In the early hours of March 23, 1931, freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and his two companions Raj Guru and Sukhdev appeared fresh and shorn of any fear as they walked towards the gallows with prison staff, chanting slogans like “Long live revolution!” and “Death to British imperialism!” History hasn’t seen many men who looked as vibrant, only minutes before their execution.
Eventually, the three men were hanged, at a spot next to the Fawara Chowk in Shadman, Lahore. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
Almost 85 years later, Bhagat Singh is still remembered as a symbol of bravery and resistance to imperialistic forces. Sadly, however, to the newer generations, he became known only when the City District Government Lahore (CDGL) announced, some years ago, that the Shadman Fawara Chowk would be renamed as Bhagat Singh Chowk. It was a way to honour this brave young man whose loyalty to his land became a legend.
The CDGL released a mandatory notice in newspapers, thereby inviting the wrath of some hard-line religious groups such as Jama’atud Dawa (JuD) who resisted the decision.
JuD is said to have resorted to different means in order to stop the chowk from being renamed. For instance, it approached the Lahore High Court (LHC). The case is under process, and no final verdict is expected to come anytime soon, much to the dismay of the civil society as well as the CDGL.
TNS spoke with Amir Hamza, Chairman, Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool Pakistan (THRP), who is a bigwig in JuD. He said, “Sikhs are a minority community in Pakistan and we respect them. We shall support their movement for Khalistan. We also have no objection if the chowk is rechristened as Khalistan Chowk. But it ought not to be named after an atheist.
“This man had no religion,” he insisted. “He wasn’t even a Sikh. If we must associate the chowk with our national hero, let it be Chaudhry Rehmat Ali who coined the word Pakistan.”
It may be mentioned here that the THRP, which has affiliations with other religious groups such as Jama’at-e-Islami, Jama’at Ahl-e-Hadith Pakistan, and Pakistan Ulema Council Pakistan, together with the local traders of Shadman, had moved court in 2012 against CDGL and the Bhagat Singh Foundation. They got a restraining order. But the final verdict of the court is still awaited.
Amir Hamza opposed the decision and said the government was doing so because it meant to improve relations with India. “That is why an Indian patriot is being celebrated by naming the chowk after him. This is against the Islamic spirit as well as the ideology of Pakistan. The Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool Pakistan shall not let any of this happen!”
Eventually, the government referred the issue to Dilkash Committee, Lahore which was headed by Justice (retd) Khalilur Rehman, a former judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Committee recommended the renaming of Shadman Fawara Chowk to Bhagat Singh Chowk as a gesture of acknowledgement of the freedom fighter’s struggle against British imperialism. It also proposed 25 new names — of well-known poets, revolutionaries and writers belonging to the subcontinent — for other venues in Lahore.
When the court was approached against the decision in 2012, Justice Nasir Saeed Sheikh of Lahore High Court (LHC) stopped the CDGL from notifying such a recommendation. The LHC also sought a reply, upon which the CDGL submitted that not even a single objection had been raised by any religious group or individual in black and white; the protests was limited to the streets.
Saeeda Diep, Head of Institute for Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS), believes Bhagat Singh was “a son of the soil. He dedicated his life, fighting for the freedom of the people of the subcontinent against British imperialism. Renaming the said chowk after him is the demand of the time. In this way alone, the young generation will become familiar with the history of the land and the bravery of the people who lived here, regardless of their religion and race.
“The civil society is not making an idol out of Bhagat,” she asserts. “The act [of renaming] would only mean that we acknowledge his struggle and sacrifice to rescue his people from the slavery of the British. Our struggle shall continue till the time the court and the government decide in our favour.”
Diep regrets the fact that she and her companions were beaten ruthlessly by certain extremist elements for making the demand.
A belligerent activist, Diep also comes hard on the “slow working of the courts” by saying, “Justice delayed is justice denied. For three years, the LHC has been hearing the case which is not complex at all.
“This is a case of public interest that should be resolved without any delay. But I fear judiciary is under the pressure of the fundamentalist elements and is being over-cautious in hearing the case filed by the Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool Pakistan.”
When quizzed, Tariq Zaman, a spokesperson of CDGL, says the DCO shall rename the chowk, “We’re only waiting to see what the court has to say on the matter.”
He recalls how someone sprayed paint on the spot and almost inscribed Chaudhry Rehmat Ali Chowk and Hurmat-e-Rasool Chowk. “Names shall not be changed by the will of random people, although respect is due to their opinion.”
Zaman admits that the role of Bhagat Singh in the history of subcontinent must be remembered as a legendary hero of Punjab.
The spokesperson further says the CDGL and the government are not under any pressure whatsoever. “In fact, historians, writers, intellectuals and poets have all shown support and submitted countless applications to rename the Shadman Fawara Chowk after Bhagat Singh. They have also submitted documentaries to back up their argument in this regard.”
A number of organisations including Labour Party Pakistan, Peacekeeper Pakistan, Liberal Forum Pakistan, Punjab Lokh Rahs and Bhagat Singh Foundation have joined forces to counter the alliance of the religious parties under the umbrella of THRP. They are strongly pursuing the cause of renaming the chowk after Bhagat Singh and not letting the issue die.
Abdullah Malik, President, Bhagat Singh Foundation, laments the fact that a simple issue has been complicated. He says the religious extremists claim that the name shall be Hurmat-e-Rasool Chowk and they spray-painted three different names on the said location. First, they gave it the name of Muhammadiyya Chowk, then Hurmat-e-Rasool Chowk and, finally, Rehmat Ali Chowk. “This shows they are confused and only want to oppose for the sake of opposition. May be they are not aware that the Doctors’ Hospital bridge has already been named after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali!”
Malik says the “maulvies are fighting us everywhere and drove us to LHC too, where both the parties show up regularly and dates upon dates are given for hearings.
However, Malik is sure the Bhagat Singh Foundation will win the case as the Constitution of Pakistan is a custodian of the rights of the minorities. He hopes the issue shall be resolved upon the next hearing which is on January 21, 2016.
Malik says he appears before the court on behalf of the Foundation. He pays a tribute to the vision of Noor-ul-Amin Baloch, former District Coordination Officer (DCO) Lahore who initiated the move and revived the ancestral village of Bhagat Singh in the vicinity of Faisalabad when he was posted there as DCO.