Fathe Singh, Sant
Saint and Political Activist (1911-1972)
Who enjoyed wide religious esteem among the Sikhs (sant, lit. a holy man) and who during the latter part of his career became a dominant political figure, was born, on 27 October 1911, the son of Bhai Channan Siitgh, a resident of Badiala in present-day Bathinda district of the Punjab. He had no formal schooling and started learning to read Punjabi only at the age of 15. In view of his interest in religious texts, his father apprenticed him to a well-known scholar, Sant ishar Singh, of Sekha, a village near Barnala. In company with Sant Channan Singh, another holy man, he migrated to Ganganagar district of the then princely state of Bikaner in Rajasthan, where a large number of Sikh peasants had settled down in the newly established canal colony. Having established himself at Buddha Jauhar, a little-known place which he made famous, Fathe Singh moved from village to village preaching the Sikh faith through kirtan and discourse and administration of amrit or the vows of the Khalsa. He simultaneously worked for the promotion of education among the masses and was instrumental in the construction of, besides a number of gurdmdrds, several schools and colleges, an orphanage and a centre for imparting training in kirtan. In this task he was assisted by Sant Channan Singh who, though senior in age, always acknowledged him as his elder, and their partnership and their respect for each other lasted till the very end. His pious way of living earned Fathe Singh the title of Sant.
Sant Fathe Singh made his debut in politics when he joined the Punjabi Suba agitation (1955-56), a campaign launched by the Shiromani Akali Dal under the leadership of Master Tara Singh for the creation of a new state comprising Punjabi-speaking areas carved out of the then-existing Punjab. His rise in the Akali hierarchy was very rapid. As the Punjabi Suba agitation entered its second phase, Fathe Singh unfolded at a specially convened conference at Amritsar (12 October 1958) the plan of action to be pursued by the Shiromani Akali Dal of which he had by that time become the senior vicepresident.
On 15 March 1959 he led a massive march of Sikhs in the Indian capital, New Delhi. As the Punjabi Suba movement gathered momentum in May 1960, the responsibility of directing its course fell to Sant Fathe Singh. He displayed rare qualities of leadership and restraint in running in a most orderly manner the seven-month-long agitation in which, according to one estimate, 57,129 Akali volunteers courted arrest.
In a final bid for the attainment of a Punjabi-speaking state, Sant Fathe Singh put his own life at stake and started on 18 December 1960 a fast-unto-death. Before submitting himself to the ordeal he offered prayers at the Akal Takht and at the Harimandar, and addressed a mammoth gathering of the Sikhs adjuring them to remain calm and peaceful in any eventuality.
There was universal applause for the purity of Sant Fathe Singh’s motive and no one questioned the sincerity of his resolution. Yet everybody wished that the worst might somehow be averted. There was intense activity in government and political circles. Indian leaders of diverse opinion tried to intervene and persuade Sant Fathe Singh to abandon the fast. The Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, issued several conciliatory public statements, but Sant Fathe Singh judged them as falling short of his stipulation. At last the one issued on 8 January 1961 was pronounced by Master Tara Singh and the Working Committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal to be satisfactory and they as well as Panj Piare or the Five Elect, speaking for the entire Khalsa Panth, asked him to end his fast. On the morning of 9 January 1961, Fathe Singh took his first sip of nourishment in twenty-two days, a glass of juice from the hands of Bhai Chet Singh, one of the Golden Temple priests.
Political negotiations ensued between the Government of India and the Akali Dal. Sant Fathe Singh had three meetings with Prime Minister Nehru – on 8 February, 1 March and 12 May 1961, but with no positive result. His personal political authority had however been firmly established among the Sikhs. In July 1962, he directly challenged Master Tara Singh, forming his own Akali Dal which on 2 October 1962 wrested control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee from the hands of the latter. In the Gurdwara elections on 17 January 1965, Sant Fathe Singh annexed 90 of the elected seats, conceding only 45 to Master Tara Singh. To force the issue of Punjabi Suba, he proclaimed from the Akal Takht on 16 August 1965 that he would restart his fast from 10 September 1965 and that, if he survived the fast for 15 days with his demand still not conceded, he would commit self-immolation by burning himself alive on the 16th day. But as hostilities between India and Pakistan broke out in September 1965, he not only postponed the fast but also issued an appeal to all his countrymen, particularly Sikhs, to rally behind the government.
The war ended on 22 September 1965 and on 23 September, the Home Minister of India announced in Parliament the setting up of a Cabinet Committee consisting of Indira Gandhi, Y.B. Chavan and Mahavir Tyagi to pursue further the question of the formation of a Punjabispeaking state. He also requested the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to form for the same purpose a Parliamentary Consultative Committee. Matters moved fast thereafter. The report of the Parliamentary Committee, headed by Speaker Hukam Singh, was made public on 18 January 1966, recommending the reorganization of the existing state of Punjab on linguistic basis. Mrs Indira Gandhi who had, after the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, taken over as Prime Minister, finally conceded the demand on 23 April 1966. On 3 September, the Punjab Reorganization Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha and on 1 Novernber 1966 Punjabi-speaking state became a reality. A lifelong bachelor, Sant Fathe Singh greeted the event with the words: "A handsome baby has been born into my household."
The demarcation of the boundaries of the new Punjab basically on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the Government of India, however, started a new polemic. Sant Fathe Singh protested that Chandigarh, city built as capital for the Punjab after Partition, and some Punjabispeaking areas had been left out of the new state. On 5 December 1966 he announced that to have this injustice undone he would sit afasting on 17 December 1966 and commit self-immolation on 27 December 1966 if he survived till that day and his demands remained unfulfilled. The demands were;
(i) inclusion of Chandigarh and the Punjabi-speaking areas assigned to Himachal Pradesh and to the newly created state of Haryana in the Punjab;
(ii) severance of common links (governor, high court, etc.) between Punjab and Haryana; and
(iii) restoration of the control of Bhakhra and other multipurpose projects to the Punjab. Sant Fathe Singh began his fast on the appointed day (17 December). Simultaneously, moves were initiated by government and influential political leaders to have him terminate the fast and thus avert the threatened tragedy. At last, Hukam Singh, the Lok Sabha Speaker, and Giani Gurmukh Singh Musafir, Chief Minister of the Punjab, communicated to him assurances on behalf of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and persuaded him to break his fast. Sant Fathe Singh ended the fast on 27 December 1966.
Sant Fathe.Singh thereafter became a controversial figure and his influence began to decline. He started another fast-unto-death on 26 January 1970, with self-immolation to follow on 1 February 1970 if Chandigarh was not merged with Punjab by then. On 29 January, the Union Government announced that "the capital project area of Chandigarh should as a whole go to Punjab," but this was hedged round by stipulations such as the transfer of Fazilka tahsil from Punjab to Haryana. The All-Parties Action Committee and the Akali Dal High Command at their separate meetings on 30January 1970 passed resolutions welcoming the decision regarding Chandigarh, but opposing that on Fazilka. These resolutions were conveyed to Sant Fathe Singh, who was persuaded to end (30 January 1970) the fast he was going through. On 25 March 1972, he announced his retirement from active politics.
Sant Fathe Singh died at Amritsar on 30 October 1972.