– by Daniyal Khan
This past spring, a lot of people were once again yearning to celebrate basant*as part of the celebrations marking the joy brought by the season. Others were glad that basant was not celebrated, for one reason or the other. Public debates about the feasibility and the desirability of the festival have become commonplace. When these debates frame the matter in relation to religion, it is typically said either that basant is a cultural festival having nothing to do with religion, or that it is an un-Islamic event. Against the backdrop of a society which is increasingly becoming polarized into groups of secular extremists and religious fanatics, it is my contention that basant has the potential to become a genuine cultural commons which, if cultivated with patience and purpose, can bridge the religious-secular divide which appears to be deepening by the day. I am proposing that basant be looked at as a shared cultural space by those who choose to live secular lives as well as by those whose religious aspirations encompass their entire lives. (This article assumes that basant is administratively feasible, given a certain degree of competency and sincerity in the local administrators.)
First arises the question of the relationship of basantwith religion. I am unaware of the history of the festival and will not claim either way that its roots are or are not to be found in specifically religious ground. One thing is clear: even if it was once a specifically religious celebration, that is not what it has meant to us in the recent past and what it means to us today. That being said, I see no re
ason why a genuinely religious person – and in our Pakistani context a Muslim person (I am not aware of the religious minorities having said anything about basant) – should be not be able to assimilate basant in his or her world-view. It is perhaps not known enough that Islam has taken an appreciative view of the worldly, the material and the mundane. Viewed as a celebration of the joy of spring, it should be easily incorporable in an Islamic world-view which has historically been able to assimilate a variety of cultural traditions into its fold. A positive ruling or statement on this issue by an Islamic scholar of standing should go a long way to alleviate the doubts or inhibitions of the religious. I, for one, cannot remember having heard such a statement but am quite confident that we may even be able to find something to this effect in our historical sources should the current ulema refuse to approve of it.
Some on the religious side may feel that I am forcibly laying a non-religious (even irreligious) tradition at their doorstep like an unwanted orphan and forcing them to adopt it. Those on the secular side may say that I am handing over a cultural tradition to the religious fanatics, thus ensuring it will end up being buried once and for all, leaving no chance of resuscitation. Should any of the two sides respond in this manner to my proposal, my answer would be this: by answering so, they are in fact moving farther away from their own principles stands on religion and secularism respectively. Furthermore, they have failed to grasp an opportunity to deal with the challenge that basant poses as an area of conflict. Let us look at the reasons why I would respond thus.
The religious will have failed for two reasons. Firstly, they will be showing little wisdom by not bending to the winds which now blow with hostility against spiritual and religious aspirations. They will have, in short, showed too little fare-sightedness in their knee-jerk reaction to such a proposal. Secondly, they will be showing little historical self-consciousness of the strength of assimilation of their own religious tradition, thereby exposing not only a shallow understanding of their own past, but also a lack of seriousness with regards to their religious aspirations.
The secular responding in the hypothetical manner stated above, will also have failed for two reasons. Firstly, they will have showed little room to accommodate religion which, whether we may approve of it or not, remains a significant presence in the modern world (as much as the secular, if not more) and therefore must be granted its own space in the public sphere. Just as much as the spiritual must accommodate the secular, so it must be the other way around. Secondly, and more crucially, by responding in this manner, they will be laying a claim of exclusivity on basant. They will be claiming that that it cannot and should not be celebrated with a religious motivation. In doing so, the secularists’ claims of upholding the ideal of pluralism will come under serious strain.
Therefore, basant presents itself as a litmus test of a society becoming increasingly divided into two extreme groups. If basant can be resuscitated and purposefully cultivated as a cultural and public commons, it can be a shared space in the public sphere where the secular and the religious can interact in a positive atmosphere. If nothing else, it should at the very least allow both groups to better understand the other’s point of view. If I may be a bit more optimistic (some would say I crossed into idealist territory in my introduction), it may even help both the religious and the secular understand themselves better. If this can be done successfully in Pakistan, the resuscitation and cultivation of basant as a cultural commons can serve as an exemplar on the global stage of how the religious-secular divide can be approached practically in a different manner and possibly even be bridged.
*For those of you who are unfamiliar- Basant is the festival that celebrates the coming of spring. The most iconic feature of the festival was kite flying, a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years. This festival gained popularity to the point where painters and artists recurrently featured kites in their representations of Lahore. Kite flying was banned in the entire country half a decade ago due to the accidental deaths resulting from mainly the addition of glass and iron in the strings of the kites.