A few years back, I was listening to a lecture at a seminar organized by the Institute of Sikh Studies in SAS Nagar, Panjab. To be candid, the presenters were quite boring. Then, a tall man with undeniably commanding presence took the stage. His oratory skills, Sikhi understanding, nuance in considering cultural context, and graceful humility nearly overpowered me. It was unlike anything I had seen in my five-year adventures in the “Land of the Five Rivers”. Mostly, I had witnessed retired diplomats, pseudo intellectuals, or establishment sycophants presenting Sikhi in a way which was neither doctrinally accurate nor managing to honor its sovereign nature. Amidst this grim backdrop of representatives, Gianiji’s elegant elucidation of gurbani (Sikh scriptures) coupled with penetrating political astuteness, made quite an impression on me. I must admit I have been quoting Allama (scholar) Iqbal’s comparison of mahqum (slave) and azad (free) since I first heard it from Gianiji.
My wife and I were visiting relatives and the Jim Corbett Tiger reserve in the vicinity of Nainital, Uttar Pardesh (UP) in 2002. I asked our relatives if they knew where Giani Harinder Singh lived. They wanted to know why I wished to visit him and I said, do you remember the Pilibhit kand (incident). There was dead silence in the room. This is a normal outcome if you mention anything that even remotely alludes to a Sikh responding to the state’s unjust practices. Anyway, I went to see Gianiji and his wife, Biji Tarlochan Kaur, at his village Paigambarpur (literally prophet-ville) near Bilaspur. I entered their house, unannounced and walked inside to introduce my recently solemnized partner-in-crime Gurpreet Kaur.
They were pleasantly surprised and enthralled; Gianiji asked Biji to bring something sweet to celebrate the good news. He took out all the cash from his pocket and without counting, gave the whole amount to Gurpreet. I had met him only a couple of times before this. I wasn’t his biological relative, but our relationship transcended age or blood; it was Sikhi-based. Such was his incessant giving attitude, both in personal and civic life: to seize the here and now.
I remember asking my dad if he knew Gianiji, for I was born in Jhansi, UP and my father Harbhajan Singh was too, where he held a leadership role in the railway union. I thought may be the two crossed path during semi-dictatorial “emergency” days of Indira Gandhi. My father was underground for weeks during that period for he refused to be coerced into joining the parallel “union” Mrs Gandhi had set-up. My father did not recall having met him personally, but he had heard of Gianiji as being a sole diler (courageous) Sikh in UP.
Last year Varun, of the Gandhi dynasty, lost all pretense of decency when he openly abused Muslims and threatened to behead them in Pilibhit. A similar thing happened in 1991, during the draconian TADA days. Eleven Sikhs were killed in faked encounters by the police in the jungles of Pilibhit, in the Terai—a region where Sikhs have a large presence. Gianiji tracked down the persons behind the Pilibhit massacre of the Sikhs. For this, he was imprisoned under the National Security Act in 1992 for challenging the then-Superintendent of Police RD Trapathi— the same man who had killed Muslims a decade ago as well. Gianiji sacrificed much to bring to light the truth of Terror in Terai; a truth which resulted in the arrest of 55 policemen, though their trial is still pending in a CBI court in Lukhnow.
I visited Gianiji again in 2007, bringing my family to his farm house in UP. After that, I met him a few times in Chandigarh to discuss the state of Sikhs affairs. A new disturbing and disgusting trend had developed among the panthak (activist) Sikhs: they now talked and acted in an unprincipled manner and compromising attitude, reducing themselves to subservient people. I would observe that Sikhs were behaving more like mahqums of old India, rather than azads nurtured by the Guru Nanak-Gobind Singh. He would respond with a spirit of utter optimism every time, citing his belief that as long as a few Sikhs retain integrity, all will be fine. He would echo this belief with the refrain, “You young man, you better train some young minds to do the same.” It was wonderful to have the opportunity to learn from a stalwart who was an intellectual as well as an activist.
My last few meetings with Gianiji, on my annual pilgrimages to Panjab, were in Kendriya Singh Sabha, of which he was the President. A prime area of land on Madhya Marg in Chandigarh, Gianiji was interested in transforming it into the hub of Sikh activities. In fact, he went to the Panjab Digital Library office in SAS Nagar and told Davinder Singh, the library’s co-founder, that he is politicking with the powers to be, in order to make that happen. Gurnihal Singh Pirzada, a defiant former IAS officer, whom Gianiji confided in, is working diligently to fulfill his wishes.
Gianiji’s journey was quite remarkable. Starting a newspaper in 1977 called Sikh Darpan (mirror); narrowly missing a Rajya Sabha seat in 1978 due to opposition from the Janta Party; leading the Meerut gurdwara agitation in 1980; contesting Vidhan Sabha (UP assembly) elections thrice between 1985-1994, and finally winning on his last attempt; consistently and genuinely representing the Sikh interests in UP for the last five decades as well as serving as President of the Uttar Pradesh Sikh Pratinidhi Board; leading Kendriya Singh Sabha in 2003 and 2008. And this is an effort to cite only a few of his milestones.
Gianiji lived a full life. His loving wife and three children—Harbaksh Singh, Baghel Singh and Navjot Kaur –are living testimony of Gianiji’s legacy of inner strength and community service. An amazing 77-year old journey in both the religious and political arena for the tiller of the soil from Rampur, Panjab to end up in Rampur, UP! I met Gianiji’s son Harbaksh Singh at Jaskaran Kaur’s residence in California a few years ago where, thru Ensaaf, she is pursing “ending impunity in India.” Now the next generation from the US has taken the butcher of Panjab to task while Bollywood is busy furthering the state propaganda of “supercop” through Indian cinema. I see why Gianiji’s faith was steadfast; it takes only a handful of young Sikhs to act in a sovereign manner; only a few to further the Guru’s mission of fighting unjust religious and political hegemony.