Bhagat Singh remains a contested figure in post-partition Pakistan, but his role as a resilient revolutionary and local hero cannot be negated, no matter the efforts of certain factions
Referring to the dominance and manipulation of faith, I have argued in my previous writings for The News on Sunday (TNS) that ideology has been central to state-building and nation-building in Pakistan from day one. The contesting ideological orientations post-partition have caused the exclusion of many talented, competent and capable individuals from the pages of our history and academic writings.
Bhagat Singh, the legendary freedom fighter, has been otherised in our literature through the communalisation of textbooks taught in schools and colleges. Though he fought against the British imperialism and exploitation of capitalism for justice, equality and rights of the downtrodden irrespective of their religion, colour, and creed, Bhagat Singh remains largely excluded from our collective heritage of anti-colonial struggle because he was not a Muslim. Singh declared himself an atheist, socialist, revolutionary and divorced religion. Interestingly, he is being punished in the name of religion. A film by Indian actor Amir Khan, called Rang De Basanti, introduced Singh’s ideology to more young persons in the 2000s rather than local textbooks.
Singh, along with Shivaram Raj Guru and Sukhdev Thapar, led the freedom struggle of the people of India against the British colonialists by raising slogans such as the famous, Inquilab Zindabad (Long live revolution) and Bartanvi Samraj Murdabad (Death to British imperialism). Subsequently, the British imperialists hanged them on March 23, 1931, in Lahore. Hardly a few people amass around the Fawara Chowk (a roundabout), a place in Shadman where they were hanged (as is believed), to commemorate and hail the freedom fighters on March 23 of every year. Those who gather there are met with stiff resistance and receive threats from the religious fanatics and extremists.
For example, some religious groups such as Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), known for their anti-India stance, resorted to the Lahore High Court to block a move of the City District Government Lahore (CDGL) to renaming the Fawara Chowk after Bhagat Singh – an icon of the struggle against foreign imperialism. Moreover, they threatened violence if the decision was not reversed. Ultimately, the project was put on hold for an indefinite period.
Bhagat Singh hailed from a politically conscious and active family of the village Bangay, formally called Chak 105 GB, of (now) Tehsil Jaranwala of Faisalabad district. He was born on September 27, 1907, the day his father, a political agitator, was released from prison. He received political training from his father and uncle, Ajit Singh – the founder of the Pagri Sanbhal Jatta Movement. Following in his father’s footsteps, the young Singh joined Gandhi. However, he parted ways with Gandhi due to 1) the influence of socialism and communism on his philosophy; and 2) Gandhi’s role in the non-cooperation movement, which resulted in Hindu-Muslim riots.
The outcome of the non-cooperation movement made him realise that both Hindus and Muslims were ready to kill each other in the name of religion. This proved a watershed in his life, and he started reading Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and other revolutionaries. He divorced religion and turned into a socialist. He devoted his life to the well-being of the people of India regardless of their religion and caste. He dreamt for a social revolution for which he had established a revolutionary group known as Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS). The objective of NBS was to set up an independent Republic of Workers and Peasants in India. Later on, he merged his organisation with the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association (HSRA) to synergise the efforts to free the land and the people from foreign occupation. Singh had dreamt of a free India and sacrificed his life for the same cause. He never imagined the partition of his land and people, the way it happened, in the name of religion.
Owing to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in the name of religion, Bhagat Singh has been otherised in Lehnda (West) Punjab — because Pakistan was created in the name of Islam, while he was a non-Muslim.
Owing to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in the name of religion, Bhagat Singh has been otherised in Lehnda (West) Punjab – because Pakistan was created in the name of Islam, while he was a non-Muslim. The younger generations have little to no knowledge of him, and the older generations are confused about his place in history. That is why only a few people gather together to commemorate the martyrdom of the freedom fighter.
Those who wish to eradicate Singh’s name from the local narratives are oblivious to his contributions. Bhagat Singh fought for the emancipation of the locals, irrespective of their religion and class, who were being exploited under colonial rule. Many have tried to make Singh a contesting figure merely due to ideological orientation. He has become the victim of the very ideology he had fought against, i.e. divide and hate based on religion. The blame should rest with the patrons of historical writings and compilers of textbooks who have tried to project him either a villain or a controversial figure for their own vested interests.
Not only Bhagat Singh and his legacy but also his belongings have been otherised. For example, the primary school where he had studied is in shambles. And the Bradlaugh Hall (National College), which served as his alma mater where he found his Marxist inspirations and became a leader, is a picture of dilapidation. The New Hostel of Government College University, Poonch House, Islamia College, Fawara Chowk, and the Central Jail are other Lahore landmarks that could be renamed after Bhagat Singh.
Contrary to the buildings and landmarks owned and controlled by the government, Bhagat Singh’s house has been well-maintained because it is privately owned – by Saqib Virk, who is planning to hand over it to the government, which is not a good move as Singh has never been given the deserved position in the local discourse. The reason might be that he was martyred when the All India Muslim League was pro-British. The same Muslim League championed the Pakistan Movement and discarded Bhagat Singh from the textbooks and historical writings.
To conclude, though it is a hard call, there is a dire need to include Singh, his legacy in our textbooks. Moreover, the academicians should also take the responsibility of conducting research and building narratives to hail our local heroes regardless of their faiths. Last but not least, to commemorate, the government should take the initiative of renaming at least one landmark after Bhagat Singh to educate the upcoming generations about the local revolutionary.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87