This is not fake news, however absurd it may sound: Pakistan plans to introduce a law to punish anyone who calls a place by a different name than that notified by the government, even if unintentionally.

The federal government also seeks to establish a new mechanism to name roads and places. Reason? Quite a few places across the country are named arbitrarily. For example, the travel writer Salman Rashid found a few years ago that a road junction in Lahore was named after a local miscreant.

The stated purpose of the proposed legislation is to preserve national identity and heritage. The proposed naming system would supposedly respect the diverse ethnicities, beliefs and faiths, but the country’s track record does not inspire confidence.

Historically, the Pakistani state has defined “national identity and heritage” quite narrowly. Carved out of “Hindu India”, the state felt it necessary to distance from the “Hindu” past. Consequently, ancient cultural and religious traditions that had been absorbed by the Muslims were termed un-Islamic and shunned. Traces of the country’s non-Muslim past slowly faded away as hundreds of temples and gurdwaras were taken over by land grabbers, sometimes with the tacit support of state institutions.

Even with the Islamic tradition, only a particular kind of “heritage” was owned and promoted. Muslim invaders such as Mahmud Ghaznavi, Muhammad Ghori and Ahmad Shah Abdali became symbols of our “heritage” because it suited the narrative the state wanted to promote vis-a-vis India, whereas Sufi poets, who actually had a profound impact on the culture of this land, were not given the same importance because of their emphasis on religious syncretism.

Narrow identity

Across the country, roads, villages and towns named after Hindu or Sikh personalities were renamed to reclaim the “Pakistani identity” – Ram Bagh in Karachi became Aram Bagh, Krishan Nagar in Lahore was renamed Islampura, Wan Radha Ram, a small town in Kasur was changed to Habibabad, Bhai Pheru is now Phool Nagar.

In central Lahore, a short distance from the historical Chauburji, which is threatened by Punjab’s metro rail project, is Jain Mandir Chowk, named after a historical temple that stood there. The temple was demolished in 1992 to “avenge” the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, and the place was renamed Babri Masjid Chowk. There are several such examples.

The temple after which Lahore's Jain Mandir Chowk is named was demolished in 1992 to 'avenge' the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Picture credit: Alie Imran

In pre-Partition Lahore, Laxmi Chowk used to host one of the city’s largest Diwali celebrations. It stayed vibrant post Partition, becoming the hub of Pakistan’s film industry and a popular haunt for traditional food. The name, though, was perhaps too much to bear for a state determined to erase its past. So, it was renamed Maulana Zafar Ali Khan Chowk, after a pioneer of Urdu language journalism, who, through his newspaper, waged a battle against the Ahmadiyya community.

About 200 km from Lahore is Rabwah town, the spiritual headquarters of the Ahmadiyya community. Rabwah, an Arabic word that appears in the Quran, means highland. In 1974, Pakistan’s parliament declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. In 1984, an ordinance promulgated by General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, barred them from posing as Muslims. This meant the community could no longer use Islamic symbols. In 1999, Punjab’s assembly renamed Rabwah as Chenab Nagar, reasoning that Rabwah was the appropriation of an Islamic word by non-Muslim Ahmadis.

Erasing memory

Just off Jail Road in Lahore is Shadman Chowk, the iconic roundabout where the Lahore Central Jail’s gallows was once located. It is here that Bhagat Singh and his comrades Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged by the British. For several years now, activists have been demanding that the roundabout be renamed Bhagat Singh Chowk. In 2012, their demand was accepted by the local civic authority, but then came the backlash.

“We will not allow the renaming of places after Hindus, Sikhs or Christians,” a spokesperson of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity front of the militant outfit Laskhar-e-Taiba, declared. “Pakistan is a Muslim country and such ideas cannot be appreciated.”

For decades, the state has patronised a particular strand of history and interpretation of Pakistani heritage that is strongly aligned with the invading Muslim forces. However, centuries of heritage cannot be simply scrapped with a notification or two. Indeed, state-sanctioned narratives have not always been internalised by the people.

The demand for Bhagat Singh Chowk, for one, has only intensified over the past five years. In Lahore, ask for directions to Islampura and you are likely to evoke blank stares. Hardly any rickshaw or taxi driver in the city would know where to take you if you ask to go to Babri Masjid Chowk, but everyone knows where Jain Mandir Chowk is. Laxmi Chowk is still the most well-known address; no one refers to it as Maulana Zafar Ali Khan Chowk.

Perhaps, the proposed law is aimed at tackling this very problem: it seeks to align people’s history with the state’s. Only the state is deemed to have the right to decide what constitutes Pakistan’s heritage. All other narratives are to be shunned. Although the law will only apply to Islamabad Federal Territory, it will encourage similar laws in the provinces. Names that have been passed on to us through generations would disappear as the state casts its own dye over our heritage.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.