The district authorities of Lahore rename Shadman Chowk after Bhagat Singh, who was hanged there by the British. There are many other places in the city that keep his memory alive.
ALL major newspapers in India carried the Press Trust of India release from Islamabad on September 30 about Shadman Chowk in Lahore, Pakistan, being officially renamed Bhagat Singh Chowk. The demand for the renaming is not new; many a time in the past, civil society groups put up signboards calling the road junction Bhagat Singh Chowk on March 23, when they would gather with candles to pay homage to the memory of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, who were executed on that day in 1931. They, of course, would later be removed by the civic authorities.
Shadman Chowk is at the centre of Shadman Colony. The middle-class colony was built after the Pakistani authorities demolished, in 1961, the historic jail of Lahore, where many freedom fighters, such as Kartar Singh Sarabha and many of his comrades of the Ghadar Party, were executed in 1915. The chowk was built where the gallows had stood.
Old-timers say that until the 1965 war, people from India and Pakistan could freely move to each other’s countries with minimal restrictions. Thus people from India coming to visit Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, would invariably travel 40 kilometres from there to visit Chak No.105, Lyallpur Bange, Faisalabad, the house where Bhagat Singh was born.
I visited Bhagat Singh’s house in 2007. On the way to his village, we came across an 82-year-old person named Farhad Khan, a retired government official, who had named the street to his house Bhagat Singh Lane. He insisted on taking us to his house. In his drawing room was an old black-and-white photograph of Bhagat Singh.
At Bhagat Singh’s birthplace, we met the present occupants of the big house, who were all reverence for the martyr. Later, a friend sent me the photograph of the primary school where Bhagat Singh studied. It is now in a dilapidated condition, as reports on Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary in Lahore say.
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were to be executed early in the morning on March 24 as per jail practice. But in a rare aberration in history, the trio was executed around 7 p.m. the previous evening, on secret orders that were issued to the jail officials on March 17. After the execution, the bodies of the three martyrs were taken to Ganda Singhwala village near Kasur, now in India, on the Hussainiwala border in Ferozepur district of Punjab, and half-burnt. The remains were picked up by hundreds of people who had walked from Lahore for more than 50 kilometres following the British police. The police had secretly taken the bodies out through the back gate of the jail fearing a backlash from the people who had gathered in large numbers at the jail gate.
People brought the half-burnt pieces of the bodies of the martyrs and cremated them with great respect, with the whole of Lahore observing a bandh and more than 50,000 people joining the funeral procession. This was reported by The Tribune, published from Lahore in those days, on March 26, 1931.
The Naujawan Bharat Sabha, established by Bhagat Singh and his comrades, decided to build a befitting memorial for the martyrs on the banks of the Ravi, where they were cremated. Donations were collected for this. But the Congress party foiled the plan.
Apparently, the Congress, through Kishan Singh, Bhagat Singh’s father, who was its activist, promised that it would build the memorial. Comrade Ramchand, an office-bearer of the Sabha, has detailed this treachery in his book on the history of the organisation.
Apart from the Lahore jail, there are many other places in Lahore city that are in one way or the other associated with Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Bradlaugh Hall, built in memory of the British socialist Charles Bradlaugh, who was a supporter of the Indian freedom movement, was the headquarters of the Punjab Congress party. It also housed the National College in Lahore, where Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev were students. This heritage site is also in a bad condition now. I could locate it with much difficulty during my 2007 visit.
Lahore is where Bhagat Singh and his associates in the Naujawan Bharat Sabha assassinated J.P. Saunders, the Deputy Superintendent of Police responsible for raining lathi blows on Lala Lajpat Rai on October 30, 1928, when he was leading a protest against the visit of the Simon Commission to the city.
Lala Lajpat Rai died from the blows on November 17, 1928, and Basanti Devi, the widow of the radical nationalist leader C.R. Das, exhorted the Indian youth to avenge the killing of Lajpat Rai. Bhagat Singh and his comrades accepted her call despite their differences with Lajpat Rai on many issues.
Though the decision was to kill the Superintendent of Police James A. Scott, who had ordered the lathi charge, it was Saunders, who had hit Lajpat Rai on the head, who became the victim.
The revolutionaries did not regret the assassination as they treated Saunders not as an individual but as a representative of the oppressive British colonial administration.
Saunders was killed in front of the office of the Senior Superintendent of Police in Lahore. Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mazhar Ali, father of Tariq Ali, celebrated author and communist leader from Pakistan, who were in the Government College nearby at that time, heard the gunshots. It was in this case that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged at the place, now named Bhagat Singh Chowk.
Bhagat Singh has always attracted the attention of Pakistani writers and historians. The eminent Sindhi poet Sheikh Ayaz has written a poetic play on his life; the Punjabi writer Ahmad Salim has many publications on him, including Bhagat Singh: Jivan ate Adarsh (Bhagat Singh: Life and Ideals) and a poetry collection, Kehdi Man ne Bhagat Singh Jammia (Which Mother gave birth to Bhagat Singh); and the Urdu writer Zahida Hina has described Bhagat Singh as the most honoured martyr of Pakistan. Najam Hussain Syed, Faiz’s daughter, and the art historian Salima Hashmi have written about him. The historian Mubarak Ali has written about him in Dawn, a respected daily of Pakistan. Sibte Rizvi has translated Ajoy Ghosh’s book Bhagat Singh and his Comrades into Urdu.
Pakistan’s leftist movement and civil society need liberal icons like Bhagat Singh to counter the jehadi movements. The naming of the road junction, though a small and symbolic gesture, is a significant step in that direction. Interestingly, Bhagat Singh has been projected in Pakistan and its media as a strong anti-imperialist working class representative. Many activists call him Comrade Bhagat Singh and describe him as the Che Guevara of South Asia.
There is a demand to establish a museum at his birthplace. Also, opinion is building in favour of protecting Bradlaugh Hall as a heritage building. British colonialism tried to eliminate all signs of Bhagat Singh in Lahore, but now history has taken a different turn.
There was a proposal to have a Bhagat Singh memorial lecture in the British Parliament during the Bhagat Singh centenary, for which Prof. Bipan Chandra’s name was suggested. That event failed to take place.
Chaman Lal is Professor at the Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and editor/author of many books on Bhagat Singh, including his complete documents.