Home Indian News Why a Pakistani lawyer wants a court to retry the case that led to Bhagat Singh’s execution

Why a Pakistani lawyer wants a court to retry the case that led to Bhagat Singh’s execution

Why a Pakistani lawyer wants a court to retry the case that led to Bhagat Singh’s execution

On March 6, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that ousted prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been unjustly hanged in 1979. The court’s ruling was following a presidential reference filed 12 years ago.

It was a reminder of the execution of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and his comrades nearly a century ago in 1931.

In 2013, my friends in Lahore, advocate Abdul Rasheed Qureshi and his son Imtiaz, both senior lawyers of the Lahore High Court, petitioned the court to reopen the Lahore Conspiracy case that led to the execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru.

Qureshi and Imtiaz had founded the Bhagat Singh Memorial Foundation in 2010 to take forward the memory of the revolutionary and freedom fighter born on Pakistani soil in Banga.

Qureshi passed away in 2021.

An old billboard near Bhagat Singh’s birthplace. Credit: Chaman Lal via Sapan News.

Imtiaz told Sapan News that the Lahore Conspiracy case did not fulfill the requirements of justice as due process had not been followed.

Bhagat Singh’s name was not even mentioned in the police report that was used as the basis of the case. It was also not brought before a trial court – which is also what happened with Bhutto.

The three-judge tribunal hearing the Lahore Conspiracy case pronounced the death sentence without hearing the testimonies of as many as 450 witnesses, or giving the defendants a chance to appeal. The entire judicial procedure was so defective that veteran lawyer and scholar AG Noorani has called it a “judicial murder”.

The Lahore High Court dismissed Imtiaz’s case last year but the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Bhutto trial has encouraged the lawyer to file a similar petition. He plans to do this after Ramzan.

Bhagat Singh’s birthplace which is now a museum. Credit: Chaman Lal via Sapan News.

Shared legacy

Bhagat Singh’s political influence began early as a follower of Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for independence from the British. But years of witnessing the injustices of colonial rule left Singh disillusioned, pushing him to join forces with other revolutionary figures.

Since Partition in 1947, Pakistan and India have aggressively promoted separate identities based on religion. But on both sides, there exists an understanding of fluid identities. On either side, people claim Bhagat Singh and his comrades as their own, a shared historical legacy that endures.

In 2007, Irtiqa, a progressive Urdu journal from Karachi, marked Bhagat Singh’s centenary birthday by publishing a special issue with poems and other materials about him.

Bhagat Singh’s primary school. Credit: File photo via Sapan News.

The volume included an essay by Zaheda Hina, an Urdu writer based in Karachi, who described Bhagat Singh as a “son of Pakistan”. Singh was born in Lyallpur district, now Faisalabad on September 28, 1907, and executed in Lahore on March 23, 1931, both in what became Pakistan. Activists and civil society groups gather at the spot every year on March 23 to pay tribute.

Following consistent campaigning by Singh’s supporters, the Lahore municipal corporation in 2012 agreed to re-name Shadman Chowk, where the execution point of Central Jail once stood, as Bhagat Singh Chowk. Artist Salima Hashmi, daughter of poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was part of the expert committee that made the recommendation.

But a group of traders and clerics obtained a stay order from the Lahore High Court, so the decision was never implemented. Rasheed has filed a counter petition for contempt of court, urging that the order be implemented.

In the face of threats and attacks from extremist groups since 2013, the supporters of Bhagat Singh supporters appeal every year to the Lahore administration for security.

Application seeking security at a vigil for Bhagat Singh in Lahore, on March 23 2024. A poster for the Lahore event. Credit: via Imtiaz Rasheed Qureshi, Sapan News.

‘Inqilab zindabad’

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were executed on the evening of March 23, 1931 at 7 pm. Executions normally take place in the morning and the three freedom fighters were scheduled to be executed the following morning.

But fearing a massive protest, the colonial administration advanced the execution by 12 hours.

As a protest on the evening of March 22 ended, the demonstrators heard about the executions and gathered at the gate of the Lahore jail.

A jail official told an Indian nationalist living nearby that the three had thrown off the black hoods, usually used to cover the faces of those being executed, declaring that they were not criminals. Holding their heads aloft and shouting slogans of “Inqilab Zindabad” (long live revolution), the three freedom fighters strode to the gallows.

The Central Jail, which was later demolished, at Shadman Chowk in Lahore. Credit: via Sapan News.

Decades later, Iraq President Saddam Hussain similarly refused to wear a hood before he was executed in 2006 on the orders of an Iraqi Special Tribunal.

British officials mutilated the bodies of the three freedom fighters, stuffed them into jute sacks, burned them and threw them into the Sutlej River near Ganda Singh Wala village. Locals, along with Singh’s younger sister Bibi Amar Kaur, Lala Lajpat Rai’s daughter Parvati Bai, who had followed the officials from Lahore jail, retrieved the half-burnt body parts and brought them back to Lahore for cremation rituals.

More than 50,000 people attended the funeral. There was also a huge gathering at Lahore’s Minto Park the next day, according to a front-page report in The Tribune of Lahore on March 26.

The interest Bhagat Singh in Pakistan and elsewhere has only grown. In the days before the 1965 war, Indian visitors to Punjab in Pakistan would invariably visit Chak No 105, Bhagat Singh’s birthplace.

With visa issues, the stream of visitors has dried up – but the interest has only grown.

The Lyallpur Historian Club organises lectures on Bhagat Singh and celebrates his birth and death anniversaries every year at his place of birth.

The family allotted to Bhagat Singh’s birth home has created a two-room museum with pictures of freedom fighters of that period – Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. During his tenure as India’s ambassador to Pakistan, TCA Raghvan had also visited the house.

A woman cooking outside Singh’s birthplace. A plaque showing Bhagat Singh’s date of birth and execution. Credit: Chaman Lal via Sapan News.

A global icon

Writers, researchers and scholars across the divide have worked hard to uncover details of Bhagat Singh’s life and execution.

Poet Sheikh Ayaz has written an epic on Bhagat Singh in Sindhi while Punjabi poet Ahmad Saleem has published a poetry collection titled Kehdi Maan ne Bhagat Singh Jammiya (Which mother gave birth to Bhagat Singh).

Several books have been published and more are in the works. Ammara Ahmad, a journalist and scholar, is planning her research on the “Footsteps of Bhagat Singh in Lahore”. Historian Waqar Piroz, who retired from the Government College Lyallpur (Faisalabad), wrote an Urdu biography of Bhagat Singh, Sarfarosh Sardar Bhagat Singh (Fiction House, Lahore, 2023).

British Indian scholar and lawyer Satvinder Juss has published two books containing valuable information as he had obtained access to study the 134 files of the Bhagat Singh case at the Punjab Archives in Anarkali, Lahore.

In 2014, a Pakistani historian said that Pakistan was planning to digitise these files and make them available publicly. Ten years later, this has yet to happen. But in 2018, the Punjab Archives, Lahore, held an exhibition on the Bhagat Singh case, exhibiting many documents from these files for the first time.

Monthly Review ex-editor and director Michael D Yates and I co-edited The Political Writings of Bhagat Singh published by LeftWord India in December 2023, which will be published by Review Press, New York, this year.

Bhagat Singh’s enduring symbolism as a revolutionary international icon is reminiscent of Argentinian icon Che Guevara, connecting the revolutionary traditions of South Asia and South America.

Chaman Lal is a leading authority on Bhagat Singh, and recently retired as a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at Chamanlal.jnu@gmail.com.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.


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