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By Yasser Latif Hamdani

December 24, 2018

The great tragedy of Islam in Pakistan is that it has found self styled champions in people who are so utterly dishonest and disreputable that they have in the process alienated the rational and reasonable Pakistani from Islam. One such dishonest and disreputable person is a former civil servant and now a TV show host. This gentleman, if you can call him that, was tasked by the government with the protection of world heritage sites in Punjab. One such site was the magnificent 17th century Badshahi Mosque that was built by Emperor Aurangzeb. Under this dishonest disreputable civil servant’s watch the Badshahi Mosque fell into utter disrepair and only through a campaign by veteran journalist Mujib-ur-Rahman Shami has there been an effort on part of the government to restore the grand mosque to its former glory.

For years though this dishonest and disreputable person while tasked with protecting world heritage sites was busy, against all known civil servant rules, hosting TV shows and airing reactionary and bigoted views. Then he was busy chucking out valuable historical documents at Punjab Archives. Perhaps the NAB should look into his personal finances and investigate what happened to the funds earmarked for world heritage sites and Punjab archives. That is obviously a matter entirely between NAB and him. What bothers one though is the impunity with which he is allowed to poison the masses with lies about our religion, culture and history on TV. His latest claim is that the festival of Basant was celebrated to commemorate a blasphemer Hindu called Haqiqat Rai.

Basant Panchami has been celebrated in our part of the world for two millennia or more. Haqiqat Rai was executed only in 1732. Certainly when Ameer Khusro the great Sufi Saint and poet was celebrating Basant by flying kites in the 13th century, even Rai’s great great great great grandfather was yet to be born. Haqiqat Rai himself is celebrated by the Hindus and Sikhs not because he was a blasphemer. Hindus and Sikhs believe that Rai had committed no blasphemy. He is celebrated because he was given the option of either execution or conversion to Islam, and Rai remained steadfast in his faith, refusing to convert to escape death. The kite flying festival on Basant certainly has nothing to do with it. Why would Allama Iqbal, the favourite of Pakistan’s Islamist ideologues, fly kites on Basant if it was something aimed at denigrating Islam? The religious argument against Basant is completely devoid of all reason and common sense.

Pakistan needs Basant not just in Lahore but all over the country, with Lahore being the focal point. Take whatever precautions you need to but do not deprive the people of Lahore and Pakistan of their ancient cultural traditions and heritage

The other argument against Basant is that it is a dangerous sport because of the illegal thread. That is a matter of enforcement. Cars cause accidents but you do not ban cars. Even sports like Cricket and Football have resulted in deaths. Would you ban them as well? Strict penalties should be imposed on those manufacturing or using illegal thread coated with glass or metal. It is a matter of regulation, which can easily be rectified. To ban an ancient cultural festival on this flimsy excuse shows that you are utterly incompetent.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan himself was once an avid kite flyer. His close friend and Iqbal’s grandson Yusuf Sallahuddin is a great patron of Basant and arts and culture in the old city. Basant for Lahore always meant 100 percent occupancy and tourism. It is a business worth billions of Rupees. Pakistan needs Basant not just in Lahore but all over the country, with Lahore being the focal point. Take whatever precautions you need to but do not deprive the people of Lahore and Pakistan of their ancient cultural traditions and heritage. One is glad that Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken a first step towards this by forming a committee to see how to restore Basant in Lahore.

Sadly though it is Imran Khan’s own rhetoric that will stand in the way. Instead of invoking the timeless and time honoured principles of equality social justice and religious freedom that were endorsed by Islam, Imran Khan instead chose to use the specific slogan of Riyasat-e-Medina, which to some orthodox religious forces such as the Maulanas Imran Khan hobnobbed with during the elections has no place for culture or entertainment. It is as if the rest of Islamic history and civilization means nothing at all. The very fact that saints and poets like Ameer Khusro and Nizamuddin Auliya celebrated Basant Panchami makes the festival not just an ancient Hindu festival but one which was embraced by the tolerant and inclusive traditions of the Islamic civilization. The rapid rise of Islamic civilization during its first 600 years was because Islam never closed itself to outside ideas and influences. It was the Arabs who carried forth the torch of knowledge from ancient Greece and gave it to Europe. This is why Islamic icons such as Avicenna, Averroes and Rhazes are as much a part of European and Western civilization as they are ours. Similarly Islam absorbed much of the local traditions in the subcontinent and made them our own.

The bottom line is that cultural religious and historical arguments aside, there is the economic argument: Basant is good for Pakistan’s economy. It must be allowed.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is practicing lawyer and was a visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA.



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