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BALDEV SINGH (1902 -61)


Industrialist, politician and the first Defence Minister of India at Independence was born on 11 July 1902 of a Sikh family of Chokar Jatts at the village of Dummna, in Ropar district of the Punjab. His father, Inder Singh, who started life as a government official in the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh), later became a contractor and ultimately rose to be a steel magnate at Jamshedpur, in Bihar.

After his education at Ambala and Khalsa College, Amritsar, he joined his father`s firm as a director. Returning to the Punjab during the mid 1930`s, he made his debut in politics when he became a candidate in the first elections to the provincial assembly under the Government of India Act of 1935, with the election being held in early 1937. The family`s philanthropic work in the district, especially in the field of education, earned him popular support and he won as a candidate of the Panthic (Akali) Party, a combination of Akali and Nationalist Sikhs. He along with Master Tara Singh, Sir Jogendra Singh and Sardar Ujjal Singh were chosen to appear before the Cripps Comission on behalf of the Sikh community. The British Comission had come out to India in the spring of 1942, on behalf of the British War Cabinet, with proposals for the country`s political future. In June 1942, there was an understanding between Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, Premier of the Punjab, and the Akalis, who were invited to join the coalition government headed by him.

As a result of what came to be known as the Sikandar Baldev Pact, Baldev Singh was sworn in as Development Minister on 26 June 1942. He retained his position in the Punjab cabinet until, after the death of Sir Sikandar in December 1942, a new ministry was formed under Malik Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana.

When a British Cabinet Mission visited India in 1946 to negotiate with Indian leaders about the future constitution of the country, Baldev Singh was chosen a member of the delegation to represent the Sikhs. He also met with the Mission separately to seek special protection for the Sikhs. He favoured a united India with safeguards for the minorities, but, if partition of the country as insisted on by the Muslim League became inevitable, he wanted redemarcation of the boundaries of the Punjab, slicing off the Muslim dominated divisions of Rawalpindi and Multan to secure the Sikhs the balance of power in the remaining Punjab.

On 16 May 1946, the Cabinet Mission put forward a plan which, retaining the semblance of a central structure, conceded substantially the Muslim claim for autonomy, without any special safeguards for Sikhs. The Sikhs rejected the scheme at an assembly held at Amritsar on 9 and 10 June 1946 and set up a representative body called the Panthic Pratinidhi Board to resist its implementation. Baldev Singh was one of the members of the Board. On Jawaharlal Nehru`s appeal, the Panthic Board, at their meeting on 14 August 1946, while reiterating that the Cabinet Mission scheme was unjust to Sikhs, ended their boycott of the plan. Baldev Singh joined the Cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru as the Sikhs` nominee on 2 September 1946.

He took over the defence portfolio which had, throughout the British rule, been held by the British Commander-in-Chief, who had been, in order of precedence, next only after the Viceroy and Governor-General of India. The Indian Army (also the Navy and the Air Force) had been organized and trained as a colonial force. A force to be under the control of, except at the bottom rungs, British officers. That structure was soon to change. The Commander-in-Chief now had to be under an Indian civilian minister of defence.

Baldev Singh brought about the change with tact and firmness. In a radio broadcast on 9 October 1946, he enunciated the policy of the Interim National Government in these words: "We aim at building up, in a truly national way, a National Army, which will be the pride of this great land of ours. It is indeed our right to have our armed forces completely Indianised. Nobody disputes that right. Indianisation of the armed forces will now be speeded up at an accelerated pace, compatible with efficiency, and our only concern will be to maintain and better the excellence of the standard you yourselves have built up." Referring to British officers he said, "We have at present many British officers who have served the Army loyally and faithfully. It is nobody`s desire that in achieving our objective we be unjust to them. They and others before them have contributed greatly in fashioning the steel that is the envy of others. I have every hope that their help and cooperation in the great task of Indianisation will be available now, as in the past. We shall value their talent and their cooperation as ever before."

Independence accompanied by partition of the country into India and Pakistan brought in its wake the second biggest task for the Defence Minister, viz. the division of personnel, equipment and military installations between the two countries, and provision of escorting convoys of refugees from and to Pakistan. New challenges came with the Pakistan aided invasion of Kashmir and police actions in Junagarh and Hyderabad. Baldev Singh was not only a member of the Congress government, but was also a leading representative of his community which brought in its train further responsibilities.
Caught between Jinnah, the "Mahatma" and the Congress

His failure to grasp the offer of a Sikh majority state comprising Patiala, Nabha, Faridkot, Jind and Kapurthala as a starting point from which to fulfill the realization of past promises and assurances given by the Congress to the Sikhs as a minority community still haunts the Sikhs today. In the First general election held under the Constitution in 1952, he was elected to the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) on Congress nomination (without opposition from the Akalis), but was not included in the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He was reelected to Parliament in 1957. His health began to deteriorate and after a prolonged illness he died in Delhi on 29 June 1961.

His body was flown to his native village where he was cremated with full military honours.

References:

1. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. 2. Princeton, 1966

2. Gopal Singh, A History of the Sikh People (1469-1978). Delhi, 1979

3. Kirpal Singh, Punjab Da Batwara Te Sikh Neta, Amritsar 1998

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