It is a nondescript roundabout in Lahore’s Shadman area, crowned by an unsightly fountain that never has water. But what it lacks in appearance, the structure makes up for in its significance.
For many years now, Lahore’s civil society has been demanding that the name of the roundabout to be changed to Bhagat Singh Chowk. The historic Lahore Jail, which housed numerous freedom fighters – including Bhagat Singh – during the colonial rule, is visible from here. The gallows where Bhagat Singh and his comrades were hung in 1931 was located where the roundabout stands today.
Next to the roundabout is the local Shadman market. In 2012, when the government finally agreed to name the roundabout after Bhagat Singh, markets’ trader unions under the leadership of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (a banned organisation led by Hafiz Saeed) strongly protested the decision. It is against the two-nation theory, which formed the basis for Pakistan’s creation, they argued. The government bowed down to the pressure and the roundabout still does not bear the freedom fighter’s name. Every year on March 23, the death anniversary of Bhagat Singh, members of the civil society continue to gather at the roundabout demanding it be renamed.
The turning point
Years before the movement to name it after Bhagat Singh gained momentum, the roundabout was the site of another event that would have serious ramifications on the political landscape of the country. On a quiet winter night on November 9, 1974, Ahmad Raza Khan Kasuri was returning from a wedding with his father, mother and his aunt when the car they were travelling in was attacked by unknown assailants. The target was speculated to be Ahmad Raza Khan Kasuri, a young politician and a vocal critic of Prime Minister ZA Bhutto and his incumbent government. While he escaped, his father, Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri received fatal blows.
It is a strange coincidence that Nawab Mohammad Kasuri was the magistrate who signed the death warrant for Bhagat Singh, after several other magistrates refused to do so because of the freedom fighter’s popularity. His son, Ahmad Raza Khan Kasuri was a member of the Parliament from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party who had turned against the leader and joined hands with the opposition. Ahmad Raza Khan Kasuri was convinced the prime minister had good reasons to attack him. A similar assassination bid had been made against him in Islamabad sometime ago. A murder case was filed in Ichra Police station, the closest one from the roundabout. Despite the reluctance of police authorities, Bhutto was mentioned as the chief suspect in the FIR.
For the next few years, the case made little progress, but with the overthrow of the civilian government after a coup in 1977 and the implementation of Martial Law in Pakistan under General Zia Ul Haq, it came back in focus. The former prime minister was put behind bars for his role in the murder of Nawab Mohammad Kasuri.
On the testimony of his former trusted ally, Masood Mahmod, Bhutto was sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. On the April 4, 1979, the first democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan was hanged in the Rawalpindi jail for the murder of Nawab Mohammad Kasuri at this historic chowk in Lahore.
Bhutto had had a long association with Lahore. It was in here that he was greeted by the largest gathering of his supporters after he quitting General Ayub Khan’s Cabinet in 1966 and went on to form his own party. He had traveled to Lahore from Rawalpindi on a train and was surprised by the show of support.
Lahore was to mark the rise of his political career in opposition to his former boss, the military dictator. Lahore was to mark the rise of a new political star, whose light still shines across the sky in the country.
Cocooned in the shadow of several trees, the house of Dr Mubashir Hassan rests like an anomaly on the Main Boulevard road in the city’s Gulberg area. In recent years, the area that was once the sleepy suburb has developed into major economic hub, with several high rises and multi-storey malls. The sprawling single-storey house with a big wide lawn is one of the last few reminders of the Gulberg of the ’60s and ’70s. It was at this house in 1967 that Pakistan People’s Party was formed, with Bhutto as president. Lahore had witnessed the birth of one of the most iconic political parties in country’s history.
Even when he held office, Lahore continued to capture the imagination of the prime minister. It was here that Bhutto attempted to fashion himself as the “Leader of the Third World”. He hosted the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Lahore, which was celebrated as a major foreign policy success. The city became the symbolic centre of the Islamic bloc, meant to rival the political, economic and cultural strength of the West.
However, the city that witnessed the meteoric rise of the country’s prodigal son also saw to his downfall.
Not far from the Ichra police station, where the FIR against Bhutto was filed in Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri’s murder, is the house of Maulana Maududi, Bhutto’s staunchest opponent and the founder and head of Jamaat-i-Islami, a Right-wing religio-political party.
After the controversial elections of 1977, when, despite a multi-party front against it, the Pakistan People’s Party led by Bhutto emerged victorious, Maududi became a central figure of opposition against the prime minister.
Despite its poor electoral success, the Jamaat has always possessed street power. After the elections, its cadres wreaked havoc in the city, protesting against alleged rigging. The state authorities were rendered helpless against this massive agitation. Using the excuse of law and order and the complicity of the state in rigging the elections, the army chief, Zia-ul-Haq, moved in declaring Martial Law. The Jamaat-i-Islami, with its headquarters in Lahore, in the subsequent years, emerged as one of the strongest allies of the Islamist military dictator.
Today, Lahore seems to have completely forgotten the man it once embraced and raised to the pinnacle of power. His Pakistan People’s Party has not only been wiped out from Lahore but the entire Punjab province, once the hub of his political strength. At the national level too, Pakistan People’s Party will not be able to form a government again without Punjab’s support.
However, within Punjab it is Lahore that needs to be wooed. Lahore is the first and the last frontier of this hegemonic province. Bhutto understood this and harnessed Lahore’s political energy. Eventually, it was the same energy that consumed him.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books including Walking with Nanak and In Search of Shiva.