The Friday Times – In the name of Bhaghat Singh

The Friday Times – In the name of Bhaghat Singh

 

Published: The Friday Times – April 8, 2011

In the name of Bhaghat Singh

 

Haroon Khalid
The revisionism of a few determined progressives is gaining ground in Lahore. Haroon Khalid reports


first met Diep Saeeda at her house in Lahore’s Johar Town. This was just after her press conference on the 21st of July 2010. She told me that for many months the ‘Agencies’ had been harassing her, breaking into her house, taking away her laptop and mobile phones, calling her from unknown numbers, threatening her and her family. She finally decided to break the silence, when she openly accused the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) of following and ‘humiliating’ her. A few days later The Friday Times ran an article on her, titled ‘The Only Man in Town’. She reported that after the press conference the harassment lessened but didn’t end.

Diep is the head of a Lahore-based NGO called Institute for Peace and Secular Studies. Its aim is to establish a secular society here and promote peace between India and Pakistan. Needless to say, both ideas are blasphemous in the Land of the Pure.

Diep is a graduate of Columbia University and has been working as a political activist in Pakistan since 1997. On the 9th of December, 2010, she was christened a Human Rights Defender by the President of Pakistan. Diep tells me that in the days when she was being followed constantly by intelligence operatives, she suffered from a major depression.

For the past many years Diep, along with other organizations, has been holding a candlelight vigil on the 23rd of March at the Shadman Chowk in Lahore to commemorate the martyrdom of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who was hanged by the British on that day in1931. This chowk was part of the jail at that time, and was the location of the gallows. Bhagat Singh, along with his compatriots Sukhdev and Rajguru from the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, was hanged here.

Diep and her conscientious compatriots are demanding that this roundabout be renamed Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chowk. Diep says that localities should be renamed to commemorate the real heroes of this land, brave men like Bhagat Singh. In practice, however, the fashion is to import names from Arabia. Diep feels that this cultural colonization and blatant bias against our indigenous heritage must end.

The night before the Bhagat Singh rally, Diep and her daughters spray-painted the words ‘Bhagat Singh Chowk’ on the roundabout but fled when they noticed ‘suspicious activities’. When I saw her doing the same thing the next day, I joked that it was illegal. “This wouldn’t be the only illegal thing done in this country,” she retorted.

I’ve attended this vigil for the last few years. I used to go home disappointed by the small turnout and the lack of concern among passersby. But this year things appeared to have improved. There were many more people, and the highlight of the evening was a street play arranged by the Punjab Lok Rahs called ‘Chipen Ton Pehlan’. (It was written by Davinder Daman and directed by Human Safdar.) The hour-long performance dramatized Bhagat Singh’s stay in jail, and focused in particular on the discourse he has there with an Untouchable servant called Bogha. The actors were students of Punjab University. Sloganeering and live music from the performance attracted many people into the gathering. The play was based on the Nukar Theatre tradition in which street plays are organized on different occasions and locations to further a social or political cause. Most remarkable was the fact that even in that open and unprotected environment the play didn’t refrain from addressing issues such as atheism and the role of religion in the affairs of the state.

While this nautanki was being conducted on one side of the street, Diep and her friends from other organizations, including Peace Keeper Pakistan, Labor Party, and Liberal Forum, were raising slogans in favor of Bhagat Singh and revolution on the roundabout. Jassi Laipuria, a Sikh pop singer from Faisalabad, was also present with his entourage. Lailpuria has recently completed an Urdu book on Bhagat Singh, which he plans to publish this year. His group-mates wore numerous earrings, tattoos, Korn T-shirts; they were clean-shaven, wore turbans and held portraits of Bhagat Singh, all the while sloganeering in favor of a communist revolution.

Later in the evening a delegation of peace activists from India also joined the vigil. This included intellectual Kuldip Nayar, journalist Jatin Desai, social activist Mazhar Hussain, former MP and editor of ‘Nai Dunya’ Shahid Siddiqui, and film director Mahesh Bhatt.

This part of the jail was separated from the Lahore jail during the reign of Ayub Khan, and ever since then members of Lahore’s civil society have been calling for the renaming of this roundabout. The movement gained momentum at the time of General Zia’s dictatorship, when the figure of Bhagat Singh was taken up as a symbol of struggle against oppression. On the 23rd of March, various ceremonies and events were organized in the cities to press for political freedom and reform, using Bhagat Singh as an emblem. In 2007, on the 100th birthday of the martyr, his nephew led a procession from India to this roundabout. He was joined by various Pakistani organizations on the way. It is reported that some 800 people gathered to commemorate Bhagat Singh on that day.

According to Punjabi intellectual Iqbal Qaiser, the struggle to rename this roundabout lost impetus ironically after Zia’s death. People still gathered here, but in far fewer numbers. However, for the past 4-5 years, more and more people have taken an interest in the cause. There are two main reasons for this, according to Qaiser: the lawyer’s movement politicized a new chunk of the urban middle-classes, and inflation caused by IMF-led economic restructuring has increased the frustration of the poor. Both of these factors have served to revitalize the cause and story of Bhagat Singh.

This year, for the first time in the movement’s history, a representative of the government came to the vigil. Asif Hashmi is chairman of the AUQAF Department. He assured the protestors that he would take up their cause with the provincial and federal governments. He also promised that he would lend Bhagat Singh’s name to one of the buildings in his office. He further stated that on the occasion of Vaisakhi the government would every year honour one Sikh who has played an important role in the independence struggle.

Iqbal Qaiser is probably right when he says that recent depictions of Bhagat Singh in popular Indian films have made him an instant icon.

Given the scope and changing character of cultural activities in Pakistan, it is likely that more people will be compelled into examining those aspects of their history that they have till now ignored. n

Haroon Khalid is a staff reporter at Newsweek Pakistan