The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

The last I saw of Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra was on the TV screen sitting behind raagis (hymn singers) in Harimandir, the Golden Temple. It was in the morning Tohra, as president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, inaugurated the Kar Seva (voluntary service) to clean the pool of nectar (Amrit Sar) of the silt that had accumulated in the bottom over the last twenty years. Over two million men and women were expected to take part in it. The hymn the raagis were singing was very appropriate; Satguru kee Seva safal hai, Jo Karey chit laae — the service of the Lord is fruitful if one puts one’s heart and soul in it. A few hours later he suffered a massive heart attack and was taken to a local hospital. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his deputy, L.K. Advani, Prakash Singh Badal and other Punjabi leaders called on him. Tohra was shifted to Escorts hospital in Delhi in the hope that a heart surgery might save his life. Before it could be done, he gave up the fight and died a few minutes after the midnight gave way to the first April. It was not the right time for leaders to go: daily papers are usually put to bed (i.e. ready for printing) and there is little space available on the front page. Besides India was poised for a spectacular victory in the first test match against Pakistan, and Laxmi Pandit had something to say about her age and marital status to win the Miss India-World title in the Miss India Beauty Contest. Tohra’s departure did not get the coverage it deserved. He dominated Sikh politics for over half-a-century. He could have become the uncrowned king of the Sikhs and have an entire chapter on his life in the history of his community: he did not go very far beyond being the most important Jathedar and his name will be found in the footnotes.

Gurcharan Singh Tohra was born in 1924, the son of a small holding farmer in village Tohra (hence the surname) in Patiala district. He was a Tiwana Jat. And like most Jat Sikhs tall, strapping with an imposing presence. He was a man of modest learning with command over Punjabi and the holy scriptures. He spoke Hindustani with a Punjabi accent. He understood English but could not speak it. He made his debut in Sikh politics while he was in his mid-twenties. It was after Partition that the Sikh population of what became Pakistan migrated en masse and was scattered all over India. Political power passed out of the hands of leaders from West Punjab to those of Malwa and Doaba. Tohra’s role in the Partition massacres cast a blemish on his character. He confessed to having taken part in it and killing an innocent Muslim. If he had saved Muslims from the wrath of Sikh and Hindu mobs thirsting for Muslim blood, I would have saluted him as a true leader.

Tohra was elected member of the SGPC in 1960. In 1973, he was elected its president for the first time. And, but for four or five years, he remained its head being re-elected 26 times till the day he died. He could have used the vast resources of money (well over 400 crores a year) and control of innumerable schools, colleges and hospitals managed by the SGPC; he could well have wiped out illiteracy and educated unemployment from the richest and the most forward-looking agricultural community of India. He did not have the vision to do so. However, it has to be conceded that Tohra was scrupulously honest in money matters, and unlike the politicians, did not add a rupee to his personal wealth nor indulged in nepotism. Also, unlike other politicians he was a puritan: he did not drink, didn’t stay in five-star hotels, did not own a car or a bungalow.

His years as head of the SGPC left another big black mark on his career. He failed to preserve the sanctity of the Golden Temple and allowed Bhindranwale to turn it into an armed fortress, which in turn forced the Central government to order the Indian army to enter its sacred precincts. The army not only killed Bhindranwale and hundreds of his armed followers, but also thousands of innocent pilgrims and wrecked the Akal Takht. Tohra tamely surrendered to the army and lost much of the respect he had earned. Later an attempt was made on his life.

Tohra was elected to the Rajya Sabha six times and the Lok Sabha once. No other Indian had so long a run as he in the Parliament. But he rarely took part in the proceedings. His contribution to debates in the Parliament could be written behind a postage stamp.

Tohra had a sneaking sympathy for Khalistan. I recall once confronting him directly on the subject. I told him that over 20 per cent of the Sikh population lived and prospered outside Punjab. Most of them were refugees from Pakistan. Did he want them to be uprooted once again' Didn’t he realize that Khalistan would spell disaster for the Khalsa Panth' His reply was a chilling assertion: “Qauman noon qurbani deynee paundee hai — communities have to make sacrifices to achieve their goals.”

Tohra was a wily politician who could out-fox anyone who stood in his way. Here was indeed a man who could have become the be-Taaj Badshah of the Panth, but his vision remained limited to launching morchas and going to jail. He did not have the qualities of a visionary statesman who could have led a vibrant and progressive community to greater heights of prosperity and find an honourable place in the annals of history.

The last I saw of him was again on TV of the state funeral given to him in his village. There was an enormous crowd of mourners. The background was the most beautiful dirge: Saajan maindey rangley Jaee Suttey Jeevaan — My handsome friend has gone to sleep among the dead. My eyes filled with tears. What great things this man could have accomplished if he had the vision and the will to do so.

One for the road

Asked how he had enjoyed a day’s trip with some neighbours, my young nephew replied that it was fine but that his friend’s father knew a lot of long stories. “He told one story that was 60 kilometres long,” marvelled the youngster.

“How did you know'” I asked.

“Because,” he replied,” I checked it on the speedometer.”

Meeting one’s match

A very talkative British member of parliament called on the famous writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri at his Oxford residence. After a lengthy lecture on different problems of England, he paused and finally said, “I am a self-made man.”

“That, Sir,” replied Chaudhuri, relieved the Almighty from a terrible responsibility.”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)

Email This Page