A Punjabi speaking state – ‘Punjabi Suba’ in popular terminology became the focus of Sikhs’ political ambition. They pursued the demand with the full power of their will. They mobilised all their resources behind it and fought for it tooth and nail. A variety of tactics came into play. Widespread agitations were followed by negotiations across the table.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee elections in December 1954 returned a verdict totally in favour of Punjabi Suba. The electorate in this case was purely Sikh. Yet the Akali Dal was stoutly opposed on the Punjabi Suba issue by the Khalsa Dal, a new party created by Congress Sikhs with the support of the government. The results went overwhelmingly in favour of the former. The Khalsa Dal was put to rout, its tally being a bare three seats out of the 132 contested. On the contrary, the Akali Dal won all the 111 seats for which it had put up its candidates. The remaining seats went to those supported by the Dal—one Independent and seventeen Communists. Sikh solidarity on the question of Punjabi Suba was a proven fact.
The Congress government remained inflexible. By its own past decisions, the Indian National Congress was pledged to reconstituting the provinces on a linguistic basis . The Madras session of the Congress in 1927 had lent support to the demand for demarcating Sind as a separate province. The resolution adopted declared:
The Nehru Report of 1928 had stated thatAbout the principle that should govern the redistribution of the provincial boundaries, the Nehru Report gave priority to
Jawaharlal Nehru had himself made a statement on April 4, 1946, that redistribution of provincial boundaries was essential and inevitable. I stand for semi-autonomous units as well . . . I should like them [the Sikhs] to have a semi-autonomous unit within the province so that they may experience the glow of freedom. Yet the Congress government was stubbornly set against the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state. The drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly had recommended that a commission be appointed to enquire into all relevant matters not only as regards Andhra but also as regards other linguistic areas.
A still worse shock came from the report of the States Reorganization Commission appointed in 1953. To baulk the demand for a Punjabi Suba, the Commission recommended the integration of PEPSU and Himachal Pradesh with the Punjab. Under what prepossessions the Commission functioned would be evident from the proceedings of a sitting at Patiala. Pandit H.N. Kunzru, one of the members asked the Sikh spokesman, Hukam Singh, why he had included Kangra and other Hindi-speaking areas in the proposed Punjabi state. Hukam Singh answered that, if they were Hindi-speaking, they might be excluded. Pandit Kunzru objected that, in that case, the Sikhs would be turned into a majority. Sardar Hukam Singh trapped him quipping quickwittedly that, if the Commission had been instructed to keep Sikhs in a minority, they must well obey. Pandit Kunzru had to escape from the impasse into which he had been driven.
The growing tension exploded into an open conflict with the government in the summer of 1955. April 14 was the day for the annual Baisakhi march for the Sikhs in Amritsar. The Punjab government imposed a ban on the shouting of slogans in support of Punjabi Suba. Slogans for Maha(Greater) Punjab by opponents of the Akali Dal were also forbidden, but the order was primarily aimed at preventing the Sikhs from uttering Punjabi Suba slogans in their Baisakhi procession. The Sikhs refused to submit to the ban. The march did take place and voices were raised demanding Punjabi Suba. The police put under arrest more than a dozen leading Akalis.
The Shiromani Akali Dal continued to protest against the ban as an attack on the civic rights of the people. It gave an ultimatum that, if the ban was not withdrawn by May 10, 1955, it would launch a mass agitation. On May 10, Master Tara Singh led out the first batch of ten volunteers in defiance of the ban. He was detained along with his companions. This was the beginning of a long-drawn contest. The Sikhs started pouring into Amritsar in large numbers to court arrest. The strength of the batches offering themselves for arrest had to be increased from 10 to 100. Master Tara Singh’s birthday on June 24 was commemorated by accelerating the number still further. The arrests continued from day to day. Among those held were the Head Granthi of the Golden Temple as well as Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Iqbal Singh (1889-1974), an eminent educationist and a college principal, who was in the absence of Hukam Singh abroad officiating as president of the Akali Dal,and who was commander of the Morcha, Parkash Singh Badal, along with his brother Gurbilas Singh and uncle Gurraj Singh, Sarup Singh. Gurmit Singh, Bhupinder Singh Mann, Dhanna Singh Gulshan, Ganga Singh, principal of the Sikh Missionary College, Sadhu Singh Hamdard, eminent Sikh journalist, Rajinder Singh of Sangrur and Chaudhri Kartar Singh. Many more filled the goals. They included legislators, writers and lawyers. In all, 12,000 were taken prisoners, among them 427 women.
The government further tightened its repressive network. The Golden Temple was besieged by the police and Guru-ka-Langar occupied. Meetings and divans at Manji Sahib, in the Golden Temple precincts, were prohibited. The worst happened on July 4,1955, when police entered the sacred precincts in a body and exploded tear bombs to scatter the assembled Sikhs. This was a trespass without precedent in history. On July 5, Bawa Harkishan Singh, president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, and Hukam Singh were taken into custody. But government soon realized the enormity of the outrage committed, and retraced its policy. The band of Sikh volunteers which turned out on July 8 shouting Punjabi Suba slogans was left untouched by the police. The following day, a group of 139 ladies, under the leadership of Bibi Gian Kaur of Calcutta, volunteered for arrest. Again, police did not interfere. On July 12, the ban was formally withdrawn. The chief minister, Bhim Sen Sachar, presented himself at the Akal Takht and made in an open divan apologies on behalf of the government for the sacrilege committed by the police on July 4.
This was a graceful act much applauded by the Sikhs. But the goodwill generated by Shri Sachar’s sincerity was dissipated in the wake of the publication of the report of the States Reorganization Commission. The Commission had totally rejected the Sikhs’ demand and advised them, on the contrary, to accept a larger Punjab to be constituted by the amalgamation of Himachal Pradesh with the existing Punjab.it wrote, The argument was as unintelligible to the Sikhs as it was derogatory.
Master Tara Singh grasped the opportunity to exhibit Sikh unity and resolution. He summoned a representative congress of the Sikhs at Amritsar on October 16, 1955. Nearly 1,300 of the invitees attended. With one voice, they rejected the recommendations of the States Reorganization Commission and vehemently castigated it for treating the Sikh claims with undisguised bias. The convention authorized Master Tara Singh to devise ways and means to bring home to the Government of India Sikhs’ sense of injury . His first move—a conciliatory one—was to call upon Prime Minister Nehru. The ground for such a meeting had already been prepared by the former Defence Minister, Baldev Singh. Baldev Singh, who had shunned meeting the Prime Minister since he was dropped from his cabinet and who in fact stayed away even from social get-togethers at which he was likely to be present, was persuaded by Giani Kartar Singh and others to act as a mediator between the Akalis and the government. He showed Jawaharlal Nehru the correspondence which had passed between Sikhs and the Muslim League leaders prior to the transfer of power, and reminded him how the former had rejected the League overtures and thrown in their lot with India. Hukam Singh carried to the Prime Minister a letter written by Master Tara Singh, and October 24, 1955, was the date fixed for a bilateral meeting.
Conciliatory intercession brought Jawaharlal Nehru and the Sikh leaders round the conference table. A regional formula was devised, under which punjabi speaking majority areas were to have all education in Punjabi. The supporters of Hindi assailed the Regional Formula as being harmful to their interests. Under the aegis of the Hindi Raksha Samiti, they launched a fierce agitation to have it annulled. The new Congress government which had taken office in the Punjab on April 3, 1957, with the mighty Partap Singh Kairon as Chief Minister and former Akalis, Giani Kartar Singh and Gian Singh Rarewala, as two of the members of his cabinet, dealt with the Hindi protest firmly. But it could do little to assuage the Sikhs’ sentiment hurt by the Hindi Raksha Samiti’s acts of animosity against them. During the course of the Hindi movement, several Sikh places of worship had been desecrated.
Language frontiers had become communal frontiers. For Master Tara Singh, Punjabi Suba was the only antidote to the rising Hindi fanaticism. On June 14, 1958, he resurrected the demand for it, repudiating the Regional Formula which had anyhow been the subject of his criticism and sarcasm. Though accepted under the pressure of circumstances, the Regional Formula was no trustworthy solution of the Punjab problem. The Sikh masses were scarcely enthused by it. Essentially, it was a tentative arrangement and, as it soon became apparent, neither the government nor any of the political parties was keen to give it an earnest trial. Master Tara Singh called a meeting of the general body of the Shiromani Akali Dal at Patiala on February 14, 1959. 299 out of 377 members attended. The convention resolved by one voice to restore the political character of the Dal.
The Regional Formula never seriously put into effect by government and never seriously accepted by the Sikhs, left one permanent monument in the shape of the Punjabi University. The idea of such a university had taken birth in the new intellectual and cultural milieu created by national independence. Educators and public men in the Punjab vaguely spoke of a university for the development and promotion of the language of the state. But none could define exactly Punjabi as the dominant language.
Master Tara Singh, felt reassured by this elaboration and forthwith had a call made to Amritsar. He assured Sant Fateh Singh that the obligations of his vow had been fulfilled and asked him to terminate his fast. To Master Tara Singh’s appeal was added the weight of a motion adopted by the Working Committee of the Akali Dal and the command of the Panj Piare or the Five Elect who, speaking for the entire Khalsa, told Sant Fateh Singh that they were satisfied that his pledge had been complied with and that he must forthwith end his fast. On the morning of January 9,1961, Fateh Singh took his first sips of nourishment in twenty-two-days—a glass of juice from the hands of Bhai Chet Singh, one of the Golden Temple granthis. This marked the end of the seven month long morcha in which, according to official figures,30,000 went to gaol and, according to Akali reckoning,57,129.
Political negotiations ensued between the government and the Akalis. Sant Fateh Singh had three meetings with Prime Minister Nehru, one on February 8, 1961. The meetings were friendly, but yielded no definite results. Offering to extend to the Punjabi language all the protection it needed, the Prime Minister was not wiling to slice off Punjabi-speaking areas of the Punjab into a separate state. The Sikhs were far from pacified. To press home the Punjabi Suba issue, another fast had to be staged—this time by Master Tara Singh. His trial began on August 15,1961, after a solemn prayer in front of the Akal Takht. The Punjab again was in a commotion. The crisis deepened as days went by. Mediators arose to try and settle the issue. Notable among them were Maharaja Yadavinder Singh of Patiala and Malik Hardit Singh. They kept in touch with Prime Minister Nehru and Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on the one hand and with the Akali leaders on the other. Eventually Master Tara Singh was persuaded to end his fast on the 48th day (October 1,1961). The glass of lemon juice, mixed with honey, was given him by the Maharaja of Patiala and Sant Fateh Singh.
In pursuance of the settlement made, the Prime Minister appointed a commission to go into the question of Sikh grievances. The Shiromani Akali Dal caviled at its composition and refused to put its case before it. But the commission carried on with its work in spite of Akali Dal’ s non-cooperation. It gave its report on February 9, 1962, rejecting suggestions of any discrimination against the Sikhs. Kapur Singh On August 2, 1965, addressed a Press conference in Delhi, demanding for the SikhsHe applauded the Nalwa Conference resolution and pledged his support to it.
But the initiative was again seized by Sant Fateh Singh with the announcement on August 16, 1965, that, to clinch the Punjabi Suba issue, he would sit a fasting from September 10, 1965, and, in case the Government of India did not melt, he would burn himself up on September 25. The venue fixed for immolation was the top roof of the Akal Takht; time 4.30 p.m. Following upon the heels of this declaration came the war between Pakistan and India. In that moment of crisis, everyone wished that Sant Fateh Singh would revoke his decision.
Sant Channan Singh, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Gurcharan Singh Tauhra and Harcharan Singh Hudiara went to Delhi on September 8, 1965, to take counsel with the leaders of government and others. A high-level meeting took place in the Speaker’s chamber in Parliament House attended among others by Maharaja Yadavinder Singh of Patiala, Yashwant Rao Chavan, Defence Minister, Jaisukhlal Hathi, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Sardar Kapur Singh, Member of Parliament, Dr Anup Singh, Member of Parliament, Buta Singh, member of Parliament and Dhanna Singh Gulshan. They were all anxious that the tragedy be somehow averted and unanimously sent a message to Sant Fateh Singh requesting him to defer the fast. Some of them, notably the Maharaja of Patiala, added the assurance that they would be on his side if the government continued to circumvent his demand after normalcy was restored.
Sant Channan Singh returned to Amritsar with his colleagues by the night train and conveyed to Sant Fateh Singh on the morning of September 9 the message they had brought. Sant Fateh Singh accepted the advice and made a public statement postponing the fast. Simultaneously, he appealed to his countrymen, especially Sikhs, to muster all their resources to resist the onslaught from across the frontier.
In the border districts, the Sikh population rose to a man to meet the crisis. It stood solidly behind the combatants and assisted them in many different ways. It provided guides to the newly inducted troops and offered free labour and vehicles, country carts, tractors and trucks to transport war supplies to the forward-most trenches. Instead of evacuating in panic to safer places, Sikhs right up to the frontier stuck fearlessly to their homes, plying their ploughs and tending their cattle. Along the main approach routes to the front, they set up booths serving refreshments to the soldiers. Their most spectacular feat was the way they swooped down upon the parachutists dropped by Pakistanis behind the Indian lines. On seeing the parachutes open up in the skies, the villagers rushed out gleefully with whatever they had in their hands—lathis, axes or swords, and seized the bewildered paratroopers before they knew where they were. A few were beaten to death on the spot and the rest were handed over to the army. A South Indian pilot belonging to the Air Force, who had made an emergency leap from his crashing aircraft, had a hard time explaining to his rugged, but prompt, captors that he was an Indian national and not a Pakistani spy.
Besides a vast number of Sikh troops fighting all along the borders from Kutch to Baltistan and Ladakh, almost all senior commanders in the Punjab sector were Sikhs. Lieut-General Harbakhsh Singh, with his chief of staff, Major-General Joginder Singh, commanded the entire Western zone and was, as such, the principal architect of India’s victory. Involved with planning at the army headquarters was another Sikh officer, Major-General Narinder Singh. Lieut-General Joginder Singh Dhillon, a brilliant tactician, with his Brigadier General Staff, Brigadier Parkash Singh Grewal, and artillery commander, Brigadier S.S. Kalha, commanded the crops operating in the Punjab and parts of Rajasthan. Major-General Niranjan Prasad was replaced mid-battle by Major-General Mohindar Singh, a tough and shrewd soldier, as division commander in the Amritsar sector, the other division commander, in the Khem Karan sector, being Major-General Gurbakhsh Singh. The two divisions not only secured their first objective, the Ichogil Canal, but at certain points outstripped the target, holding Lahore within artillery range. North of the Ravi, Major-General Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’, commanding an armoured division, recorded a marvellous feat in the history of tank warfare by a lightning putsch towards Sialkot, Narowal, his Centurions humbling Pakistan’s prestigious American gifted Pattons and Chaffees. The Khem Karan sector, too, was turned into what came to be known as the graveyard of the Pakistani Patton tanks. South of the Sutlej, Brigadier Bant Singh, commanding an independent brigade group, defended stoutly an extensive border covering the entire Ferozepore and Ganganagar districts. Both at Hussainiwala and Fazilka, Sikh battalion commanders held fast to their positions despite intensely heavy shelling by Pakistan artillery. The Indian Air Force, under the command of the Sikh Air Chief Marshal, Arjan Singh, made devastating strikes and surprised military experts the world over by decisively outpacing a far superior, i.e. better equipped, force. Indian Moths had routed Pakistani Hawks.
Within 21 days, Pakistan was brought to heel. The ceasefire came about on September 22. Legendary stories were already in circulation about the patriotic fervour and bravery Sikhs had displayed during the war. Clearly, their moment of fulfillment had arrived. On September 6, 1965, the Union Home Minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda, made a statement in the Lok Sabha saying thatOn September 23, recalling his statement of September 6, he announced in the Lok Sabha: The Government have now decided to set up a committee of the Cabinet to pursue this matter further. The Committee will consist of Shrimati Indira Gandhi, Shri Y.B. Chavan and Shri Mahavir Tyagi. Addressing the Speaker, the Home Minister said: Continuing his speech, he expressed the hope that The Congress party also took up the issue in earnest. On November 16,1965, the Punjab Congress Committee debated it for long hours, with Giani Zail Singh, General Mohan Singh, and Narain Singh Shahbazpuri lending it their full support.
The Home Minister sent a list of nominees from Rajya Sabha to the Chairman and a list of nominees from Lok Sabha to the Speaker Hukam Singh. The Chairman forwarded his list to the Speaker. The latter, however, did not accept the Lok Sabha list given to him by the Home Minister, and made five changes in it at his own discretion. The twenty-two-member committee announced by Hukam Singh represented all sections of the House. Among them were Hiren Mukerjee (Communist), SurendraNath Dwivedi (Socialist), Atal Behari Vajpayee (JanaSangh), Maharaja Karni Singh of Bikaner(Independent), Dhanna Singh Gulshan (Akali Dal), Bansi Lal (Congress), Sadiq Ali (Congress), and Amar Nath Vidyalankar (Congress), Surjit Singh Majithia (Congress) and Daya Bhai Patel (Swatantra). The first meeting of the committee was held in the committee room of Parliament House to lay down its procedure to work. October 1, 1965, to November 5, 1965 was the period fixed for receiving memoranda from various parties and individuals. From November 26 to December 25, the committee held preliminary discussions. On January 10, 1966, Lachhman Singh Gill, general secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, and Kawel Singh presented the case for a Punjabi-speaking state. On January 27, Giani Kartar Singh and Harcharan Singh Brar appeared before the committee on behalf of the Congress group in the Punjab legislature. Both argued in favour of Punjabi Suba. There were nearly 2,200 memoranda submitted to the committee favouring the Punjabi Suba and 903 opposing it.
Hukam Singh was able to secure from his committee a unanimous vote in favour of the creation of Punjabi Suba. This apparently dismayed Gulzari Lal Nanda, the Home Minister, who soon after the nomination of the Parlimentary Committee had borne complaints to Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri alleging that the Speaker was actively working for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state. The Parliamentary Committee’s report was handed in on March 15, 1966. On March 9, 1966, the Congress Working Committee had already adopted a motion recommending to the Government of India to carve a Punjabi-speaking state out of the then existing Punjab. The only member to oppose the resolution was Morarji Desai. The report of the Parliamentary Committee was made public on March 18, 1966. Mrs. Indra Gandhi who had, after the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, taken over as Prime Minister on January 24, 1966, finally conceded the demand on April 23, 1966. A commission was appointed to demarcate the new states of Punjab and Haryana. On September 3, the Punjab Reorganization Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha and on November 1, 1966, Punjabi-speaking state became a reality . The happiest man on that day was Sant Fateh Singh. A life-long bachelor, he greeted the announcement with the words:
With the birth of the new Punjab, Sikhs had entered the most creative half-decade of their modern history. The realization of a dominant political ambition often times heralds the advent of political power. This came strikingly true for Sikhs in the Punjab. On March 8, 1967, Gurnam Singh, the Akali nominee, took over as Chief Minister of the state.
:Heritage of the Sikhs – Harbans Singh