PERSPECTIVE

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Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra as President of the SGPC
31.03.16 - Dr. JS Grewal*
Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra as President of the SGPC



Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra is well-known for his commitment to Sikh ideology and politics based on Sikh identity. Elected President of the SGPC for the first time in 1973, he remained in office almost till the end of the century. His tenure was the longest in the history of the SGPC. His contribution to the policies and programmes of the SGPC and his influence on Sikh politics were of great significance.
 
After the establishment of the Punjabi-speaking state in 1966, the SGPC had become an inter-state institution, and the responsibility for holding its five yearly elections was that of the Union Government. It is interesting to note that the SGPC elections were deliberately delayed for years, not due to any genuine difficulties of the government, or even its indifference, but its concern for the interests of the Congress Party. At last, the SGPC had to file a writ petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court to get a direction issued to the central government to hold the elections as early as possible. On the direction of the High Court the elections were held on 31 March 1979. The government, meanwhile, had amended the election rules in 1959 to give voting rights to the Sahajdharis. This amendment at that time was expected to strengthen the position of the Congress Ministry in the Punjab in relation to the SGPC. The number of voters increased by about a million. Nevertheless, the Shiromani Akali Dal won 133 out of 140 seats. Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was elected unopposed.
 
It is important to note that the Akali Dal fought the elections on the slogan of autonomy of the states. It was based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as adopted during the All India Akali Conference held on 28-29 October 1978 at Ludhiana under the Presidentship of Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi. The political resolution had been moved by Jathedar Tohra. It referred to the political stereotypes of the Congress regime: (a) that only a strong Centre could counter fissiparous tendencies, and (b) that a weak Centre encouraged secessionist trends which ultimately could lead to dismemberment of the Union of India. The bogey of danger to national unity and integrity of India was used to suppress the demand of autonomy. The unitary character of the Indian Constitution had created conditions for concentration of power at the top and the Congress rule in the country led to centralized political power. The centrifugal tendencies appeared mainly in reaction to the centralizing polity which aimed at uniformity in the name of unity, and conformity in the name of cohesion.
 
It was further stated in the Resolution that India was a country characterized by religious, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This diversity was reflected in the variety of nations, nationalities and minorities living in India, making it a multi-national society on the ground. In such a situation, national integration could be achieved only through a pluralistic society which alone could ensure unity in diversity, as against the unitarian policy of the Congress Government which aimed at uniformity and conformity.
 
Furthermore, the Sikh community (which is a nation, sui generis, and a national minority) and other nations, nationalities and minorities, including the tribal groups, can hope to keep their identity intact and inviolate only in a federal set-up, conducive to flowering of religious, cultural, and ethnic variety.
 
Another important aspect of the elections of 1979 was the influence exercised by all the three top most leaders of the Akalis: Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra as President of the SGPC, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi as President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, and S. Parkash Singh Badal as the Akali Chief Minister. This was a balance, more or less, between the three wings which represented the Sikhs. Jathedar Tohra made the statement on 3 April 1979 that the Akali leadership would implement the resolutions on which the victory of the Shiromani Akali Dal had put the stamp of approval. 
 
The emergence and escalation of militancy from 1978 to 1992 proved to be the most traumatic experience for the Sikhs, especially the operation Blue-Star and the large scale massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Even in the Punjab, innocent persons suffered at the hands of security forces. The base of the Akali Dal was spattered and the Akalis were divided into a number of groups. The very existence of the SGPC was threatened. The return of constitutional politics in 1992 created some space for the political activities of the Akalis. In November 1992, Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was re-elected President of the SGPC. The SGPC paid tribute to a few militants as martyrs in the cause of Sikhism. Resolutions were passed also with regard to the Delhi massacres of 1984. Before the end of 1993, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi declared that the aim of the Akalis was to get the demands of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution conceded and implemented, and not Khalistan, as alleged by the Congress leaders and the press. S. Parkash Singh Badal too laid great stress on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as the charter of Akali politics. Jathedar Tohra laid emphasis on Akali unity. Early in June 1995, the Badal-Tohra combine defeated the Congress candidate in the bye-election for the Gidderbaha constituency. Eventually, the majority of the Akalis opted for the leadership of S. Parkash Singh Badal and Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra.
 
Already, in February 1994, Jathedar Tohra had filed a writ petition in the High Court to direct the government to conduct the SGPC elections within a year. On a request from the government, the date was extended, and the elections were held in October 1996. The SGPC demanded a change in the definition of ‘Sikh’ to make the Keshdharis alone eligible for voting, as against the amendment made in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act in 1959. Jathedar Tohra rejected the similar recommendations of the Minority Commission, and argued that the Sikh Gurdwara Act could be amended only according to the agreement signed by Master Tara Singh and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1958. In this agreement, amendment in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act was to be made by the Parliament and that too on the recommendation of the SGPC. He suggested that the definition of ‘Sikh’ already decided upon by the Parliament in the case of the Delhi Gurdwaras could be made applicable for the voters of the SGPC. He favoured the age of 18 for voting, instead of 21, and the age of 35 years for becoming a member of the SGPC.
 
It may also be mentioned that Jathedar Tohra was a member of the Akali Dal (Amritsar) as it was formed on the direction of the Akal Takht Jathedar. The Akali Dal (Badal) opposed Jathedar Tohra’s candidature in the Presidential election of SGPC held in November 1994. But the candidate of the Akali Dal (Badal) was defeated. Both Jathedar Tohra and Sardar Parkash Singh thought that it was in the larger interest of the Sikhs to form a unified plank. It was generally believed that a secret understanding between the two leaders was meant to ensure that Jathedar Tohra would become the President of the SGPC, and Sardar Parkash Singh would become the Chief Minister after the general elections of 1997. 
 
The election manifesto of the Akali Dal (Badal) for the SGPC elections stated that the Party would establish World Sikh University to mark the tercentenary of the Khalsa in 1999. Jathedar Tohra made the statement that the SGPC elections would provide an international platform in the 21st century, giving impetus to a fresh awakening among the Sikhs. More significantly, the manifesto signed by the two leaders dwelt on the achievements of the SGPC under the stewardship of Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra for twenty years.
 
The manifesto emphasized the importance of the Gurdwara as an institution founded by Guru Nanak, embodying the Sikh ideal of equality and service. The predecessors of Jathedar Tohra, Baba Kharak Singh and Master Tara Singh, are mentioned as the earliest and the most important Presidents of the SGPC. The manifesto emphasized that the SGPC had no property of its own, and no authority to levy any taxes. It had to depend entirely on the contributions made by the Sikh Sangats. In other words, the achievements of the SGPC are the achievements of the Sikh Panth. The SGPC and the Akali Dal complemented each other.
 
The manifesto underlined the importance of the SGPC elections to be held on 13 October 1996. At this historic juncture the Sikhs had to take the pledge of dedication to the Panthic ideals all afresh. They should enter the 21st century, celebrating the tercentenary of the birth of the Khalsa. The manifesto ended with the reiteration that the Sikhs were standing at the crossroads, and their existence and destiny depended upon the results of the elections. The Sikhs had to decide whether they would depend on the false promises of their enemies, or establish their own power to mould their own destiny by strengthening the Sikh Panth. The dark night of oppression must come to an end, and the Sikhs should enter the new century in high spirits.
 
On the eve of the celebrations of the tercentenary of the birth of the Khalsa in 1999, the two top leaders of the Akalis parted company, and Jathedar Tohra resigned in March 1999. Bibi Jagir Kaur was elected President of the SGPC in 2000. The Akali Dal lost the Assembly elections in February 2002. Sardar Parkash Singh met Jathedar Tohra more than half way to patch up their differences. Their unity enabled the Akali Dal to win 11 seats out of 13 in the Parliamentary elections of May 2004. Jathedar Thohra suddenly passed away. This was a major setback for the Akalis. In the SGPC elections of 2004, the Akali Dal (Badal) won 134 out of the total 167 seats for which elections were held. The editor of The Tribune commented that Sardar Badal would be ‘the all-in-all supremo’ now. It was an extraordinary situation. Even when Jathedar Tohra was in the Akali Dal there were two centres of power, but now, according to the editor, Sardar Badal was ‘the solo super power’.
 
The emergence of the Chief Minister as undisputedly the supreme Akali leader is generally seen in terms of tussle for power among individuals, their aspirations, and their interests. However, there was a structural aspect to the situation. Before 1966 there were two loci of power: the SGPC as a statutory body and the Shiromani Akali Dal as a political party. After 1966, the ministerial wing was added when a coalition government was formed by an Akali Chief Minister in 1967. Sant Fateh Singh, President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, who had the support of the SGPC, was strong enough to make and unmake Chief Ministers. This early phase (1967-70) was covered by three Akali Chief Ministers: Justice Gurnam Singh, Lachhman Singh, and Sardar Parkash Singh Badal. When the SGPC elections were held in 1979, there was a precarious balance between the President of the SGPC, the President of Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Chief Minister, with the balance of power tilted in favour of the Chief Minister who had larger resources and power for patronage. Despite all the upheavals of the phase of militancy, Jathedar Tohra was able to maintain his position. When the Chief Minister became more powerful in the Akali Dal, the position of the SGPC President became relatively weak. 
 
All the time, however, as President of the SGPC Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was able to exercise considerable influence on Sikh politics for nearly three decades due to his ideological moorings, his personal integrity, and his deep commitment to Sikh values.
 
* A historian of international repute, Dr JS Grewal is an authority on Punjab history with specialization on Sikh history. He has served Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar as Vice Chancellor and has worked as Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. 





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Remembering a gentleman with many memories
30.03.16 - roopinder singh
Remembering a gentleman with many memories



It was in 1992 that a distinguished-looking gentleman came over and said that something should be written about Giani Kartar Singh. Though one had heard a lot of stories about the legendary political figure, one wanted to find some documented information before one could proceed further.
 
"That’s where I come in,” said Jasdev Singh Sandhu. "I have everything that you would want on him.” He proceeded to provide the documentation that resulted in an article and in learning a lot more that could not be printed at the time due to constraints of subject and space.
 
During the course of our subsequent discussions, one discovered that Jasdev Singh Sandhu’s grandfather, Bhai Gujjar Singh, was in charge of Burj Baba Attal Singh in Patiala where royal artefacts were stored. His bid of Rs 1 lakh in the 1940s for a village near Patiala had made waves at the time.
 
Jasdev Singh Sandhu always sought to enrich himself — by reading and spending time with litterateurs. He studied in Mahindra College, Patiala, where he was guided by the likes of Principal Teja Singh. While he was still a young man, Jasdev Singh wrote short stories and helped publish books written by others.
 
During Partition, he played a major role in the resettlement of many of families. No wonder, he also studied Partition and its effects on the politics and people of Punjab. After Partition, Patiala became a centre for displaced litterateurs and he would seek out such men, helping them in various ways with the considerable resources at his command. He was a law graduate whose extensive knowledge of political nuances of Punjab and legal acumen were often appreciated by his contemporaries.
 
Though he projected himself as an aide to Giani Kartar Singh, which he was, Jasdev Singh Sandhu was also a political leader in his own right. He had been first elected an MLA from the Dhuri constituency in the Sangrur district in 1957, at the age of 28 — perhaps the youngest MLA of the time. He was elected from the Raipur constituency in the Patiala district twice, in 1962 on the Congress ticket and in 1969 on an Akali Dal ticket. Not only that, his wife, the late Sardarni Jasdev Kaur, too, was a former MLA.
 
My parents Giani Gurdit Singh and Sardarni Inderjit Kaur knew the couple well and upon prodding, I too, recollected them visiting our house in Patiala. Not just a big landlord, Jasdev Singh Sandhu, was well-educated, fond of literature and also a writer. He was often seen interacting with authors and poets.
 
He was Minister of State for Public Health and Colonisation from 1970-1971. He had been an active politician for a long time. Whether in or out of office, he gained a reputation for being a helpful, courteous person of integrity. His house in Adalat Bazaar, Patiala, was a popular meeting place where persons from various walks of life would gather every day. Many people spoke about his personal library, and he kept extensive records of various newspapers. His soft-spoken, humble manner and a low-key approach were quite disproportionate to the influence he wielded.
 
A long spell out of office normally spells the doom of any political leader. Jasdev Singh Sandhu was a people’s politician and he weathered it well. He had an abiding devotion to his political guru, Giani Kartar Singh, and he made sure that every anniversary of Giani Kartar Singh was remembered through newspapers. He would get articles written by eminent people published and would make sure that every time there was something different and interesting to be published.
 
A veritable walking encyclopaedia of men and matters concerning undivided Punjab, specially those relating to Giani Kartar Singh’s role, he was someone who could be counted on to provide correct information.
 
Self-depreciating, he was full of anecdotes, especially those that involved his mentor. "Once the division of India became inevitable, Jinnah asked Giani Kartar Singh what he could do for the latter personally. Giani ji replied that he wanted the transfer of population to be effected with minimum bloodshed. At this, Jinnah wrote a letter to all his administrative officers, asking them to ensure the security of any kafla that Giani ji accompanied. This was done and many lives were saved by Giani ji who would accompany kaflas, make arrangements for settling down the refugees on this side of the border and go back into Pakistan to get more kaflas out.” 
 
When he was out of the limelight of office, he maintained his contacts with the public and political leaders. He would often come to our home in Chandigarh to chat over a cup of tea. He stood out because he would always call to find out if we were free, and spend time with the family. My parents had many shared memories and a free-wheeling discussion on matters of religion, politics, and public life interspersed with humour of him and my father sharing jokes would liven up the evening. 
 
Jasdev Singh Sandhu’s appointment as Chairman of the Subordinate Services Commission of Punjab was widely welcomed. Little did anyone know that he would be snatched away in a road mishap, on April 8, 2000, still in the saddle at 71. 
 
Many remember Jasdev Singh Sandhu him for the work he did in his constituency, for getting schools upgraded and hospitals opened, getting financial and other help for dharamshalas and so on. For others, his gentle manner and many memories of crucial aspects of Punjabi political developments will be a reason for remembering him as well as missing him.
 
Students who pass out of educational institutions named after him and run by his son Tejinder Pal Singh Sandhu will not have to look far to see a role-model. It is not often that one comes across persons of honour among politicians. Jasdev Singh Sandhu was one. Punjab lost a gentleman who had made a place.
 
Pic : From Left: Jasdev Singh Sandhu, Inderjit Kaur and Giani Gurdit Singh at Patiala in the 1970s

 
(Courtesy : http://www.roopinder.com)




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Of play and longing: “holi songs of demerara”
24.03.16 - Gaiutra Bahadur
Of play and longing: “holi songs of demerara”



Today is Holi, the springtime festival known in the Caribbean as Phagwah (after the Bhojpuri month of "Phagun”). I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight a rare text: the only known literary work by an indentured servant in the Anglophone Caribbean. I found a frayed red copy, written in the Devanagari script and largely in the archaic dialect of 16th-century saint poets from the heartland of Ayodhya, in the Hindi pamphlets collection at the British Library. Published in 1916, Damra Phag Bahar – or, Phagwah Songs of Demerara – is a chapbook of rhymed verses intended to be sung during Holi. Its author was the indentured man Lal Bihari Sharma, a Brahmin from a village in the Bihari district of Chapra in northeast India, bound as a "coolie” to Plantation Golden Fleece in British Guiana.

The songs provide a glimpse into the indentured man’s material and psychological suffering as a plantation laborer. They also retell well-known stories from Hindu mythology. But the verses borrow more than their language from 16th-century saint-poets. They entirely inhabit the sensibility of bhakti poets in the Vaishnavite tradition (more on that in a moment). For him, as for them, love – specifically, desire whetted by distance – is the primary preoccupation.

In songs that are romantic, even erotic in their imagery, Sharma captures the insomniac torture of separation. In the voice of a woman, he offers the lament: "Without the beloved, my heart knows no peace./ I feel my youth in its full strength./ Phagun is a rapturous month; I do not like it without my beloved./ The breeze assails me like iron.” The theme must have been achingly familiar to men and women severed from loved ones by indenture, but Sharma was writing in a genre well-established in India. For centuries, ballads about separated lovers – known as viraha – have been a bhakti staple, an allegory for man’s intense longing for god.

But the theme is, of course, also a theme of Phagwah, the story of Krishna’s play – his riot of color and mischief – with milkmaidens known as gopis. In ancient forests where peacocks strutted, he cavorted, multiplying himself in order to dance and play with each of them. Chief among the gopis was Radha, the consort worshipped as a deity in her own right, but the god had multiple lovers, each of them someone else’s wife. The faithful read the gopis’ ecstatic and erotic love for Krishna as an allegory for the soul’s longing for God, a pining sweet with the anguish of the unattainable. 

In the sixteenth century, the Bengali saint Chaitanya inspired a branch of Hinduism that departed drastically from those dominant at the time. It contended that the soul would be released from the endless cycle of birth and death through a gopi-like devotion to the divine, rather than dutiful conduct or knowledge in Sanskrit of the religious texts. This doctrine created much broader spiritual access. It also made Brahmins less important as middlemen to the gods. Chaitanya believed that birth and bloodlines should not determine caste; instead, devotion should. The sect he developed is known as Vaishnavism, after the god Vishnu, who is its centre of worship and who, Hindus believe, took human form as the carousing lord Krishna. By the time of indenture, Vaishnavism was the predominant form of Hinduism in the areas where most coolies were recruited, especially among the peasants who were its main recruits, and it is the main form of Hinduism in the Caribbean today.

Sharma was a religious man. He dedicates his songbook to Parmanandji, a missionary from the reformist Arya Samaj Movement, who arrived from India in 1911 and who preached just a few miles from Sharma’s plantation. Yet, Damra Phag Bahar expresses a crisis of faith, precipitated by the injustice the indentured encountered on the plantations. More on that in Coolie Woman. In the meantime, let’s remember what Phagwah meant in the folk traditions most alive to those who left India indentured. It was about play, and it was about longing, two aspects of devotion, two aspects of the elusive divine.
 
*Pic : Krishna celebrating Holi with the gopis, 19th century watercolor by Hulas Lal, The British Library.
 
(Courtesy : cooliewoman.com)




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Bhagat Singh's last letter: From the front page of The Tribune dated 25 March 1931
23.03.16 - pt team
Bhagat Singh's last letter: From the front page of The Tribune dated 25 March 1931



Bhagat Singh and his comrades while refusing to make any petition for mercy, in the course of a letter to the Governor of the Punjab, asked to be shot dead.
 
"The only thing we want to point out, they said, "is that according to the verdict of your Court we are said to have been waging war and are consequently war prisoners. Therefore we claim to be treated as such, i.e. we claim to be shot dead instead of being hanged. It rests with you now to prove that you seriously meant what your Court has said and prove it through action. We very earnestly request you and hope that you will very kindly order the Military Department to send a detachment or a shooting party to perform our executions." 
 
(Courtesy : Bajinder Pal Singh)




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Bharat Mata and other Matas
21.03.16 - Devdutt Pattanaik*
Bharat Mata and other Matas



If India has Bharat Mata, then Britain has Britannia, France has Marianne, New Zealand has Zealandia, Sweden has Mother Svea and America has Columbia. These are Homeland goddesses who emerged in colonial times and consolidated themselves as ‘mothers’ with the rise of the nation-state.
 
Britannia emerged when kingdoms of Scotland and England were merged to create a ‘United Kingdom’ in the 18th century. She was visualised wearing a Greek helmet and shield, indicative of Greek influence symbolising rationality. She rode a lion indicating her imperial nature. The word imperial was not bad then, as it is today. Later, she was shown holding the trident of the sea-god Poseidon displaying the power of the British navy that controlled the seas and created the empire where the sun never set. The image was a reminder of the great queens of England: Elizabeth I and of course, Queen Victoria.
 
Imitating Britannia, New Zealand embodied itself in Zealandia, though she did not become the rage. And, in Sweden, there rose Mother Svea, embodiment of the patriotic spirit of the Swedish people, inspired by the image of Viking Valkyries, the shield maiden of the gods and noble warriors.
 
Kathleen Ni Houlihan, or Kathleen of the House of Houlihan, inspired Irish nationalists. They spoke of her as an old woman who had lost her home, who turned young when she inspired young men to fight, and even die, for her, like noble knights. Later, when many Irish people migrated to America, she embodied the homeland remembered nostalgically.
 
In France, Marianne embodies the Republic and the ideals of reason. A woman was chosen to counter the monarchy represented by male figures. She was visualised wearing a Phrygian cap — soft and conical with the tip pointing forward - that came to represent liberty. This is because in Roman times, this cap is what the freemen wore and this is what was given to slaves when their masters set them free.
 
In the 18th century, it was illegal to publish debates that went on in the British Parliament. And so political magazines published them using fictitious names for people and places. In these reports, colonies in America came to be known as Columbia. Later, with a Phrygian cap and draped in American flag, she became the symbol of a republic, who invited young people to fight for her.
 
The idea of homeland mother goddesses probably originated with the concept of Roma, embodiment of the Roman Empire, who was seen as laurel wreath wearing mother by the Romans, a w***e by Christian martyrs, and a saint in the Holy Roman Empire.
 
The idea of Bharat Mata emerged during India’s freedom struggle from the 19th century play of Kiran Chandra Banerjee, novel of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya who also coined the hymn Vande Mataram (salutations to the mother), essays of Bipin Chandra Pal, and the painting of Abanindranath Tagore, where she is depicted wearing saffron, and holding in her four hands beads (faith), Vedas (knowledge), rice stalks (food) and fabric (clothing) for her children. Later, she was visualised riding a lion, or a chariot pulled by lions, with the tricolour flag in her hands, presented as Sita who is abducted by the British-Ravana or Draupadi abused by the British-Kichaka, or Kali, unclothed and naked, because of the greed of Britannia, and even Durga ready to lead ‘noble patriot children’ in war against ‘anti-national scum’.
 
Thus is nationalist mythology constructed by boys, for boys, who want to impress their Ma.
 
*The author writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times.
 
(Courtesy : Mid-day.com)




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