Master Tara Singh
Master Tara Singh

Master Tara Singh dominant figure on the Sikh political scene for the middle-third of the twentieth century, was born as one of four brothers and a sister in a Hindu family in a small village called Maryal, in Rawalpindi district, now in Pakistan, on 24 June 1885, and was named Nanak Chand. His father, Bakhshi Gopi Chand, was a Patvari or a subordinate revenue official and later a moneylender, belonging to the Malhotra sub-caste of the Kshatriyas, or Khatris as they are known in the Punjab. Nanak Chand's interest in Sikhism was stimulated while he was still in the primary school by the accounts he had heard of the sacrifices and heroism of the Sikhs at evening meetings organized by his Sikh uncle. For his high school education, he moved to Rawalpindi and there, living among Sikhs, his interest in Sikhism developed further. In 1902 while still a student in the ninth grade, he along with an elder brother and a cousin converted to Sikhism and was named Tara Singh. He received the rites of initiation at the hands of Sant Atar Singh, much honoured in Sikh piety. At school, as later at college, Tara Singh made his mark both in the classroom and on the playfield. After passing high school in 1903, he tried but could not secure admission to medical school because of his short stature. However, he received a scholarship and went to Amritsar to study at the Khalsa College. It was here that he developed interest in politics. This was owing to certain contemporary happenings-the partition of Bengal in 1905, the agitation by Sikh peasantry in Lyallpur in 1907 and the local resistance to government attempts at greater control over the Khalsa College. In this Last, Tara Singh was the president of the students agitation committee, selected primarily because of his talent on the playfield.

By the time he graduated from college in 1907, Tara Singh had decided to devote his life to the service of the panth. He joined a teachers' training college at Lahore and, on graduation, like two other colleagues, he offered his services for a nominal salary of Rs. 15 a month if the community would establish a Khalsa high school in Lyallpur. This was a small sum with which to support himself and, already married, his wife. Tara Singh's offer was accepted and at 23, without any teaching experience, he became the school's headmaster, and thus acquired thereafter the honorific "Master". He continued in this position for six years until 1914 when he prepared to leave for England to serve as a granthi (priest), but the outbreak of World War I prevented his departure. He taught for another six years at other schools, but finally in 1920 retuned to Lyallpur. In between, he tried his hand at business, but. did not succeed.

The opening of the 1920's marked a new stage in Tara Singh's life, with active involvement in Sikh politics. In March 1921, he was made secretary of the newly established Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, and during the many phases of the Gurdwara Reform movement, he courted arrest several times. In 1923, a large number of Sikh leaders, including Tara Singh, were arrested on charges of sedition and conspiracy. After over two years in jail, they were released in 1926. Tara Singh became vice-president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, while the eminent leader, Baba Kharak Singh, was made its president.

Tara Singh was now an important political figure, but his rise to the front ranks among Sikh leaders came during the controversy over the Nehru Committee Report, of 1928, embodying a Congress-sponsored constitution for India. During the Gurdwara Reform movement a working alliance had come into existence between the Congress Party and the Akalis. Because of its anti-government nature, the movement was considered part and parcel of the nationalist endeavour. As a result, many Akali leaders simultaneously held important positions in the Congress organization as well. However, these leaders were intensely divided in their attitudes towards die Nehru Committee Report. Tara Singh took up a position which combined opposition to the report with continued support for the Congress Party. In this fashion, he was able to outflank the group led by Mangal Singh that supported the Report and equally the group led by Kharak Singh that had turned completely hostile towards the Congress Party. In the process, Tara Singh acquired a distinctive political role, and emerged as a leader ready to fight for Sikh demands without alienating the nationalist organization. Later, in 1930, when the Congress Party launched the civil disobedience movement, Kharak Singh opposed it, but Tara Singh went to jail in its cause. While in jail, he was elected president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and from that point on until 1962, except for short periods, he retained control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and equally of the Shiromani Akail Dal either directly or through a trusted nominee. The Akah Dal under Tara Singh's leadership remained the most vociferous and militant group in behalf of Sikh demands.

During the 1930's, Tara Singh led several agitations first against die British government and then against the government of the Unionist Party in the Punjab. Those against the British government centred around the management of Gurdwaras, the possession of the Shahidganj Gurdwara, and appropriate legislative representation for the Sikhs. The Akali agitation became especially acute at the time of the 1932 Communal Award which gave the Sikhs 19 per cent of the legislative seats and conceded, in effect, a statutory majority to the Muslims in the Punjab legislature. The agitations against the Unionist government were based on the assumption that, despite its secular protestations, the party was essentially a front for Muslim communal domination. As the demand for Pakistan gained popularity, Sikhs trusted Tara Singh to secure them immunity against the Muslim ambition of communal domination. The Akali Dal under his leadership put forth in 1943 the Azad Punjab (Free Punjab) scheme. This scheme essentially involved the reorganization of the Punjab's boundaries in order to give the Sikh community "the balance of power" by excluding Muslim-majority districts. As some Congress leaders seemed to have become resigned to the partition of India as a way of removing the Muslim barrier to independence, the Akali Dal was deeply perturbed and launched a vociferous condemnation of the Congress Party, widening further the breach between the two parties. Tara Singh and the Akali Dal now moved to demand an independent Sikh State : their position was that they were opposed to partition of India because it would split the Sikh community, but if there was going to be a partition then there should be an independent Sikh State. This was the stand taken by Tara Singh at the Simla Conference in 1945, and before the Cabinet Mission in 1946.

The Cabinet Mission's proposals were especially disturbing to the Akali Dal, for though no partition was envisaged the Sikhs were being placed under a Muslim majority. At a large meeting in Amritsar in June 1946, Tara Singh asked the panth "to prepare to die in the struggle ahead."Subsequently, on Congress Party's appeal, the Akali Dal accepted the Cabinet Mission's proposals and Baldev Singh became the Akali representative in the Interim government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. Sikh hopes of concessions from the Muslim League proved illusory, and these were soon shattered as Muslim-Sikh riots erupted. Tara Singh raised protest in Lahore on 3 March 1947 and shouted "Death to Pakistan." Severe communal disturbances followed, with the Sikhs a special target of Muslim rioters. In an environment of impending civil war, the Akali Dal agreed to the Mountbatten plan for partition of India.

Notwithstanding the terrible sacrifice visited upon Sikh refugees, the mass movement following the partition created a new demographic fact of a Sikh-majority area in the districts of the Punjab (India) close to West Pakistan. These districts were Punjabi-speaking as against the eastern districts which generally spoke Hindi or dialects of it. Tara Singh and the Akali Dal now centered their demands around this new social fact and pressed relentlessly for reorganization of the Punjab boundaries to create a Punjabi-speaking state (Punjabi Suba). Towards the achievement of this goal, Tara Singh and his party launched several agitations. With the Punjabi Suba slogan agitation in 1955, in which some 12,000 people were arrested, Tara Singh's political power rose to a new peak. Recognizing the extensive popular support in the Sikh community behind the Akali Dal, the government conceded in 1956 the formation of regional committees within the Punjab legislature. In I960, Tara Singh started another massive campaign against the government in which, according to official figures, 30,000 went to jail and, according to Akali reckoning 57,129. This agitation also marked the arrival on the Sikh political scene of a new leader, Sant Fateh Singh, who later wrested the Akali mantle from Tara Singh. Fateh Singh undertook a fast-unto-death in the cause of Punjabi Suba in December 1960, but was persuaded to give it up on the 22nd day. As the government stood firm in its opposition to Punjabi Suba, Tara. Singh himself undertook a fast-unto-death in 1961. The fast lasted 48 days. Under a verdict given by Panj Piare representing the authority of the panth, Master Tara Singh had to undergo penance and expiation for violation of the solemn oath taken before the fast. A major split occurred in the Akali ranks in the aftermath of the fast, with Fateh Singh setting up a rival Akali Dal in 1962. There followed the ouster of Tara. Singh's group from power in the Shiromanl Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and die bitter struggle between the two groups continued unabated. In early 1965, Fateh Singh's organization defeated the Tara Singh group in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee elections and thus, along with the power and patronage of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the torch of Akali leadership passed to Sant Fateh Singh as also the leadership of the Punjabi Suba movement.

Eventually, the government conceded Punjabi Suba in 1966. The Punjabi Suba demand had become synonymous with Master Tara Singh. When he died on 22 November 1967 he had had the satisfaction that his long-cherished dream had materialized, making the Sikhs the dominant political force in the state. With a large following in the Sikh panth, Tara Singh was the pre-eminent and most durable political leader of the Sikhs. He was as well a journalist and newspaper editor as also a writer of fiction and tracts. All these activities were, however, intimately lied with and subordinate to his politics. His leadership in the Sikh community was importantly and deeply involved in the key political concerns of the Sikhs and of the Punjab. Underneath his politics lay a stern and resolute philosophical position.

Tara Singh's philosophical position was that the Sikhs organized as the panth were a distinct community, that religion and politics were inseparably linked in Sikhism, and that a territorially based state under Sikh domination was inherent in the Sikh ideology. The impulse to Sikh political power was, indeed, the key dynamic behind Tara Singh's politics over nearly a half-century notwithstanding its many shifts. Loyalty and commitment to the panth constituted Tara Singh's entire political universe; he had little patience with other issues or concerns. He had travelled abroad, including Southeast Asia and England, but was opposed to most aspects of modernity, including movies and dance racitals. At schools and college, he had been called vatta or patthar (stone, rock) for his fearless participation in soccer and hockey; the same drive, persistence and courage characterized his political career. The fact is very interesting. While at school he was nicknamed patthar, he had not mentioned this name to anyone when he joined the college. Yet they discovered the name vatta, nearest equivalent to his school nickname.