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Lament For Lahore

Lahore is changing
Lahore is changing
Once again the government of Punjab has announced a ban on the traditional festival of Basant in the provincial capital city of Lahore. During the festival thousands of participants take to the streets and parks of Lahore to welcome the arrival of spring by flying colorful kites.

The government says that the ban is motivated by safety concerns. In festivals past, some kite-flyers have been known to fall from rooftops, and children have been hit by cars while running across streets with their eyes on the skies.

Fans of the festivals weren’t the only ones disappointed by the ban. So too are hundreds of restaurant and hotel owners in Pakistan’s second-largest city. In the past, Basant has provided the local economy with a welcome boost. Although it’s widely celebrated throughout Pakistan, the festival has always been centered on Lahore, and it has always drawn masses of visitors to the city.

My friend Imran laments the government ban. “The Basant Festival,” he says, “is a rare chance for people to come out and celebrate in a country buffeted by Islamic militancy and terror attacks.”

This time around, the government has been careful to avoid making any reference to Islamic groups who claim that Basant is a Hindu festival that is proscribed by Islam. But, there have been several occasions when the government was forced to cancel the festival due to pressure imposed by radical groups, particularly the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), a powerful coalition of Islamic political parties.

According to "The Daily Times," it was these religious figures who forced the government to ban Basant for the first time in 2006. They threatened to launch a series of protest rallies, including strikes, if the festival was allowed to take place.

Basant fans like Imran say that, though the government might deny it, officials are still afraid of retaliation by religious groups. “Why don’t the clerics do their jobs and let us enjoy our lives?” he asks.

Today, the tribal regions of Pakistan are home to several global jihadi groups. The Taliban maintains its ruling council in the western city of Quetta. Peshawar lives under the daily threat of Taliban violence. Karachi has been the home of several clashing rival religious and political groups for years. Now, Lahore is also witnessing radical changes in its political and social picture.

This picture started to change after the suicide attack on Data Durbar, the Lahore shrine of one of the most respected South Asian Sufi saint scholars, in January 2010.

Since then, the city has experienced a series of attacks on government officials, top Pakistani leaders, and public gathering places. Hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- have died in the violence.

Although the government claims that it’s completely in charge of the city, the impact of the "dark forces" is obvious. They are disrupting the ordinary flow of life, and this, says Faruk Shiekh, a Lahore-based teacher, is changing the social and cultural identity of Lahore.

"Today we aren’t talking about whether Basant is being banned only for this year," he says. "Many people are asking if this ban will ever be lifted, because I think it’s one of many other secular symbols that we’ve lost in recent years."

He also pointed to the closure of Lahore’s "Food Street," which used to be packed daily with dining families. That made for an open and friendly outdoor environment that was unusual for this conservative nation.

Now the street, and hundreds of its open-air restaurants, are closed. Notably, no one in the government has said anything about an official ban. As Shiekh points out, "There’s no need for the government to issue a ban when a bomb blast close by is enough of a signal for people. They get the message, and they take measures on their own."

Aside from Food Street and Basant, the most striking evidence of the changing picture of Lahore in recent months is the closure of the Heera Mandi ("Diamond Market"), the city’s red-light district, which had been in business since the 1950s.

Asked whether the police were behind the closure, local police inspector Asif Shahzad gave this response: "No, in fact it was the bomb blast 10 months ago that caused the dancers to disappear."

This place has been subject to police searches over the years, especially during the regimes of former military dictators Ayub Khan and Ziya Ul Haq. But even they never closed down the Mandi. Now the clubs are being replaced with shoe factories and warehouses.

If it is the threat from the radical Islamic groups that has caused many liberal and cultural symbols to disappear, taking a large part of Lahore’s distinctive identity with them, recent events suggest that the trend will continue.

The reason is the unfortunate incident involving U.S. consulate employee Raymond Davis, who has just been outed by the press as a CIA agent. He is accused of killing two Pakistanis in Lahore on January 27 in what he claimed be an act of self-defense. He was arrested by the police and is in the custody of the Pakistani authorities.

The Davis affair recently caused Yusuf Reza Gilani, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, to dismiss his government. It has also given a huge boost to some radical Islamic movements in Lahore which are feeding off of anti-American sentiment.

While Pakistani and U.S. officials remain at odds over Davis and his diplomatic status, the emotions stirred up by the affair are giving the Islamic parties more room to benefit from public anger.

Over the past month the anti-American protests led by Islamic parties have turned into a weekly political event in Lahore. That is putting secular forces in a difficult position. If they support America, they will lose public sympathy; if they take to the streets, this will put them in the anti-American camp.

This delicate political situation could ultimately shift the political balance of the city in favor of the Islamic parties. This, in turn, could threaten Lahore’s long-established role as the beacon of secularism and liberal thought in Pakistan.

-- Muhammad Tahir