Patwant Singh: An Ambassador For All Seasons - Sikh Research Institute

Patwant Singh: An Ambassador For All Seasons

Such people suffer neither hunger nor sorrow,

Nor can they ever be termed poor.

Such people are not subject to sadness,

Nor are their limits known.

Such people are not subject to any other one,

For they nourish hundreds, nay, thousands.

Such people sit on carpets,

They can base and debase others.

Such people enjoy the pleasures of the world,

Wearing a shield of safety, they are safe even amongst enemies.

Such people are meaningful,

Favoured by Guru Amardas.




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 that I salute our famous ambassador, Patwant Singh [March 28, 1925 - August 8, 2009]. 

Why do I call him an ambassador? Because when I read the aforesaid savayya (verse of praise) in the Guru Granth Sahib, 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 I 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 Amrita Shergill Marg to seek advice on a human development program FATEH organization had started. The 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, we were greeted by Patwant Singh with a "Sat Sri Akal." We responded with Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh".

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."

We became more comfortable with each other after many conversations, and some time later he asked me about the most readily available book of his, The Sikhs. I shared my impressions 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 conveyed to him that 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 his character, took place at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. It was January 13, 1999, when Justice Kuldip Singh, Former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, gave the Chillianwala Memorial Lecture of that year, speaking on the Criminalisation of Governance and Public Life in India.

After the Justice had 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 Punjab.

Patwant Singh, who was chairing the session, grabbed the mike and lectured (actually, scolded) Sandhu on misusing the word "terrorists" instead of "freedom fighters," and cited 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.

During another memorable visit, Patwant 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 remnants of the post British Raj Indian bureaucrats congregate).

A few days prior to the talk, the club's president had called Patwant Singh to acknowledge that he had been coerced to invite K.P.S. Gill, a notorious former Director General of Punjab Police. To this revelation, Patwant Singh responded, "My doctor has advised me to not go near pollution, it is bad for my health."

According to Meher - Patwant's wife - despite the gentle rebuke, it was with all seriousness that Patwant refused to be on the same platform as K.P.S. Gill - a man who, in Patwant's words, "made his disdain for
humanitarian principles clear."

Public record of more examples of his fearlessness can be found in the Asian Age (January 31, 2000) headlined "State Terror that Executed Punjab."

Patwant Singh wrote there, in reference to K.P.S. 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 a 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.

One afternoon, while discussing heritage issues, Patwant Singh pointed me to the Indian Express of the
day, saying, "See this - there is only one IAS officer (Indian Administrative Services, the bureaucracy which runs India) in the whole of Punjab who is honest - that is why the Punjabi 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."

Today, the expression of dissent in India comes with severe repercussions. But that doesn't mean that Patwant Singh has ever stopped championing those few who stood up!

The filmmakers of The Widow Colony, Harpreet Kaur and Manmeet Singh, and I met with Patwant Singh to invite his leadership at the documentary's November 2005 premier in India.

Despite his deteriorating health, Patwant 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 the 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 down by a Hindu mob in 1984, but it was rebuilt again.

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, Patwant Singh 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 "wiz" at Apple, Palm & Hewlett Packard) 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 his earlier book, The Golden Temple.

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 Punjab issues), his focus in life and writing shifted primarily to the Sikhs and their faith. He had already become widely known for introducing and running Design - a revolutionary magazine covering architecture, urban planning, visual arts, graphics, and industrial design.

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, to counter the Indian propaganda machine bent upon maligning 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 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).

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, The 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 the Reuben Museum, New York), run non-profits, and still make time for conservation of anything Sikh or Punjab 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 the age of 84.

This is how a Sikh transcends transmigration, here and now.

Last month, I was at the "1469" shop in New Delhi - what a place for all things Punjabi! The shop's owners Kirandeep Kaur and Harinder Singh were my conduits to Patwant Singh for the last decade. "1469" is planning a sale of commemorative paraphernalia as a tribute to Patwant Singh's inspiration and encouragement in preserving our heritage. I very much look forward to the unveiling.

I often quote Patwant Singh's 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 like Patwant Singh! - will be what helps the Sikh Quom (commonwealth) to re-discover its raison-d'être!

[The author works for the Sikh Research Institute and the Panjab Digital Library. His focus is on education as a fulcrum for social change.]

Translation of verse from Guru Granth Sahib adapted from English translation by Dr. Darshan Singh.

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