When kites turn lethal

The New York Times

Also published in The Boston Globe

By Imaduddin Ahmed  |  February 21, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan

SKIES FILLED with kites, rooftop parties, bright yellow clothes, laughing children, family get-togethers, good food, and good times have been associated for several hundred years with a spring festival in Lahore, one of South Asia’s culture capitals.

The roots of the festival, Basant, are shrouded in legend. According to Oxford historian Yaqoob Bangash, it is derived from a mesh of cultures. Tributes were paid to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, on Basant Panchami, the first day of spring in the Hindu calendar. Under Sikh princes, who made their capital Lahore, the Hindu festival was embellished with Punjabi traditions to make it attractive to all faiths. Sufi Muslim saints endorsed the celebration. The cutting of the first crop, mustard, coincided with Basant Panchami and hence the yellows. Later on, flying imported Chinese kites formed an integral part of the spring celebrations. Basant and kite-flying are now synonymous. The Sikhs made Basant an indigenous, secular Punjabi tradition that helped create social harmony.

Islamists in Pakistan call for an end to the Basant celebration , saying it is not “Islamic.” This argument succeeded in neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban. President General Pervez Musharraf, however, is on a jihad to portray Pakistan as an “enlightened moderate” country that will not acquiesce to Islamist demands. At the Lahore marathon this January, Musharraf declared that extremists wouldn’t have their way and that marathons and Basant will continue.

Basant’s kite flying may have promoted social harmony and moderate society in the past. Unfortunately it does just the opposite today.

Over the past decade, Basant has been hijacked by kite-flying fanatics. Cut throat kite-flyers have been using metal twine. The aim: to cut opponents’ kite wires. The collateral damage: hundreds of slit throats.

A beautiful cultural tradition has degenerated into a murderous sport. Reports say that hundreds have been killed or wounded when their throats were cut by razor-sharp kite twine. In light of the deaths and injuries caused — and the government’s constitutional obligation to protect lives — Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered a ban on kite flying in October 2005. The order has been lifted twice.

Last February, the Supreme Court lifted its ban for a fortnight, just in time for the spring festival. (It is worth remembering Pakistan’s higher courts’ judges took oaths to serve in the judiciary while the constitution had been suspended during General Musharraf’s coup.)

This year, the governor of Punjab province, an unelected retired general, waived the Supreme Court’s kite-flying ban for Feb. 24 and 25.

Advocates of Basant and supporters of the provincial governor — corporate sponsors, anti-Islamists, and Lahori traditionalists — say keep the kites: regulate the manufacturers, sellers, and users. They simply can’t imagine Basant without kites.

Their argument has little credibility. Last year’s Supreme Court order waiving the ban on flying kites came with stipulated conditions, including the regulation of manufacturers, sellers, and users. These went unheeded — nuanced law enforcement is not the Pakistan police’s forte — and surprise, surprise, people died. Essentially, advocates of kite flying are ready to take the risk of more loss of life for two days of satisfaction.

A more absurd line of argument forwarded by car-using kite advocates is that motorcyclists, the most common victims of razor-sharp wire and usually lower-middle-class citizens who struggle to make ends meet, should be banned from the streets for the duration of the kite-flying festival!

Some lawyers are petitioning that the Punjab governor be held in contempt of court and his ordinance, which they argue breaches the right to life, be held unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court allows Basant celebrations to include kite flying this year, Musharraf and his cronies will have won a symbolic battle against Islamists. Symbols aside, the rule of law will lose. So will human lives.

Imaduddin Ahmed is a feature writer based in Lahore.

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