Perspective 360°

What's in a name?

Published 23 Mar, 2015 05:48pm

A couple of months ago, the City District Government Lahore (CDGL) announced that it would rename a roundabout in Lahore, Shadman Chowk, to Bhagat Singh Chowk. The roundabout was the same point where Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter was hanged in 1931; the spot used to house the jail gallows in pre-Partition days. The announcement immediately became controversial. As soon as the CDGL released a mandatory notice in the local media seeking public comments on renaming the roundabout, many religious groups reacted strongly in opposition to the move.

The plot thickens

The main opposition came from Jamaatud-Dawa (JD) which said it would not allow the renaming of places in Lahore after Hindus, Sikhs or Christians and instead wanted the roundabout to be named as Hurmat-e-Rasool Chowk. Amir Hamza, a JD leader, threatened protests if the government went ahead with its decision to name the chowk after Bhagat Singh. His warning was backed by the head of the Shadman Traders Association.

Facing such opposition, the government handed over the issue to Dilkash Lahore Committee, an official body headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court, Khalilur Rehman Ramday, with eminent residents of Lahore as its members. On November 14, the committee recommended the renaming of the place as Bhagat Singh Chowk, along with recommending new names for 25 other venues in the city after some of the most well known revolutionaries, poets, writers and artists from the Subcontinent.

But before the progressives could celebrate their victory over orthodoxy, a new roadblock hit the process. Zahid Butt, a member of Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool, filed a petition at the Lahore High Court which, accepting his plea, stopped the CDGL from notifying the new names. The question that vexes the petitioner’s mind and those of others like him is why Pakistan, with its Muslim-majority, should celebrate non-Muslim participants in the freedom struggle. They also raise questions about Bhagat Singh’s contribution towards the creation of Pakistan.

Photo by Faisal Saeed
Photo by Faisal Saeed

A false start

The demand to rename Shadman Chowk after Bhagat Singh, however, is not a new one. It first gained momentum in the 1980s when activists began rallying at the roundabout to observe Bhagat Singh’s death anniversary on March 23. It was an era when political and social liberties were severely restricted so the freedom fighter and the commemoration of his revolt against the British became a rallying point for all types of political demands. But these activities fizzled out once Ziaul Haq’s military government ended in 1988.

Over the last five years or so, the demand for renaming the roundabout after Bhagat Singh has re-emerged and has commanded attention in the media and official circles. Activists put this mainly to two factors: Bhagat Singh’s depiction in popular Indian movies which has popularised him and political awakening among urban middle classes in the wake of the lawyers’ movement circa 2007.

Supporters galore

Several organisations and groups – including the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies, Peacekeeper Pakistan, Labour Party Pakistan, Liberal Forum Pakistan and Punjab Lokh Rahs – are now committed to the cause of renaming the roundabout. Some eminent Indians have also supported their cause. For instance, a delegation of peace activists from India – comprising intellectual Kuldip Nayar, journalist Jatin Desai, social activist Mazhar Hussain, former lawmaker Shahid Siddiqui and film director Mahesh Bhatt – took part in a candle-light vigil at the roundabout on Bhagat Singh’s death anniversary in 2011. In 2007, Bhagat Singh’s nephew led a procession of several Indian delegates from the Wagah Border to the roundabout on the hanged freedom fighter’s 100th birth anniversary. Several hundred local people also joined them in the celebrations.

Photo by Shiraz Hassan
Photo by Shiraz Hassan

At a standstill

In 2010, disillusioned by empty promises of the government, the activists used spray paint to write “Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chowk” on the base of the roundabout. The very next day, a hoarding appeared at the spot, naming it Chaudhry Rehmat Ali Chowk in an obvious attempt to pit a Muslim fighter for independence against a non-Muslim one. Petitioner Butt used the hoarding as a basis for his plea – contending that the CDGL had already named the place after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali and, therefore, it should not be renamed after Bhagat Singh.

The Dilkash Lahore Committee tried to resolve the issue by naming some other roads in the city after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali but this hasn’t led to a resolution. Without answering the question lying at the root of the debate – whether a non-Muslim freedom fighter should be acknowledged as a hero in a Muslim state – the stalemate is set to last.