What if Bhagat Singh were to come alive today? How would the revolutionary be received in his birthplace in what is now Faisalabad, and at the place in Lahore where the British hung him and his two comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev to death? Would anyone recognise him in a country that has virtually no official memory of him?
On Saturday in Islamabad, on the eve of Pakistan’s independence day anniversary, a former teacher-turned-performing artiste and a journalist presented their unique collaboration that seeks answers to these questions and aims to take Bhagat Singh to Pakistani audiences through a play and a documentary, together titled “Indelible – Bhagat Singh”.
It was an unusual event by the standards of independence day celebrations in the sub continent, which never include references to the “other”, let alone an entire event, even privately organised, that is focused on a freedom struggle hero from across the border. The show, held to a packed audience of more than 500 people, also came at a time when India-Pakistan relations have hit another low replete with name calling and diplomatic snubs. It was also a reminder that despite the diplomatic chill, sections of Pakistani civil society continue to engage in finding narratives that could promote understanding between the people of the two sides.
“We got a shaandar response. We did not expect so many people would turn up. The theatre can seat 500 people, and it was jampacked,” said Hafeez Chachar, a former BBC correspodent, who made the documentary. “And they were all mainly young people from the university. Wahan kal Iquilab Zindabad aur Lal Salaam key bhi naarey lagey.”
The event was advertised only through social media and word of mouth, and it was free. “We were only interested in spreading the word,” said Zainab Dar, who directed and wrote the play and also performed a dance-based mime as part of it.
“Pakistanis mostly see Bhagat Singh as an Indian, but he was a pre-Partition hero of the struggle for freedom against the British. We wanted to tell people here that this was a man even the Quaid (Quaid-e-Azam, the title by which Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah is known) publicly defended Bhagat against the British [in the Central Legislative Assembly], he spoke up for him,” said Dar, who taught development economics before turning to theatre.
The show was held at an open-air theatre after Pakistan National Council of Arts cancelled permission for the show to be held in its auditorium just two days before the event. In an email to Chachar, the PNCA said: “The committee has [made] the above decision that because of Independence Day celebrations and to some extent the subject of your documetary and theatre conflicts with the rules and regulations of PNCA”.
Another auditorium also turned down the show after hearing about its subject matter. Chahcahr and Dar had to hurriedly work their social media page over two days to spread the word about the change in venue.
“We could not get even a single sponsor, everyone we approached said this subject carries no appeal in Pakistan,” said Dar. She and Chachar sunk their own money to produce the show, and the documentary. The rehearsals all took place in Dar’s home, the actors are all youngsters who gave their time pro bono.
Chachar said he was inspired to read up on Bhagat Singh after attending an event on him in Delhi. “At that show I learnt for the frst time that Bhagat Singh was born in Faisalabad, Pakistan. That was a proud moment for me in Delhi. And then what attracted me was that he didn’t have any religious agenda. After returning from India, I read more about him”. A visit to Banga inspired him to do something that would make Bhagat Singh better known in Pakistan.
“Young people in Pakistan are reading other versions of their history on the Net, and are asking questions about it. That’s the interest we saw yesterday,” he said.
This is not the first effort by Pakistanis to popularise Bhagat Singh as a hero of the freedom struggle. In 2012, the provincial government of Punjab in Pakistan declared that Shadman Chowk, which was earlier part of Lahore Jail and the spot where Bhagat and his comrades were hanged, be renamed Bhagat Singh Chowk. But the decision was reversed within hours after protests led by the Jamat-ud-dawa criticised the decision as going against the “nazaria-e-Pakistan” or Ideology of Pakistan.
The matter is now in court.
In 2014, the provincial Punjab government in Pakistan declared the house where he was born in Banga, Faisalabad, then known as Lyallpur, as the Bhagat Singh memorial and a heritage site, and allocated PKRs 8 crore for its upkeep. The two room memorial is looked after by the government, while the lawyer who owns the remaining portion of the house is making efforts to have Banga renamed as Bhagatpura. An annual Bhagat Singh Mela is now held at the village on March 23, the day of his execution.
The interest of Pakistan’s art and cultural world in Bhagat Singh picked up enormously from about 2007, around the time of the anti-Musharraf movement. There have been two other documentaries made on him in Pakistan. The Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre Group’s play Rang dey Basanti is also based on Bhagat Singh’s trial.
“It is very interesting that Bhagat Singh has become relevant for the present generation in India and Pakistan, because both are facing the same kind of oppression, with some different features. In Pakistan, the Islamist extremists are behind this oppression, and in India, it is Hindu zealots. Young people on both sides see a ray of hope in the inspiration that Bhagat Singh gives them,” Chaman Lal said.
Currently, a Lahore-based lawyer, Imtiaz Rashid Qureshi, is fighting a legal battle in the Lahore High Court to have the Bhagat Singh case reopened, to prove his innocence and that of Sukhdev and Rajguru.
While the documentary is about 32 minutes, the play was about 45 minutes, both asking the question what Bhagat Singh means to this generation of Pakistanis.
The play has Bhagat Singh visiting the palce of his birth for one day. He is reassured that it is being kept up as a memorial but as he passes through Lahore, he sees a mullah making a fiery speech, denouncing him as a kafir. He hears two young passers by wondering aloud who this Bhagat Singh is, concluding he must be a Bollywood hero. Then he goes to Bradlaugh Hall, built in 1900, the political hub of nationalists in Punjab in the 1920s, where he founded his Naujawan Bharat Sabha and sees it is in ruins.
The lead role of Bhagat Singh was played by 22-year-old student Moid Aslam. “I had heard his name but I never knew that he was born in undivided Pakistan and was hanged in Lahore. In fact, it was after directors told me entire script that I got to know he was born in Faisalabad, which is my ancestral place too. I readily agreed to play his role,” said Aslam.
Mohammad Yousuf, another student who watched play last night said that he used to think Bhagat Singh was a famous actor from India.
“But later I realized this man sacrificed himself not only for India’s independence but for Pakistan too. He fought for his country when it was united. He is our hero too,” said Yousuf.
Another student Salima, 23, said, “We have heard about Gandhi and of course Jinnah saab but school or college history syllabi says nothing about Bhagat Singh. How can such heroes be separated through border fences?”
(with inputs from Divya Goyal)