Bhagat Singh would have been 110 years old today. As is India’s case, he is a much loved and adored figure in Pakistan. However, this doesn’t translate into public acceptance or acknowledgement of his efforts, cause or sacrifice. His absence from the public discourse, memory and history books is as ubiquitous as that of Gandhi’s or Pakistani politician Sikandar Hyat Khan’s.
In Lahore, however, some activists have decided to gather at the Shadman Chowk where Singh was hanged. The Lahore High Court has directed the police to provide them security.
The movement to rename the intersection as Bhagat Singh Chowk had nearly achieved its purpose in 2012. But the government had to go back on its word due to pressure from an Islamist group. However, just renaming a location is not enough. There is also a need for inclusion of Bhagat Singh in Pakistan’s government school curriculum.
Firstly, Pakistani children in schools should understand that freedom in 1947 wasn’t just a “Muslim effort” but a combined effort of all religious communities. Secondly, freedom wasn’t from the “conniving Hindus” as is popularly believed but from the British, whom the forefathers of many people in the current Pakistani elite admired and served.
In Pakistan, rarely is the British rule questioned and explained. Most Pakistani history books focus on the suffering of Muslims as a minority before partition. They also highlight the difference between Islam and Hinduism as religions to reinforce the theory that the two communities could not have lived together.
Of course, there is the underlying belief that Islam is the only religious truth—somewhat superior to Hinduism—and perhaps, therefore, the Pakistan Movement is justified. In the 1940s, when the struggle of the Muslim League and other parties became more defined, there were clashes and riots all over India and they served as examples of the atrocities committed against Muslims in colonial India.
Pakistan’s narrative does not define the British as colonisers and exploiters who created the civil service, infrastructure, education system and other institutions for its administration. Instead, the narrative defines Hindus as exploiters. Some people in Pakistan are still in awe of the British and voice the idea that had they stayed in India longer, the country would have been even more developed and peaceful. This is despite the fact that entire books can be written on the havoc the caused by the British empire in the colonised world, particularly in India and Pakistan.
Shashi Tharoor recently wrote a book on the British empire and called it “The Era of Darkness”. He understands that the resentment against the colonisers, particularly the British, is not only factually correct but also an issue of mass appeal and an important pillar of the post-partition Indian identity.
However, this isn’t the case in Pakistan. Pakistan’s collective identity is Islamic. Therefore not only the narrative against the British rule is subdued but also every national icon is gradually Islamised.
Just take the unfortunate case of Jinnah. He was famously known as a very Westernised Muslim who enjoyed whiskey and bacon. But over the years, he has been exclusively converted (pun not intended) to Islam’s hero, who felt for the sufferings of Indian Muslims. His endeavours as a politician and as a lawyer in the early parts of his career are overlooked.
Jinnah was not a hardliner though he did convert his wife to Islam, objected to his daughter’s marriage to a Parsi and represented Ilm-ud-Din, who murdered a blasphemy-accused publisher named Mahashe Rajpal in court. But Jinnah’s August 11, 1947, speech creates a vision for an egalitarian Pakistan where minorities would have freedom and equality. This is a far from what Pakistan is today and Jinnah is nothing more than a figurehead of the Islamic Republic, wearing a sherwani sans any historical context.
Similarly, the “Poet of the East” Allama Iqbal left behind a composite collection of poetry and philosophical works rooted in Persian and western traditions.
Today the complex works of Iqbal, who wanted to rid Islam of the “stamp [of] Arabian imperialism”, are seldom read in al-Bakistan, except during some coursework in a rote manner. The author of The Reconstruction of Religion Thought in Islam has also just been reduced to a symbol of the Pakistan Movement.
Let us now examine another icon. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is often credited with democratising and empowering Pakistan’s poor in the 1970s. From his descendants to current Pakistani political leaders such as Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif – all have tried to copy Bhutto’s public persona and political intrigues. Bhutto was a progressive, socialist and a liberal. But he initially tried to appease his right-wing opponents and made a huge compromise. He defined what a Muslim is in Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution thus, declaring Ahmedis legally non-Muslim. Hence, his legacy is forever tainted and controversial.
This makes somebody of the stature of Bhagat Singh an even more important historical figure for Pakistan. More than half of Pakistani population is ethnically Punjabi, as is the political elite and so is Bhagat Singh. For a nation repeatedly seeking association with Muhammad Bin Qasim and Mehmood Ghaznavi, Singh’s Punjabi background should be reason enough to include him in the national narrative.
Some leaders and intellectuals such as Aitzaz Ahsan have tried to “regionalise” Pakistan’s identity so that it does not just rely on the pillar of faith. Ahsan’s book The Indus Saga and the making of Pakistan was a sincere, if half convincing, effort. But a lot more needs to be done — starting with Bhagat Singh.
Singh was an iconic freedom fighter with a great contribution towards strengthening the independence movement. Like Bhutto, he was also a socialist, with a soft corner for the poor.
Singh was young, spirited and passionate enough to carry out what he believed in and then die for it. But he was also an atheist. Therefore, he is naturally immune to being Islamised. Accepting Singh as a national hero will also mean accepting the idea that one can be great without being a Muslim. This will also make the students realise that the Pakistan Movement was just one segment of the larger freedom struggle in India. Singh can indeed exemplify defiance against authority and illustrate why the British were the colonial enemies.
In Pakistan, probably because we are still a developing society, there is always a search for “good leadership” which will come and “resolve the problems of the nation”. This is probably why populist and charismatic figures like Zulfikar Bhutto, and to a lesser extent his daughter Benazir, were elected to lead the country. This is also why every ten years Pakistanis rejoice at the arrival of a military dictator.
But soon after taking the highest offices, these people become tainted, and the public imagination becomes thirsty for another charismatic saviour. Recently, a lawyer has filed a petition in the Lahore High Court to re-hear Bhagat Singh’s case and maybe give retrospective justice.
This has been done in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s case as well. Obviously, this case has symbolic value, though “freedom fighters” don’t need to be sanitised through the courts. This case can bring Bhagat Singh back in the public memory and the significance of Lahore in his life story.
Above all, having space for Bhagat Singh in Pakistan’s narrative will lead to a more mature polity. Singh was young yet highly successful in making an impact despite, or perhaps because of, his untimely death. He didn’t make any compromises, and he didn’t take any political office to make his legacy contentious. Hence, if Bhagat Singh is inducted in Pakistan’s history books and made a national icon like Iqbal and Jinnah, then young Pakistanis seeking more freedom and equality will be more empowered. Singh’s presence will force us to question some of the historical suppositions made when teaching the history of Partition and the Pakistan Movement.