Imagining lahore, p.13

Imagining Lahore, page 13


Imagining Lahore

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  In the 1960s, some barracks and gallows of Lahore Central Jail were demolished. These included the room where Bhagat Singh and his comrades had spent the last few days of their lives. Later, a roundabout was constructed at the spot where the gallows of the jail used to be. This roundabout, connecting Shah Jamal, Shadman and Ichra, came to be known as Shadman Chowk. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged at this spot on 23 March 1931.

  Every year, since the beginning of the new millennium, a handful of activists have been gathering here demanding that the name be changed to Bhagat Singh Chowk. For years the authorities turned a deaf ear to them. Over the years, the movement has gained momentum. Leftist organizations in search of an icon also joined in. Street theatre was organized on the day. A few Indian activists also participated, including Mahesh Bhatt and Kuldip Nayar.

  One year, I was one of the first to get to the protest. I noticed Syeda Diep spray-painting ‘Bhagat Singh Chowk’ on a board next to the roundabout. I walked up to her and whispered, ‘You know this is illegal.’

  ‘This won’t be the only illegal thing done in this country,’ she replied. For years Diep, a political activist who runs the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies, has been organizing a small protest at Shadman Chowk every 23 March. While the rest of the country celebrates Pakistan Day, these protesters demand the renaming of the roundabout to Bhagat Singh Chowk.

  In 2011, the head of the ETPB, Asif Hashmi, promised to rename the chowk. A notice eventually came through in 2012, when the City District Government of Lahore passed a notification rechristening the chowk in Bhagat Singh’s name. This was in conjunction with other similar notifications that saw the naming of roads in honour of other ‘heroes’ of the land, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Waris Shah and Mir Chakar.

  It felt as if the state was in the process of redefining itself. Years of Islamization had taken a severe toll. Religious extremism and sectarian violence had resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. As religiously motivated militants exported jihad, Pakistan’s global reputation suffered immensely. The Pakistani state, under a democratic regime, seemed to be actively seeking to portray a softer image. These developments were also happening in tandem with changes in the educational curriculum to rectify the promotion of religious extremism.

  The situation had changed drastically since 1983, when a poem read by Iqbal Qaiser at the Bhagat Singh Conference landed him in police custody on a false pretext. The poem did not have any overt references to Bhagat Singh. It didn’t need to. At the peak of Islamization and state oppression, Bhagat Singh was a symbol of secularism and protest against a brutal state. Just the symbol itself was intolerable to the authorities.

  This symbol had been reincarnated at the time of another dictator. With leftist politics in a shambles and religious intolerance at its peak, this symbol represented an alternative society, a classless society, with no religious violence. The state, this time at the receiving end of this religious violence, was not averse to embracing this symbol, hence the renaming of the chowk.

  However, soon after the notice, opposition came from the JuD. ‘We will not allow the renaming of places after Hindus, Sikhs or Christians,’ said the spokesperson of the organization at a hastily arranged press conference.75 The state quickly returned to its default position as Lahore High Court restrained the government from renaming the roundabout.

  Instead of pushing back, the leftist activists, the Opposition, rather fuelled their movement. The gatherings on the roundabout on 23 March grew larger. Another group of activists from Faisalabad started travelling to Bhagat Singh’s ancestral village, Banga, and began to organize a Bhagat Singh festival there. His ancestral home and the primary school where he studied in the village were renovated. Just as in 1931, when he had become a symbol of protest against a repressive state, today in Pakistan he is emerging as a symbol of protest against religious extremism.

  His prediction did come true. ‘After I am hanged the fragrance of my revolutionary ideas will permeate the atmosphere of this beautiful land of ours. It will intoxicate the youth and (prepare them) for freedom and revolution . . .’76

  The younger brother brought in a framed photograph and sat on a charpoy facing us. The person in the picture, Rehmat Ali, was a middle-aged man with short hair and a trimmed beard. He was wearing a black suit with a red tie. The man holding the frame couldn’t be more different. His hair was untrimmed, with patches of white. His unshaved beard hid parts of burned skin that clung to his bones. He was wearing a worn-out white shalwar kameez. I looked at both these faces closely to see if I could detect any sort of similarity. I couldn’t look past their contrasting states of hygiene.

  The elder brother was in a better state, wearing a clean grey shalwar kameez with a brown skullcap. He had a long white beard. He was a schoolteacher, and the younger brother a farmer. ‘My father, Fateh Shah, brought this picture from India when he was invited to visit our ancestral village of Wajidke, in 1978, by the Indian government. This picture was given to him with an award for the services our grandfather rendered to the country,’ said the elder brother. There was a sense of embarrassment in his tone.

  On a Sunday evening, while we were on our way back from a trip down Multan Road exploring its monuments, my mentor and friend Iqbal Qaiser asked me to take a short detour. We drove into a narrow, crowded road towards Sultankeh, a small village close to the Sundar Industrial Estate in Lahore. Through some of his friends in East Punjab, Iqbal Qaiser had found out that Rehmat Ali’s grandchildren were living in this village. Upon inquiring, we found ourselves in front of an old dilapidated haveli next to the village mosque.

  Escaping the Partition riots in East Punjab, Baba Mulle Shah Fakir, Rehmat Ali’s father, had moved to Montgomery (later the name was changed to Sahiwal) city in south Punjab with his family, including Fateh Shah, his orphaned grandchild, the father of these two men in front of us. Perhaps Mulle Shah Fakir wanted to be close to his son’s grave. He could not be with him when he was hanged. The family was informed of the date of execution on 24 March 1915, only a day prior to the hanging. Rehmat Ali was hanged on the appointed day and his body was buried in the graveyard outside the jail. A few years later, the family moved to this haveli, a part of which was allotted to them.

  The architecture of the haveli appeared as if it had been encroached upon. Walls had been constructed, dividing unequally the grand arches, windows, doors and the veranda. The family received a small portion of the division, a couple of rooms with a small courtyard. We were greeted warmly and taken into a small room with three charpoys. Underneath the hospitality there was a sense of unease, awkwardness.

  Before us, no one in Pakistan had asked them anything about their grandfather, Rehmat Ali. So they had never had to confront how the legacy of their grandfather fit into the Pakistani historical narrative. They knew he was respected in India, which brought a sense of pride, but this was not India any more. India was our enemy, and we, the visitors, were Pakistanis. We had fought three wars with India. Our heroes were their villains and vice versa. Where did Rehmat Ali fit in Pakistan, a pre-Partition freedom fighter who gave up his life for his ideals of achieving freedom for India?

  Rehmat Ali was based in Manila, Philippines, when he first came across Hindustan Ghadar, a revolutionary magazine set up by Hardayal in San Francisco, USA. He, along with many other Indian migrants, was inspired by the revolutionary literature of Hindustan Ghadar.

  Hardayal had moved to Lahore from Delhi in 1903 after he earned a government scholarship to study at Punjab University. Here he completed his master’s in English followed by history, in which he broke the university record.77 He then travelled to England after securing a scholarship at Oxford. A few months prior to the completion of his degree, he left the programme. He had become a committed nationalist. He had also by now abandoned Western attire in favour of Indian clothes.

  Economic compulsions eventually led him to move to Paris, where he first established contact with Egyptian nationalists
fighting British imperialism in their country, as well as Russian revolutionaries. This was to become the most important feature of the Ghadar movement. Its global outreach resulted in close collaborations between different groups, all fighting a common enemy—Britain. Contacts were established with Egyptian nationalists, Russian revolutionaries and the German and Japanese governments to assist the Indian national struggle.

  Local groups of Indian migrants sympathetic to the Indian nationalist cause were set up in Panama, Manila, Tokyo, Shanghai, Canton, Bangkok, Rangoon, Singapore, Penang, Borneo and Berlin.78 In its outreach, therefore, the movement inspired by Hardayal was a remarkable one that placed the Indian national struggle in a global framework. Many Indian migrants who actively supported the cause had experienced racism in their host countries, which for them was a result of the subjugation of India by the British.

  This was also the biggest weakness of the movement. Its supporters, hordes of Indian labourers and students living in all quarters of the world, felt passionately for the cause and were willing to sacrifice for it, but lacked an organization that could bring them all together and present them with a structured plan. Hindustan Ghadar was their only point of reference. While the magazine published passionate literature extolling the use of violence to emancipate their country, arousing the emotions of its readers, it failed to organize any systematic plan that could have channelled the sentiments of thousands of people.79

  Perhaps one reason was the political ideology of Hardayal. A widely read intellectual, he was inspired by Russian anarchists, who diverged from Marxist ideology in their belief that it was not just one class, the proletariat, which had the potential to bring about revolutionary change.80 It is for this reason that after moving to California, Hardayal was able to bring together Punjabi migrant workers along with Indian students to the same platform. He was also sceptical of any one particular party leading the revolution, for he felt that eventually that party too becomes a privileged class. For the Russian anarchists, the individual was the society and hence there was a focus on individual spontaneous heroic acts, as opposed to any organized systematic effort. Without any coherent structure this became the central feature of the Ghadar movement.

  Hardayal was of the opinion that it was essential to lay the ground prior to any revolution, which is why Hindustan Ghadar was launched on 1 November 1913. Right from the inaugural issue, there was a romanticization of ‘martyrdom’.81 He was a man of words who was more comfortable writing about revolution than actually drafting a plan to achieve it. The revolution was to be somewhere in the distant future, when the opportunity was right. For now, the people needed to be prepared. The popularity of Hindustan Ghadar exploded and its subscription ran into several thousands. It was read wherever there were any Indian migrants.

  Soon after, in 1914, clouds of the First World War began roaring across the skies of Europe. Hardayal and his compatriots felt that the opportunity was ripe to strike against an occupying imperial authority. Contacts were established with the German and Japanese governments. Weapons and other logistical support were secured. Leaders of the movement made passionate speeches around California urging migrants to return to India to emancipate it from the shackles of slavery. Fiery essays, poems and stories were published in Hindustan Ghadar that reached out to thousands of Indians around the world, exhorting them to do the same. Indians serving in the imperial army were encouraged to switch sides. One of the success stories was the Singapore Mutiny of 1915, when 850 Indian sepoys rose up against the British officers in Singapore and virtually controlled the city-state for over a month. The uprising was finally crushed in the last days of February 1915 followed by an inquiry and the public execution of forty-seven sepoys.82

  Ships began leaving for India from Canada and USA in August 1914. These were further augmented by supporters from other ports. It is believed that by November 1914, about 3000 men from different ports left for India.83 There was a sense of euphoria on these ships. These revolutionaries talked openly about their plans, singing songs of freedom. Their bravado was contagious.

  While the revolutionaries were intoxicated by a sense of purpose, larger than their individual lives, there was no fixed plan as to what was to be done when they reached India. British intelligence had already become aware of their plans in California. Their proselytizing and singing on ships did not help in keeping their plan discreet. Many of the revolutionaries were captured as soon as they landed in India.84 Others who evaded arrest went to their ancestral villages. There was no central authority guiding the movement, with each individual or small group deciding its own fate.

  Having been fed the propaganda that India was ripe for revolution, the revolutionaries were disappointed when they reached their villages. Not only were most of the Punjabi villagers apathetic to their cause, many were overtly hostile to their agenda.85 With lucrative employment in the army and the improvement of economic conditions thanks to advanced agricultural technologies and connection with the global market, many Punjabis, especially in the rural areas, remained strongly pro-Empire.

  A semblance of direction was provided to the movement, now being called the Ghadar Mutiny by the British, when, in January 1915, Rash Behari Bose, a radical Bengali nationalist who had earlier masterminded the assassination attempt on Lord Hardinge, the British viceroy, took over the movement’s leadership in India.86

  Ghadari revolutionaries, who in the meantime had been making contact with Indians within the army and the police to revolt, assured Bose that army units in Lahore, Ferozepur, Meerut, Agra, Benares and Lucknow were ready to defect. On the template of the revolt of 1857, a revolt was planned for 21 February 1915. However the British, through their spies, had already learnt of the plan. Special tribunals were arranged in Lahore, Benares, Mandalay and Singapore. The Lahore Conspiracy Case trial was held in Lahore which resulted in the hanging of forty-six people and life imprisonment of 194.87 This eventually came to be known as the First Lahore Conspiracy Case after a Second Lahore Conspiracy Case trial was held in 1931 which resulted in the deaths of Bhagat Singh and his comrades.

  Inspired by the movement, Rehmat Ali had landed on the shores of India from Manila, where he had migrated to work. Upon observing the disorientation within the ranks, he decided to return to his ancestral village where he, along with other comrades, began working on his own. They established contact with Indian soldiers within the army and police to try to woo them over to their side.

  After one such meeting in Ferozepur district, Rehmat Ali and twenty other people were travelling in a tonga when they were stopped by an Indian police inspector. Two of his comrades had pistols, which became a source of argument between the inspector and the party. They tried convincing the police inspector to join their nationalist cause but he was adamant. The resulting scuffle led to one of the constables slapping Rehmat Ali, resulting in a full-blown fight. The constable and the inspector were shot dead as Rehmat Ali and his party escaped the scene. However, not long after, all of them were caught. Their case was heard in the Ferozepur sessions court where they were ordered to be hanged. Twelve of them were sent to Lahore Camp while Rehmat Ali, along with the rest, was transferred to Montgomery Camp where he was executed on 25 March 1915.88 All of them became martyrs of the Ghadar Movement.

  While the Ghadar Movement failed to achieve its purpose, its ripples were felt across the political landscape of India. The valour and sacrifice of these young men, romanticizing martyrdom, willing to give up their lives for the nationalist cause, became a source of inspiration for future revolutionaries. Bhagat Singh, for example, held one of these young revolutionaries, a nineteen-year-old boy who was hanged in the First Lahore Conspiracy Case, Kartar Singh Sarabha, in high esteem. Bhagat Singh always kept Sarabha’s picture in his front pocket, while a portrait of him was garlanded and placed on a dais during the Naujawan Bharat Sabha’s meetings.89

  The failure of the movement also led to a reorientation. Many of its supporters who had watched the movement co
llapse from abroad, moved to Moscow and aligned the party with the communist agenda, which was not the case in 1915. Eventually, many of these Marxist revolutionaries moved to India and formed the Kirti Kisan Sabha, a Marxist organization based in Punjab that focused on labour and peasant agitations. They formed a crucial alliance with the Naujawan Bharat Sabha under the leadership of Bhagat Singh in 1928.90

  The blue sky had become tinged with grey as we exited the house. The sound of the azan blared from the neighbouring mosque. The elder brother, after seeing us off, headed in the direction of the mosque. Early Monday morning he would return to his school, where young children would be taught that Pakistan was created due to the unrelenting efforts of the Muslim League. There would be no mention of the anti-colonial movement, no explanation of why the British rule needed to be overthrown—just a justification of why Pakistan was needed to solve the problem of perpetual antagonism between Hindus and Muslims. There would be no mention of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh or Rehmat Ali. Yet another generation of Pakistanis would grow up without ever having heard their names or their connection with the city of Lahore.



  There had been scattered news about sepoys of the army upset about the cartridges they had been given for a new rifle. Rumoured to be smeared with pig and cow fat, both Muslim and Hindu soldiers were refusing to use them. While most of the discontent remained far away from Punjab, in the cantonments of Barrackpore, Agra, Allahabad, Ambala and Meerut, there were also a few cases of Punjab-based sepoys refusing to handle the cartridges. John Lawrence, the chief commissioner of Punjab and the ultimate authority in the province, did not give much credence to these rumours.

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