Police and Politics in the 20th Century Punjab
Reviewed by Tharam Singh
by B.S. Danewalia, (Retd) I.G.P., Punjab
Published by Ajanta Publications
Pages: 486; Price: not given
The first chapter of the book traces the origins of the Danewalia class, and the next two are an autobiography covering the author’s early life. The fourth chapter details the formation of the Akali Dal taking over the political role of the Chief Khalsa Diwan in 1920, and its agitation to take control of its gurdwaras and the beginning of the Non Co-operation Movement of the National Congress. Mention is made of the “mercantile class” leading the Akali Dal agitation, their holding joint membership in the Congress Party, and thus “admitting the all-powerful Congress wolf into the Sikh sheep-fold.”
Along with the Congress, the Akalis boycotted the first Legislative Council Elections in 1921. “The Akali leaders never learnt the value of the constitutional process in the promotion of the Sikh cause, they professed to espouse.” This sort of summary condemnation of the Akalis is a recurring theme throughout the book.
Next we read about the arrival of the Simon Commission in 1928, to pave the way for self-government, and to arrange terms for the Federation of the Princely States into the Union of India. The efforts of the Maharaja of Patiala (Bhupinder Singh) to present a case for a Sikh home-land are mentioned here, but with no backing from the Akalis, who are here mentioned as a “bunch of agitators who would never rise above that level.”
As soon as the Gurdwaras Act came into operation in 1925, as prophesied by the then Governor Punjab, Malcolm Hailey, the Akali Party split into two groups, one led by Tara Singh, and the other by G. Sher Singh and Baba Kharak Singh. “The gurdwaras have become a battleground of factional leadership of the future.”
The Congress had boycotted the Simon Commission and put up its demands for self-government, and the Muslim League had put in their own list. But the Sikhs had made no proposals. They just backed the Congress on its non-cooperation stand. At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931 (with no Akali representation), the British P.M. had made a Communal Award to safeguard the interests of the minorities. But the Akalis followed the Congress in rejecting that Award outright. They would be begging Nehru later to grant them just that sort of weightage in the new Constitution of India.
In 1938, Baldev Singh as President of the Akali Dal, declared in a public speech, “I accept the Congress as the only organisation of national honour and self-respect.” He was to be appointed Defence Minister in the Nehru Cabinet in 1946.
One chapter in the book explains the organisation of the police force in the twenties and thirties of this century, with their emphasis on the rule of law. Next follow accounts of the factional fights in the Akali Dal and the almost comical stands taken by Master Tara Singh during the war years. Efforts of Stafford Cripps in 1942 to provide safeguards for the Sikh minority are nullified by the negative response of the Akalis. Jinnah’s attempts to woo the Sikhs, Lord Wavell’s efforts to form an Executive Council to run a government until a new Constitution was prepared, and the long drawn negotiations between the Hindus, the Muslims, the Sikhs and the British are listed in great detail.
Sikhs appear to have made no demands for themselves, but constantly opposed the formation of Pakistan, for which indiscretion they would pay a heavy price during the partition. The author condemns this lack of leadership of the Akalis in very strong language indeed. In May 1947, when the British P.M. invited leaders of all parties to a conference in London, the Akalis failed to send their man. As late as April 1947, we find the Akali Dal passing a resolution accepting a division of the Punjab on a communal basis. But even up to August 1947, they had done nothing to get the Sikh population out of Pakistan. The author, being a close friend of Giani Kartar Singh, was able to get all the details of the Akali Dal parleys between Nehru, Jinnah and the British. He joined the police cadre in about the year 1950, and henceforth he was in a good position to know all about the working of the State administration in Punjab. This book is really all about the politics of the Punjab from the viewpoint of a serving Police Officer.
The days of the partition, the migration, and the efforts at rehabilitation of refugees are vividly described in two chapters.
The position of the sovereign Sikh State in the proposed Union of India is discussed next as also how the Akalis reacted to Lord Wavell’s proposals in this regard, and then we learn about the isolated Maharaja of Patiala signing away his sovereignty.
How the whole idea of sovereignty of the princes was scuttled through the joint efforts of V.P. Menon and Lord Mountbatten, is well expounded in chapter 12.
We next read about the quest for “Punjabi Suba”, and how Nehru dealt with it by enacting the repressive Preventive Detention Act. A brief account of the formation of PEPSU and its dissolution, together with the setting up of a States Reorganisation Commission, give us an insight into the working of Nehru’s mind when in power. The subversion of the Constitution to change it from a Federal Union into a Unitary one is well illustrated. Powers of the states vis-a-vis the Centre are gradually whittled away by the numerous amendments to the Constitution.
The politicisation of the police is seen during Partap Singh Kairon’s ministry in Punjab from 1957 to 1964. This subject is further amplified in detailing the corruption practised by Giani Zail Singh and his officials during 1971 to 1977. The reasons for the failure of laws to pin down and punish erring politicians and bureaucrats are clarified.
The abuse of power and the subversion of the Constitution during Indira’s regime are exposed, with Giani Zail Singh having a field-day in Punjab. “Democracy has turned into a contest of legislative looting, rejecting all restraint and voting for immunity for itself.” The writer rues the inability of the Akalis to remain united to oppose the illegal dismissal of their ministry in 1980 and later to challenge Indira’s Award of 1982 on the river waters.
The Bluestar operation followed by the countrywide massacre of Sikhs are all chronicled in great detail. The causes of the insurgency are analysed and the negative role of the Akali Dal throughout these upheavals is pointed out.
The brief rule of the Barnala ministry and the measures taken to tackle the insurgency in Punjab are detailed.
The use of vigilantes, called “Black Cats”, is squarely condemned by the author, together with police excesses in general during the years 1985 to 1994. We learn how Punjab tried to hold its State Assembly Elections in January 1991, how they were postponed, and how, when elections were proposed in February 1991, the Akalis committed political suicide by boycotting them.
The Beant Singh-K.P.S. Gill era is then described in detail and how the Police Raj came into operation and factors leading to the decadence of present-day politicians are explained towards the end of the book.
To sum up, my assessment of this compilation by B.S. Danewalia :
a) It is rich in factual detail of the eventful politics of Punjab from 1920 to the present day (1997);
b) The presentation could be tidied up by omitting the autobiographical chapter and by proper editing;
c) Ajanta Publications have failed to check some mis-prints, spelling errors and (worst of all) some loose and faulty syntax;