Master Tara Singh: Punjab’s Forgotten Hero
The Partition of India is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Sikhs, marked by the horrors that accompanied the division of the subcontinent into two nations, India and Pakistan. This epoch-making event cleaved two Indian provinces down the middle, Punjab and Bengal, and triggered violence, bloodshed and massive loss of life among the Sikh community.
Advocating for the Sikhs – initially opposing Partition tooth and nail and later guiding his people through the painful process when it became inevitable – was a fearless leader, ‘Master’ Tara Singh. He was also a founder of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), the body that controls the Sikh gurdwaras, and was also instrumental in the creation of the Akali Dal, one of Punjab’s most prominent political parties. His tireless efforts to protect the Sikh community’s interests saw him play a pivotal role in the creation of the linguistic state of Punjab in the 1960s. Sadly, Tara Singh’s legacy and role in Punjab’s history is almost forgotten.
Tara Singh was born on 24th June 1885 in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), into a Hindu family. Influenced by the teachings of Sikhism, he converted to a Sikh at the age of 12 by Sant Attar Singh. He graduated from Amritsar’s famous Khalsa College in 1907, and after receiving a diploma in teaching, joined the newly opened Khalsa High School in Lyallapur as a headmaster.
His spirit of service was evident early, and he would give Rs 135 of his monthly salary of Rs 150 to the school treasury towards the betterment of the school. Due to his valuable contribution as a teacher, he was nicknamed ‘Master’, a sobriquet that stuck for the rest of his life. But being a headmaster was only the beginning of his journey. Tara Singh was destined to serve his community in a much more powerful way.
By the 1920s, Punjab was in turmoil. The shortages due to World War I, political repression by the British and the infamous Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar had shaken the core of Punjabi society. During this time, the gurdwaras in Punjab, including the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, were controlled by the Udasi Mahants, a sect of Sikhism, who faced numerous allegations of excesses and corruption. This led to a sustained campaign of social reforms known as the ‘Akali Movement’ or the ‘Gurdwara Reform Movement’.
After years of struggle and numerous campaigns, the SGPC was formed in Amritsar, on 15th November 1920. This was followed by the formation of the Shiromani Akali Dal on 14th December 1920, as the former’s task force. Tara Singh was one of the founder members of the SGPC, whose reforms campaign culminated in the Gurdwara Act of 1925. This legislation made the SGPC the sole controlling authority of the Sikh gurdwaras, a position it holds even today.
In 1921, after the infamous Nankana Sahib massacre where the Udasis ordered firing on the Akali protestors, an agitated Tara Singh left his teaching job and became a full-time SGPC worker where he started working not only as an activist but journalist as well. The Akali agitation of the 1920s propelled Tara Singh from a journalist to one of the most prominent voices of the Sikh community in Punjab where his works in Punjabi amassed huge support for the cause. He worked closely with prominent national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to fight for India’s independence. He also had close links with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.
In his work, The Sikh-Dr Ambedkar Connection (2017), columnist Prabhdial Singh Saini says that Dr BR Ambedkar was strongly influenced by Sikhism due its casteless nature and both men shared the same desire to eradicate the social ills and reform as well as educating the society. The SGPC, under Tara Singh, took the initiative to open an institution for the ‘depressed classes’ in Mumbai, through the teachings of Sikhism. Thus, the Guru Nanak Khalsa College in Mumbai came into being in 1937.
Tara Singh also played a very important role in the events leading to the Partition of India in 1947. In March 1940, the Muslim League passed the Lahore Resolution (also termed as the Pakistan Resolution by some historians) in favour of creating a homeland for Muslims called ‘Pakistan’. In his book, Master Tara Singh And His Reminiscences (2015), historian Prithipal Singh Kapur claims that alarmed by this, the Sikhs along with the Akali Dal & SGPC under the leadership of Tara Singh on the occasion of Ghalughara Day in May 1940 took a pledge to oppose the idea of the creation, thus becoming the first to oppose it. In contrast, the Indian National Congress waited till April 1942 to take a stand on the resolution.
Tara Singh perceived the creation of Pakistan as a threat to the very survival of the Sikh community despite assurances from Mohammad Ali Jinnah that they had nothing to fear. In A History of Sikhs (1963) celebrated writer Khushwant Singh spoke about Sikhs being in a “tricky situation” since “they were faced with two rival freedom movements: one led by the National Congress for the freedom of the country as a whole; the other led by the Muslim League for an independent Muslim state, involving a division of the country which would inevitably cut across the land in which the Sikhs lived.” Tara Singh had understood the potential of the Congress government being a nationalist and secularist one, under whose dominion the future of Punjab would be secured.
In 1942, Tara Singh launched the ‘Azad Punjab’ movement along with Giani Kartar Singh, Joginder Singh, Mohan Singh and Ujjal Singh. He proposed that a new province of Punjab be created after delinking Muslim-dominated districts from it. Second, the new province should be constituted in such a way that no single community comprised a majority. It was a scheme that did not bear fruit but, by no means, was Tara Singh throwing in the towel.
In July 1944, for breaking the political deadlock in India, the “Rajaji-Gandhi” formula came up in order to resolve the differences between the Indian National Congress & the Muslim League. Despite being in good terms with the Akalis, the then Chief Minister of Punjab Khizr Hyat Khan was facing a dilemma when the Akalis demanded Azad Punjab, majorly for Sikhs in par with Pakistan and on the other hand, Jinnah suggested the change of his government’s name from ‘Unionist’ to ‘Muslim League Coalition Government’. Tara Singh claimed that the creation of the state was to protect the Sikh community’s interests and safeguard them from the pressure coming from the Muslims. The Hindu Maha Sabha seconded this demand. The formula, however, couldn’t go well with the Sikh leaders because this formula was doubling the support for the creation of Pakistan where the protection of Sikhs was nowhere mentioned.
Angered by Gandhi’s involvement in the failed formula, the Sikh leaders came into a meeting on 20th August 1944 at Amritsar where they unanimously denounced the former’s leadership, demanding their share in the political power.
It was here that Tara Singh emerged as the leading voice for the Sikh cause. According to the book Heritage of the Sikhs (1964) by Sardar Harbans Singh, Mohammad Ali Jinnah & Liaqat Ali Khan in the presence of Lord Mountbatten had invited the Sikh delegation headed by Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh & others to meet where Jinnah offered Tara Singh an independent Sikh state within Pakistan. Despite all attempts, Tara Singh refused to be tempted by the Muslim League offer.
In 1945, the British convened the Simla Conference, where the Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, met representatives of major political parties in India, to agree on a plan for Indian self-government. To ease political tensions in the country, Sikhs were given separate representation and Tara Singh was chosen as the leader of the community by Lord Wavell. In the conference, a new plan of executive members, a constitution and cabinet (except defence) was finalized. But the victory of Labour Party during the 1945 elections in the United Kingdom made the Conference a major failure.
In 1946, the Cabinet Mission having the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee & the State Secretary of India, Stafford Cripps interviewed the Indian leaders where Tara Singh cleared out his demand for a United India. But if Pakistan is created, then a separate Punjab state has to be made having its own choice of aligning itself with either India or Pakistan. During the elections held in the same year, the Akalis won 22 seats and Congress won 51. The Muslim League had won 75 seats, defeating the unionists under Khizr Hyat Khan miserably. The latter went on to create a coalition party with Congress & Akalis that angered the League. As an attempt to bring the Muslim League under its fold, Lord Wavell invited the Congress to form the government, where the latter had now succeeded in bringing the Sikhs under their confidence despite having failed to convince Jinnah. Desperate to have Pakistan, Jinnah called for Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946 when the riots broke out in Bengal, Bihar & Punjab, causing heavy damage to life and property.
The pressure further increasing by the Muslim League caused Khizr Hyat Khan to resign as the CM of Punjab on 3rd March 1947. The next day, as Historian Prithipal Singh Kapur records in his book, Master Tara Singh And His Reminiscences:
“The Akali Legislature Party met at Assembly Hall, Lahore, on March 4, 1947. When Tara Singh emerged from the assembly building followed by 23 Sikh legislators, the crowd shouted "Pakistan Zindabad". Tara Singh and his followers retaliated by chanting "Pakistan Murdabad".
Four days later, the All India Congress Committee passed a resolution that demanded the partition of Punjab but Tara Singh had already paid a huge price – rioters had massacred Hindus and Sikhs in his native region in Rawalpindi, including 59 of his own family members.
The original proposal of the Muslim League was to include all the provinces of Punjab and Bengal in Pakistan. It was at the behest of Tara Singh that prominent Bengali leaders like NC Chatterjee and SP Mookherjee led a campaign for the partition of Bengal, for the Indian side. The bond between the three men grew so strong that Chatterjee went on to become Tara Singh’s lawyer after Independence when he was persecuted by the Government of India for holding meetings and processions against the Congress for reminding the promises it had made for the creation of Punjab. Tara Singh is said to be the first man who was arrested in Free India.
Despite the effort to keep Punjab undivided, the plan for Partition went through. As riots broke out across the region, millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees poured into India from West Punjab in the newly formed Pakistani nation. With the great city of Lahore and the shrine of Nankana Sahib being lost to Pakistan, the Sikhs felt they needed a state of their own in India.
By the 1950s, there was a strong demand to create linguistic states across India and states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat were carved out. Sikh Historian S Ajmer Singh in his book Biswi Sadi Ki Sikh Rajneeti: Ek Ghulami Se Dusri Ghulami Tak (The Sikh Politics of the 20th Century: From One Slavery to Another), published in 2014, says that after Independence, Tara Singh raised a demand for the re-demarcation of the boundaries of Punjab on a linguistic basis. As things stood, post-Partition Punjab comprised around 60 per cent Hindus and 35 per cent Sikhs. For the next decade, he would carry out a series of agitations for a Punjab state on linguistic lines.
Eventually, on 7th September 1966, the Punjab Reorganisation Bill was passed and on 1st November 1966, the state of Punjab came into being along with Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The dream of Master Tara Singh had finally taken shape.
At the age of 82, the legendary Sikh leader passed away in Amritsar, on 22nd November 1967, after giving his community a new state and a new identity. On 21st August 2003, a portrait of Tara Singh was unveiled in Parliament House, a fitting tribute to a cause the great Sikh leader refused to give up.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yash Mishra is a Delhi-based writer with a passionate interest in cinema and Indian history.