NEW YORK - The intense controversy over renaming a traffic circle in Lahore after Bhagat Singh, the pre-Independence Indian freedom fighter, has now gone global, with a leading US newspaper calling it a ‘new ideological battle’ in Pakistan.

“If ever a squabble over a street name could sum up a nation’s identity crisis, it is happening in Lahore, country’s cultural capital,” The New York Times, which has worldwide circulation, said in a report Sunday.

The Times correspondent, Salman Masood, wrote that the sponsors of the move to rename the Shadman Chowk after the Sikh revolutionary see it as a chance to honour a local hero who they feel transcends the ethnic and sectarian tensions gripping the country today — and also as an important test of the boundaries of inclusiveness here.

“But in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, questions of religious identity also become issues of patriotism, and the effort has raised alarm bells among conservatives and Islamists,” the report said, noting that the chowk was named in 2010 after Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, who coined the name Pakistan.

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

“The fight over the traffic circle — which, when they are pressed, locals usually just call Shadman Circle, after the surrounding neighbourhood — has become a showcase battle in a wider ideological war over nomenclature and identity here and in other Pakistani cities,” according to the report.

“Although many of Lahore’s prominent buildings are named after non-Muslims, there has been a growing effort to ‘Islamise’ the city’s architecture and landmarks, critics of the trend say. In that light, the effort to rename the circle after Mr Singh becomes a cultural counteroffensive.”

“Since the ’80s, the days of the dictator Gen Ziaul Haq, there has been an effort that everything should be Islamised — like The Mall should be called MA Jinnah Road,” Taimur Rahman, a Lahore musician and academic from Lahore, was quoted as saying. “They do not want to acknowledge that other people, from different religions, also lived here in the past.”

Correspondent Masood wrote, “A recent nationwide surge in deadly attacks against religious minorities, particularly against Hazara Shias, has again put a debate over tolerance on the national agenda. Though most Sikhs fled Pakistan soon after the partition from India in 1947, the fight over whether to honour a member of that minority publicly bears closely on the headlines for many...”

It was pointed out that the issue is now before Lahore’s High Court, with the provincial government remaining in tiptoe mode ever since. “It is a very delicate matter,” said Ajaz Anwar, an art historian and painter who is the vice chairman of a civic committee that is managing the renaming process.

Anwar said some committee members had proposed a compromise: renaming the circle after Habib Jalib, a widely popular post-independence poet. That move has been rejected out of hand by pro-Singh campaigners.

Taimur Rahman and other advocates for renaming the circle paint it as a test of resistance to intolerance and extremism, and they consider the government and much of Lahore society to have failed it.

“The government’s defence in the court has been very halfhearted,” Yasser Latif Hamdani, a lawyer representing the activists, was quoted as saying. “The government lawyer did not even present his case during earlier court proceedings.”

“The controversy threatens to become violent. On March 23, the anniversary of Mr Singh’s death, police officers had to break up a heated exchange between opposing groups at the circle,” The Times said.

Rahman and the other supporters have vowed to continue fighting, saying it has become a war over who gets to own Pakistan’s history.

“There is a complete historical amnesia and black hole regarding the independence struggle from the British,” Rahman said, adding of the Islamists, “They want all memories to evaporate.”