Bhagat Singh’s legacy of liberty and social justice is being invoked by Pakistani civil society to fight for their rights. Younas Chowdhry reports from Lahore
MARCH 23 is an important date in Pakistan’s history since it is the day the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan Resolution in Lahore in 1940. The idea of Pakistan was conceived, and the fate of the subcontinent as a divided entity sealed on this day. This year was the 70th anniversary of Pakistan Day, as the day is now known. Being a national holiday, most Pakistanis were either immersed in festivities or enjoying a quiet day off.
But this March 23, there was a commemorative event in Lahore that ran contrary to the “official” discourse of the country’s history — or, perhaps, it would be more apt to say, it was disowned altogether. Nevertheless, it cuts through that admixture of religiosity and nationalism that runs rampant in Pakistan’s sociopolitical milieu.
Some 30 defiant demonstrators stood for hours in the middle of Shadman Chowk, an affluent neighbourhood in old Lahore, through the afternoon, braving the scorching sun. The demonstrators comprised students from various universities of Lahore, civil society activists, factory workers, communists and even little children.
It was at the same spot 79 years ago that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were executed by the British government on March 23. The gallows of the nearby camp jail were housed here at the time. What remains now is a small roundabout with a fountain.
Holding placards and chanting such slogans as ‘Zinda hai, Bhagat zinda hai’(Bhagat is still alive), ‘We salute Bhagat Singh’, ‘Har zulm ka ek jawab, inquilab inquilab’ (Revolution is the answer to all oppression), they demanded that the Chowk be renamed Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chowk and declared a national heritage site. The protesters even installed a red signboard that read “Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chowk”. The organisers of the event said they decided to install the signboard themselves after requests to the local Nazim(mayor) and the government to do so went unheeded for years. The protesters remained there till sunset and departed after a candlelight vigil.
“Reviving Bhagat Singh’s ideals is a necessity in Pakistan, where masses live in abject poverty and suffer from religious intolerance and imperialism,” says Sonya Qadir, a student activist and participant. “His legacy is a reminder that we are all human and deserve to be free from all oppression.”
This is no isolated event. The figure of Bhagat Singh, despite being ignored in all mainstream textbooks, has long been regarded as a symbol of resistance by a variety of groups across Pakistan. On March 23 last year, at a seminar on the subject of missing persons in Lahore, Punjab University student Amir Jalal walked up to the dais and delivered an impromptu lecture on Bhagat Singh’s execution and sacrifice. As he finished, the audience observed a moment’s silence in his memory.
“Bhagat too is a missing person and we need to find him in order to find ourselves,” says Jalal, a PhD student. “I felt compelled to speak out about him.” Jalal used to be the convener of the now defunct University Students’ Federation (USF), formed in 2008 to oppose the Islami-Jamiat-e-Tulba (IJT), the student wing of the Islamic hardline group, Jamaat-e-Islami. Punjab University has been an IJT stronghold ever since it was installed in the state during President Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship that lasted between 1977 to 1986, to suppress all progressive, left-leaning and peaceloving student organisations. The USF brought this to the attention of the government and media, forcing the government to take action. Jalal adds: “The USF endorsed the values of secularism, pluralism and democracy. We drew our inspiration from the ideals of Bhagat Singh, among others. We often discussed him during our study circles.”
In Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, there is a vibrant student movement that represents the aspirations of thousands of Kashmiri youngsters. It is called the Jammu Kashmir National Students Federation (JKNSF) and is a vocal opponent of Pakistani State-sponsored jihadi factories in the region. Nothing the outfit does ever finds a mention in the mainstream Pakistani media. Many of its activists have allegedly been abducted by Pakistani agencies in the past.
JKNSF posters featuring pictures of Bhagat Singh and Che Guevara are a common sight at most rallies. Danish Khan, a Kashmiri student, says: “For most outsiders this is a unique phenomenon, but for the youth of Kashmir the life and struggle of Bhagat Singh is a source of inspiration and motivation. They see Pakistan as an occupying force just as Bhagat saw the British.”
In Balochistan, five military operations have been carried out against the nationalists. Thousands of Baloch activists have been picked up and, to this day, remain missing. This year, some members of the Baloch Students Organisation, a nationalist student front, gathered at Shadman Chowk to pay homage to Bhagat Singh, who is a source of inspiration to them too.
Bhagat Singh’s posters are a common sight at rallies in Pakistan
STUDENTS AND Leftist organisations aren’t the only ones endorsing his ideals. Throughout the lawyers’ movement (2007-2009), responsible for the ouster of President Pervez Musharraf and politicisation of a large cross-section of Pakistani society, Bhagat Singh’s slogans and the poems he would often recite — such as Ram Prasad Bismil’s Sarfaroshi ki Tammana — were often heard during the rallies.
Umer Chaudhry, a young lawyer from Lahore who was at the forefront of the protests, says: “In our part of the subcontinent, we conveniently forget the role played by non-Muslims in the struggle against British colonialism. The same fate befell Bhagat Singh. That he was supported by [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah is never mentioned in the textbooks. It is not surprising though. Bhagat Singh, a symbol of resistance, could never be the hero of a government that doesn’t represent its people.”
In the search for an identity, many have gone outside the decadent ideologies manufactured by the status quo. One such search — for an ethos of peace and an end to religious intolerance and liberty from oppression — manifests itself in the adoption of Bhagat Singh’s ideals and the revisiting of his legacy by many Pakistanis. It won’t come as a surprise if in the coming years more Pakistanis discover Bhagat Singh and begin to question the social order of things. If that happens, then we might even succeed in rescuing these valuable figures from obscurity and make their ideals a reality.