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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 18, April 23, 2011

The New Trend: A Desire to Own Bhagat Singh | Reflections on a visit to Pakistan II

Monday 25 April 2011, by Kuldip Nayar

This is the second and last piece written by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar following his latest visit to Pakistan. The first one appeared in Mainstream (April 16, 2011).

A surprise awaited us at Lahore as our goodwill mission to Pakistan reached the city after visiting Karachi, Hyderabad and Islamabad. A throng of 300 people was present at Shadman Chowk to pay homage to Bhagat Singh. This is the place where he and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, were hanged 80 years ago in 1931.

A Pakistani English daily had reported the meeting thus: “As evening fades away into the night, the dim, serene glow of candles light up against the dark grey sky, softly illuminating the crowd that has gathered together in remem-brance of the martyred freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh.”

Some five years ago I, accompanied by some activists, had gone to Lahore to locate the site where the gallows were erected to hang Bhagat Singh and his comrades. We had then avoided March 23 as the day of remembrance because that was also the National Day of Pakistan. But hats off to the comrades who picked up the thread from where we had left it off. They celebrated the martyrdom on the National Day itself.

The chowk was lined up with candles. Huge portraits of Bhagat Singh adorned the place. The entire crowd lined up and bowed, one by one, before Bhagat Singh’s photo. Although the delegation was late to arrive—nearly five hours—people waited to join them to pay homage. As the people sighted us, they raised slogans: Long Live Bhagat Singh, Inquilab Zindabad.

The government has not yet accepted the people’s demand to name the Shadman Chowk as the Bhagat Singh Chowk. Every time they write the words, ‘Bhagat Singh Chowk’, the government rubs it off. No action follows. People now plan to file a petition in the court to rename the colony and the chowk after Bhagat Singh.

I was surprised to see a sea-change taking place within a few years. When I visited the Shadman Chowk some years ago, there was no arch, no plaque, not even a stone to commemo-rate the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Lahore Central jail, where the three revolutionaries were hanged, had mostly been demolished. Their cells had been razed to the ground as if the establishment never wanted any sign of their execution to remain.

Ironically, the authorities had allowed a colony, Shadman (above of happiness), to come up at the site. Minarets of an elegant mosque rose right opposite the place where Bhagat Singh’s cell had stood before the demolition. The road between the mosque and the remaining part of the jail ended at the entrance of a mental hospital.

I remember asking residents of Shadman if they had known who Bhagat Singh was. Many had heard his name, some having a vague idea of his confinement and hanging. “When we came here, there were only police quarters, which were pulled down as the colony expanded,” a 50-year-old man had said. The scaffold, where the three were hung, had been turned into a traffic roundabout. Vehicles that plied there were waywardly as in the rest of Lahore. Noise, smoke and dust had shrouded the crossing.

BUT this time before our arrival at the place, a play on the life of Bhagat Singh had been staged. There were civil society activists, students and several other professionals from various fields present. They said that since Bhagat Singh was a man from the subcontinent and hanged at Lahore, he had every right to be remembered.

“He was a freedom fighters and this should never be forgotten,” said one activist. “But today no one even knows his story and why he was hanged or who he was. We are also proposing that Bradley Hall, which is situated behind Zila Kachehri, should be also reopened and used as either a school or as a museum of Bhagat Singh’s artefacts—why has it been closed down like this?”

Yet another activist said that the local martyrs had been forgotten rather than remembered. “We have roads named after British Viceroys, and we have buildings like Faisal Mosque named after some Saudi king, and Gaddafi Stadium named after the man who is today killing his own people only to stay in power. But we refuse to name the road after a man of our own region, who transcended beyond religious boundaries and wanted a fight for the right of every indigenous man.”

Activists questioned the basis on which Bhagat Singh and his comrades have been dubbed terrorists by the UK. They were revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives to free India from the clutches of the British. What did killing mean to a revolutionary? Bhagat Singh explained it in his own words: “We attach great sanctity to human life, we regard men’s life as sacred…We would sooner lay down our lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone.”

There was no revenge, no vendetta. “These actions (killings),” he said, “have their political significance inasmuch as they serve to create a mentality and an atmosphere which shall be very necessary to the final struggle. That is all.”
We, the activists on both sides, have constituted a memorial committee on Saheed Bhagat Singh to pursue two things: one, to have the Shadman Chowk and the colony to be renamed after Bhagat Singh; and two, to get possession of the Bradley Hall which was the venue of several struggles for independence.

One activist asked me if there ever was a tiff between Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. I told him that the Mahatma admired their courage but not their use of guns and bombs. He did not doubt their commitment but he was definite that force could not release India from the clutches of British power.

Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were diametrically opposed to each other in approach, I told him. Bhagat Singh believed in violence and did not flinch from using it to achieve independence. Gandhi, on the other hand, remained wedded to non-violence all his life and brooked no other approach. They represented two different strands of the struggle for India’s independence.

The activists’ number may be small and the desire to own the martyr of the subcontinent limited. But it indicates a new trend in Pakistan which may force the government to stop the distorted the history which the schools are imparting to underline that Pakistan’s heritage began from Mohenjo-Daro and that the advent of Islam in India was one epoch-making event.

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