that there is more to life than long lists of do’s and don’ts. The Taliban in Afghanistan based their entire rule on what people were and were not allowed to do. When their Pakistani cousins grabbed territory in Swat and elsewhere, the first thing they did was to shut down video shops and slap a ban on music. And of course, education for girls was strictly forbidden.

When we talk of eradicating extremism, we forget that it cannot be done simply by shooting a few terrorists. A change in mindset is needed. When Zia imposed so-called Islamic laws on Pakistan, he set into motion a chain of events that has culminated in the chaos we see around us.

If we are serious about winning our country back from the zealots who have seized control, we need to starve them of oxygen. This takes the form of our school curriculum that teaches intolerance; the large section of our media that stifles rational discussion; and our public discourse that makes a virtue of hypocrisy.

When we ban the shared enjoyment of traditional festivals like Basant, we are only strengthening the extremists who have come to shape our national agenda. Each time they gain one concession, they immediately demand another. We had long ago ceded New Year celebrations to the extremist thugs who went around smashing up hotels and clubs on Dec 31 if there were any signs of festivities. Is Basant going to follow the same path?

I do not always see eye to eye with my old friend, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, but when he declared he would go ahead and celebrate Basant, and forget the consequences, my spirits lifted at his defiance. Almost immediately, Senator Pervez Rashid of the PML-N threatened to have Salman dragged out of the Governor’s House in handcuffs if he defied the ban. This, alas, is the level of persons who fill our assemblies.

For far too long, we have accepted the edicts of our moral police without raising an outcry. One by one, simple pleasures have been legislated away.

Bhutto started the trend by banning certain forms of entertainment in 1977. He admitted his mistake in his last days in a condemned cell when he wrote a moving document called If I Am Assassinated. Zia built on these changes, introducing flogging and public hanging during his murderous rule.

Critics of these injunctions are silenced by branding them as somehow anti-Islam. And yet, there is nothing in religion that bans music. Indeed, dance, music and the visual arts have often flourished in Muslim courts. From Andalusia to Delhi, Muslim rulers encouraged and rewarded artists and performers.

Somehow, our growing army of clerics have convinced themselves that Pakistan is more Islamic than the rest of the Muslim world. As we pride ourselves on our piety, we would do well to heed this voice from an Iranian blogger writing in 2003:

“Twenty-five years of religious rule has had one long-term benefit … for generations to come no Iranian will ever want to mix matters of state with religion…. And if only those ... in our neighbouring countries knew about our failed experiment with an Islamic government they would come to their senses too … It’s a joke they want to do now what we miserably failed at 25 years ago… But it is finished … and when these mullahs are dethroned … it will be like the Berlin Wall coming down… a little patience … our dawn is near.”

Seven years after this was posted on the Internet, Iranians are still struggling for their freedom. But at least they are fighting against the forces of darkness.