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Posted at: Aug 3, 2017, 12:32 AM; last updated: Aug 3, 2017, 12:32 AM (IST)

Tales from two Punjabs

Old rulers, new challenges
Tales from two Punjabs
Rajmata Mohinder Kaur has passed on to her son, Capt Amarinder Singh, a part of the republican and Akali tradition

KC Singh

TWO events affecting the chief ministers in the two Punjabs on the opposite side of the Indo-Pakistan border remind one of William Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper: “For old, unhappy, far-off things; And battles long ago”. One was the passing away of the Punjab Chief Minister, Capt Amarinder Singh's mother and the last recognised Maharani of Patiala, Rajmata Mohinder Kaur nee Mehtab Kaur. The other is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in Pakistan on the vacuous ground of his conduct lacking “ameen” and “sadiq”, words implying undefined piety, inserted in the Pakistani constitution by the late President Zia-ul-Haq from Islamic jurisprudence, simply because he concealed the unpaid chairmanship of a free trade zone company in Dubai. Nawaz is likely to be replaced by his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the current Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab. Both events have provenance that merits recalling.

The Rajmata was married at 16 and became the Maharani of Patiala a year later, on the death of her colourful father-in-law, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. She has now left amidst all the pomp that the mother of the current ruler of Punjab, not just Patiala, automatically begets. Both my family and that of my wife flourished under the last two rulers of the Patiala state. My wife's grandfather, Lt-Gen Balwant Singh, rose to head the Patiala state forces before retiring in 1948. My grandfather, Capt Waryam Singh, was In-charge of Deodi i.e. comptroller of household in the 1920s, serving a young Bhupinder Singh.

My debt to Patiala is thus indirect and distant, although the past, bits of which one learnt in one’s youth, is worth recalling. This is also a way of condoling for those who are neither friends of Captain Sahib nor courtiers, and yet are more than passing acquaintances; protocol and inaccessibility rule out a personal visit. The first wife of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh was Rajkumari Hem Prabha Devi of Saraikela, now in Orissa, from the family of Singhdeos. She passed away unheralded in 2014, aged 101. The stated reason for the Crown Prince remarrying was the first marriage being issueless. Actually the truth is more complex.

Alongside the freedom movement agitation began in states run by local rulers for greater political rights and civil liberties. The Panjab Riyasti Praja Mandal was formed in 1928, aligning itself with the national All India States People’s Conference. The initiative in Punjab came from Akali workers, self-confident after succeeding at gurdwara reform. At their first meeting at Mansa on July 17, 1928, they appointed Seva Singh Thikrivala as president. In 1929 they produced a report titled “Indictment of Patiala” against Maharaja Bhupinder Singh and sent it to the Viceroy. Despite this the Maharaja, as the sitting Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes was the sole representative of rulers at the Round Table Conference in November 1930. The Praja Mandal stepped up the agitation and Thikrivala, who had been once released, was jailed again in 1933, where he died in 1935.

The father of the Rajamata, Harchand Singh Jaijee, was a close aide of Thikrivala. That is why despite the family belonging to Patiala, the Rajmata was born at Ludhiana, a part of British India and out of Maharaja Patiala's reach. In 1936 Patiala state signed an agreement with Akali leader Master Tara Singh, splitting the Praja Mandal movement. The marriage of Sardar Jaijee’s daughter to the heir apparent Yadavindra Singh in 1938 thus tied into this appeasing of Sikh sentiments. In fact, stories circulated that Akali leaders wanted the future ruler of Patiala to marry in a Sikh family so as to beget genuine Sikh heirs. Ironically, having got their wish in the birth of Capt Amarinder Singh, Akalis now discover that he has become their main Congress challenger in Punjab, as the Bluestar taint does not stick on him.

Thus Captain Singh inherited both a regal lineage through his father but also a republican and Akali tradition through his mother. As an inheritor of this fusion it was not surprising he walked away from the Congress in 1984 over the Army entering the Golden Temple during Operation Bluestar. I remember as Deputy Secretary to President Zail Singh in 1984, when PM Indira Gandhi's office was desperately trying to locate and dissuade Captain Sahib the argument in Rashtrapati Bhavan was that his maternal Jaijee family had incited Captain Singh. The Rajmata herself showed the same streak when throwing her lot with the Morarji Desai Congress, due to her rumoured friendship with Asoka Mehta, one of the founders of the trade union movement and INTUC.  Thus the Rajmata's death closes this chapter of Indian and Punjab history where she bridged the divide between effete royalty and Sikh and republican traditions, as indeed the conflict within the Congress between its past freedom movement camaraderie and subservience to one family.

In Pakistan it is again a concerted attempt by the military and its allies like Imran Khan to end Nawaz Sharif's attempt to perpetuate family rule. Shahbaz, I have on authority of a former aide to the then PM Nawaz Sharif, was in the PM's house in 1999 when Nawaz decided to sack the Army chief, Gen Perevz Musharraf, during an official visit to Sri Lanka. General Musharraf indirectly confirmed this recently saying he thought Shahbaz was his friend. Nawaz’s family had convinced him that Shahbaz and Musharraf were plotting against him. So he never consulted his own brother before his foolish move. Shahbaz is obviously more acceptable to the military than Nawaz's daughter, Mariam, who was the designated heir. He also has had working relations with Jehadi outfits, having used the carrot and the stick to control them in Punjab. There will be continuity and change, the nature of which will determine Indo-Pak relations. 

Similarly, the Modi government is not only impaling Lalu Yadav but his entire line of heirs with money laundering charges. Corruption, money-laundering, Panama Papers, benami deals are the new weapons which those in power in the subcontinent are using to corner political rivals and their families. But like the Akalis in Punjab, the BJP may find that clearing the cluttered Opposition leadership stable may actually open space for new leaders who could become the real challenge. The BJP and the Pakistani Army must remember the Chinese curse: “May all your wishes come true”. 

The writer is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs


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