Obituary: Beant Singh

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When Beant Singh was sworn in as chief minister of the terrorism-ridden northern Indian state of Punjab three years ago, the odds of his surviving in office for more than a few weeks were slim. Punjab, India's most prosperous state, was in chaos. Well-armed Sikh separatists had been fighting for an independent homeland of Khalistan for nearly 12 years; over 17,000 people had died.

Sikh militants virtually ruled Punjab, killing at random across northern India and forcing millions of Hindus to flee the state. For the first time, armed guerrilla fighters had successfully assumed control of Punjab, overturning all notions of state authority. Their civil war had claimed the life of the prime minister Indira Gandhi, shot dead by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984, and they had bombed an Air India flight out of the sky off the Irish coast in 1986, killing over 350 people.

In February 1992, when Singh became chief minister, Punjab's daily death toll averaged 25, few ventured out after dark and the state resembled a military camp where militants regularly hijacked buses and trains with impunity, lining up and shooting hundreds of commuters. Successive governors, including one former army chief, were unable to control the situation and many Indians speculated whether the federal state of India was on the brink of dismemberment.

But 10 months after Singh's much-vilified and "lame duck" Congress government assumed office in 1992, Punjab was hurtling back to normality. With each successive month militancy was on the wane, terrorists on the run and the security forces once more assuming control. Singh's clear-headed approach and firm determination in ridding the state of terrorists proved to be his strength during his first two years in office. Ignoring human-rights activists and media criticism, he approached the scourge of terrorism with rural common sense and earthiness, refused militants an amnesty and fully backed the security forces in their "liberation" war. "I see my job as enforcing law and order," he said soon after assuming office. "Too many dangerous persons are carrying too many weapons. I have told the police to finish them and my government is with them."

Through a sustained campaign he robbed militancy of the glamour it had acquired among Punjab's Sikh youth, exposing militants as ruthless killers, little better than thugs who amassed wealth and indiscriminately raped women. He also changed a public perception that all Sikhs were terrorists or secessionists and resurrected an overall respect for Sikhs which had been lost after Indira Gandhi's assassination.

By the end of 1992, fun- loving Punjabis socialised after dark, schoolchildren discarded the uniform of Khalistan imposed upon them. In the countryside, farmers once more tended their fields after dark and dogs, so many of which had been killed after raising the alarm when militants sought sanctuary in farmhouses, could be heard barking once again. It was as if the 12 years of militancy had never been. A few months later Singh held peaceful polls for city and village councils, over a decade after militants had decreed that no elections were to be held, and he re-established the credibility of the Congress Party.

Singh then set about maintaining Punjab's position as one of India's richest states by boosting agriculture, inviting overseas collaboration in joint industrial ventures and persuading the federal government to write off 55 billion rupees (pounds 1bn) loaned to Punjab to fight terrorism.

Singh was born in 1922 into a farming Jat Sikh family in Bilaspor village, near the industrial town of Ludhiana, 200 miles north of Delhi. After graduating from Government College in Lahore (then in India), he had a brief stint in the army before joining the Congress Party. He was elected to Punjab's state assembly three times between 1972 and 1980, the year a Sikh fundamentalist preacher declared war on the Indian state in order to secure an independent homeland and Punjab's bloody saga began.

During the worst days of terrorism, when all party cadres had collapsed, Singh was one of the few Congress politicians who fought a rearguard action against militancy, visiting hundreds of homes affected by terrorist violence. "These visits to grief-stricken homes not only strengthen my resolve to fight the menace but convince me that this nonsense cannot last long," he said.

Singh finally got his chance in 1992 when state elections were announced and militants threatened to kill all candidates and voters. He rallied 115 congressmen in the Punjab assembly around him and, in one of India's most security- intensive elections, was elected, though the voter turnout was a paltry 22 per cent.

Ignoring criticism that he headed an unrepresentative government, Singh immediately got down to business and quietly achieved what many considered impossible, and ushered peace into Punjab. But Singh fell victim on Thursday evening to the very terrorists that he had in effect vanquished, when a bomb planted in his bullet-proof car exploded and he was killed. The Babbar Khalsa International, a Sikh separatist movement, claimed responsibility for his death.

Kuldip Singh

Beant Singh, politician: born Bilaspur, north India 19 February 1922; Chief Minister of Punjab 1992-95; died Chandigarh 31 August 1995.