Bhagat Singh died long before India or Pakistan became independent. In fact, he was hanged in Lahore exactly nine years before the Pakistan Resolution was passed by the Muslim League in the same city in 1940. Bhagat Singh was born a Sikh and died an avowed atheist. While in prison, he wrote a pamphlet titled Why I am an Atheist.
Why recount these facts about Bhagat Singh now? Because of the controversy surrounding the renaming of a busy Lahore traffic roundabout, Fawara Chowk or Shadman Chowk in his honour. Fawara Chowk stands on the spot that marks the Lahore Central Jail’s execution ground. Bhagat Singh, along with Rajguru and Sukhdev, was hanged here by the British in 1931. The jail was demolished in 1961.
A special committee of Lahore city government last month decided to rename Fawara Chowk after Bhagat Singh. It was then put on hold after objections from “certain sections of society”. The “certain sections of society” were nothing but Hafiz Saeed led Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is a front for the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, banned by the UN for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. JuD argues that since Pakistan is a Muslim country, its major roads and squares should be named after Muslims, and not Hindus or Sikhs. This renaming, it alleges, is an attempt to appease pro-India elements in Pakistan and an insult to the ideology of Pakistan. Its threats to protest against the decision, coupled with the majority view in an official public hearing, led the authorities to put the renaming on hold.
When Lahore’s DCO finally went ahead with the renaming of the roundabout last week, his decision was challenged in the Lahore High Court as being “against the principles of Pakistan’s freedom movement”. Last Friday, Lahore High Court restrained the city government from notifying this recommendation. The renaming, now put on hold, is likely to be shelved forever. The tiny fringe of Pakistani liberals is fighting a losing battle in a rapidly radicalising Pakistan. History in Pakistan is a very tricky concoction of religion, nationalism and culture. Believe it or not, Pakistani books contend that its history begins with the invasion of the subcontinent by Muhammad bin Qasim in 712 AD. In the 1970s, Prime Minister ZA Bhutto established in Karachi what is now Pakistan’s second busiest port, and named it as Port Muhammad Bin Qasim. As columnist Salman Rashid recently lamented, Pakistanis refuse to accept King Porus as their ancestor because he was a Hindu king. This is when Islam was nearly a millennium in the future of Porus’ battle with Alexander. So what? The quick counter is that Alexander the Great is actually Zulqarnain mentioned in the Holy Quran.
But it is not only about Muslims versus non-Muslims in Pakistan. It is also about Ahmedi versus Muslim, Shia versus Sunni, Barelvi versus Wahabi, secular Sunni versus rabid Barelvi, and so on. Lest we forget, Pakistan’s statehood was about self-identification as Muslims in lieu of persecution under Hindu India. Ayub Khan put it thus in his autobiography: “India particularly has a deep pathological hatred for Muslims and her hostility to Pakistan stems from a refusal to see a Muslim power developing next door.”
Many Indian commentators pronounce that India and Pakistan are similar. When they see no difference between some Indians and Pakistanis, they mistakenly presume India and Pakistan to be the same. But as MJ Akbar says, “India and Pakistan are not separated by a mere boundary. They are defined by radically opposed ideas. India believes in a secular state where all faiths are equal; Pakistan in the notion that a state can be founded on the basis of religion.”
In fact, Indians and Pakistanis are also not similar. A Bengali has more in common with a Bangladeshi, a Naga with his fellow tribesmen in Myanmar, an Arunachal Buddhist with Tibetans or a Tamil with Sri Lankans than with a Pakistani. For that matter, there is little common between an Indian Punjabi and a Pashtun from Khyber-Pakhtunwa in Pakistan. It is not about denying our common heritage but about acknowledging our present realities.The two states, the two societies — India and Pakistan — chose to traverse two different paths in 1947 and they are on opposing trajectories today. Therein lies the significance of this incident of renaming a Lahore roundabout after Bhagat Singh. It reminds us once again of the reality of Pakistan that confronts us today.
NB — Can anyone explain why Delhi has a major road still named after Aurangzeb?
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review