Bhagat Singh was one of us

28 September marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of Bhagat Singh, great revolutionary fighter for the freedom of the Indian subcontinent from British imperialism, and a great Marxist intellectual, who was hanged for his anti-colonial revolutionary activities by the brutal British colonial authorities, at the age of 23 in 1931. Though Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary life is much cherished in India and further afield, in Pakistan, through bigotry and the shameless manipulation of history, Bhagat Singh has been consigned to oblivion. He who, as a Marxist materialist and an atheist, abhorred every kind of communal division and obscurantism, who gave his life for the freedom of every Indian – nay, for the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited masses everywhere – has been put by the bankrupt Pakistani establishment into a box marked ‘Sikh/Hindu’.Ggg

It was therefore a breath of fresh air to read in the Daily Jang of 22 November 2012 an article by Kamila Hyat, which correctly argued that Pakistan cannot wage a successful fight against jihadi terrorism unless, simultaneously with it, it wages a relentless struggle against bigotry and a mindset that has simply wiped away from Pakistani schools’ history books such a compellingly noble figure as Bhagat Singh, who belongs to everyone in the subcontinent. We have been waiting for an occasion to reproduce this wonderful article. With the approach of Bhagat Singh’s birthday, it is most appropriate now to do so, for it represents the viewpoint of all decent and thinking Pakistanis. We are reprinting this article with a sense of gratitude to Kamila Hyat and the Daily Jang.



Much dialogue and thought in the country is focused on how to tackle the Taliban and other militant outfits who have established such a strong base in our society. This is, of course, perfectly justified. The terror the Taliban have brought and the horrors they have inflicted have altered our country – perhaps forever. Life, in particular for the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), has changed beyond all recognition. As they themselves say – when they get a chance to speak – these people have lived with unbelievable brutality for years. They demand to be rescued, but no one seems to hear them.

However, the dangers and threats we face extend beyond the Taliban. This is something we need to pay greater attention to. The extremism that has taken over people’s minds is especially dangerous, perhaps even more so than the militants themselves. This kind of thinking exists everywhere now – in our largest cities, our towns and villages located in all four provinces. Like the plague, it has spread rapidly.

This problem has, most recently, been demonstrated by the controversy that has arisen over the re-naming of the Shadman Fawara Chowk in Lahore after Bhagat Singh, that incredibly courageous Marxist revolutionary, freedom fighter and intellectual whose struggle against colonial rule led to him being hanged at age 23 at this very spot (Shadman Fawara Chowk), by the British in 1931.

On November 14, the Dilkash Lahore Committee, comprising prominent architects, writers, artists and administrators, had approved the renaming to acknowledge and pay a tribute to Bhagat Singh’s struggle. The committee had been set up to consider re-naming roads and other spots in Lahore, as well as initiating other work in the city.

However, only days later, Justice Nasir Saeed Sheikh of the Lahore High Court restrained the City District Government Lahore from notifying the change in name. The judge, who has sought a reply from the CDGL before the end of November, was acting on a petition moved by one Zahid Butt, a member of the Tehreek-i-Hurmat-i-Rasool and also president of the Shadman Traders Association. The petition states the CDGL had earlier decided to name Shadman Chowk after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali but the government had changed its mind after lobbying by the Bhagat Singh Foundation “with active connivance of other so-called human rights organisations” that had pressurised the CDGL to alter its decision. The petition also mentions an ‘Indian lobby’, refers to the Holy Quran and Sunnah and demands the chowk be named after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, the man who gave Pakistan its name. It may be mentioned that the Dilkash Lahore Committee has already recommended an underpass in the city be named after this good gentleman.

On a somewhat different note, it could be argued that the spectacularly ugly Shadman Chowk, with rows of multi-coloured bathroom tiles fitted over possibly the worse-designed roundabout in Lahore, would make an unfortunate memorial place for a man as important to the Subcontinent’s freedom movement as Bhagat Singh. He deserves better. But the fact is that the chowk stands where he was executed by the British some 80 years ago – and as groups in the city have argued for years, this spot needs to belong to him as a long overdue tribute. Our country emerged from a freedom movement participated in by the millions – Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and others alike.

Because history has been so shamelessly manipulated in our country through the decades, fewer and fewer people today realise that till 1947, the city and district of Lahore housed a population that was almost 40 percent non-Muslim – mainly Hindus and Sikhs. In other Punjab districts the ratio stood even closer together, until the ‘ethnic cleansings’ of Partition began on both sides of the border – resulting in the largest displacement in history, marked by genocide and the birth of blind hatred.

There should, in the case of Bhagat Singh, be no talk of an Indian lobby. Bhagat was born in a village near Jaranwala in what was then Lyallpur – today’s Faisalabad district. He was educated in Lahore, and visited many towns in Punjab inspiring other youngsters to fight for freedom and socialism, and also campaigned during his short life in other Indian cities. The fact that he is remembered better by India – in film, books and in theatre – is our failing. There should be no need for any lobby to campaign for Bhagat. His deeds make him a hero. The tragedy is he has simply been wiped away from our schools’ history curricula, driving him into deliberate oblivion.

Just as we need to fight against militancy, we also need to fight against ignorance and bigotry. In many ways extremism rises from them, as hatred and misconception is created. Within the education system, this process began decades ago but was accelerated following the July 1977 coup d’etat by General Ziaul Haq. Today we need to reverse this process, but the right gear it seems has not been hit. Textbooks still follow a clich├ęd pattern, with their selected heroes and prose based quite outside reality. Corrections have to be made if we are to save our country.

The intolerance that has permeated society, creating controversy over so simple a matter as naming a place after a hero, underscores just what dangers we face. And there are many other examples.

Changing mindsets is an extremely difficult task – much harder than going after militants with guns. But we must remember the two issues are tied together, and cannot be solved in isolation from each other. We need to think of the problem as a whole, and remember that it is not just violence that extremism has brought to us. It has also re-wired brains, creating a pattern of thinking that handicaps us and prevents us from moving on.

It is this thinking that drives forward messages maligning Malala Yousafzai and insisting a day instead be marked for Dr Aafia Siddique; it is this thinking that sees India as an ‘enemy’, forgets Pakistan’s own minorities and holds back women from empowerment. Somehow it needs to change, so people learn the truth about the past and from that gain a better understanding of what we need in the present.

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