Will naming decades’ old Shadman Chowk after Bhagat Singh immortalize the legendary figure?
As if already there were not enough governance worries at home, we recently saw the Lahore City Government going on a spree to give new names to streets and squares as part of its ‘Dilkash Lahore’ programme. The renaming of Lahore’s Shadman Chowk as Bhagat Singh Chowk sparked a spontaneous controversy over distortions of history that led to this ill-advised decision. There were many reasons against this decision.
First, there are more important things for a city administration than giving new names to old streets and squares and complicating things for the people by giving names to places of their residence, business or other similar spots that they cannot mentally reconcile with or even pronounce and that too at a time when we, as a nation, are aflame with myriad crises and challenges of far greater magnitude. Secondly, any name once given to a place becomes its permanent identity and a public property. For example, Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium will remain Gaddafi Stadium no matter how disgraced Col. Gaddafi later became to be known with his tragic death.
Even Lahore’s The Mall has had an official name ‘Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam’ for nearly half a century but no one calls it by this name. Islamabad’s Margalla Road may have an official name but for the residents of the Capital, it remains Margalla Road just as Rawalpindi’s Murree Road is still called by the same name.
Lahore’s Shadman Chowk was built as Shadman Chowk. For residents of the area, this name is seared in their memories and cannot be erased from their minds simply because a small group of ‘peace activists’ from both sides of the border so desire.
Thirdly, the noted Indian peace ‘activist’ Kuldip Nayer, whom I greatly respect, in a recent article took the credit for this decision and claimed that ‘India and Pakistan were now beginning to honour their icons of yesteryears’ and people in the two countries also felt that ‘remembering such persons will evoke common emotions, renew bonds of understanding and bridge the distance between them.’ If that is really so, Kuldip Nayer would have done well if he had begun his mission with honouring Pakistan’s Father of the Nation in India rather than picking up an individual about whom — as he himself admits — little is known in this country.
Nothing could honour our Quaid more symbolically in Mumbai than his house becoming a lasting symbol of peace between the two perennially-estranged neighbours. India, true to its tradition, having initially agreed to this arrangement then backed out. Our first Consul General Sajjad Ali spent several months in a hotel waiting for the possession of the Jinnah House but had to return to Pakistan without opening our Consulate in Mumbai. Incidentally, this historic building which was also the venue of the watershed talks between Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru in September 1944 and August 1946, that shaped the future course of the Indian history, does not even carry a ‘Jinnah House’ plaque.
Kuldip Nayer also tells us how a group of the Indian peace activists recently crossed the border to join their Pakistani counterparts for a vigil at Lahore’s Shadman Chowk commemorating the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukh Dev — the three leftist revolutionaries who were hanged by the British on March 23, 1931. This vigil, according to Mr Nayer, marked ‘a poignant moment’ moving many hearts in the two countries while the Indian and Pakistani voices mingled together shouting ‘Bhagat Singh Zindabad’, ‘Inqilab Zindabad’.
‘Bhagat Singh Zindabad’ is understandable but ‘Inqilab Zindabad’ slogans at Shadman Chowk sound alarming. Coming from the ‘hearts’ of a group of ideologically-motivated individuals from both sides of the border, these slogans raise serious questions on the motives of the so-called ‘peace activists’. Bhagat Singh’s ‘creedless’ Inqilab was centred solely on a socialist republic in India. What kind of Inqilab our ‘peace activists’ now want and where? Wouldn’t Bhagat Singh have revolted today against his fellow-Sikh prime minister’s capitalism-led high-growth policies in India?
Those of us familiar with the history of the subcontinent and the circumstances that eventually led to India’s division know the answers to these questions. They understand why having lived together for centuries, we stand poles apart in our attitudes to life and history with a different worldview altogether. Are we also obliged to have the same view of history as that from across the border? Wouldn’t that be a trespass attempt into our history? Kuldip Nayer shouldn’t be surprised if the people in Pakistan do not know much about Bhagat Singh and as an independent nation have their own sense of history.
And no one has the right to distort Pakistan’s history, not even editorially, as a local English daily has recently sought to do by suggesting that ‘without people like Bhagat Singh, Jinnah would never have had the opportunity’ to pressure the British.’ This is an insult to the Quaid. We respect Bhagat Singh but it is absolutely nobody’s business to cast down our Quaid’s historic role and stature. Yes, our history did not begin and end with the formation of the Muslim League or even with the invasion by Muhammad Bin Qasim. But it also didn’t begin or end with Bhagat Singh whose only connection to Lahore was his ‘vengeance’ killing of ASP Saunders and Constable Chanan Singh at the local police headquarters for which after due trial he was hanged in this very city.
And here we do not talk of a bomb factory that Bhagat Singh and his militant comrades had established in Lahore for their bombing attacks in Delhi’s Central Legislature and many other places in Punjab. Nobody, not even the Quaid, Gandhi or Nehru approved of his ‘bomb philosophy’. But let us not rake up history.
We still respect Bhagat Singh. If we truly want to honour our iconic heroes, cosmetic renaming of streets or squares and symbolic vigils in their memory will not do. We can honour them only by holding on to what they really stood for.
Peace and communal harmony, not outdated ‘revolutionary’ philosophies, would have been their clarion call today. They would have wanted people-centred growth and a society free of corruption and exploitation by the feudal- political elites. They would have asked for addressing the root-causes of the India-Pakistan conflicts. Let us truly honour our national heroes by preserving the sovereign freedom, dignity and values that they bequeathed to us as independent nations.