Lahore loses kite festival to political turmoil

Pakistan’s political turmoil and violence have claimed a high-profile cultural victim—a centuries-old kite-flying festival that draws thousands of visitors.

The Basant festival brings a springtime buzz to eastern Pakistan and its regional capital, Lahore. Officials usually relax a ban on the pastime—imposed to prevent abandoned strings that are often covered with crushed glass from slitting people’s throats.

But the festival has been cancelled this year amid tensions spawned by terrorist attacks and the country’s rocky return to democracy after years of military rule.

Sohail Janjua, a city government spokesperson, said the festival was first postponed due to national mourning for assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto, then because of February 18 parliamentary elections.

Lahore has suffered three suicide attacks since, including two that killed 27 people on March 11, resulting in increased concerns about security.

“How can we ignore the deaths of innocent people to celebrate anything?” Janjua said.

In the past, the city’s youth have sent thousands of brightly coloured kites into the sky during the festival, held on a weekend in February or March. Basant means “yellow” in Hindi, a reference to the mustard flowers that blossom in the region in early spring.

Crowds of Lahoris typically clamber on to rooftops to watch.
Well-heeled guests from around the country and beyond pack city hotels for a few days of late-night festivities.

The celebration has been threatened before by authorities concerned about public safety and religious conservatives who oppose the festival because it is a reminder of Pakistan’s pre-Islamic past and encourages drinking and dancing.

Dedicated kite flyers often engage in duels and use strings made of wire or coated with crushed glass in an attempt to cut down a rival, often after placing bets on the outcome.

Authorities tried to ban kite-flying in 2006 after a string of people were killed by sharpened strings, falls from rooftops or celebratory gunfire.

Last year, authorities allowed only smaller kites with normal strings, but at least 10 people still were fatally slashed. Police detained hundreds in a failed attempt to impose the restrictions.

Irfan Chaudhry (24), who hurt an arm in a tumble from a roof while flying a kite last year, said he was sorry the festival was cancelled. “It is a positive activity, and we should be given a chance to relax and entertain ourselves,” he said.

Some say he will not get that chance partly because of a particular patron—President Pervez Musharraf—who is more than a little distracted.

“Every year the ban on kite flying is lifted only after the intervention of Musharraf, who himself would come to Lahore to celebrate the event,” said Maher Saleem Mithu, whose shops selling kites at several points in the city face a bleak season. “This year, Musharraf is surrounded by various crises. So, no Basant without Musharraf.”

Presidential spokesperson Rashid Qureshi said Musharraf in the past responded to invitations, for instance from the provincial governor, to attend the festival and was temperamentally suited to appreciate it.

“He’s quite an open-minded guy, not a narrow-minded stickler, so I wouldn’t imagine him saying, ‘Oh, if the law says no kite-flying we can’t have it [the festival],’” Qureshi said.

But he demurred when asked if the president had used his influence to let the kites fly.

Liaquat Baloch, a leader of Pakistan’s biggest Islamist party, accused Musharraf of using the festival to boost his secular credentials in the West. “Now his own kite string has been cut, so how can he think of any celebrations?”—Sapa-AP

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