This is a Pakpotpourri Exclusive
As if already we didn’t have enough governance worries at home, here comes the Punjab Government’s ill-conceived decision on renaming of Lahore’s Shadman Chowk as Bhagat Singh Chowk to spark a new controversy involving distortions of history. There are many reasons for this decision to be rescinded with no second thought.
Firstly, there are more important things for a city administration than renaming streets and squares and complicating things for the people by giving names to places of their residence, business or daily usage that they can’t 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 Qaddafi Stadium will remain Qaddafi Stadium no matter how disgraced Gaddafi later became to meet a tragic death last year.
Even Lahore’s Mall Road has had an official name ‘Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam’ for nearly half a century but no one calls it by this 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 only because a group of “peace activists” from both sides of the border so desire.
Thirdly, the renowned 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 of 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.
I am sure he is familiar with the history of the longstanding issue of Jinnah House in Mumbai. Built in 1936, Jinnah House, originally called South Court, was the personal residence of Pakistan’s founder Quaid-e-AzamMohammad Ali Jinnah. After partition, it was taken over by the Indian government and declared evacuee property in 1949. Later it was leased to the British Consulate which moved out in 1981. Since1979, Pakistan has been seeking to buy the Jinnah House or at least lease it on long-term basis to be converted into Pakistan’s Consulate in Mumbai as a lasting tribute to its founding father.
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 possession of Jinnah House but had to return to Pakistan without opening our Consulate in Mumbai. Incidentally, this historic building which was also the venue of watershed talks between Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru in September 1944 and August 1946 that shaped the future course of Indian history doesn’t even carry a ‘Jinnah House’ plaque.
We have never questioned Bhagat Singh’s place in India’s history and in fact as a mark of our respect for his role in India’s freedom struggle, Pakistan voluntarily ceded to India in 1961 the spot at Hussainiwala on the banks of Sutlej River where he was cremated after being hanged in Lahore. Thanks to Pakistan’s gesture, a Bhagat Singh memorial now stands at this spot just one kilometer from India-Pakistan border. Can we expect similar gesture in respect of Jinnah House in Mumbai?
Kuldip Nayer also tells us how a group of 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 Nayer, marked “a poignant moment” moving many hearts in the two countries while Indian and Pakistani voices mingled together shouting “Bhagat Singh zindabad”, “Inquilab zindabad”.
“Bhagat Singh zindabad” is understandable but “Inquilab 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” Inquilab was centred solely on a socialist republic in India. What kind of Inquilab our “peace activists” now want and where? Wouldn’t Bhagat Singh have revolted today against his fellow-Sikh prime minster’s capitalism-led high-growth policies in India?
Had Bhagat Singh been practicing his revolutionary zeal today, wouldn’t he have faced the same fate as he met on March 23, 1931? What would have been his stance on Kashmiri freedom struggle or even on Sikhs’ separatist movements? Wasn’t Maqbool Butt, a Kashmiri freedom fighter fuelled by the same fire that once ignited Bhagat Singh’s heart to openly revolt against the British Raj? Today, isn’t there zero tolerance for militancy or violence of any sorts? Aren’t we gullibly paving the way for glorification of terrorist killers who in their minds also have a ‘cause’ of their own no matter how misguided?
Those of us familiar with the history of the sub-continent 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 local police headquarters for which after due trial he was hanged in this very city.
And here we do no 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 expected us to address the root causes of India-Pakistan conflicts. And we in Pakistan can truly honour our national heroes by preserving the sovereign freedom, dignity and values that they bequeathed to us as an independent nation.
The writer is a former foreign secretary