" Ask anyone what kind of character I have"
As head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) Gurcharan Singh Tohra controls 300 Gurdwaras with a total budget running into several crores. He is also the only Akali leader in the present leadership who has never been a minister in any government. In this free wheeling interview the Jathedar talks about reform in the SGPC, Operation Bluestar, his stand on Khalistan and ends with a very important message to Sikhs abroad. The interview will be carried over a period of three weeks.
by Jagpal S. Tiwana
December 17,1993, was a nice sunny day. I was on the roof of my ancestral home at my village Chinarthal Kalan, Punjab, enjoying the warmth of the sun against my skin shriveled by some twenty four Canadian winters. Suddenly I saw vehicles and police jeeps moving along the road going to Tohra, a village about a mile west to my village. On inquiring, I learnt that the Punjab Chief Minister, Beant Singh, was holding a rally of Youth Congress workers against Mr. G. S. Tohra, president of the SGPC in his village.
I asked Parampal Singh, Sarpanch of Chinarthal, if people from his village were joining the rally. "Absolutely not", said the forthright Sarpanch, "l am not an Akali, but we will not let an outsider insult our Bazurg (grand old man). We have great regard for Pradhan Sahib (as the SGPC President is popularly known in the area)."
An elderly villager, Mohinder Singh, interjected, "This is a cowardly act. First they have put Pradhan Sahib and the Sarpanch of Tohra in jail and now they are holding this rally in their absence by bringing loads of people from outside".
The next day the daily Tribune had a headline on its front page -'Village Panchayats Boycott Congress Rally'. I learnt that none of the Panchayats of the neighboring villages participated in the rally.
This regard for G.S. Tohra created a desire in me to interview Mr. Tohra, the man who has been in the centre of Sikh politics for the last two decades.
To catch Mr. Tohra in his village you have to get up before 6 am, quite a task if you are on vacation. We made it to his house at about 6.30 am.
You give a soft knock at the door to his living room. His gunman, a stout robust man in his late forties, opens the door slightly and gives you a cold steady searching look and then lets you in without a smile.
The living room was about 12x15 feet with a very ordinary furniture. On the wall on the left is a big portrait of Sant Bhindranwale and Mr. Tohra, standing shoulder to shoulder. On the right wall is a huge picture of Guru Gobind Singh and in the middle there are three pictures of the Golden Temple in various sizes. On the mantle piece, there is Pasnama, an address in Urdu presented to him by Al India Muslim Students Federation and a small picture of his wife.
As soon as you settle down, you are presented with half a glass of tea loaded with sugar. More people trickle in and are served with tea. All have the same taste for sugar in their tea. At about 6:40am the illustrious Jathedar appears from behind a screen unannounced. Suddenly there is a pin drop silence in the room. Everybody gets up respectfully and rushes to touch his feet. In his blue turban matched by a blue vest with white flowing beard, and white kurta pajama, he looks very handsome and imposing. My impression that he has a penchant for neat and clean clothes is confirmed.
He has a casual look at his audience and recognizes a Jathedar "Jathedar ji, how are you? Why don't you come here." The Jathedar, suitably flattered, giggles and moves to sit by his side and once again bows down to touch his feet. He pulls out a sheaf of papers from his pocket and whispers something in to Mr. Tohra's ear. Mr. Tohra gets up and takes him to a small private room which has no doors. Everything they discuss can be heard by all the visitors in the room.
Mr. Tohra disposes off a few more people before my turn comes. I introduce myself and express a desire for an interview. Mr. Tohra thinks for a moment and says he has a very busy schedule in the coming days. I throw in a solution, "If it is not inconvenient to you, I can go with you to Amritsar and ask questions on the way." He agrees and I start the journey in his car on the morning of Jan. 11, 1994.
About 300. A dozen historic Gurdwaras are in our direct control, while the rest we supervise.
All the income, expenditure and management of the historic Gurdwaras are in the hands of the SGPC, while from the other Gurdwaras we get only 10% of their income. The local committees manage their affairs.
The historic Gurdwaras which are under our direct control have a budget of about Rs.5 crores (Rs.50 million, or approximately $2.5 million), but if we include all the income of other Gurdwaras, it comes to about Rs.37 crores. But here we have a limitation. We have to spend 90% of their income on the local needs of those Gurdwaras.
Part of it is spent on the maintenance of Gurdwaras, new construction, dharam prachar, donations and awards and part on running langar (free kitchens), salary of employees and on educational institutions.
We have one dental college, one medical college, two engineering colleges, several degree colleges, three missionary schools, and several high schools. We also run a hospital in the name of the fourth master, Guru Ram Das ji.
The house consists of 160 members, 140 elected directly, 15 co-opted and 5 ex-officio jathedars of the five Takhts. Elections to this body should be held every five years, but no elections have taken place since 1979. As several members have died, some are too old to function and a few have settled abroad. There are only 101 active members left in the house now.
You have been the President of the SGPC for the last 20 years except for a couple of years. The election to the executive is held every year. How do you manage that?
The SGPC house is my extended family. They (members) respect me and I treat them with courtesy and affection. Most of them have been with me in jails in various morchas. They respect me for my honesty, integrity and loyalty to the party. Ask anyone what kind of character I have and how much personal property did I acquire over the years? Moreover I have always been nominated by the party president. Whenever I left, it was the party president who persuaded me back.
In 1986, when Surjit Singh Banala was the Chief Minister and President of the Longowal Akali Dal I resigned as President of the SGPC. Next year, it was our President, Prakash Singh Badal, who persuaded me to contest the election.
Not directly, but he was giving hints. Let me tell you a small story. When Barnala became Chief Minister in 1985, he also became the Akali Dal President after Sant Longowal's death. In the first year he wanted me to continue as President of the SGPC, but he wanted to select my executive for me. He wanted to control me that way. I accepted his nominees. But later when I sensed that he wanted to get rid of me, I resigned. But my resignation was rejected by the same SGPC executive which was selected by him. Eight out of ten members voted against accepting the resignation. Finally I persuaded them to accept it.
The second of a three part interview.
by Jagpal S. Tiwana
When you have an absolute majority in this house of the SGPC, why are you demanding new election?
I am never afraid of going lo the masses. Last elections were held some 15 years back. Let us have a fresh mandate. Even if I don't get a majority in the new house, that is no problem. When the election to the present house was held in 1979, Talwandi was the President of Akali Dal and Badal was the Chief Minister. They both picked up most of the candidates from their own people. I got a very small number of seats for my men. Now the complexion of the house has totally changed. Only a couple of years back, Talwandi himself challenged me in the annual executive election. He could not muster more than four votes and withdrew. If you are sincere and have the good of the community in mind, people follow you
Prakash Singh Badal. Even in 1985 if I had my say I would have chosen S. Prakash Singh.
That government was brought down by Barnala's own misdeeds. He sent a police force in the Golden Temple and thus violated the sanctity of the holy place.
That accord was signed not to meet the legitimate demands of the Sikhs. It was signed to divide the Sikhs. When the centre picked up Barnala over Parkash Singh, they knew they were sowing the seeds of dissension in the party.
We only agreed to give it a try in the interest of unity in the party.
Then why did not Badal join the government, while your faction got more than its share in the ministry.
Badal had agreed to join as number two in the cabinet, but here again Barnala wanted Balwant Singh. Badal even suggested that let the cabinet list be prepared in the alphabetical order, but he was over ruled. They were bent on humiliating Badal.
The attack on the Golden Temple in June 1984. Those were the most difficult days for me. After the attack, they took me out of the Golden Temple and locked me in Jodhpur jail all alone. For the first few months I even did not have access to radio or newspapers. I learnt about the death of Indira Gandhi after 16 days. The government was planning to dissolve the SGPC and replace it with a board. The government's men exerted pressure on me to resign as President of the SGPC and I told them I could not do so without consulting my colleagues. They made repeated efforts to break me, but failed. Faith in Dashmesh pita (Guru Gobind Singh) kept me going.
It was reported in a section of the press that you and Sant Longowal surrendered to the Indians troops with raised hands during Operation Bluestar.
Wrong, all false propaganda. You surrender if you are fighting with guns. We never had guns. We were captured from my office at the SGPC at about 4 o'clock on the morning of June 6,1984.
Mad like hell. I share with you a couple of incidents. After capturing us from my office, they locked us in a room in the Guru Ram Das Sarai. I spotted a Hindu soldier puffing at a cigarette. I shouted at him, "You cannot smoke here. It is a holy place of the Sikhs." He replied, "This is no more a holy place now, O Buddhe(old man). Look, there are dead bodies and bloodshed all around". In the meantime a colonel appeared there. He tapped him on his head and stopped him smoking.
Here is another incident. l and Sant Harchand Singh were put in a plane after we had been taken out of the Golden Temple. A Sikh Deputy Superintendent of Police came, sat down on our feet and started crying. "Look, Sir, what a great tragedy has happened, Akal Takht has been demolished, thousands of Sikhs have been killed". We were touched by his remorse. Then he said, "Worse has yet to come, why don't you apologize to Indira Gandhi and save the community".
I reacted sharply to his cowardly suggestion, "Look, O Sardara," I put my finger in his collar and pulled him up, "Don't you dare suggest that. Akal Takht has not been demolished for the first time. Abdali had done it before . The Sikhs built it again and we are going to do so now too. Better you worry about the safety of Indira Gandhi now." Later we learnt that he was planted by the Indian intelligence.
Is it true that in your last round of talks in Delhi, you had assured Indira Gandhi that if she conceded to the Akali demands and appointed you as the chief minister of the state, you could persuade Sant Bhindranwale to call off the morcha and leave Akal Takht? Did she agree to it?
All propaganda by my 'friends' to defame me. We three - Badal, Barnala and I - were taken to Delhi on May 26,1984 on a special plane from Chandigarh. We had a thorough discussion on the Punjab situation with three cabinet ministers, Pranab Mukherji, Venkatraman, and Shiv Shankar on May 27. The cabinet secretaries, P.C. Alexander and Krishna Rao were also present there. We assured them that if the Government accepted the following five demands, we would guarantee peace in Punjab.
1. Chandigarh should be made capital of Punjab.
2. Anandpur resolution should be referred to a Commission.
3.The Rivers water dispute should be referred to the Supreme Court.
4. A linguistic commission should be set up to determine the Punjabi speaking areas in Haryana and those should then be handed over to Punjab.
5. Punjabi should be declared as a second official language in the neighboring states.
Then the central ministers asked if Sant Bhindranwale would approve of this settlement. We assured them that we would be able to persuade him.
After this the three ministers went to see the Prime Minister, When they came back they said, "Sorry gentlemen. Madam does not agree". Here the final negotiations broke down.
Keep the Form of the Khalsa Bestowed by the 10th Guru
The third of a three part Interview by Jagpal S. Tiwana
Col. Partap Singh Gill, former Governor of Goa, in an article in the Punjabi Tribune of Nov. 28,1993, alleged that all prime ministers of India hated you most as compared to other Sikh leaders. Why ?
By writing this he wants himself to be favorite son of the centre. When I talk to the central leaders I talk as President of the SGPC, the most prestigious body of the Sikhs. I go there as a representative of the brave and virile people. I talk to them on equal footing, eye ball to eye ball. I do not go there like Zail Singh and Buta Singh with turbans in their hands. If they don't like me, I don't care, but I cannot lower the prestige of the Sikh community.
Col. Gill says you have been following a policy of confrontation and hence did not get anything from the centre. Jathedar Santokh Singh of Delhi, on the other hand, had a conciliatory approach and got so many things for the Sikhs.
1 strongly feel that the Sikhs should demand their rights as equals, not as beggars. Santokh Singh and the like followed the same ji hazoori (supplicating) policy which the Chief Khalsa Dewan leadership had towards the British in the beginning of the 20th century. The Shiromani Akali Dal was founded in 1920 as a kind of protest against the weak kneed approach of the Chief Khalsa Dewan. My party produced such strong men of steel like Baba Kharak Singh and Master Tara Singh who would break, but would not bend. If the Sikhs want to live in India with self respect, they must not forget their traditions and history.
There is a general impression that the Sikh leaders can be easily bought by the centre.
Some of the Sikh leaders have shown weaknesses for offices. Hukam Singh, Swaran Singh, Buta Singh etc., all started their careers as Akalis, but once they got offices in the government, they forgot Sikh interests. The latest example is of Barnala. But then we have had such solid leaders, stalwarts, like Sant Bhindranwale, Kharak Singh, Tara Singh, Fateh Singh who stood firm under all trying circumstances. Self praise is no recommendation, but I may tell you here that I myself had many offers from those in power to further my political career, but never fell to temptations. During the Dharam Yudh Morcha, Buta Singh and R.L. Bhatia made repeated attempts to get me to meet Indira Gandhi alone, but I firmly declined the offers. I said I could only see her with my other colleagues with the approval of Sant Longowal, the party president.
Don't you think the Sikhs have suffered terribly all around in the last decade and achieved nothing?
This is a small phase in the glorious Sikh history of sacrifices and suffering. We suffered a lot in the 18th century under the Muslim invader Ahmed Shah Abdali. 20,000 Sikhs were killed in the Wada Ghalughara (the great massacre) in 1762. Ultimately we came out victorious at the turn of 18th century. I am optimistic.
When there are several Akali Dals working against each other, how can you achieve anything?
I have proposed that let us dissolve all Akali Dals, recruit new members and hold fresh elections under an eleven member ad hoc committee.
It is being considered. We have to get united, it is for sure.
Do you support the demand for Khalistan?
My party stands by the Anandpur Resolution, presented by me in the Akali Conference at Ludhiana in 1978.
What do you think of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale?
He was a devout Gursikh. He was the greatest Sikh missionary of the 20th century. I had cordial relations with him till his death.
If you were so close to Sant Bhindranwale, how come his followers sprayed bullets at your car to kill you.
They were not Sant Bhindranwale's men. They were trained and controlled by the ISI, the Pakistan's intelligence.
The ISI wanted to wipe out all the traditional Akali leadership which stood by the Anandpur Resolution. They created and supported elements which would fight for Khalistan. Besides me, they attacked Sant Longowal, Talwandi, Balwant Singh, Badal, Bhai Shaminder Singh, Jathedar Khudian and many others.
There are scores of books on the operation Bluestar. Most of them are critical of you.
None of their authors interviewed me. Mark Tully spoke to me only for a minute. I had such a responsible position in the whole situation, they should have at least talked to me. I complained of this to Kuldip Nayyar in a public speech at Ludhiana last December when he came there to participate in the anniversary celebrations of Maharaja Daleep Singh. Mr. Nayyar was gracious enough to realize his mistake and promised to give my version in his next book.
Kartarpuri Bir, believed to be compiled by Guru Arjan Devji, is a valuable treasure of the Sikh community. Why don't the SGPC take its possession from the Kartarpur Sodhi family?
Yes, we are considering this. We will first try to get a microfilm copy of the Bir.
You have gone through extreme pressures in the last decade, but still you are in excellent health. What is the secret of it?
Recitation of Gurbani and a guilt free mind.
Any message to the Sikhs abroad?
Keep the form of the Khalsa bestowed by the tenth Guru and stay in touch with Amritsar.
During the journey to Amritsar and back, Mr. Tohra did not stop talking. Facts, figures, dates and incidents came rolling out of his mind like a fountain. Though he is about seventy years old, his mind is very alert and his memory amazing.