By Prabhat Kishore
Innumerable people sacrificed their lives for the freedom of India and countless people suffered physical torture. It is difficult to find mention of all these in the pages of our history. All the letters used in the creation of our history and all the sentences that have been coined, all sing the immortal saga of these sacrifices. But there are some letters of the great writings which speak automatically. The name of Dhartiputra and Kranti Purush Giani Zail Singh is hidden in the womb of these spontaneous writings.
Gyani Zail Singh the youngest of five siblings, was born on 5 May 1916 in the house of a poor cultivator and artisan Kishan Singh in the village of Sandhwan near Kot Kapura in Faridkot, a small princely state of ancient Saptasindhu and modern Punjab. His mother Smt. Ind Kaur died in her childhood and she was brought up by Aunty Smt. Daya Kaur. He was not called Zail Singh in his childhood, but Jarnail Singh. Jarnail Singh received immense love and protection from brothers Mr. Jagir Singh and Mr. Veer Singh and sister Mrs. Jagir Kaur. Shri Kishan Singh, who had a religious aptitude, had a heartfelt desire that his son Jarnail Singh should propagate the Guruvani. That is why he got the boy Jarnail Singh out of school and got him to study Hindi and Punjabi in depth under his guidance.
After memorizing the Guru Granth Sahib, Jarnail Singh formed a religious congregation and used to recite its couplets on the harmonium in a very charming manner. He got admission in Shaheed Sikh Missionary College, Amritsar, despite not having a matriculation degree, due to the quality of stimulating the public with his speech. After the completion of this course, he was awarded the title of “Gyani” which remained with his name for life. Meanwhile, at a very young age, he was married to Pradhan Kaur, who has a son, Mr. Joginder Singh and three daughters, respectively, Joginder Kaur, Manjit Kaur and Dr. Gurdeep Kaur.
Inspired by the sacrifices of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru and other freedom fighters, Jarnail Singh started his political career as an Akali Dal worker. At the age of just 18, he became the General Secretary of the Faridkot Akali Dal and remained in this position for five years (till 1933). In 1938, he led the Prajamandal movement against the princely state of Faridkot. In the same year he opened a Congress branch in Faridkot, which the Maharaja accepted as a challenge and imprisoned him for five years. On being asked by the jailer, he revealed his name as “Zail Singh” (Lion of the jail). Since then he became popular as Zail Singh instead of Jarnail Singh. He was severely tortured in the prison, but he showed his courage. He studied the holy texts like Ramayan, Gita, Veds, Purans, Upanishads etc. in his prison.
After his release from imprisonment in 1943, due to repeated harassment by the Maharaja’s employees, Zail Singh left Faridkot and started public awareness by joining the freedom movement. During the flag movement in 1946, he returned to Faridkot, where there was a lot of enthusiasm among the public towards hoisting the tricolor flag. But the fear of the Maharaja’s terror was also at its climax. Then Jawaharlal Nehru himself went to Faridkot and hoisted the flag. After some time in 1947, when Raja Maler was in Kotla, Giani Zail Singh, along with some tenacious workers, made a historic explosion by establishing a parallel government in Faridkot. The king lodged a strong objection to the then Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was working to integrate the princely states into the Indian Union, and again imprisoned him, calling it a rebellion.
The politics of Punjab in independent India would be incomplete without mentioning Gyaniji. After the partition of India, the new state “Patiala and East Punjab Provincial Union” was formed by joining the small princely states of East Punjab, Patiala, Jind, Nabha, Kapurthala and Faridkot, whose total area was 10090 square miles and population was 3424060. In 1949, Zail Singh was made the Revenue Minister in the non-party government formed under the Chief Ministership of Gyan Singh Rarewala in this state. After the elections in 1951, he took over as Agriculture Minister in the Congress Government formed on 23 May 1951. He took full advantage of working with an accomplished Chief Minister like Shri Pratap Singh Kairo. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1956 to 1962.
In 1970, when Sikh separatism took hold, the Congress Party made Gyani Zail Singh the Chief Minister of Punjab in 1972. Shiromani Akali Dal, the traditional political party of Sikhs, was given a blow by their voters and out of the total 104 seats in the state, Congress got 66 seats and its ally Communist Party got 10 seats. The Akali Dal was reduced to just 24 seats. He dominated the politics of Punjab from 1972 to 1977. In 1980, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Hoshiarpur constituency and on 14 January 1980 took over as the most important Home Minister in the Union Cabinet headed by Smt. Indira Gandhi. It is said that during his tenure as Home Minister, he encouraged Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at the behest of Indira Gandhi as a strategy to harm the Akali Dal, which later proved to be a scourge for the peace of Punjab.
After the completion of the tenure of Shri Neelam Sanjiv Reddy after about two and a half years, on July 15, 1982, the Congress Party declared Gyani Zail Singh as the candidate for the post of the seventh President of India. The election was one-sided and in this he also got the support of opponents like the Communist Party in Bengal and the Akali Dal in Punjab in the name of being a Sikh. On 25 July 1982, Gyani Zail Singh took the oath of the highest constitutional post. During this, he also made his place by saying light things like “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that. She chose me to be President”. As President, he gave the message of love, brotherhood, equality of all religions, unity, honesty and devotion to the people of India but also to the whole world.
Gyani Zail Singh, a multi-faceted personality, successfully faced every situation and got victory. Taking special interest in the social upliftment of backward classes, dalits, poor and women, he started many development schemes for their welfare. Keeping the unity and integrity of the nation as supreme, he devoted himself completely. He was not even aware of ‘Operation Blue Star’, which was started in 1984 to free the historic Golden Temple in Amritsar from the anti-national Sikh militants, although Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spoke to him for an hour a day before the operation. After 4 days of military action, Gyani Zail Singh visited the Golden Temple. Not only was he strongly condemned by the extremist Sikh leaders, but a desperate attempt was made to declare him a devout and a scumbag. But the sense of religious duty could not deter him and without caring about all these religious threats, he followed the path of the Sikh Gurus and always considered the national interest as paramount.
After the assassination of Indira Gandhi by the bodyguards enraged by the above action, in the capacity of President, he fulfilled the duty of paying his debt by appointing her son Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister. Gyaniji’s academic life may not have been able to embrace universities, colleges and big educational institutions, but he had an unmatched love for literature, music and art. He did not speak fluent English, but while showing his deep reverence for Hindi, he used to ask the English masters very easily and confidently that when the nations like France, Germany, Soviet Union, Japan, China, Italy etc. can reach the top of the world with their own language, why can’t India reach it? Even abroad, by speaking in Hindi, he enhanced the honor and respect of India.
In the most turbulent times of Indian politics, Gyani Zail Singh showed his understanding and administrative skills. He also became controversial and were also called indisputable. On 29 November 1994, during his visit to Takht Sri Keshavgarh Sahib, his car met with an accident near Kiratpur Sahib in Ropar district. He was admitted to the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Chandigarh, where he left this illusory world on 25th December 1994 at 7.40 am. A simple living, high thoughts, a nurturer of Indian tradition and a genius, who stirred the public with his sincere and blunt speech, Zail Singh will always be remembered by the Indian masses.
(Author is a technocrat & academician. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at [email protected] )