FOR HALF A CENTURY (from the 1920s to the 1960s), like a colossus, Master Tara Singh straddled the region, the society, the community we call Panjab. His life had immense highs and lows and his role in the making of modern Panjab and the history of Sikh politics elicit diverse opinions. For a long time now there has been a need for a comprehensive book that portrays his life and times. Given this background, eminent scholar, historian, J S Grewal, under the aegis of Punjabi University, Patiala, has finally offered us a study of his life: Master Tara Singh in Indian History: Colonialism, Nationalism and the Politics of Sikh Identity. For a personality so much larger than life, for a book almost equally large in size, it is impossible to do justice or even summarize in a short review.
MASTER TARA SINGH IN INDIAN HISTORY : COLONIALISM, NATIONALISM AND THE POLITICS OF SIKH IDENTITY
By J S Grewal
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017, pp.776, Rs 2595.00
At best, I can offer a few impressions. The biography is four lakh words, 700 plus double column pages. It has a foreword, a preface, and introduction detailing the methodology, twenty-six almost equal sized chapters, one conclusion and ten appendices, forty photographs and three maps. Grewal puts together a comprehensive portrait of Master Tara Singh’s life, at many places even day-to-day records, from hundreds if not thousands of sources. He sketches out the period in which Master Tara Singh was born, his childhood experiences, his switch from a sehajdhari family to becoming a keshdhari Sikh, his becoming an Akali leader who participated in the Gurdwara Reform Movement, how he shaped the Sikh vis-àvis the Congress stance during the freedom struggle, witnessed the mayhem of Partition of India and Pakistan through Panjab (and Bengal), raised the voice for Azad Panjab, how it translated into the struggle for Panjabi Suba—a recognition the Centre, paranoid about the Sikh minority, kept denying until 1966. When finally Panjab was trifurcated and became a State, it inherited issues such as Chandigarh and the river waters which still stand unsolved. Grewal has penned a non-hagiographic biography that humanizes Master Tara Singh and the book is as much about the person as it is a history of Panjab, the land and people, and Indian politics.
As I pored over the pages, aware of what has happened to Panjab and India fifty years after Master Tara Singh’s death, what stands out both in terms of understanding Panjab’s unique position in history and Master Tara Singh’s role in the making of the history is that: Panjab and the Sikhs are the whetstone of Indian democracy. In a democratic system the hardest aspect is how the idea of equality, even uniform nationhood, deals with those who are minuscule in terms of numbers, by those who stand for themselves and have not joined the majority and minority camps. The position of the Sikhs in Panjab is one such test even before the nation’s modern inception: at 13 percent, the Sikhs were a minority in every single district of the larger pre-Partition Panjab. There was no way they could get representative power. Without representation, how would the nation address the concerns of the Sikhs?
Grewal’s tome highlights two important facts: first, the Congress started as a people’s movement against the British which mutated into a political party. While doing so, the Congress sought to be the sole voice of the diverse people of the subcontinent. Pre-Independence, the Party’s response to the Sikh demand for representation was a prototype of what the Right Wing in the country now employs: either you are with us or you are anti-national. Second, the national leaders, both before and after India’s Independence, harboured a misinformed view: Sikhs are a part of the Hindus. In the later part of the 19th century, during Master Tara Singh’s childhood, the revivalist Hindutva organization the Arya Samaj projected this view and even Mahatma Gandhi bought into it in spite of supporting the Gurdwara Reform Movement (1920-25). The Nehru Report (1928, Motilal) did not recognize the Sikhs as a separate identity and provide separate electorates for them. The point to note is that the Sikh demand was the same as the Muslim demand. Like the Muslims were a minority to Hindus, the Sikhs were a minority to Muslim dominated Panjab.
Master Tara Singh raised the voice for Azad Panjab which meant neither Sikhs nor Hindus dominate the representation from the region. It did not mean that Panjab or the Sikhs wanted to break away from India. At best, given the unique Sikh identity, it was a demand for a semi-autonomous region within the nation.
Before Independence, Master Tara Singh opposed the creation of Pakistan. When Pakistan seemed like an eventuality, he raised the demand for Sikh homeland. The Congress ignored it. The book shows that more than any other national leader including Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad, who were stunned by the mayhem of Partition, Master Tara Singh was acutely aware of Panjab’s reality. All his life he remained steadfast in projecting the Sikhs as a religious but nationalistic people. Yet, the Congress leadership misjudged, maligned, and vilified him. Post Independence, Sikhs formed 35 percent of East Panjab and were still a minority.
Master Tara Singh raised the voice for Azad Panjab which meant neither Sikhs nor Hindus dominate the representation from the region. It did not mean that Panjab or the Sikhs wanted to break away from India. At best, given the unique Sikh identity, it was a demand for a semi-autonomous region within the nation. The central leadership, which had earlier even considered banning the Akali Dal, kept viewing Master Tara Singh’s demand as communal. Ironically, it is when the Congress in alliance with the Akali Dal, tried implementing the Regional Formula (1956) that it discovered it was opposed by Hindus who were raising the pitch for 'Save Hindi'.
Master Tara Singh’s eloquent discourse on the merits of Panjabi language is fascinating in both its rootedness and scope. His theorization of the Sikh nonviolence based on the martyrdom of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur is a step ahead of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence. The Akalis even effectively employed nonviolence during the Gurdwara Reforms to Panjabi Suba to Emergency. The pathos of the Sikhs is that, despite Master Tara Singh’s efforts, the Congress and the majority leadership kept viewing the Sikhs through the prism of prejudice—trapped in the image of being militant warriors owing to their past heroism. Master Tara Singh’s boldest move could have been the Dalits under the leadership of B R Ambedkar accepting the Sikh religion. It would have benefited both: the Sikhs in numbers, the Dalits in social dignity. The plans fell through in part because of the assurance of reserved seats in provincial legislatures through the Poona Pact and also due to the reluctance of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders to agree to the move towards conversions.
The critique against Master Tara Singh is that he had secret negotiations with the Congress, particularly Nehru, and he betrayed the Sikhs. The motive: he was a born Hindu who had converted to the Sikh religion. Grewal’s book devotes six chapters to the pre-Independence period when Master Tara Singh was negotiating for the Sikhs. Yes, his moves failed, but to ascribe a motive as birth to him is, in my opinion, not fair. In fact, it is playing into the hands of the Congress. Through his speeches, writings, publications, the coverage in news of his times it is amply clear that he tried his very best, but could not surmount not only the wall of apathy the Congress had built but its intent to discredit him like when he called off his fast and the Congress went back on its word. Master Tara Singh dominated the religious-political landscape for five decades. If we believe in conspiracy theories, the question is: why could the Sikhs not come up with an alternative leadership? Most other born Sikh leaders colluded with the Congress and benefited through positions, ministries, and personal fortunes.
Unless India solves Panjab, democracy has not arrived. Other such tests are Dalits who traditionally have not wielded power; women silenced through feudal patriarchy; extreme religious minorities such as the Christians, the Parsis; or those whom the nation has colonized, who do not buy into the models of development—the tribals. That seventy years after Independence we still fight elections over drains and roads, our politics is still about identity politics, about caste and religion, is a sign that our nation has been found wanting in all these tests.
The other criticism is that Master Tara Singh was close to the Hindu Mahasabha. This is a selective reading of history. During the Gurdwara Reform Movement, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya came to Amritsar in support of the Akalis. He brought C F Andrews who relayed the news of the struggle to the world. Malaviya was close to the Mahasabha, founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, which in a few elections represented the Hindus of Panjab. At times, Master Tara Singh and the Mahasabha even aligned to oppose the Congress. After all, Master Tara Singh was not opposed to the Hindus or to the Muslims. All he sought was recognition of the Sikh identity and representation in the democratic setup. To blame Master Tara Singh is to deny ourselves the acceptance that the Sikhs have failed in carving a space for themselves not only during the Independence movement, but also when the Akali Dal presented the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in the 1970s, and even through the armed militant Sikh separatism which caused even greater damage to Panjab. That is why Panjab is a whetstone to India’s democratic discourse.
Unless India solves Panjab, democracy has not arrived. Other such tests are Dalits who traditionally have not wielded power; women silenced through feudal patriarchy; extreme religious minorities such as the Christians, the Parsis; or those whom the nation has colonized, who do not buy into the models of development—the tribals. That seventy years after Independence we still fight elections over drains and roads, our politics is still about identity politics, about caste and religion, is a sign that our nation has been found wanting in all these tests. This is why the questions Master Tara Singh raised through his life remain important. Through Grewal’s efforts, Master Tara Singh will now occupy a dominant space on the bookshelves and, I hope, in the imagination of every scholar interested in Panjab, India and democracy.
Courtesy: The Book Review, Volume XLII, Number 3, March 2018.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Panjab.
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