Infinite Inquilab

Celebrating a revolutionary past in Pakistan’s present

Shadman Chowk in Lahore is widely believed to mark the spot where revolutionary Bhagat Singh was executed in 1931. CHRIS MOFFAT
01 August, 2013

JUST SOUTH OF BAGH-I-JINNAH, in the heart of Lahore’s Shadman Colony, a fountain stands at the centre of an otherwise unremarkable chowk. No water flows from this dusty structure, though markings on its base betray signs of life. A name is inscribed in black spray paint—not the colloquial ‘Shadman Chowk’, nor the official ‘Choudhry Rehmat Ali Chowk’, but a dissident’s epithet: ‘Bhagat Singh Chowk’, scrawled in both English and Urdu.

The unsanctioned nature of this inscription seems appropriate for a man effectively barred from official history in Pakistan. ‘Bhagat Singh’ is not a name found on commemorative plaques; it does not appear in school textbooks or amidst the national stories promulgated by Pakistan Studies curricula. It evokes a figure allocated to India and Indian history: an atheist to some, a Sikh to others, but a figure necessarily outside the narrative of Muslim struggle curated by the Pakistani state.

The spray paint defies this partition of memory, suggesting this name still means something in Lahore. In spite of several attempted exorcisms, a stubborn spectre remains, bound to the city where Bhagat Singh lived his political life and faced his death on 23 March 1931.

In this alternative history, the chowk is central. Built on the former grounds of Lahore Central Jail, it is widely believed to mark the spot where colonial authorities executed Bhagat Singh for conspiracy. Since 1995, a small group of Left and secular activists have been honouring this connection, meeting annually at the chowk on the martyr’s death anniversary. Banners are raised, candles lit and the revolutionary’s life celebrated in story and song. In recent years, the activists have demanded the site be officially renamed.

“How can we forget our heroes?” said campaigner Saeeda Diep in the south Lahore office of her Institute for Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS). For Diep, who initiated the chowk campaign, militarised borders with India cannot negate a history of shared struggle. “Bhagat Singh shaheed is a son of the soil,” she said. “You should be proud of that.”

For Shahid Nadeem of Lahore’s Ajoka Theatre, “the struggle of Bhagat Singh is an ongoing struggle.” The writer’s 2011 play Mera Rang de Basanti Chola places the chowk at the centre of a history of state violence, opening at the Baba Shah Jamal shrine a short walk from the fountain. Here, an old man recalls his life in the area: first, as a jail official meeting the condemned Bhagat Singh, and later as witness to a political assassination before Zia-ul-Haq’s coup. For Nadeem, the revolutionary remains a symbol of a fight “between exploitation and the forces of freedom.”

Conjuring Bhagat Singh is no anodyne gesture in Pakistan. In March this year, the provocatively named “Bhagat Singh Chowk Naamanzoor [Disapproval] Action Committee” was formed to oppose the chowk’s renaming. Echoing earlier condemnations from the Islamic group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the committee declared in the Daily Express that, because Bhagat Singh was an “atheist” and a “terrorist”, he should never be recognised as a hero in Pakistan; this, they asserted, would be an affront to the nation and to Islam.

On 23 March, this group announced plans to establish an “Istihkaam [Strengthening] Pakistan Camp” at the chowk. As Diep and other activists assembled to mark the death anniversary, the ‘camp’ materialised as a counter-demonstration. Participants shouted slogans and hurled insults at the activists, sparking a confrontation; police soon arrived to disperse both groups.

The malice behind this attempted exorcism appears, perhaps counter-intuitively, to demonstrate the political promise of Bhagat Singh’s name in contemporary Pakistan. This is, after all, a spirit that thrives on confrontation. The IPSS condemned the counter-demonstration as “yet another example” of how spaces for peaceful protest are being hijacked by those who “believe in imposing their version of Islam and nationalism on everyone.” Drawing “namanzoor” becomes productive for the cause: it makes explicit the intolerance and intimidation Bhagat Singh is conjured to fight.

From this vantage, the revolutionary’s potential lies not in his absorption to official history, but in the way he restlessly challenges foundations. Renaming the chowk would certainly be an accomplishment, but when activists gather in Shadman every year, they realise the spirit of struggle itself. The famous slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long Live Revolution) evokes this call for unrelenting critical movement: the promise of provocation. Official recognition, in contrast, can never satisfy the infinite scope of Bhagat Singh’s demand, communicated from prison in 1929: “Old order should change, always and ever, yielding place to new, so that one ‘good’ order may not corrupt the world.”