The truth behind the Basant ruling

Published: February 21, 2011

Why should Hindus' behaviour bar us from our joys?

The Basant prohibition has been explained officially in terms of foul play by kite flyers who use metallic wire or coat their twine with such preparations that it becomes fatal for the people in the streets who happen to get it on their throats.

But the real reason is the clerics’ hatred of the festivity. They campaigned against it calling it a Hindu festival and a pagan ritual. The Muslims, they insisted, must be barred from it. It was on account of this campaign that the prohibition was proclaimed.

Hindus revere and worship everything in nature. To them, the stars, the planets, the rivers, the mountains, the trees, the birds all reveal some aspect or attribute of some god or goddess. But should this give them a monopoly on nature’s bounties? Don’t we benefit from the natural phenomena? Why should their behaviour bar us from our joys?

The Hindu Basant Panchumi involves certain acts of worship. For the Muslims the Basant festival was started by Nizamuddin Aulia. Amir Khusrau, the story goes, was on his way to visit his spiritual mentor when he noticed mustard fields in full blossom. He also saw a lot of people wearing the colour: women in yellow saris, men in yellow turbans.

The scene inspired the poet in him. He plucked a branch carrying several mustard flowers and placed it in his turban. He also came up with a verse invoking the spring showers to demand flowers and wine.

Nizamuddin, for his part, had for months looked dejected following the death of his favourite nephew. He had stopped listening to music and had not been seen smiling in a while. The verse brought a smile to his face. Noticing the flowers Khusrau was carrying in his turban, he demanded an explanation. Told that the people were celebrating the advent of spring, he instructed his followers to do likewise. The little hint from Sultan Ji opened the doors for Delhi’s Muslims.

The festival became so popular with Delhi’s Muslim population that it came to be regarded as their representative celebration. It was particularly associated with the city’s sufi shrines. And it was no longer a one-day affair; it went on for weeks.

Flowers were offered at the Qadam Sharif on the first day of the month and perfumed water sprinkled. Sweets were distributed and samaa sessions held. The next morning, people wearing the mustard yellow would visit the shrine of Bakhtiar Kaki. In the evening lamps were lighted at the tomb of Chiragh Delhi. On the third day the festival would arrive at the shrine of Nizamuddin where a samaa session was also held.

The forth evening was dedicated to Shah Hassan Rasoolnuma. The fifth day everybody visited the shrine of Shah Turkmen. The sixth day ministers, courtiers and dignitaries visited the High Fort to greet the king. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last king, a poet himself, came up with the verse that is still raga singers’ favourite for Basant recitals.

Eventually the festival grew into a month-long celebration. Separate days were now reserved for Basant offerings and celebrations at still more sufi shrines including the Haray Bharay Shah’s, the Sarwar Shaheed’s and the Bholu Shah’s.

By the year 1857, according to a researcher, Muslims in northern India in general and those in Delhi and Agra in particular, celebrated Basant with great fervour. Kite flying was a popular Basant activity in the Punjab. Kite flying at Basant in Lahore is thus nothing new or very recent. It has long been associated with the festival.

So, the authorities’ view of the festival is at a variance with our cultural history. Our sufi saints considered Basant permissible fun but our clerics and officials today see it as un-Islamic. How callous do they have to be to refuse to tolerate people enjoying themselves; to try and douse all occasions of joy?

Intezar Hussain

Intezaar Hussain

An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Shiraz Hassan

    Nice to see you piece of writing at ET.
    and more than that I am amazed that you wrote about Basant issue, that really nice, a prestigious writer should write on these issue.

    But Intezaar sab, why are you silent about Pak Tea House issue? you never spoke a single word in favor of Re-opening of Pak Tea House, Me and other writers have trust on you. You could play a vital role.

    Pak Tea House is a historic place, a cultural heritage of Lahore and Pakistan, if you can write about Basant you must think about writers and intellectuals of the city. and also about the place where you spend thousands of nights with Nasir Kazmi, Ahmad Mushtaq and Zahid DarRecommend

  • Amer

    Oh Please! What rubbish!!
    When I see an eight year old with a throat cut by a wire, I don’t think of the clerics or mullahs etc! I think of the barbarians who continue to sacrific the lives and limbs of innocent kids for their cultural pleasures! What’s the use of this culture if it gives us dead children? and please don’t start the argument that people die in car and airplane crashes as well!!! That’s the most illogical argument ever! If people die in car crashes then there are saftey rules for making a car and driving it. Where are the rules for flying a kite and how are they implemented? Was kite flying always banned? No, it wasn’t!!! The reason is that there weren’t children getting killed because of it! Why doesn’t the group who’s much in favor of flying kites do something about ending the illegal use of wires etc?
    As long as there are wires that cut throats and people falling from roofs I think the best option is to ban the activity altogether. The government has so many other things to fight against….. give it a break for once! or do something yourself!! I am happy with the ban, if it hurts you so much then stop the practice of killing small children with wires before you start moaning about the clerics etc!! Recommend

  • Said Chaudhry

    Dear Sir,
    thanks for writing such an informative article which reminds us all of how beautiful and pure the festival of Basant used to be. While I agree with you for the most part, there are a couple of things I’d like to add here.
    My blog was just my personal opinion on why I believe basant ban is fair given the current circumstances. I have no sympathies with any religious groups which are intolerant to other religions. But I think those groups and clerics have existed forever in our society. One of the sweetest things about Basant is the dejection of Mullahs, and that in sense is a moral victory and representation of a Pakistan which is impervious to religious bigotry. It was not until recently that the number of unnatural deaths on basant peaked to new heights. Measures to control the problems failed convincingly. I am most sad that the festival is not celebrated but I am relieved that hundreds of lives are saved. I posted in my blog comments that my view is strictly from a perspective of a medical doctor who has seen first hand, the painful and sorrow feelings of victims and their families on Basant. I chose to speak on their behalf and also echo my own empirical sentiments. Value of every human life must be important to us, to think that hundreds dying or severely injured is acceptable while the rest of the city can celebrate does not digest well for me. I sincerely hope that the authorities become more adept in dealing with ways to crack down on the ‘grinches’ of basant.Recommend

  • Junaid Alam

    Oh come on!
    I have seen Basant celebrated in the days when religious extremism was far more prominent than it is now… its not good to make it look that way.. clerics are not THAT strong and don’t even make them look like.. utterly absurd..!

    Basant should be banned, because we have seen its outcomes. A celebration for some can’t be allowed at the risk of others’ lives.Recommend

  • hassan

    a typical blame the mullah strategy. Why dont people see 100+ who died on last basant. 4 year old with cut throat was not slain by mullahs. it was ur freaking “DOOR”! Recommend

  • Parvez

    Culture and tradition are important and it is necessary to keep them alive but not the expense of losing innocent lives. Recommend

  • AM

    Regarding the first few comments: a grim reminder of a fundamental feature of the modern Pakistani mind- starting out with the presumption that individual and cultural liberties can be regularly sacrificed for a notion of a ‘greater good’. Whether this sacrifice is in the name of religion or a utilitarian calculation of happiness or even the safeguarding of life, as the first few commenters here suggest, the movement is the same in each case. That is, the principle of maximum freedom with minimum proscription from the state is ignored in favour of an appeal to a paternalistic authority, investing it with a violence and power that tend to create a predictably violent relationship with the governed.

    Nobody thinks it makes more sense to enforce the prohibition on dangerous strings with more consistency? After all, if we can’t ensure the existing ban in the first place, how do we hope to stop the celebration in its entirety?

  • Hitendra

    I don’t understand how do you fly kites in Lahore. Jaipur probably hosts an equal (if not bigger) kite flying festival on “Makar Sankranti” festival and no one dies by cutting pf throat! Though there are very few incidents of people falling from the roof. Recommend

  • Amritsar

    Hitendra, Jaipur is not nearly half as big as Lahore and basant celebratioms in Lahore are next to none. I have attended both.
    Its sad that lahore no longer celebrates basant.Recommend

  • Shiraz Hassan

    Ban the suicide blasts first,it kills more people than basant. okRecommend

  • zaigham

    the old-fella needs a break…

    You have summed it up, well…Recommend

  • Ali2

    You need to ask the authorities to crack down on the bad string and their makers. Kite flying should be restricted to open public places like parks and regulated. The govt. simply cannot do that (or it can but is too lazy to) so it just bans the festival outright.

    There are many solutions to this issue but the lahore gormint is too lazy… and i dont understand why as a properly run basant can make the city lots of money…Recommend

  • Mystic

    Death of a single child is not worth all the festivities and tourism!!! Perhaps all those favoring the festival have never lost a loved one to this ‘festivity’.

    Regardless of the reasons, unless there is foolproof way to prevent deaths and injuries, kite flying should remain banned. Recommend

  • Kesav

    @Amer: It is unfortunate that serious injuries/death can result from kite flying.In India lot of deaths is from falls from the roofs of houses.But these accidents also happen on Diwali celebrations.Rather than banning if one is careful these accidents can be minimised.However I know of a Muslim festival where thousands of cows and goats are ritually beheaded and it is not done accidentaly.I think there is a compelling reason to ban this rather than kite flying.Recommend