Man in white: Beant Singh gave life for peace, his legacy lives on
Hard-working, straight-talking CM who brought militancy to an end in the state met with a violent end. But his family continues to thrive in the business of politics
Sometimes the sun rises on days that are fated to change the course of history. August 31, 1995, was one such day. Beant Singh, 73, the chief minister of Punjab, was on his way out from office in the secretariat in Chandigarh, barely a stone’s throw from his official residence, when he was killed by a human bomb in an assassination plan meticulously executed by the separatist group Babbar Khalsa International.
His two grandsons, 22-year-old Gurkirat Singh and 20-year-old Ravneet Singh Bittu, were on the second floor of the secretariat building. The shell-shocked brothers who had seen their grandfather minutes before he died were rushed out by the security, fearing more blasts.
Beant Singh’s officer on special duty, former bureaucrat Devinder Singh Saroya, who was among the first to reach the spot, says several bodies were strewn around (17 others had died in the blast). He could recognise Beant Singh’s body only from the thin ‘kada’ he wore on his wrist.
END OF MILITANCY
Credited with ending two decades of Khalistani militancy in Punjab, Beant Singh paid the ultimate price for taking an unambiguous stand. “Before him, politicians had either hobnobbed with militants or sat on the fence biding their time. His murder not just changed Punjab’s political horizon but brought in its wake a political resolve to not let militancy to rear its ugly head again in the state,” says historian M Rajivlochan.
Beant Singh’s story was carried forward by his eldest son, Tej Parkash, who was chosen as cabinet minister immediately after his father’s death. Later, he won from the family’s traditional seat Payal several times before handing over the baton to his son, Gurkirat Singh Kotli, in 2012. Kotli is now MLA from Khanna as Payal was declared reserved for Scheduled Castes.
Beant Singh’s youngest child, daughter Gurkanwal Kaur, remained the Congress women wing’s state chief for almost a decade from 1997. She too won the family’s alternative seat, Jalandhar Cantt, and was made a cabinet minister in Capt Amarinder Singh’s government (2002-2007). However, she lost in 2007 and was not given the ticket in 2012. “I have been dealt with very unfairly by the Congress,” she says bitterly.
While the brother-sister duo got catapulted into politics after their father’s tragic death, it was their brother Swaranjit Singh who was being groomed to be a politician from a young age. But he died in 1985 in an accident and none of the other siblings was encouraged to join politics. Swaranjit Singh’s son, Ravneet Bittu, caught the eye of Rahul Gandhi. The strapping young man became the first elected president of Punjab Youth Congress in 2008. He was elected to the 15th Lok Sabha a year later from Anandpur Sahib and from Ludhiana in 2014.
Times have changed and the shade of Beant Singh’s legacy too has transformed. Gurkanwal, Kotli and Bittu were united in favouring clemency for Balwant Singh Rajoana, the militant who waited to strike as the alternative human bomb that day. Rajoana was sentenced to death but his execution was stayed in 2012 following clemency appeals filed by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
A FAMILY OF SOLDIERS
Beant Singh was the first in his family of armymen to enter politics. His father Hazura Singh retired as a captain in the British army. Originally from Bilaspur, a village, a few kilometres away from Kotli where they settled later (both in Doraha tehsil of Ludhiana), the family shifted to what is now Pakistan.
Born in 1922, Beant Singh graduated from Government College, Lahore, and joined the army, like his two elder brothers.
“He had barely served for 2-3 years when the family moved to Kotli after Partition, where we were allotted land equal to what we owned in Pakistan,” relates Tej Parkash Singh.
Beant Singh started his political journey as Bilaspur’s sarpanch in 1959 and went on to get elected as the Payal MLA a decade years later. “He would have become MLA in 1962 but the constituency he had nurtured, Payal, was reserved and my father supported a close associate Lt Bhag Singh (retd) who won,” adds Tej Parkash. In 1967, the seat was declared general but the Congress ticket went to stalwart Gian Singh Rarewala. Beant Singh got the ticket from Akali Dal (Sant) but lost to Rarewala.
STEELED FOR SUCCESS
In 1969, in the mid-term polls he won the seat as an independent candidate defeating Rarewala who had then contested as the Akali Dal candidate. After this, the tireless politician was unstoppable. “His hard work made him rise so high in life. He taught his children too that they will not get anything on a platter because of his position,” adds Tej Prakash.
“We used to see our mother in the kitchen cooking 70-80 rotis every day. Anyone who came to meet my father did not return without having food in the house. She too chose to dress only in white like my father; such was the dedication to him and the Congress. But women of the house were kept away from real politics,” adds Gurkanwal.
The politician brother and sister saw a straining of relations when Tej Parkash was removed as minister and Gurkanwal brought in by Amarinder in his cabinet. “The differences lasted only for a brief period,” she explains.
Beant Singh’s middle son Sukhwant took care of the land and the constituency where he remained sarpanch, market committee head and even the Ludhiana zila parishad chairman. He died last month.