Master Tara Singh and Partition of Punjab

The Man shaped Destiny of Sikhs carving out space for the community : Even before Congress took stand, the Sikhs decided to oppose Pakistan

Dr.Hari Desai Monday 10th April 2017 07:07 EDT

Sometimes history does injustice to individuals, institutions and even to communities. The Sikh community has undergone such tragic phases quite often. In 1857, during the mutiny or freedom struggle against the British in India, the Sikhs were considered to be on British side like most of the native rulers. One would forget to record that in 1846, the Sikhs were fighting the British. The same way a lapse of memory would occur while recording the history of Partition of British India. The Muslim League, headed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah at a convention in March 1940 at Lahore, passed the resolution demanding a separate Muslim State i.e. Pakistan. Both Congress and League never considered the Sikhs as a party till the Viceroy Lord Wavell invited Master Tara Singh as the sole spokesperson of Sikhs at the Simla Conference in 1946 !

Tara Singh(24 June 1885- 22 November 1967) of village Harial in District Rawalpindi was the son of a Hindu of the Malhotra caste. His original name was Nanak Chand Malhotra and was converted to Sikhism while at school, educated at Rawalpindi and then at the Khalsa College, Amritsar. After taking his degree in 1907, he took a diploma in teaching and became a teacher in the Khalsa High School, Lyallpur: the title ‘master’ has attached to his name ever since. By his sheer efforts, the Sikh and Hindu majority areas were separated from Punjab in 1947. It came to be known as East Punjab having capital at Simla. The Western Punjab has gone to Pakistan following Redcliff Commission verdict. With the merger of the Princely States, Patiala and East Punjab States Union(PEPSU), having capital at Patiala, took shape. The present Punjab, as a Sikh majority state, was carved out of PEPSU in November 1966.

The Sikhs were first to oppose the Pakistan Resolution in May 1940.The Congress waited till April 1942 to take a stand on the March 1940 resolution. In his book “Master Tara Singh and His Reminiscences”, the former Vice Chancellor and Historian Prithipal Singh Kapur highlights that it was Tara Singh’s determination that made Sikhs a third –major community during the partition. Even for Jinnah none mattered other than Hindus and Muslims. The Akali Dal and the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabanthak Committee(SGPC)convened a congregation in May 1940 at the Akal Takht to celebrate the Ghalughara day where the Sikhs took pledge to oppose the idea of creating Pakistan. For Tara Singh, Pakistan meant a threat to the very survival of the Sikh community despite the assurance of Jinnah that they had nothing to fear. Khushwant Singh in “A History of Sikhs” finds Sikhs 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.”

In the spring of 1946, Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, announced that a team of cabinet ministers would visit India to discuss the next step towards Indian independence. Following the announcement, the Cabinet Mission consisting of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander reached New Delhi. The Indian leaders were interviewed by the Mission. The Sikhs were represented by Master Tara Singh, Gyani Karatar Singh, Harnam Singh and Baldev Singh. The Sikh delegation was united in its opposition to Pakistan. Tara Singh made it clear : “We are for a United India; but if Pakistan was conceded, I am for a separate Sikh state with the right to federate either with India or Pakistan.” Baldev Singh defined the Sikh state, Khalistan, as consisting of the Punjab excluding Multan and Rawalpindi divisions, according to Khushwant. Of course, the Mission did not take the demand of Sikhistan, Azad Punjab or Khalistan, seriously. Even Jinnah continued to send feelers to Sikh leaders of their bright future in Pakistan but Tara Singh and his supporters could read the mischievous design of the Muslim Leaguers.

The Viceroy invited the Congress party to form a government in the hope that it would win over the League. The Congress failed to win over Jinnah but succeeded in persuading the Sikhs to give up their opposition. Nehru had committed a semi-autonomous province in Punjab for Sikhs but later he ditched Tara Singh. In the following years, Nehru decided to give crushing defeat to the Master and thereby degrade him among the Sikhs.
 On 2 September 1946, Nehru cabinet was sworn in with Baldev Singh holding Defence Portfolio. When the League called off the boycott, even the League members except Jinnah joined the cabinet in October 1946. Meanwhile, Jinnah was desperate to have Pakistan and called for Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946. During those four or five days, Kolkata faced the worst communal riots. The official estimate of casualties in these few days was 5000 killed, 15, 000 injured, and 1,00,000 rendered homeless.

One of the basic factors which nourished the idea of partition of Punjab was the fact that the Muslims were predominant in the Western Punjab and the non-Muslims in the Eastern. Lala Lajpat Rai was the first person to talk about partition of Punjab after Kohat riots in 1923 and 1924. Historian Kapur records : “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". … But the fury of the Muslims against Tara Singh was so intense that his house in his ancestral village, Harial, in Rawalpindi district was burnt down and 59 of his relations were hacked to death. That was the price paid by Tara Singh for demanding partition of the Punjab.” Four days after the Punjab Assembly incident, the All India Congress Committee(AICC) passed a resolution demanding partition of the Punjab.

When the Punjab Legislative Assembly was convened, all the Muslim members of the Assembly voted against the partition of Punjab while all Sikhs and Hindus voted for partition of the province. With the partition of Punjab, his dream that “Muslim League would never be allowed to rule over Punjab”, was fulfilled but the Partition of the country brought more tragedies to deal with. Even in free India, he had to undergo humiliations but like Lord Shiva he could drink off the poison for the sake of his brave and enterprising community. Unfortunately, his wish to die in his native was not fulfilled.

Next Column : Merger of a Hindu State Amarkot with Pak

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