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A Mengal and Bhagat Singh

October 09, 2012

“All citizens, including Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians, have equal rights...” This is not from Quaid-i-Azam’s Aug 11 speech but from a statement by the DCO Lahore, a Mengal, around the same time as a namesake came up with a six-point demand draft for bringing the Baloch back from the precipice.

The DCO’s statement was the one which carried a direct reference to the army. “District Coordination Officer Noorul Amin Mengal … directed…officials to name the spot after Bhagat Singh, noting, ‘He was martyred… after he fought the British army’ ....” Simply ‘British’ would have been fine here. But let’s not be too critical at this happy moment.

This has been the year of reclaiming the unsung as our own. A few months ago, the state conferred a grand honour upon Saadat Hasan Manto and late last month the Lahore DCO named an intersection in the city after Bhagat Singh.

This marked the 105th birth anniversary of the most famous shaheed from the subcontinent’s resistance against the British. The activists are celebrating, a bit dazed by their success, but hoping for more of the same.

The city has a lot many non-Muslim heroes to remember. Its more aware, conscientious dwellers have been looking for ways out of the present complicated times to celebrate these icons from history.

Ganga Ram, father of modern Lahore, has long existed on the fringes, but in an encouraging sign, in recent times, a few have dared to show up at his smadhi or memorial on Ravi Road, flowers in hand.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh is buried deep beneath stories of the glorious Muslim rule of Hindustan, but he lives on in conversations and occasional newspaper columns as a ruler who was not without his virtues, and as a symbol of self-rule.

From among Muslims, a distinction is made between the pure and the not so pure. Dara Shikoh, who was close to the famous Lahore saint Mian Mir, spent time in the city and, according to one version, may have been Shah Jahan’s choice as his successor.

Defeated in the battle for power, in official chronicles Dara has since found it difficult to come out of the shadow of his dominating brother, Aurangzeb Alamgir, who is hailed as the purest Muslim ruler among the Mughals and regarded by some as the father of today’s Pakistan.

Many popular accounts by contrast describe Dara as the softer alternative that could have been. His spiritual and physical proximity to people here ensures his name is routinely recalled with fondness.

In the group of ‘others’, the post-Partition Sikhs have managed to dispel negative impressions about them here comparatively faster. Helped by the Khalistan movement that placed them at a distance from Delhi, they have been welcomed this side of Wagah as would-be separated cousins upon their return home.

The Khalistan movement may have subsided, the Sikhs may have struck a rapprochement with an India which generates a lot of suspicion here, but the relationship between the visiting sardars and their Lahori hosts has grown stronger all this while.

His vigour and his young death, the popular romance with revolution, are all factors that have contributed to the legend of Bhagat Singh. And perhaps he has also benefited from the cordial ties between Lahore and the sardars in recent years. In any case, an official memorial to him is still a landmark.

The man behind the chowk — District Coordinating Officer Noorul Amin Mengal — happens to be the first officer hailing from Balochistan to be holding the post in Punjab.

Mr Mengal is one Baloch who has been seen issuing orders in the Punjab capital. He is a very visible DCO, in the line of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s handpicked young executive officers in recent times.

True to his boss’s tradition, Mr Mengal loves to surprise. Bhagat Singh Chowk is a surprise and just last week he paid a ‘surprise visit’ to the Miani Sahib graveyard (surprising for whom, the official handout did not say).

Earlier in the day, Mr Mengal had toured the food street near the fort. As a measure of his observant eye, he told the in-charge there that the street would be richer if the chairs were of the same colour.

Apart from his more recent public liking for culture, the DCO has been after the erring lot, albeit not with the ferocity of Chief Minister Sharif, but appearing to mean business in a manner that can be easily traced to Mr Sharif.

Knowing the control Mr Sharif exercises over all functions and proceedings in his capital, could the naming of Bhagat Singh Chowk have been inspired by the needs of the chief minister in the run-up to an election?

Even if the answer is yes, those who have for many years been gathering around Shadman Chowk for Bhagat’s anniversaries are not complaining. What difference does it make if the decision is part of some design?

If the fruits of democracy are finally reaching the fringe people, it would mean democracy has a future in this country.

Democracy is not a system to measure the desires of a majority. You kind of know what the majority is thinking and when, and do not need an election to confirm that. You need democracy to allow the minority groups space to speak, and once they have expressed themselves their wishes have to be respected.

Consequently, it is nice for the DCO to have spelled out equality for everyone here. Many Christians and Parsis and others who once lived in Lahore would have been happier to have heard this a few decades ago.

Along the Mall, which the city government now wants to beautify in a hurry, there were many Anglo-Indians and some Parsis who evacuated in the face of rampant inequality.

Other ‘minorities’ are increasingly finding the place unlivable. To prevent their choking, perhaps Shahbaz Sharif will himself have to emerge at the chowk that allows everyone around equal access.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.