Bas­ant Pak­istan Of Bas­ant, Blas­phemy and Bans

The logic that Bas­ant should be banned on ac­count of the lives lost due to vi­o­la­tion of laws, points to the state’s in­abil­ity to act and in­ter­vene.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Muham­mad Has­san Mi­raj

If Bas­ant is an In­dian fes­ti­val, should we cel­e­brate spring in the Mid­dle East­ern style?

The street next to Tar­lok Shah’s Haveli of­fers an­other exit, a three-foot high pas­sage that closely re­sem­bles a tun­nel. Though not as strate­gic as the tun­nels of the early days of Shah­dara, it opens into a cross­road where three Moghul-style arches guard a mon­u­ment; all this is al­most three cen­turies old.

The mon­u­ment, lo­cally known as ‘Mad­hoo Ki Bethak’, is a saf­fron-painted tree that bent and grew for an un­known num­ber of years and has re­cently been shel­tered. As the name re­veals, it marks the birth­place of Mad­hoo, a lo­cal Hindu, who was the love in­ter­est of the fa­mous Sufi poet, Shah Hus­sain. Why Lal Hus­sain chose to join the con­tro­ver­sial Mala­mati line of Su­fis and what hap­pened to Mad­hoo is an­other story. But what makes this love af­fair mem­o­rable is its cel­e­bra­tion, which now con­fronts the ad­min­is­tra­tors of the me­trop­o­lis of La­hore.

Bas­ant and Charaghon Wala Mela were the two fairs that de­fined La­hore and Mad­hoo Lal was cen­tral to both of them.

Tra­di­tion­ally cel­e­brated in the UP and Pun­jab, the fes­ti­val traces its ori­gins to the San­skrit word, Vas­anta Pan­chami. The day – that falls in the first week of Fe­bru­ary or the last week of Jan­uary – is ac­tu­ally the fifth of a Bikrami month. It marks the farewell to win­ters and fore­tells the com­ing of spring. But be­fore it be­came a Hindu fes­ti­val, the pa­gan fes­ti­val was

cel­e­brated across the sub-con­ti­nent.

Upon their ar­rival, the Moghuls viewed it with skep­ti­cism. But as their love for In­dia grew, they took up the tra­di­tion and made it of­fi­cial. The dis­patches of Darashikoh, amidst his ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences, make a spe­cial men­tion of Bas­ant mer­ri­ment by Te­murid elites.

The peace­ful co-ex­is­tence shed away the com­mu­nal col­ors of Bas­ant and dressed it in coun­try­side yel­low. The chron­i­clers of Dehli at the time, the likes of Abu-al-Fazl, have writ­ten in de­tail about the events of the day.

A page from the court diary of Shah Alam the 2nd, gives an in­sight into the events. The Mus­lim elite of Delhi started their Bas­ant fes­ti­val by vis­it­ing ‘ Qadam Sha­reef’, a place where the relic of the foot­print of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was kept. Af­ter prayers, the whole day was spent in joy­ful­ness and glee, with vi­brant kites plas­ter­ing the sky and people wear­ing col­or­ful clothes adding life to the land­scape. The people would spend a day each at the shrines of Qut­bud­din Bakhtiar Kaki, Naseerud­din Chi­ragh Dehlavi and Shah Turka­man, end­ing the week-long car­ni­val at the shrine of Niza­mud­din Auliya. An­other tale re­lates how Amir Khusro, dressed in bright col­ors, cheered up a be­reaved Niza­mud­din Auliya, who could not get over the un­timely death of his nephew. The fes­ti­val con­tin­ued till 1857; Sir Syed Ahmed Khan re­mem­bers his grand­fa­ther or­ga­niz­ing Bas­ant at one of the venues.

While this was hap­pen­ing on one side, Bas­ant was tak­ing a new form in the Pun­jab and this is where the fa­mous ref­er­ence of the right wing made its way. An in­ci­dent is very fre­quently cited from Bakhshish Singh Ni­j­jar’s book ti­tled, ‘Pun­jab

un­der the Later Moghuls’. Ac­cord­ing to the book, the event is cel­e­brated as a re­ac­tion to the hang­ing of Haqee­qat Ray, a con­vict of blas­phemy, on the or­ders of the then Gover­nor of La­hore, Zakariya Khan. Af­ter Ray’s death, Kalu Ram, an­other af­flu­ent Hindu, built a mon­u­ment for him and or­dered all Hin­dus to com­mem­o­rate his death by cel­e­brat­ing Bas­ant and fly­ing kites as an ex­pres­sion of re­venge.

The as­so­ci­a­tion of kite fly­ing with this in­ci­dent is not true. Kites were flown way be­fore 1734, the year in which this in­ci­dent took place, as the sport had come to In­dia from the north­east through Bud­dhist monks. Also, Zakariya Khan, the ruler of La­hore, said to have been de­spised by the Hin­dus, was a ruler they loved the most, ac­cord­ing to ‘Te­hqiqat-e

Chishti.’ He trusted the Hin­dus to such an ex­tent that he chose Lakh­pat Ray – the per­son who founded Kot Lakh­pat - as his prime min­is­ter ( Dee­wan). His pop­u­lar­ity is also ver­i­fied by Anand Ram Mukhlis’ ac­count who, in his book ‘Badai Waqai’, wrote that when Zakariya Khan died, ev­ery La­hori Hindu mourned the loss.

Ran­jit Singh gave a new life to this fes­ti­val and en­sured its house­hold ap­peal. Many his­to­ri­ans have archived it in great de­tail. Dur­ing his reign, the Ma­hara­jah dressed up in yel­low clothes on ev­ery Bas­ant day, went out in the streets, re­viewed the pa­rade and the guard of honor, ad­min­is­tered re­li­gious cer­e­monies and graced for­eign emis­saries, do­ing all this in the com­pany of the Bri­tish Res­i­dent. The path­way from the city to Shal­i­mar Bagh was lined up with mus­tard fields and the en­tire city of La­hore would dress in yel­low with a sky that looked equally col­or­ful. The event was so pop­u­lar that it at­tracted thou­sands of La­ho­ris – 50,000 as Syed M. Latif noted.

In 1848, John Lawrence took it upon the Raj to cel­e­brate Bas­ant in a more fes­tive man­ner. The event spanned over a week and was called

Jashn-e-Ba­ha­ran, some­thing that came handy to the La­hore ad­min­is­tra­tion a century later.

Dur­ing the Bri­tish rule, the princely states pa­tron­ized the craft of kite fly­ing and Bas­ant picked up pace. The Ma­hara­jas of Patiala and Jaipur are said to have taken a per­sonal in­ter­est in the min­istry that over­saw kite fly­ing.

As late as 1947, Bas­ant was cel­e­brated with­out a pinch of com­mu­nal col­ors and it con­tin­ued till the early 1950s. Be­ing the age of non-com­mer­cial­ism, the yel­low was not that gross and ev­ery­one cel­e­brated it.

The budding con­sumerism pit­ted multi­na­tion­als in a race to outdo each other to make Bas­ant a big east­ern fes­ti­val that had im­mense mar­ket­ing po­ten­tial. Havelis in in­ner La­hore and farm­houses on the pe­riph­ery were, at once, the hub of such ac­tiv­ity.

On the other hand, the rise of the Saudi school of thought, the use of metal strings, over-com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the fes­ti­val and the at­tached en­ter­tain­ment value pro­vided the re­li­gious right with am­ple rea­sons to vent its dif­fer­ences. The re­li­gious el­e­ment framed its most handy charge against Bas­ant. The ref­er­ence of B S Ni­j­jar was re­peated over and over again and, by mis­quot­ing such ref­er­ences, Bas­ant was es­tab­lished as a Hindu fes­ti­val. The kites of blas­phemy, they al­leged, tar­geted the Two-Na­tion The­ory, not re­al­iz­ing that this premise could be dev­as­tat­ingly twisted and flawed.

Soon, the ide­ol­ogy and its prae­to­rian guards sub­verted the ac­tiv­ity through an overtly ac­tive court, sav­ing Is­lam from the in­va­sion of an in­fi­del cul­ture. Bas­ant was banned. The dec­la­ra­tion, how­ever, raised an­other query… if Bas­ant is an In­dian fes­ti­val, should we cel­e­brate spring in the Mid­dle East­ern style?

Eids ( two com­pul­sory and one op­tional), Muhar­ram and the na­tional hol­i­days apart, the Pak­istani cal­en­dar has no sea­sonal/cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion – a phe­nom­e­non that largely re­mains un­ex­plained. The seg­re­ga­tion of cel­e­bra­tions on the ba­sis of re­li­gion is not a very good idea. The over-re­li­gios­ity of so­ci­ety ends up bring­ing di­ver­gences to the fore. Pa­gan or commercial, fes­ti­vals are only meant to give a sense of hap­pi­ness to the people who are other­wise lost in ev­ery­day life. Mak­ing them a pat­tern of ide­ol­ogy com­pli­cates the whole thing.

The is­sue has now taken a po­lit­i­cal turn. Since Bi­lawal Bhutto Zar­dari has in­cluded Bas­ant in Sindh’s cul­tural cel­e­bra­tions, the Shar­ifs have cho­sen Changa Manga to duel the cul­tural pre-emp­tion, (leav­ing PTI ide­o­logues with the only op­tion of a so­cial me­dia Bas­ant). But through it all, the in­no­cent sen­ti­ment which ex­isted at the very heart of this fes­ti­val lurks in the open fields.

The logic that Bas­ant should be banned on ac­count of lives lost due to vi­o­la­tions points to the state’s in­abil­ity to act and in­ter­vene. One is re­minded of an­other man who flew kites but ended up writ­ing a con­sti­tu­tion – Ben­jamin Franklin – who rightly said, “Any so­ci­ety that would give up a lit­tle lib­erty to gain a lit­tle se­cu­rity will de­serve nei­ther and lose both.” The writer is a federal govern­ment em­ployee.

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