Peace activists, who gathered at Lahore’s Fawara Chowk in the Shadman area, on the 82nd death anniversary of revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh on Saturday to press for the renaming the roundabout after him were attacked by religious rightwing groups.

According to Saeeda Diep of the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS), women were also assaulted. Posters and banners held by the peace activists were torn up and things could have got ugly but for police intervention, said Madeeha Gauhar of Ajoka Theatre.

For the first time in 15 years the annual remembrance of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom by peace activists has come under attack. Trouble was anticipated as the morning’s newspapers had carried a threat by religious groups warning that anyone who demanded the renaming of Shadman Chowk as Bhagat Singh Chowk would be considered a traitor, anti-national and anti-Islam.

When the activists reached the venue in the afternoon, they found some religious rightwing groups already picketing the area. They had placards which said Bhagat Singh was not only anti-Islam but also an atheist, said Ms. Gauhar.

Though the peace activists were allowed to continue their protest, it had to be cut short after the manhandling as the police advised them to leave the area for fear of escalation of tension. “This is yet another example of how the democratic space for peaceful protest and pluralism has been hijacked by narrow-minded bigots who believe in imposing their version of Islam and nationalism on everyone,” the IPSS said in a statement.

Last year, some Indian peace activists, including film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, had participated in the protest. Though some were visiting the city this year also, they were apparently advised against participating.

For the last several months, the issue is in court after Tehrik Hurmat-e-Rasool, an organisation led by a Jamat-ud-Da’wah leader, filed a petition against the attempt by the Lahore administration to rename Shadman Chowk after Bhagat Singh Chowk in memory of his being hanged to death by the British at that spot in 1931. Prior to Partition, the roundabout was known as Bhagat Singh Chowk.