MANJIT SINGH CALCUTTA– THE DISSENTER
A Badal critic, he remained consistent in the art of not making a deal
- S. Pal
A Badal critic, he remained consistent in the art of not making a deal



VETERAN AKALI LEADER, former Punjab minister and a former secretary of the SGPC, Manjit Singh Calcutta is no more. He was a lot of things formerly, and presently, only a 'could have been.' But, then, he was a dissenter. 

Any objective obituary of this man would be incomplete without mentioning that he knew how to be a dissenter, and to remain one. Of course, there were other dissenters in the Akali ranks, but he remained one till the last.
Calcutta breathed his last at Amritsar's Kakkar Hospital where he was admitted on January 4 after his sugar level plunged and he suffered from chest congestion. He died at 6:30 am Wednesday morning. He is survived by his wife, a son and two daughters.
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Well-read, English-speaking, with his trademark flowing beard and blue turban, Manjit Singh Calcutta was erudite by the relative standards of Punjab politicians. Often spotted with a book, he was the go to man for journalists for a quote on all matters panthic.
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When Gurcharan Singh Tohra was unceremoniously removed as SGPC chief just before Khalsa Tercentenary celebrations of 1999, Manjit Singh Calcutta was among the five ministers who quit the Akali Dal in protest. One by one, the others – Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Harmail Singh Tohra, Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Kohli -- gradually made their peace with the Badals, agreeing to either far lesser roles or reduced to wait for their turn in the queue for political spoils till eternity, or Badal's benevolence, whichever came first.

Tohra, who lorded over the SGPC for more than a quarter century and remained a Lok Sabha MP once and a Rajya Sabha MP five times, was a leader whose name today is a currency with little convertible value. Considered once the centre of Sikh politics, the world of politics saw his daughter and other kin sitting outside the door of Akali Dal's reigning Badals for an SGPC ticket, or even less. They eventually went to AAP where they now sit on the extreme margins of a party that is in danger of being on the margins itself. This is the kind of fate Manjit Singh Calcutta was successful in avoiding.

Over the years, Mahesh Inder Grewal became an apology of a spokesman for Badal, Zira found a toe-hold in Congress, Harmail Tohra clung on to the AAP bandwagon, and Kohli opted for political oblivion.
 

Manjit Singh Calcutta remained a consistent dissenter, even after Tohra mended fences with the Badals, and refused to sit at the feet of the father-son duo, a slot that was filled by Prem Singh Chandumajra, once a strong Tohra loyalist who is now part of the Badals' shouting brigade, an MP and someone with the art of extracting a deal for his son and political heir Harinder Pal. In Punjab's electoral deal making arena, it's often your soul or the halqa incharge, and most opt for the later.

Well-read, English-speaking, with his trademark flowing beard and blue turban, Manjit Singh Calcutta was erudite by the relative standards of Punjab politicians. Often spotted with a book, he was the go to man for journalists for a quote on all matters panthic.

Among the first Akali leaders to raise the issue of RSS' attempts to saffronise education, polity and society, Manjit Singh Calcutta during his stint as Higher Education Minister in the Punjab Cabinet under Badal, took exception when some Sikh rituals were carried out before the Republic Day celebrations in various districts in 1998.

Later, when Tohra formed his Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal (AISAD), Calcutta would often attack Badal for failing to confront the BJP and the RSS, and Chandumajra would routinely call Badal "an RSS agent." 

Sources who were very close to Manjit Singh Calcutta said even a few months ago, he rebuffed an offer from the BJP for an important political role and said he would prefer to die an Akali. Chandumajra's party, meanwhile, now has an alliance with the RSS-guided BJP and few would remember that both, the deceased leader and Chandumajra, had once planned and carried out the Panthic Chetna Jagao-Punjab Jagao movement (Wake Sikh Religious Identity-Save Punjab), set up by the AISAD in response to the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat’s mobilisation.
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When Tohra formed his Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal (AISAD), Calcutta would often attack Badal for failing to confront the BJP and the RSS, and Chandumajra would routinely call Badal "an RSS agent." Chandumajra's party now has an alliance with the RSS-guided BJP while Calcutta rebuffed efforts by the BJP to rope him in even when the saffron leadership was keen to induct respected Sikh faces.
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As political leaders unexceptionally brought in their sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, and other kin into the business of politics, Calcutta kept his progeny away from the cesspool. His son runs a hotel in Amritsar, and while one daughter lives in Canada, the other is in Kolkata, the city that gave its name to her father.
 

In 2012, Manjit Singh Calcutta extended support to the Congress in Punjab, with the proviso that it was more a support for Amarinder Singh's leadership. In 2015, he did consider an offer from the Aam Aadmi Party but this was before the then AAP convenor Sucha Singh Chottepur was thrown out of AAP by Arvind Kejriwal.
Manjit Singh Calcutta had joined the SGPC in the late 1980s as a Secretary, soon after Operation Black Thunder, and remained in this role till 1998-99, enjoying a token salary of Rs.1 per month. While the SGPC did not make much of a mark during all those years, it probably did act as a countervailing force vis-à-vis the Badals in Akali polity, till the Badals finally succeeded in ousting Tohra and his men.
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Manjit Singh Calcutta joined the SGPC in the late 1980s as a Secretary, and remained in this role till 1998-99. While the SGPC did not make much of a mark during all those years, it did act as a countervailing force vis-à-vis the Badals in Akali polity. It's a role Manjit Singh Calcutta would have preferred to play, but then history and politics make for a combo-game of too many objective factors creating appropriate openings. Calcutta did not find that opening.
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That's a role Manjit Singh Calcutta would have preferred to play, but then history and politics make for a combo-game of too many objective factors creating appropriate openings. Perhaps, in case of this man who was always known by the name of one of India's oldest metro cities as his last name, Calcutta did not find that opening.
 

Meanwhile, the world changed. The Akali Dal changed. From Pardhan Ji meaning Gurcharan Singh Tohra, to Pardhan Ji meaning Sukhbir Singh Badal, Calcutta saw these tides of politics from the ring side. In between, he would poke and criticise the tiny versions of pardhan jis off and on - the likes of Badungars and Makkars - but never saw the balance being restored in the Akali polity.

The House of Badals will issue its perfunctory condolence and tribute, no doubt, but the dissenter would have little respect for it.
 

Disclaimer : PunjabToday.in and other platforms of the Punjab Today group strive to include views and opinions from across the entire spectrum, but by no means do we agree with everything we publish. Our efforts and editorial choices consistently underscore our authors' right to the freedom of speech. However, it should be clear to all readers that individual authors are responsible for the information, ideas or opinions in their articles, and very often, these do not reflect the views of PunjabToday.in or other platforms of the group. Punjab Today does not assume any responsibility or liability for the views of authors whose work appears here.

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