Panth Rattan Shiri Gurcharan Singh Tohra (24 September 1924 – 1 April 2004) was a president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), a Sikh body in charge of controlling Gurdwara (Sikh places of worship). He died of a heart attack in New Delhi on 1 April 2004 at the age of 79.[1][2] He remained the head of the SGPC for a record 27 years, and was one of the most influential and controversial Sikh leaders of the 20th century.

Gurcharan Singh Tohra
Gurcharan Singh Tohra
President of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee
In office
6 June 1973 - 23 March 1986
Preceded byMohan Singh Tur
Succeeded byKabal Singh
In office
30 November 1986 - 20 November 1990
Preceded byKabal Singh
Succeeded byBaldev Singh Sibiya
In office
13 November 1991 - 16 March 1999
Preceded byBaldev Singh Sibiya
Succeeded byJagir Kaur
In office
27 July 2003 - 31 March 2004
Preceded byKirpal Singh Badungar
Succeeded byAlwinderpal Singh Pakhoke
Personal details
Gurcharan Singh Tohra

(1924-09-24)24 September 1924
Died1 April 2004(2004-04-01) (aged 79)
New Delhi, India
Political partyShiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) Shiromani Akali Dal
SpouseMrs Joginder Kaur

Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam described the Sikh leader as a "prominent political and social leader who was well known for his work during his many years in public life".

Sobriquets edit

During his lifetime and after his death, Gurcharan Singh Tohra was addressed by many sobriquets. It included Pope of the Sikhs, Pearl of the Panth,[3] Kingmaker, Pope, Messiah, Reformist, Conformist, Forever-Dissenter, Wily Fox, Wily Politician,[4] and Machiavelli. Followers often addressed him as Pardhanji (President) or Jathedar.

Punjab politics edit

He was born in September 1924 in the Punjabi village of Tohra. Even before India's partition, he was an active member of the Akali movement. He became General Secretary of the Patiala unit of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1947.

Tohra, a graduate in Punjabi from Lahore University, worked at the grass root level for the next two decades and came into contact with Communists, including CPI-M leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet though he did not become one himself.

Known as a hardliner, Tohra had carved out for himself the image of a non-conformist with the powers-that-be in Akali politics and had taken frontline SAD leaders Surjit Singh Barnala and Parkash Singh Badal who had headed Akali Dal governments in Punjab in the eighties and nineties. He was known for his own brand of politics.[5]

Tohra was a member of Lok Sabha in 1977–79 though earlier he was elected as a member of the Rajya Sabha five times from Punjab from 1969 to 1976 and re-elected in May 1980, April 1982, in April 1998 and in March 2004.

He played a huge role in Sikh political affairs in post partition India. Along with Parkash Singh Badal and Jagdev Singh Talwandi, he was regarded as the triumvirate of Sikh politics in Punjab. Unlike the other two, his main domain was the Sikh religious institution, the SGPC. Though he dabbled with electoral politics often, Tohra made his mark in Sikh religious affairs. He is credited with rebuilding the institution of the Akal Takhat.[6]

Early days edit

As an agriculturalist, Tohra was first jailed in 1945 during the Riyasti Praja Mandal Movement in Nabha, in 1950 for formation of popular government in PEPSU. In 1955 and 1960 Tohra was put behind bars in connection with Punjabi Suba agitations, in 1973 in connection with Kisan agitation in Haryana, in 1975, under MISA and under NSA and TADA and religious matters, including Dharam Yudh Morcha and Operation Blue Star (1984).

Tohra became the acting president of SGPC, which manages key Sikh shrines, in 1972 after the death of Sant Chanan Singh and was formally elected its president for the first time in November that year.

Tohra continued to head the SGPC, considered the mini-parliament of the Sikh community, for a record 27 years before he was unceremoniously removed from the key post following a split in SAD in the wake of his revolt against Badal's leadership.

Tohra was arrested during the Emergency and was very popular in Punjab until Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala emerged on the scene and militancy took over Sikh politics.

Operation Bluestar edit

During Operation Blue Star in 1984 to clear up Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex from sikh militants, Tohra was the President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The army operation happened between 1-6 June 1984. Several Akali Dal leaders were stuck in the temple complex during the operation. Gurcharan Singh Tohra was among the Sikh leaders who gave up and were rescued by Army to from within the Golden Temple. They could only be evacuated in an Armoured personnel carrier (APC) due to fear of firing from the Singhs fighting for their Temple. When the Army officers met him, the first question he wanted to know was if Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was dead or alive.[7]

Troubled times edit

Tohra's differences with then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal contributed to the fall of the Akali-Janata coalition in 1980. That began a period of crisis for Tohra as he seemed to favour Bhindranwala's ideas which did not sit well with the opposition.

After Operation Blue Star in 1984, Tohra became an embittered man and did not endorse the Punjab accord put forward by the Rajiv Gandhi government to the Akalis for sharing political power with Harchand Singh Longowal. He took another controversial step some time later by having Sikhs demolish the Akal Takht which was rebuilt after Operation Blue Star by pro-government religious leaders. The Takht was rebuilt by the Sikhs over several years. This turned him into the 'bete noire' not only of the Centre but also of the then Akali government in Punjab headed by Surjit Singh Barnala which had opposed the move.

He was detained under the National Security Act but continued to be elected SGPC chairman for several years in absentia. Throughout this bleak period, Tohra was supported by Badal but in 1999, the two leaders, considered the best of friends, fell out after the SGPC chief pressed for Badal's removal as SAD chief.

Tohra-Badal feud edit

The feud of Gurcharan Singh Tohra vs Parkash Singh Badal was described as "Clash of Titans".[8] The origin of Tohra-Badal feud could be traced to the former's casual remarks, made in November 1998, suggesting one-man-one-post for Akali Dal leaders. According to historian Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, the personal opponents of Tohra availed this opportunity and provoked Badal to expel the latter from the SGPC and the Akali Dal.[9] At this, Badal had Tohra removed as SGPC chief on 16 March 1999, a few days before the commencement of tercentenary celebrations of the birth of the Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib.

Tohra was then expelled from SAD forcing him to form a new party Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal with five members of Badal's cabinet, including Manjit Singh Calcutta, Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Harmail Singh , Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Koli, Jathedar Sukhdev Singh Bhaur Acting President of SGPC who all resigned in protest against the expulsion.

Badal consolidated his grip on Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, by removing Bhai Ranjit Singh as its top Jathedar in February 1999 and installing his hand-picked Giani Puran Singh. Tohra was also replaced by Bibi Jagir Kaur the first woman president of the SGPC.[10]

Adversity brought Tohra and Badal together again after SAD was routed in the February 2002 assembly elections in Punjab and Tohra's SSHAD failed to win even a single seat.

Badal was at the receiving end of Amarinder Singh-headed Congress government's anti-corruption campaign as vigilance personnel searched his premises as well as those of his MP son Sukhbir Singh Badal in Punjab and outside.

After this, considering the panthik interests more important the then prominent Sikh leader and scholar Prof. Kirpal Singh Badungar left his seat of SGPC president for Tohra. On 13 June 2003, Badal and Tohra finally buried the hatchet after the latter welcomed the former's appearance before the Akal Takht and expressed satisfaction over the mild religious punishment ordered by the Sikh clergy to the former chief minister. Tohra was appointed SGPC President in July 2003 after he accepted Badal's pre-eminence in the SAD.

New party edit

After splitting with the Shiromani Akali Dal led by Parkash Singh Badal, Tohra floated his own party called the All India Shiromani Akali Dal (also called the Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal).[11] Five ministers of the ruling government Science and Technology Minister Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Higher Education Minister Manjit Singh Calcutta, Public Works Minister Harmel Singh and Ministers of State Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Kohli quit the ruling government and joined Tohra. Veteran leader Surjan Singh Thekedar & Acting President of SGPC Jathedar Sukhdev Singh Bhaur also joined Tohra. However, during the 2002 assembly elections, the party did not fare well. The Congress came to power in 2002 and both Badal and Tohra were in the opposition. Later, in 2003, Badal invited Tohra to rejoin the Shiromani Akali Dal.[12]

Family edit

Gurcharan Singh Tohra was married to Joginder Kaur who died at the age of 83 on 26 January 2011. His Nephew Upkar Singh Tohra.[13][14]

Tributes edit

Despite being in opposite political campus, the national leadership in India paid tributes to Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party was upset at Tohra's remarks comparing the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the Indira Gandhi,[15] Vajpayee paid his tributes to Tohra on his death.[16] He described Tohra was a leader with deep saintly traits, "A follower of dictum of simple living and high thinking, Shri Tohra made invaluable contribution to the regeneration of social, political and religious life of Punjab. In his death, the country has lost a popular and inspiring figure," the Prime Minister said.[17] Veteran journalist Khushwant Singh stated that Tohra "could have become the uncrowned king of the Sikhs", but "his vision remained limited to launching morchas and going to jail".[18] Though politically ranged against each other, both belong to Patiala then Chief Minister of Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh stressed the "honest life" of Gurcharan Singh Tohra.[19]

References edit

  1. ^ "Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Sikh Leader, 80". The New York Times. The New York Times. 2 April 2004. Retrieved 17 July 2023.
  2. ^ Gurcharan Singh Tohra passes away, The Economic Times
  3. ^ The Tribune
  4. ^ "Khushwant Singh". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 28 September 2011.
  5. ^ Sikh Review Archived 26 February 2005 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Singh, Bajinder Pal, 2001, "Spring in the autumn of the patriarch", The Indian Express [1]
  7. ^ Sandhu, Kanwar (1 June 2014). "Punjab was scorched 30 summers ago, the burn still hurts". Complications. The Tribune. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  8. ^ Singh, Bajinder Pal, 1998 "Clash of Titans", The Indian Express
  9. ^ For comprehensive details: Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SHIROMANI AKALI DAL (1920–2000), and, Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SIKH HISTORY IN 10 VOLUMES, vol 8 and 9, published by The Sikh University Press (2012)
  10. ^ Singh, Bajinder Pal, 1999, "From a maths teacher to SGPC chief", The Indian Express [2][permanent dead link]
  11. ^ Singh, Jagtar, 1999, "Facing the litmus test", The Indian Express
  12. ^ But Tohra was not happy to rejoined the shiromani akal The Indian Express, 2003, "Akali factions led by Tohra, Badal unite
  13. ^ Mohan, Vibhor (18 November 2016). "Gurcharan Singh Tohra's daughter, PCS officer in AAP's 5th list". The Times of India. Retrieved 17 July 2023.
  14. ^ "Tohra family's Harmail, Kuldeep switch from Akali Dal to AAP". The Hindustan Times. 31 August 2016. Retrieved 17 July 2023.
  15. ^ Singh, Jagtar, 1998, The Indian Express
  16. ^ "Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Sikh Leader, 80 (Published 2004)". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 28 May 2015.
  17. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 April 2012. Retrieved 28 September 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. ^ Khushwant Singh, 2004, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the Jathedar, Deccan Herald [3] Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "The Tribune, Chandigarh, India - Punjab".

External links edit

Further reading edit

  • Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SHIROMANI AKALI DAL (1920–2000), Singh Brothers Amritsar (2000).
  • Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SIKH HISTORY IN 10 VOLUMES, volumes 8 and 9, The Sikh University Press, Belgium (2012)
  • Balkar Singh: Gurcharan Singh Tohra (2004)