Terrorists like Ehsanullah Ehsan and Masood Azhar going MIA is not a bigger issue than kites and kite flyers in Pakistan. Imagine if arresting kite flyers was one of the FATF compliance requirements, then Pakistan would have transcended even the grey list and gotten itself into the white list.
Yes, spring is here, but no kites can be allowed in Pakistan’s skies. Kites were killers – of motorcyclists and Islam.
Basant in ‘Purana Pakistan’
There was a time when Lahore’s skies would welcome spring with colourful kites, while on the streets, children would chase kites falling from the sky. The excitement of planning a perfect Basant with kites, colourful thread, loudspeakers and yellow clothes would begin days in advance. It was one weekend amid the shouts of bo kata that everyone looked forward to.
Some would fly kites, while others would enjoy food. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be about flying a kite but just being on the rooftop around all the craziness. Other cities in Pakistan’s Punjab province also celebrated Basant, but it was Lahore that was the king of kite-flying festival.
By the early 2000s, during Pervez Musharraf’s push for enlightened moderation, Basant clubbed with music concerts became a huge commercial and tourist activity in Lahore.
And then it was no more.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan imposed a ban on flying kites in 2005 to prevent the loss of lives caused by the chemical kite strings. These manja strings were slitting throats of two-wheeler drivers on the roads. In 2007 and 2009, the ban was lifted only to see the sport causing deaths. The religious groups took an undue advantage of this and called for a ban on Basant, which they saw as a Hindu festival against the principles of Islam.
Kite flyers, the real terrorists
Fifteen years later, the crackdown on kite flyers begins in Punjab every February with the arrival of spring. The ‘vigilant’ police officials go after poor kite flyers as if they are the real terrorists. This year alone, Punjab has reportedly seen more than 500 people booked for kite flying. Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail is filled with 400 kite miscreants, while 2 lakh kites and 55,000 string rolls have been seized from various neighbourhoods. Many parents accuse the police of picking up their children who were only watching the sport. For the authorities, even watching someone fly a kite is abetting a crime. Devoid of much entertainment, police officers have rounded up people for the ‘crime’ of being fond of flying kites.
Basant used to be a source of income for many households in Pakistan. By 2013, around 1.5 lakh people in Lahore and about 1.8 lakh workers in Gujranwala and Kasur districts were rendered unemployed and later forced to take up other jobs. The kite flying material used to be exported to the United States and Europe, but after the ban, that demand has also vanished.
This year a petitioner moved the Lahore High Court asking for the festival to be legally recognised as a sport. His argument was that the ban infringed on his fundamental rights and impeded economic activity for millions.
A blurred memory
Instead of imposing a complete ban and running after poor kite makers and kite flyers, the government should work towards making Basant a safe cultural festival. How difficult can it be to regulate the quality of strings manufactured and designate parks or open spaces for kite flying like it is done in other countries? The government can make it obligatory for motorcyclists to equip their vehicles with antenna-like metal or wooden wires as a safety measure. There are many ways to make this sport safe but only if there is a will.
The Punjab government, year after year, goes back on its promise to lift the ban on kite flying. We have been hearing since last year that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in the province will move towards giving back the sport to Lahore, but to no avail. Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s leading Islamic political parties, views Basant as a Hindu festival in serious violation of the PTI’s manifesto that talks about making Pakistan a Madina-like state. Someone should inform Pakistan’s legislators that Basant is celebrated even in Saudi Arabia.
The festival is now a blurred memory and kite flying is viewed as an aberration, so if someone in Pakistan still wants to fly a kite, then they are on their own. There is a generation in Pakistan that has no clue about kite flying or Basant, which was once an integral part of our culture.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.