Punjabi review
Pearl of the Panth
by Shalini Rawat

Gurcharan Singh Tohra Jeewan ate Siasat A political biography
by Dalbir Singh Lokgeet Parkashan, Chandigarh Pages 181. Rs 175

Gurcharan Singh Tohra Jeewan ate Siasat A political biographyGurcharan Singh Tohra - the benign patriarch of the Sikh community, protector of the small peasant, a man who rose from a humble background to reign over the SGPC for 27 years, who'd have broken the record for being in the Rajya Sabha for the sixth time had he been sworn in. The man who cajoled, mediated, thwarted, threatened but ruled with ease over the highest religious body of the Sikhs and died coveting political power is a complex personality to evaluate.

Kingmaker, Pope, messiah, reformist, conformist, forever-dissenter, wily fox, Machiavilli. The hows and whys in his life needed to be delved into. Hence, the book.

For more than two-score years as religious head, he influenced the course and manner of the Sikh community's interface with other communities, parties and the rest of the country. All the while he constantly remained at loggerheads with whoever was in power.

Religion and politics make for a heady cocktail. Tohra, however, remained sober while savouring both. Holding centrestage in the former and sharing the backstage in the latter, he skillfully manipulated the dynamics that arose from this situation. The taste of this twin-flavoured m`E9lange was revealed to him when he became an Amritdhari at 13 and member of the Akali Dal at 14. This meant participation in the struggle for India's freedom and then later for the Sikh cause. If he was a promoter of this politico-religious duality (as is alleged) or its martyr (as he claimed to be) it was because he wanted full and complete independence and events did not enable him to realise this.

Time and again circumstances (and sometimes friends-turned-foes-turned-friends or even friends in the opposition) helped him pursue and realise his religio-political ambitions. But the chief minister's chair remained elusive. No wonder the irony of the book's subtitle- 'a political biography' strikes one. Did he not, inspite of his blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with former Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal emerge the winner in any dialogue? If they parted ways, it was always at Badal's expense. Did he not extend the influence of the SGPC to all spheres of community life so that any ideologically different opinion would evoke the cry of 'Panth is in peril'?

His rise from the ranks to become the Jathedar of SGPC, a member of the Rajya Sabha and other sundry achievements are well-documented in the book. So are his legendary frugality and honesty (he once returned unspent money given to him for canvassing and owned only the little ancestral property and land that he had inherited).

Oddly though a few questions remain unanswered. Operation Blue Star happened when he was the Jathedar. He was also the one to 'provide' for Jarnail Singh Bhindhrawale's stay in the Golden Temple complex. After the Operation, he heartily condemned it and urged the tearing down of the 'government-sponsored' structure erected in place of the Akal Takht. Even while detailing the rise and fall of terrorism in Punjab, the issue of attempt on Tohra's life, the book or rather Tohra himself never condemned the act. ("He who says nothing consents," Sartre)

Another burning issue that the book rarely hints at is the politicisation of the SGPC as well as the growing schisms that he has left (as legacy?) for the future. One could also question the rise of various babas, deras and sants among the rural masses since the last decade. Are they a result of Tohra's or the SGPC's losing touch with the needs of people at the grassroots or are they emerging as alternatives to a faith which is increasingly being defined from the top? Several mobilising initiatives by the grand old man the 400 years of founding Amritsar march for example, have been left out.

The book was published a week after Tohra's death is a good initiative. The rest of the story can come later.