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Lahore citizens wrangle over renaming traffic square after Bhagat Singh

Lahore, Mar.31 (ANI): It seems that in Pakistan, questions of religious identity have of late also become issues of patriotism.

A new ideological battle has surfaced in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, over whether a traffic circle should be named after Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh or retain the name of Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, a Muslim student, who coined the name Pakistan in the 1930s.

According to the New York Times, there is opposition to renaming the busy traffic circle in Lahore in honor of Bhagat Singh because he was not Muslim.

Currently, however, a portrait of Bhagat Singh, a Sikh revolutionary who was hanged at the spot where the traffic circle is today by the British in 1931, has been put up.

Singh was hanged at the site after a brief but eventful insurrection against British colonial rule.

A certain section of society in Lahore see it as a chance to honor a local hero who they feel transcends the ethnic and sectarian tensions gripping Pakistan today.

There is also view that naming the traffic circle after Bhagat Singh would determine whether Pakistan passes the important test of inclusiveness.

The effort of the pro-Bhagat Singh faction, has however, raised alarm bells among conservatives and Islamists.

The circle was named after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali in 2010, and now almost three years down the line,news that it might be renamed after a non-Muslim is being greeted with both dismay and protest.

The NYT quoted Zahid Butt, the head of a neighborhood business association here and a leader of the effort to block the renaming, as saying: “If a few people decide one day that the name has to be changed, why should the voice of the majority be ignored?”

For the record, locals still refer to the traffic circle as Shadman Circle.

It may also be noted that many of Lahore’s prominent buildings are named after non-Muslims, and now there is a growing effort to “Islamize” the city’s architecture and landmarks.

“Since the ’80s, the days of the dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, there has been an effort that everything should be Islamized – like the Mall should be called M. A. Jinnah Road,” the NYT quoted Taimur Rahman, a musician and academic from Lahore, as saying while referring to one of the city’s central roads being named after Pakistan’s founder.

“They do not want to acknowledge that other people, from different religions, also lived here in the past,” he adds.

Most Sikhs fled Pakistan soon after the partition from India in 1947, and a push to honor Bhagat Singh has been going on in Lahore for years.

The issue usually hots up on Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary in September annually.

Traders of Shadman Market have threatened to go on strike. Warnings have also been issued by leaders of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, largely believed to be a front for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Clerics too have voiced their opposition during Friday prayer.

The Lahore High Court has said it would deliberate on a petition, initiated by Mr. Butt and a coalition of religious conservatives, to block the name change.

That was in November, and the case still awaits a hearing date.

The Punjab Government is in wait and watch mode over the issue, as it is seen as a very delicate matter.

The paper quoted Ajaz Anwar, an art historian and painter who is the vice chairman of a civic committee that is managing the renaming process, said some committee members had proposed a compromise i.e.renaming the circle after Habib Jalib, a widely popular post-independence poet. That move was rejected out of hand by pro-Singh campaigners.

The controversy threatens to become violent. On March 23, the 87th death anniversary of Bhagat Singh, Lahore Police had to break up a heated exchange between opposing groups at the circle. (ANI)