Bhagat Singh is the least likely Pakistani hero – born into a Sikh family, an avowed communist, sympathetic of the Russian Revolution (which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the eventual rise of the Soviet Union). Pakistan, on the other hand, created 16 years after his assassination in 1931, became a symbol of a Muslim country, disowning its Hindu and Sikh heritage. Soon after its birth, the state aligned with the Americans in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and started hounding communists. Russia, an ally of India, became one of the overt enemies of the new state.

In the past 70 years, these fault lines have only deepened. Leftist politics is non-existent. Slowly, most of the country’s Hindu and Sikh heritage is being lost to encroachers as the state remains aloof. Religious fundamentalism has increased exponentially, shrinking the space for non-Muslims even more so.

And yet, Bhagat Singh somehow continues to live on. It seems as if every year the demand to acknowledge him as a state hero has increased. In 2008, a Punjabi nationalist organisation celebrated his 100th birthday in Jaranwala, the district of his hometown Banga. It was a low-key affair with only a few hundred attendees.

After attending the festival, I visited Banga, his ancestral village. It was a pitiful sight. The school where once a young Bhagat Singh studied was in a dilapidated state, with no roof over many of the classrooms.

The school Bhagat Singh attended in Banga village in Jaranwala district. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid

The house that his family once occupied had been divided among several families, with one part of the property falling to an advocate, Sanaullah. Even though he was aware of the historical significance of the property and had taken good care of some of its original architecture, I could not help but feel dismayed at the condition of Bhagat Singh’s village. Facing the house was the village ground where every year before Partition, on March 23, a festival would be arranged to commemorate the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh. The festival in many ways followed the tradition of Sufi festivals, which too are celebrated on the death anniversary of the saint, because it is believed that on this day the saint finally meets his beloved – the deity. The ground, when I visited the village, had been converted into a pond.

The chowk in Lahore

On the other hand, every year on his death anniversary, a handful of civil society activists gather in the Shadman area of Lahore, at the roundabout they refer to as Bhagat Singh Chowk. From here, one can see the boundary wall of the Lahore Jail where he was hanged on March 23, 1931 with his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev Singh. The jail, at the time of his execution, also included the area of this roundabout. In fact, the gallows were located at this exact spot – hence this here was where Bhagat Singh was hanged.

For years, these activities have demanded that the roundabout be renamed Bhagat Singh Chowk. For years, the state has turned a deaf ear to them. On certain occasions, state representatives have attended the protest and made false promises, but nothing has changed.

In 2012, there was a ray of hope. In the past few years, the gathering at the roundabout had gotten bigger. That year, prominent Indian personalities, such as the film-maker Mahesh Bhatt and journalist Kuldip Nayar, were also part of the gathering. The democratic regime that had come to power in 2008 after a decade of military rule wanted to project itself as a progressive and liberal government, at a time when the country was being engulfed by an all-consuming civil war. The state was beginning to unravel as a result of the religious fundamentalism it had promoted for years, and the government, it seemed, was eager to change the narrative. Renaming the chowk in honour of Bhagat Singh would have been a step in the right direction.

The city district government of Lahore in 2012 announced that the roundabout would be renamed Bhagat Singh Chowk. But before the activists could even begin to rejoice, protests against the move – led by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (a banned organisation led by Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group) – broke out. A banner was placed on top of the roundabout stating that renaming the roundabout was an attack on the “Two Nation Theory” – the raison d’être of the Pakistani state. Instead, a spokesperson for the organisation suggested that the roundabout be named Hurmat-e-Rasool Chowk (In respect of the Prophet).

A few months prior to the announcement, the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims had send shockwaves throughout the Muslim world. There were protests everywhere against the YouTube movie made by a Los Angeles-based Egyptian-American, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. The spokesperson for the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, therefore, suggested that the name of the roundabout, instead of celebrating a Sikh, should honour the memory of Muslims who had protested against this alleged blasphemy of the West. The protests had the desired effect. The Lahore High Court restrained the government from issuing the notification to rename the chowk. Perhaps, the roots of religious extremism have been sowed too deep in the state to be removed now.

The following year, the activists were back at the roundabout to reiterate the demand they had been making for years. However, this time they were confronted by a more powerful and better organised opposition, led again by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Accusations were hurled, the activists were labelled Indian agents and anti-Pakistan. Undeterred, they return to the roundabout every year.

Activists gather at a Lahore roundabout every year to demand that it be named after Bhagat Singh. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid

Aspirations of a nation

In fact, ever since the turning down of the demand, the voice to appropriate Bhagat Singh in the Pakistani narrative has only grown louder. In the past few years, another group of civil society activists have started organising a Bhagat Singh mela (festival) in Banga on his death anniversary. His house has been renovated and a proposed uplift of the entire village has been suggested. Almost 70 years after Banga disowned its heritage, it has once again accepted Bhagat Singh as one of its own.

In these times, this demand to appropriate Bhagat Singh is symbolic of a broader demand. It is a demand to embrace the non-Muslim heritage of Pakistan, it is a demand for the state to shun its monolithic identity and replace it with a more pluralistic one. It is a demand to appropriate Leftist politics in the mainstream of the country, which for years has been dominated by the religious-led Right-wing. It is a rejection of religious extremism and a demand for tolerance. The demand is more than just one roundabout or one personality. Bhagat Singh represents the aspiration of a different country, of a peaceful country. In this time, it seems Bhagat Singh is the most likely hero Pakistan needs.

Haroon Khalid has written three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.