A fairer hearing for Bhagat Singh?

Aina Aslam explains the significance of a petition before the High Court, questioning the colonial authorities' verdict against the legendary revolutionary

A fairer hearing for Bhagat Singh?
In 1931, the iconic revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British rulers of India after being accused of murdering a police officer and plotting a conspiracy against the colonial government. 86 years later, a Pakistani lawyer, Imtiaz Rashid Qureshi, has filed a petition, in the Lahore High Court, to prove his innocence.

Qureshi’s petition asks the court to re-hear the murder case, based on the primary contention that Singh was never given the opportunity to defend himself. He argues that Singh remained absent during the court proceedings, and that the special judges of the tribunal awarded him the death sentence without hearing the 450 witnesses in the case. He says that Singh’s lawyers were not given the opportunity to cross-examine them. Also, the proceedings of the case were transferred from a magistrate to a tribunal under an ordinance that lapsed before it was given legal sanctity as an Act, rendering Singh’s death sentence illegal. Hence, Qureshi holds, Bhagat Singh was a victim of illegal, judicial murder.

Bhagat Singh receives a visit from his father

How the High Court responds to this plea and whether or not the case is re-heard remains unclear. As a recognised freedom fighter who fought for the independence of undivided India, if Bhagat Singh is indeed proven innocent, it would serve as a very much needed, positive step in our relationship with India today. Despite the petition having been filed in early September, there has not been progress so far. For some, this would suggest a pessimistic outlook on the matter.

Perhaps more interesting than the basic outcome of the judicial process is the engagement with discourse on postcolonialism that Qureshi’s review case has promoted.

The petition later goes on to makes two significant requests for posthumous privileges for the martyred revolutionary: that the Pakistani federal government erect a statue of Singh at Shadman Chowk, in Lahore, where he was hanged; and that the British government, through the Queen, offer a formal apology to both Pakistan and India, for mishandling the original case, and make financial reparations to Singh’s family.

Qureshi considers honouring the memory of the revolutionary martyr to be “a matter of national importance”, through his immortalisation in stone. In Pakistan, the narrative of the 1947 Partition tends to overshadow our colonial past. If one thinks of Pakistani heroes in history textbooks, they tend to be Muslims, whilst heroes from other groups, such as Bhagat Singh, who fought against the British Raj, are rarely recognised. One may argue that Singh did not advocate specifically for Pakistan’s independence but his anti-imperialist efforts did pave the way for future revolutionaries to fight for separation from India.

The petition before the Lahore High Court argues that Bhagat Singh was the victim of judicial murder by colonial authorities

By centring patriotism on celebrating only Muslim historical figures, minorities are led to believe that people from their communities played no part in the creation of Pakistan. This inaccurate notion is damaging, as it may used by some quarters in Pakistan today to imply that these minorities were inherently inclined towards the British or postcolonial India, and that they live in Pakistan because they were simply unable to migrate to India. This further alienates the marginalised communities, by implying that they are outsiders, and perpetuates an ‘us vs. them’ binary.

Being aware of this problem, conscious action should be taken to recognise the contribution of the white part of the flag in Pakistan’s history. A statue of Bhagat Singh, in central Lahore, would provide some much-needed symbolic representation, and the accompanying positive press coverage, so as to reduce fragmentation in society along religious lines.

Alongside memorialising our historical figures to encourage the assertion of all religious and communal identities, there is a related, loaded question of whether or not Pakistan should take the initiative of removing British names for various places, which serve as reminders of more than a century of oppressive colonial rule.

Recently, in the international media, there have been numerous stories of grassroots movements to pull down colonial-era statues of figures that stood for white supremacist, imperialist views. Examples of this include the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ student-led campaign at Oxford University, the toppling of Confederate statues in the US, and the heated debate over whether Nelson’s Column, in the UK, should be next to follow suit. The ideology behind the movement is that in a postcolonial world, such memorials with racist histories or connotations, wrongly glorify the oppressive past.

In Pakistan, remnants of Britain’s imperial past can be seen in the names of places. The two most obvious examples are Jacobabad and Abbottabad, which still go by their British designations, whilst others include Jamesabad, Lawrencepur and Warburton. Whilst most cities, roads and landmarks in Pakistan have been renamed over time, such as the former North West Frontier Province (NWFP) being changed to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), there is an important conversation open about whether or not these changes should be made.

On one hand, many proponents of the status quo argue that the colonial names provide a sense of history which we should aim to understand and not shy away from – changing British names to reflect new political circumstances would be a waste of an opportunity to take lessons from our past.
The proceedings of the case were transferred from a magistrate to a tribunal under an ordinance that lapsed before it was given legal sanctity as an Act, rendering Bhagat Singh's death sentence illegal

Whilst this argument has its’ merits, a popular rebuttal is that the colonial-sounding names are seldom looked at with any historical context, which defeats the point of learning from the past. Instead, changing names from their British designations addresses the injustices of our past in a way that is needed, in order to decolonise our collective conscience today.

The same past can be portrayed in a more positive light, by changing the names of such places to those of freedom fighters that helped create Pakistan, such as Bhagat Singh. Ultimately, with competing perspectives of history, names reflect the basic need of having the world see you as you see yourself; names rooted in traditional linguistic roots and nationalist history evoke a sense of rejecting British colonialism and reclaiming our identity. In this context, Imtiaz Qureshi’s demand for a written apology from the British, for their fatal error in judgement in the Bhagat Singh case, carries great weight.

It is now a matter of waiting to hear the decision of the Lahore High Court, in response to Imtiaz Qureshi’s petition. Regardless of whether he is successful in proving Bhagat Singh innocent or not, he has successfully started a timely dialogue on the issue of how we choose to remember and honour our past, moving forward.