For years now, the religious rights have repeated a constant refrain: basant is a Hindu festival, its celebration is un-Islamic. They quote the 18th century incident of Hakeekat Rai, the Hindu teenager from Sialkot who refused an offer of clemency if he converted to Islam. This was after he blasphemed against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and was convicted to death. His death was said to have been celebrated by flying kites, and hence basant. This is patently untrue and just another example of how propaganda is used to wrongfully Islamise and distort a South Asian history shared by Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jain alike. You can trace basant back to at least the 13th century — hundreds of years before Hakeekat Rai was even a glint in the milkman’s eye — when Amir Khusro sought to relieve his mentor, Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, who was mourning the loss of a close relative. Khusro came across villagers dressed in yellow and flying kites. He learnt they were celebrating the arrival of spring and thought he would do the same to cheer up his ustad. Today, kites still fly in Delhi. Data Ganj Baksh, the patron Saint of Lahore, brought the seasonal festival to Lahore after observing it in Delhi.
Basant was essentially a festival celebrated in the Walled City and its immediate surroundings. Some time in the late 1990s, the Government of Punjab decided it would “nationalise” the event. It was a money-maker. Tens of thousands of families depended on it for seasonal income. It was great for tourism and it projected a modern and, dare I mention the phrase these days, “enlightened,” face of the country. All the government had to do was distance the festival from the Islamising propaganda. This they attempted to do with cosmetic alterations, like changing its name to Jashn-e-Baharan. It worked like a charm. For the first few years, basant grew in size and splendour.
Then, within the same 3-4 year period, three things happened. First, about 2000, a new, high-tensile strength metalled wire was introduced to the kite-flying market. Because of its strength, it soon took over the old cotton twine as one’s boo-kaataa kite-string of choice.
Other than sit and watch other string manufacturers grow rich while breaking the law, the various kite-flying associations or string manufacturers have done nothing to bring anyone to book. Now, with Lahore stretching from Bedian to Raiwind, most new districts and developments are too far from the old city to absorb its cultural heritage. The new city now dominates, and basant also suffers the apathy of the citizens of Lahore. basant is now no longer something that belongs to the new Lahore. It is now part of a Lahore that is lost. And that is the story of the death of basant.
above is an excerpt from Ahmed Rafay’s column