By most accounts, recorded history goes back about six thousand years. During that time, innumerable scribes have written about innumerable kings and leaders. And while what survives to us is mostly the great deeds of those kings and leaders, there is also more than enough evidence to show that humans have a singular talent for acting stupidly, particularly in matters of governance.
In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman makes the argument that mankind “makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. As evidence for her contention, Tuchman examines four case studies — the Trojans’ acceptance of a giant wooden horse without checking to see what it contained; the Renaissance Popes whose extravagance and venality triggered the Reformation; the pig-headedness of the British and how it caused the loss of the American colonies; and finally, America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Before I present Pakistan’s contribution to these illustrious annals, it is worth noting that Tuchman’s definition of folly is fairly precise. In fact, she lays down three criteria that an act has to meet in order to be described as ‘folly’.
The first criterion, self-evidently, is that the act in question has to be dumb, or in politer language, “clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organisation or group which carries out the act.”
The second criterion is that the act has to happen over a period of time and be conducted by a number of people, so that isolated instances of nuttiness — both collective and individual — are excluded.
The third and final criterion is that the policy followed should have been identified even at the relevant time as folly; or in other words, hindsight doesn’t count.
You might ask why I am writing of such depressing matters on a beautiful February morning.
The answer is that it is precisely because of the weather that I am being so forcibly reminded of the folly of our rulers. As I look out of my window, I can see a clear blue sky. What I cannot see are any kites.
I grew up in Lahore. And like any other boy growing up in Lahore, one of my favourite memories is of flying kites. As I grew older, what was once just a pastime for idle boys became big business. Basant became an international festival marked by fashion shows, concerts, culinary extravaganzas and all types of celebrations. Indians streamed across the border every year for the festival as did well-heeled desis living in the Gulf.
The very rise of Basant though contained the seeds of its destruction. As participation in the festival began to rise, so too did deaths from accidents related to it. Children fell off rooftops while chasing kites; others got hit by cars. A number of motorcyclists got injured by kite string and some even died.
Petitions challenging the legality of Basant (or, to quote one agitated ideologue, “the kites of blasphemy”) had provided annual fodder for judges of the Lahore High Court for many years. In 2005 though, the judges took a far stronger view of the proceedings, which position was in turn upheld by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s intervention was then followed by a formal ban imposed by the Punjab legislature, which is in place till today.
In my view, the ban on Basant is stupidity of historic proportions. I concede that there are innocent people who lose their lives as a consequence of it. But we make the same choice between economic activity and terrible consequences every single day. Guido Calabresi once described this paradox as the “gift of the evil deity”, a phrase which he illustrated by pointing out that in most advanced countries, cars are one of the leading causes of death. Framed in the abstract, most people have no hesitation in saying that they would choose life over technological convenience. But ask people to live without cars or electricity and suddenly the decision becomes more complicated.
Basant not only provided seasonal employment to thousands but also greatly helped the economy of Lahore, a point completely missed by the morons who talk of frivolous consumption. Let’s get one thing straight: consumption of domestically produced goods can never be frivolous. Yes, I bought kites but the kite-maker bought bread and sent his child to school.
Finally, Basant was a rare ray of sunshine in the lives of thousands. From the rich to the poor, it was the one time when every Lahori with access to a rooftop — and not just those fortunate enough to have bootleggers on speed-dial — could enjoy himself. Along with the Rafi Peer music festivals, now also dead, Basant was one of the few things we all could boast about.
Not having Basant makes us all poorer. And I don’t just mean that in money terms.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2012.