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History helps us understand where we stand, it also helps us understand how we got there. In the tempestuous history of India and the even more tumultuous history of Punjab, Sardar Partap Singh Kairon played a major role in pushing Punjab forward. His vision was to rebuild Punjab and India with the same energy and verve as Europe was rebuilding itself after the destructiveness of the World War. As chief minister, he would frequently assert that Punjab would soon outpace Germany in development.

Sardar Partap Singh Kairon entered public life at a time when India was still wondering about the nature of representative government. !e popular mind had been captured by the direct and drastic actions of young men like Bhagat Singh. Young Partap Singh kept in touch with the radicals and revolutionaries in America. His own brother was a Communist. However, his natural tendencies were such that he gravitated towards the Akali Dal, which at that time was identi”ed as a ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ body. Here he witnessed the intense communal interplay that happened over the control of gurdwaras and gurdwara property. As the time for the elections of 1936–37 approached, he decided to contest as an Akali candidate against one of the most senior Congress leaders. The contest was spiced up by Jawaharlal Nehru personally campaigning multiple times in favour of the Congress candidate, Gurdit Singh Komagata Maru.

Yet, it was Partap Singh, the young Akali, who won. Having won the elections, the Akalis joined hands with the Congress to provide a united opposition to the new government that was led by the Unionist Party. He soon made a name for himself as a leader of the masses when he led the Akali–Congress movement against the four agrarian bills that the Unionist Party brought in with the objective of privileging the big landowners. !e Second World War provided yet another opportunity for political action against the government. 

In 1941, when Mahatma Gandhi initiated the individual satyagraha movement, the Congress in Punjab sheepishly reported to the national leadership of the Congress that they were unable to obtain much visible support from the common people. The public apparently was unmoved by the practice of many Congress leaders, especially the senior leaders of the Congress in Punjab, to court arrest in the name of a nominal ‘satyagraha’ and then quickly apply for bail. Partap Singh, now a general secretary of the Pradesh Congress, however, took the idea of satyagraha seriously, organized protests against the state and went to jail. The Quit India movement that followed was a time for making serious choices. The Akali Dal, helmed by Master Tara Singh, chose to support the war effort and keep away from the Quit India movement in the hope of communal aggrandisement. Kairon chose to cease his membership of the Akali Dal, become a member of the Congress, oppose communalism and participate in the Quit India movement. For his opposition to the government he would be incarcerated right up till Independence. From this point onwards, Sardar Partap Singh would condemn communalism constantly and deal harshly with anyone promoting a communal agenda. 


After Independence, we see a greying Partap Singh take an active part in the government. The resettlement of refugees in Punjab after Partition could be achieved quickly and in a constructive manner to a significant degree because of his initiatives and constant goading. It was at his suggestion that university classes were started in the evening for the refugees and others who needed to work during the day to earn a livelihood. !e refugees were provided with new skills in order to facilitate their rehabilitation. Special efforts were made to provide loans and equipment to refugees to help them regain a healthy economic status.

Under the circumstances, when Sardar Partap Singh noticed that senior Congress leaders in Punjab were dabbling in communalism, he minced no words in condemning them. This eventually led to the unceremonious ouster of Bhim Sen Sachar as chief minister. Kairon took over the reins of government from Sachar.

As chief minister, he insisted on simplicity of life and convinced his ministers to tour extensively to remain in touch with the people. He refused to shift to the palatial palace of the chief minister in which Sachar had stayed, instead choosing to stay in a smaller house where the furnishings were simple and sparse. Nowadays, that palatial building near the Sukhna Lake is the residence of the governor of Haryana. Kairon and his ministers toured for almost “fteen days every month and ensured that any trip made for private purposes was not billed to the government. He did not hesitate to raise a special cess for the construction of houses for the scheduled castes. Confident in the merit of the cause, Kairon ensured that the cess was duly approved by the President of India. It did not matter to him that an upset governor resigned—or at least made a show of resigning—to demonstrate his opposition to the cess for Harijans.


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As chief minister, he squarely faced the twin task of suppressing communalism and improving the economic condition of Punjab. Both required taking multiple initiatives, many of which were relatively unfamiliar to the people of Punjab. !e extensive tour schedules of Kairon and his ministers ensured that people were made aware of the new schemes of growth that the government had initiated. Such frequent contact with people seemed to recharge Kairon’s internal energies and give him heart to always forcefully combat those pushing a communal agenda. He was visibly and openly harsh to those whose political programmes were based on exciting communal animosity. He dealt with those agitating in the name of Hindi quite roughly. !ose agitating in the name of promoting Punjabi and/or the Punjabi Suba were given the same treatment. 

Kairon was of the firm opinion that the greatest strength of Punjab was its large size and tremendous geographical and cultural diversity, with the Punjabi language and culture providing a unifying template. With the towering Himalayas on one side, deserts on the other and extremely fertile agricultural plains in between, he saw a tremendous potential in Punjab. All that was needed was to nurture the land and harvest nature’s bounty that was available in the form of fast mowing perennial rivers. Punjab had the potential to provide electricity and foodgrains to the entire nation. Its boys were already dominating the military. Even the civil population of Punjab had shown a great penchant to protect India’s borders. Punjabis were spread all over the country and had set up strong roots in different parts of the world. Even so, they retained strong connections with Punjab. These energies merely needed to be directed into positive directions and those professing narrow-minded communal interests had to be kept in check. 


Kairon was a leader who primarily worked in the Punjabi language. He ensured that Punjabi became the primary language of government in Punjab, including the courts. His love for the nation was unmatched. This meant that he would not tolerate anyone promoting communal hatred in the name of the national language or in the name of the regional identity. Due to him, Punjab became one of the “first states in India to remove from official lists the column that identified a person’s religion. He also removed religious holidays from the calendar. Either everyone would enjoy a holiday, or no one would. !ere was no place in a secular India for holidays to be given to people on the basis of their religion, he would insist.

At the same time, when the Communists successfully mobilized thousands of people in the countryside to oppose the betterment levy, Kairon and his entire cabinet made efforts to reach out to the people to explain to them the logic underlying the betterment levy and its fairness. That effectively ended one of the largest peasant mass movements in twentieth-century Punjab. A large number of Communist workers and supporters thereafter drifted to the Congress, abandoning the Communist Party. Subsequently, Kairon went out of his way to negotiate with the centre to reduce the charges that had been the reason for the betterment levy, thereby removing the root cause of the farmers’ distress. After all, he reasoned with the authorities at the centre, if Punjab’s agriculture produces more and its waters generate electricity, the whole nation benefits, so there is no point in taxing the farmers of Punjab who ensure that the nation grows rich and strong. The centre was convinced and agreed to renegotiate the terms of the levy, easing o# an unnecessary burden on Punjab farmers.

Hailing from a rural background himself, Kairon had a sharp understanding of the problems of the people, their limitations and aspirations. As he pushed the farmers of Punjab towards modernizing, he found ways and means through which everyone could make use of the capital-intensive machines and tools needed for modern agriculture. He constantly urged groups of farmers to set up cooperatives and provided the utmost help in this regard. His push for research in the basic sciences, medicine, agriculture and veterinary sciences resulted in some of the leading research institutions of India being based in Punjab. Out of these, the PGI at Chandigarh honoured Kairon’s name by naming its Administrative Block after him. 


The Congress in Punjab was said to be the most faction-ridden party in British India. This factionalism only intensified after Independence to such an extent that Punjab became the first state in India where the MLAs found it impossible to agree on a chief minister. This resulted in almost a year-long President’s Rule in 1951–52 and a quick turnover of chief ministers. By the way, this was the first time President’s Rule was invoked in any of the states of India. Kairon brought stability to this faction-ridden polity. He addressed the grievances of different factions, co-opted them in governance and ensured that probity was maintained. Senior ministers and political leaders were sidelined when it was found that they had indulged in corruption. The central leadership of the Congress, and particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, held him in extremely high esteem as a result. Pratap Singh Kairon had created a vision for Punjab, implemented it to make Punjab one of the most prosperous states of India, ensured the use of Punjabi as the official language of the state, and put in place sturdy secularism that drew upon the indigenous culture of Punjab. At a time when India is dealing with often irreconcilable political differences and the matter of strengthening the integrity of India, it would do us well to remember how Kairon effectively thwarted separatism of any kind, convinced the people of Punjab that the best future for everyone was to have an undivided state and work for the strengthening of India.

About the author:
M. Rajivlochan

M. Rajivlochan The writer, M. Rajivlochan is Professor of history in Panjab University. These are excerpts from his latest book – Partap Singh Kairon A Visionary, which he has co-authored alongwith Gurinder Singh Kairon and Meeta Rajivlochan.

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