OBITUARY: Zail Singh
Thursday 29 December 1994
Zail Singh, India's first Sikh president, never forgot his humble, backward-class origins as the country's first citizen.
As India's seventh president, after a stint as the first Sikh federal home minister Giani, as he was popularly known, drew upon his experiences as a tailor, carpenter, farm labourer and local priest to defuse grave political crises with rustic anecdotes,riddles and, at times, bawdy ditties.
But behind all the earthiness lay a shrewd and calculating political mind which provided tense moments to Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister when, under pressure from MPs, he almost dismissed Singh on charges of accepting kickbacks from an arms deal in the late Eighties.
At the last moment, Singh stepped back from taking the extreme step of settling scores with the boorish Gandhi, who had publicly insulted the office of president. Placing national interest above personal vendetta, Singh opted to ignore the prime minister's shortcomings and retired a short while later, remembered as India's most colourful and sartorially elegant president. He was also the most approachable and one who comprehended poverty.
Singh's five-year presidency was riddled with turbulence which not only affected him gravely but also changed the course of Indian history.
The first traumatic event was Operation Bluestar, when army troops attacked hundreds of armed Sikh separatists hiding inside the Golden Temple, Sikhism's Vatican, in the northern city of Amritsar in 1984. Led by a fundamentalist preacher, the separatists, demanding an independent Sikh homeland, declared war on the Indian state, leaving the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, no alternative but to mobilise the army.
Although he was supreme commander of India's armed forces, Singh's official humiliation was that he was not informed of the assault by Mrs Gandhi in which hundreds of innocent people also died. And, personally, as a Sikh he was aggrieved by the armed transgression of Sikhism's holiest shrine. His humiliation, however, was far from over and, on orders from Gandhi, he justified the attack on national television.
The Sikhs, who never believed or trusted Singh from the time he was Punjab's chief minister in the Seventies, became convinced of the president's complicity in the attack, leading to his excommunication by Sikh priests at the Golden Temple. Fervent pleasfor forgiveness were ignored and it was only recently, several years after he laid down office, that he made his peace at the Golden Temple and was restored to the faith.
Singh was still reeling under the shock of his excommunication when four months later over 5,000 Sikhs were killed in New Delhi in a pogrom lasting three days after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Mrs Gandhi. For three days he lived as a powerless head of state in the presidential palace, unable to mobilise the police and prevent rioting.
Even Rajiv Gandhi, whom he had sworn in as prime minister a few days earlier, had no time for Singh. For Singh this was the beginning of the confrontation with the prime minister and one which almost brought about a constitutional crisis.
During this clash, lasting almost a year, Singh was humiliated and openly mocked by Rajiv Gandhi. But he defied and resisted the prime minister whenever he could and his refusal to sign the Postal Bill which would have given the government unlimited freedom to intercept private mail put paid to any such legislation ever being proposed again. When news of Singh's proposals to dismiss Gandhi became known, loyal MPs launched a nasty campaign to vilify him, but the president's maturity prevailed and a compromise was executed.
Zail Singh was born in 1916 into a poor family in Sandhwan village in the northern Punjab state, then part of the erstwhile Faridkot state ruled over by a repressive maharaja. He was christened Jarnail or General Singh but, after spending years in the maharaja's jails for opposing his authoritarianism, he changed his name to Zail Singh.
On matriculating from the local village school he trained at the local gurdwara or Sikh temple to become a Granthi, a professional reader of the Holy Granth, Sikhism's Bible. This accomplishment earned him the title of Giani.
After Faridkot state was merged with Punjab, Singh joined the Congress party and entered state politics in the late Forties as a legislator. He became a Rajya Sabha (upper house) MP a decade later before returning to Punjab as a junior minister in 1962. After a stint as state opposition leader he became state chief minister in 1972, a post he held for five years.
His political career as a chief minister was marked by sycophancy, chicanery and ruthlessness. His undying loyalty to Indira Gandhi and her younger son Sanjay served him well, especially when the former, facing dismissal for electoral malpractices, imposed an internal emergency suspending civil liberties. Singh supported Mrs Gandhi whole-heartedly, earning the opprobrium of his political peers for his virtual enslavement to the Gandhis but political muscle from his mentors.
As a consequence, he failed to get elected in the polls which followed and for the next three years did little else but pay daily obeisance to Mrs Gandhi, also a political pariah. But when Gandhi returned to power in 1980 she made Singh home minister and, two years later, elevated him to president. Singh made no secret of his gratitude to Gandhi and, on his appointment, said that, even if Gandhi asked him to sweep her courtyard with a broom, he would do so willingly.
A warm, amusing and passionate man, Zail Singh never forgot his friends and supporters even as president. He could regale audiences with quotations from the Koran and Hindu scriptures and often related popular jokes centred around himself to his peers.
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