No pain or hunger, not poor.
No grievances, limitless.
Not subservient, bestow gifts to thousands.
Sit on carpets, establish and disestablish at will.
Discover peace in the world, live fearlessly amidst their enemies.
Fruitful and prosperous, Guru Amardas is pleased with them.
– Bhatt Jalap, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1394
To live in style and benevolence, to speak and listen attentively, to carry an attitude of defiance – it is for a life lived steeped in these values I salute Ambassador Patwant Singh (28 Mar 1925 –8 Aug 2009). Why do I call him an Ambassador? Because when I read the aforesaid savaya (verse of praise) in the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptural canon), I found Patwant (literally honorable) Singh meets every standard.
I met Patwant Singh on American soil for the first time when he came to the Midwest in 1995 to do a book signing for his memoir, Of Dreams and Demons (1994). His niece, Rekha Basu, a correspondent for The Des Moines Register had arranged the event at a local Border’s bookstore. My uncle, Dr. Kirpal Singh, who was a prime factor in turning me into a reader, took my cousin Ravpreet Singh (Vismad Design & PanjabMall) and me to the event. I remember Patwant Singh’s demeanor was very impressive: regal and majestic – this was my first impression of the man which is still vivid for me.
One fine late afternoon in the winter of 1998, Karamjit Kaur and I entered 11 Amrtia Shergill Marg to seek advice on a human development program FATEH organization had started. This house was atypical of the South Delhi bourgeois “humble abodes.” Simple, yet elegant, artsy and full of life—the house hummed with character. Upon being led into the library-ish room by his secretary, Patwant Singh greeted us with a popular saying among the Sikhs: Sati Sri Akal. Understood as “The Revered Truth, the Timeless,” it is a phrase employed by those who want to answer the call of people in distress. We responded with Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa, Vahiguru ji ki Fatih—“The Sovereign belongs to the Awesome Wisdom and so too the victory.” At that, he paused for a second, then said, “You are right, I have been using the wrong salutation, a war cry actually, all my life.” So it was in a very bold and enthusiastic manner that he amended his greeting to: Sri Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa, Sri Vahiguru ji ki Fatih, with his patented British articulation. Mr. Ambassador, the Force developed your Sikhness!
We became more comfortable with each other after many conversations, and sometime later he asked me about the most readily available book of his, The Sikhs. I shared my impression with him candidly. I loved the way the thesis of Sikhi was presented in it: Sikhs are here to create an egalitarian society which means confronting the domination of Brahmanism. The raison-d’être for Sikhs is to champion ignored and under-represented causes and people; for example, the legal apartheid of South Asia whose victims remain the Dalits (untouchables; though mulnivasi – “the original inhabitants” – is the preferred term as Dr. Manisha Bangar recently conveyed to me). I also shared the book had several trivial mistakes from Sikh tradition and historical angle, comments which he gracefully acknowledged. No doubt though, he definitely got the big picture right!
Another incident I recall which epitomized Mr. Singh’s character, took place at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. It was 13 January 1999, when Justice Kuldip Singh, Former Judge of the Indian Supreme Court, gave the Chillianwala Memorial Lecture of that year, speaking on the Criminalisation of Governance and Public Life in India. After the Justice finished, Kanwar Sandhu (whose career spans India Today, The Tribune, The Indian Express and the Hindustan Times and is currently managing a TV channel) asked an unrelated, sensational question about “terrorists” in Panjab. Patwant Singh, who was chairing the session, grabbed the mic and lectured (actually more scolded) Mr Sidhu on “terrorists” and “freedom fighters,” not afraid to bring in the lack of professionalism and ethics among the media outlets in India. He cited Yassar Arafat and Nelson Mandela as case studies when the media dropped the “terrorist” label, and found a Nobel Peace Prize winner instead. Mr. Ambassador, the Force amplified your carefree spirit!
During a different memorable visit, Mr. Singh shared an amusing anecdote over tea. He had been asked to address an audience at a prestigious Delhi club (you can guess where the reminiscence of the post British Raj Indian bureaucrats congregate). A few days prior to the talk, the club’s president called to admit that he had been coerced to invite KPS Gill, a notorious former Director General of Panjab Police. To this revelation Mr Singh responded, “My doctor has advised me to not go near the pollution, it is bad for my health.” According to Meher—Patwant’s wife—despite the light joke, it was with all seriousness that Patwant refused to be on the same platform as KPS Gill. A man who, in Patwant’s words, “made his disdain for humanitarian principles clear.” Mr. Ambassador, the Force cultivated you fearless!
Public record of his fearlessness can be found in the Asian Age (31 Jan 2000) headlined “State Terror that Executed Punjab.” Mr. Singh wrote there, in reference to KPS Gill, “During his four years in office from November 19, 1991 till December 31, 1995, the State of Punjab which once reveled in the joie de vivre of its people, became a fetid place – dark and brooding like the man who seemed bent on casting it in his own image.” Patwant questioned the “Indian state for lionising such men whose hands are awash with the blood of thousands of their innocent countrymen.” In those few sentences, it should be clear that Patwant Singh was man who could stand anywhere in India, in any forum, and speak with vigor and courage. His was a rare personality among scores of Sikhs who remain submissive and overly cautious as they continue to try to appear “Indian-enough” to be left alone by the State.
At a gathering in 2005, Patwant Singh put his hand on my shoulder and offered to introduce me to Sardar Manmohan Singh. To his surprise, I politely refused. Looking askance, I revealed to him that I appreciated the financial genius of the man who The Economist had called “another Adam Smith” for bringing India out of License Raj. However, I could not appreciate his blanket lie at the 1993 Vienna conference where he said “… being Sikh, [I] find no abuses of Human Rights of Sikhs much less any minorities in India.” Please. Go ask Soli Sorabjee, former attorney general of India and Special Rapporteur to the UN’s Human Rights Commission. He will set the record straight. And for a comprehensive, credible documentation, visit Ensaaf’s website. Patwant Singh wasn’t aware of Manmohan Singh’s grossly inaccurate statement, and understood why I didn’t need to shake the Prime Minister’s hand. Mr. Ambassador, the Force carved your acceptance!
One afternoon, while discussing heritage issues, he pointed me to the Indian Express of the day, saying, “See this – there is only one IAS officer (Indian Administrative Services, which runs India) in the whole of Panjab who is honest – that is why the Panjabi political leadership put him [Gurnihal Singh Pirzada] in jail. Otherwise, who can touch the bureaucrats, let alone put them in jail?” Incidentally, Lord Meghnand Desai recently commented: “The British invented bureaucracy for India, the Indians perfected it.” This is not stupid, but a very clever Chanakya –Prince Machiavelli of India – design to maintain control over Indians. Today, dissent in India comes with severe repercussions. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Singh ever stopped championing those few who stood up! Mr. Ambassador, the Force enriched your insights!
The filmmakers of The Widow Colony, Harpreet Kaur and Manmeet Singh, and I met with Patwant Singh to seek his leadership at the documentary’s November 2005 premier in India. Despite his deteriorating health, Mr. Singh spoke defiantly about the conspiracy of silence surrounding the 1984 pogroms. While chairing the post-screening panel, he forcefully discounted the notion of “we should forget about it” and cautioned against the dire consequences of judicial failure. Afterwards, along with advocate Harvinder Singh Phoolka (champion of 1984 survivors, encouraged heavily by Patwant Singh), Patwant Singh and I initiated educational programs for the pogrom survivors through Gyan Sewa Trust. And that wasn’t the only outreach he had initiated. In 1977, he established the Kabliji Hospital and Rural Health Center in Haryana after witnessing pregnant young women stuck on a roadside; ironically this hospital was burned by a Hindu mob in 1984, but it was rebuilt again. Mr. Ambassador, the Force made you benevolent!
The last time I spent time with Patwant Singh was at his house. My friend Davinder Singh and I had gone to seek his advice on Panjab Digital Library’s efforts to locate and digitize everything related to the Panjab region. At the time, he was co-authoring a biography on Maharaja Ranjit Singh with Jyoti M. Rai (numismatist & historian). He jokingly shared that Satjiv Singh Chahil (like a son to Patwant Singh and a “whiz” at Apple, Palm & HP) had bribed him with a Mercedes, but he couldn’t even take it for a spin on Delhi roads. He had to keep the Benz parked under a tree, under a cloth to protect it from dirt and hidden from people. “What a cover-up!” he laughed. A few days later, I returned with a list of some rare books on Ranjit Singh which might augment his research, and he gifted me a signed, out of print, copy of The Golden Temple. Mr. Ambassador, the Force stretched your generosity!
This trans-national Sikh ambassador excelled in multiple dimensions: as an author, designer, activist, philanthropist, and conservationist. After The Fatal Miscalculation (his editorial debut on 1984 and Panjab issues), his focus in life and writing shifted primarily to the Sikhs and their faith. He became known for introducing and running Design –a revolutionary magazine covering architecture, urban planning, visual arts, graphics, and industrial design. Mr. Ambassador, the Force brought you prosperity!
Upon discovering that the real problems of India lie in its politicians, government procedures and corruption, he began work on a series of articles and books meant to affect public opinion and official policies. Those included India and the Future of Asia (1967) and The Struggle for Power in Asia (1971). Post-1984, Patwant’s passion exploded in his efforts to present Sikhs as sovereigns, just as the Indian machine initiated its campaign to malign Sikhs. The Golden Temple(1989), Gurdwaras in India and Around the World (1992), The Sikhs (1999), Garland Around My Neck (2001), and Empire of the Sikhs – The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (2008) were all the fruits of decades of labor on this front. He also published The World According to Washington: An Asian View (2005) and The Second Partition: Fault-lines in Indian Democracy (2007). Mr. Ambassador, the Force sharpened your intellect!
How did he do all this while maintaining his aristocratic lifestyle, especially after his 1984 transformation? How did he manage to write extensively for newspapers and magazines (The New York Times, Globe and Mail, The Independent, The Asian Age), work in the Sikh art world with Susan Stronge (Victoria and Alberta Museum’s curator) and Inni Kaur (impetus behind I See No Stranger exhibition at Reuben Museum), run non-profits, and make time for conservation of anything Sikh or Panjab related? He did it through pure strength of vision and commitment. And of course, because Meher (literally grace) was at his side through the later years as his partner-in-crime. She brought infinite charm and dignity to Patwant Singh, in addition to keeping him in great health, until the man completed his earthly journey at 84. This is how a Sikh transcends transmigration, here and now. Mr. Ambassador, the Force tendered you free!
Last month, I was at 1469 shop in New Delhi – what a place for all things Panjabi! The shop’s owners Kirandeep Kaur and Harinder Singh were my conduits to Ambassador Patwant Singh for the last decade. 1469 is planning a sale of commemorative paraphernalia as tribute to Patwant Singh’s inspiration and encouragement in preserving the heritage. I look forward very much to the unveiling.
I often quote his words from The Golden Temple: “It took the industry, passion, perseverance and sacrifices of whole generations to build, adorn and defend it.” In keeping these words vital and alive, I hope that all Sikhs will hear and understand them at a deeper level. Industry, passion, perseverance, sacrifice — and of course, a few Ambassadors! — will be what helps the Sikh Qaum (commonwealth) to re-discover its raison-d’être!
Harinder Singh is the co-founder and Chief Programming Officer of the Sikh Research Institute. He assisted in developing and reviewing the Sojhi curriculum published by SikhRI. He is an interdisciplinary researcher and a global orator. His passion is to learn and share the Sikh culture.