ZAIL SIṄGH, GIĀNĪ (1916-1994), the first Punjabi to become President of the Republic of India, was born on 5 May 1916, the son of Bhāī Kishan Siṅgh and Māī Ind Kaur, a Rāmgaṛhīā couple of a small village, Sandhvāṅ, near Koṭ Kapūrā, in the princely state of Farīdkoṭ. Kishan Siṅgh was the village carpenter. Additionally, he had his own small acreage to till. He was a devout Sikh and was known in the countryside for his simple and upright manner.
Youngest of the five brothers and a sister, Zail Siṅgh lost his mother in his early childhood. He was brought up by his mother's sister, Dayā Kaur. He had had little formal education, but he had inherited the family's broad interest in religious learning and gained easy fluency in reading the holy book, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. He acquired a fairly wide knowledge of Sikh doctrine and history. He was accepted for admission to the Shahīd Sikh Missionary College at Amritsar, without fulfilling the minimum entry condition of a matriculation. What impressed the admission committee most was his flair for public speaking.
A course in religious training he had gone through at college won him the epithet of 'Giānī', one learned in the religious lore. This epithet stuck to him for the rest of his life. He possessed a high level of intelligence and had a natural insight into the minds of men and their motivations which remained his most precious asset. He grew into the mastery of public speaking and could easily throw spells on his audiences. He could mix with uncanny facility couplets of Urdu verse with his fluent Punjabi. Snatches of Urdu poetry entered effortlessly into his Punjabi oratory. Easily spoken passages of Punjabi prose, somewhat rugged in the beginning, tended to smoothen out at the edges with the passage of time. As a student of the Missionary College, he had the opportunity of further polishing his Punjabi speech and of shedding the more colloquial aspects of it. He had a subtle sense of fun. His stay at the Missionary College was short and he was called away to a still more direct participation in public affairs.
His native Farīdkoṭ was a small unit politically and geographically peaceful and quiet. Its ruler, Rājā Harindar Siṅgh was a colourful personality. He was full of energy and ambition. One of his aims was to open the doors of modern progress for his state and have it counted among the more progressive territories of the region. He had a network of roads laid out. He opened schools and colleges everywhere, even in the tiniest of hamlets. Every village lit by night by a cherāg or lamp had a school to its name.
By his friendly and engaging personal manner Rājā Harindar Siṅgh had made friends with the common people. There was not a village in which he did not know personally some of the inhabitants and in which he could not address them by their first names. He was an easy mixer and could climb down to speak with them in their own idiom. As political awakening burst forth on a sleepy countryside sharply divided confrontationist alignments appeared on the horizon. As the year of Indian independence, 1947, drew closer, the confrontationist's writ ran freely. This brought the Indian leader, Jawāharlāl Nehrū, to the tiny town of Farīdkoṭ. There took place a very civil dialogue between him and the Rājā. But the entente proved very shortlived. There erupted a storm. The Rājā had to go to neighbourly Mālerkoṭlā to fulfil a long-standing engagement. During his absence from the city a parallel government was formed by the people in revolt. A young leader, Gurbakhsh Siṅgh of the village of Chahil was named prime minister of the new government. Another local public man, Paṇḍit Amar Nāth was designated home minister, Paṇḍit Chetan Dev, rehabilitation minister and Jathedār Jaṅgā Siṅgh defence minister. There were some of the officials of Farīdkoṭ government joining them, notably, Ūdham Siṅgh who was a judicial officer and Bakhtāvar Siṅgh a police boss.
When the Rājā returned to Farīdkoṭ in the evening he found the demonstrators in occupation of the civil secretariat. He was in a rage. He had a group of demonstrators lie down prostrate on the ground in the palace lawns and beaten up mercilessly with lāṭhīs. He gleefully jumped around over their bodies roaring revenge for their temerity. Outside the palace grounds the victims were dragged along behind running jeeps. A weired stillness had fallen upon the city broken by the screams of the victims under the lash of the ruler. Panting and huffing, the Rājā walked into one of the waiting rooms inside the palace. He immediately dictated a cable to be sent to Sardār Paṭel, India's deputy prime minister. He poured out into his message all the pent-up anger of his heart.
Giānī Zail Siṅgh had been the principal architect of the movement and the main force behind it. He had given up his position as a preacher of Sikhism which he had occupied for nearly five years. He returned to his Farīdkoṭ from Gurdwārā Garnā Sāhib near Uṛmūṛ Tāṇdā, in the Doābā area. The main brunt of the Rājā's spite fell on him. He faced the bludgeon without a wince. The local merchant needed someone to lead the struggle. Giānī Zail Siṅgh bold and honest, was their perfect answer. Giānī Zail Siṅgh was able to strengthen his hold by the support he received from the urbanite classes. By their unstinted support, Giānī Zail Siṅgh was able to broaden the base of his struggle and impart to it the character of a mass upsurge.
Freedom lay at India's doorstep. It now needed for political leaders to talk matters over. Once the decision had been taken to divide the country into Hindu and non-Hindu India, another knotty problem awaiting solution was putting the political jigsaw into some kind of a demographic order. More than 600 of the princely states of many different climes, hues and sizes, the armies of some of whom consisted of but a few lāṭhī-bearing men, whose "commander-in-chief" was a grandee, claiming no more than rupees five as his monthly salary. Out of this chaos men like Jawāharlāl Nehrū and Sardār Paṭel by their genius for planning and leadership created a new India. Viable political and geographical units appeared all over the gigantic Indian jungle. The word PEPSU, short for Paṭiālā and East Punjab States Union, marked a conglomerate of mainly of the Punjab Sikh states ---Paṭiālā, Jīnd, Nābhā, Kapūrthalā, Farīdkoṭ, and Kalsīā and two others, Nālāgaṛh and Mālerkoṭlā. These states merged their identity into the new political and geographical unit which had come into being. This new state comprised a total area of 10,099 sq miles, with a population of 34,24,060. The annual revenue of the state was a little over 5 crore rupees.
Giānī Zail Siṅgh had emerged from one of the smaller units. He was more earth-bound and practical. He was dedicated and single-minded with limitless powers of concentration in free India talent was the arbiter. Giānī Zail Siṅgh traversed many a long mile, and he ended up by coming out at the very top. In 1949 when a non-party government was established in PEPSU with Giān Siṅgh Rāṛevālā of Paṭiālā as chief minister, Giānī Zail Siṅgh was called upon to join as revenue minister. In the Congress Government formed on 23 May 1951, he became agriculture minister. From 1956 to 1962, he served as a member of parliament (Rājya Sabhā). In the general elections of 1972, he became chief minister of the Punjab. In the 1980 general elections Giānī Zail Siṅgh was elected a member of the Lok Sabhā and was picked on 14 January 1980 to join Indirā Gāndhī's cabinet as minister for home affairs. Upon the retirement in 1982, of Sanjīvā Reddy, as the President of India, Giānī Zail Siṅgh was unanimously chosen by the Congress party as its nominee for the office then fallen vacant. Giānī Zail Siṅgh won almost by a unanimous vote of the nation. Even the dissident parties such as Akālīs in the Punjab and Communists in West Bengal supported him.
The presidency brought in its train a bundle of problems and challenges. The worst came when Giānī Zail Siṅgh was charged a tankhāhiā (liable to religious punishment) following the army action within the Darbār Sāhib precincts. He presented himself before the Sikh clergy to seek atonement. He told the group that as constitutional head he had no active role in ordering the Indian army into the Golden Temple premises. His explanation was accepted and he was exonerated.
Tensions arose after the installation of his own nominee for prime minister of India had taken office. In the long-winded controversies which ensued upon Rājīv Gāndhī taking over as Prime Minister, he exhibited his true mettle and stamina, his disadvantages of education notwithstanding. There came moments when he could have crushed Rājīv, but he desisted against his own good judgement and against the good advice proferred by many.
Whenever Giānī Zail Siṅgh was in the Punjab or close to it he scarcely ever missed chance of paying obeisance at Srī Kesgaṛh Sāhib shrine. On one such pilgrimage on 29 November 1994, his car met with a very serious mishap. He was taken to the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGI) in Chaṇḍīgaṛh where waging the last mighty struggle of his life he died on 25 December 1994.
In Giānī Zail Siṅgh's death the country lost a leader whose sense of timing and earthly commonsense had shaped many an event in Chaṇḍīgaṛh and in Delhi. A shrewd person, he knew his political arithmetic and was well-informed about current and undercurrents in the Punjab. He directed his moves accordingly. Both as Chief Minister and later in his capacity as the Union Home Minister and President of India, he virtually set the tone for Punjab with the objective of making the Akālīs irrelevant to the state politics. In his bid to outdistance the Akālīs in the highly competitive game which was partly political and partly religious, he, more often than not, played with fire. At one stage, it was presumed and rightly so--- that the Bhiṇḍrāṅvāle factor was part of his game plan to promote his political goals. Since he had the "ears" of Indirā Gāndhī during those days, it was somewhat easier for him to pursue his own brand of politics. His troubles began in the wake of assassination of Indirā Gāndhī and with the coming into power of Rājīv Gāndhī. That the two did not get along well with each other was clear from several events and non-events. The Giānī would not dismiss Rājīv Gāndhī's government because of his old time loyalty to the Nehrū Gāndhī family, though he was keen to teach him a lesson or two for undermining his role and crippling his style of functioning at Rāshṭrapatī Bhavan. In fact, Zail Siṅgh's total loyalty and commitment to the family contributed to a large extent to his progress from a mud house to the Rāshṭrapatī Bhavan. Only in a democratic India was such a meteoric phenomenon possible. A pragmatic person, the Giānī was rooted in the earth with his eyes constantly fixed on the Punjab, which was his total passion. He always thought that he knew his Punjab and its people and that nobody should deny him his role therein.
Giānī Zail Siṅgh did contribute to the shaping of the history of modern Punjab. He also played a role in directing certain critical matters at the national level. What made him stand out was his basic sharpness. He conducted himself with dignity and with a touch of class which was remarkable for one who had had an humble origin. He was always meticulously dressed with the red rose bud in his buttonhole in the Nehrūvīān style. His lack of sophistication was more than made up by his disarming smile and natural courtesies. He was warm and humane and applied his soft touches to all those who interacted with him on various occasions and for various purposes. Giānī Zail Siṅgh's life was, in fact, the success story of a common man who had rubbed shoulders with men of letters as well as of wealth. This is in itself a tribute to the man who, in his own way, stirred the state for years and created waves in New Delhi.
The emergence of Giānī Zail Siṅgh as a charismatic and most civil political leader is a phenomenon which will have to be finally explained in terms of interaction between him and the Rājā of Farīdkoṭ. They were both very strong persons, highly intelligent and sensitive. And their relationship was governed by an attitude of mutual rejection and acceptance. In his childhood, Giānī Zail Siṅgh, whose village lay fewer than five miles from the city of Farīdkoṭ, must have been fed on stories of the splendour of the Farīdkoṭ Palace and he must have dreamt certain dreams. He rode to the fulfilment of the sweetest of them when in the summer of 1982 he entered the portals of the Presidential Palace of New Delhi.