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A Colossus that Inspired Legions

Sardar Verpal Singh

It took me longer than I would have expected to come to terms with the news of Dr Kharak Singh’s passing away. Though my association with Dr Sahib started in 1997, it seems as if I had known Dr Sahib virtually all my life. His role in giving direction to my life that has taken me to where I am today cannot be put into words. All the skills that I find indispensable in my work with the Sikh community of New Zealand were honed under Dr Sahib’s mentoring.

My first contact with Dr Sahib, when I look back as to how it came about, often makes me wonder if it was something that was meant to be. It so happened that a translation of Jap ji by one M L Sharma was being distributed free as part of Khalsa Tercentenary celebrations. I brought the flawed translation to Institute of Sikh Studies’ attention (during my first visit to Dr Sahib’s house, which happened to be Institute of Sikh Studies (IOSS) office as well) and suggested a critique. Dr Kharak Singh asked me with a smile, “Why don’t you review it for Abstracts of Sikh Studies?!” Till then, except for a paper read at a symposium of Institute of Engineers’ and a couple of articles in the Sikh Review, I had not written much, especially no book reviews, for publication. I was encouraged by the idea that a scholar of Dr Kharak Singh’s stature thought me capable of critiquing this particular book. So I returned home to Kapurthala and wrote the critique, which was published by Dr Kharak Singh (at that time founder Secretary of Institute of Sikh Studies, and founder editor of widely respected research journal Abstracts of Sikh Studies) in the Abstracts.

This started my association with Dr Sahib, which would be further strengthened when he invited me to join the IOSS as Assistant Editor to work on a five-volume history of Sikhs, which was being funded by the SGPC. I spent the next nearly five years under his tutelage learning and discussing various aspects of Sikh history and philosophy with some of the best Sikh minds, the brightest and sharpest amongst whom I always found to be Dr Sahib himself.

Though Dr Kharak Singh’s expertise was in Agriculture, specifically Agro-Economics in which subject he did his M.Sc. and Ph.D. from Ohio University of USA, he was respected by historians of the calibre of Dr Kirpal Singh, Dr Balwant Singh Dhillon, Dr Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, Pr Surjit Singh Gandhi, to name only a few. His scholarship was respected by even those he criticized – like Dr W H McLeod, Dr J S Grewal, Dr Indu Banga and Dr Gurinder Mann.

He was one of a crop of Sikh intellectuals who at one time occupied some of the most prominent positions on world bodies. Amongst these may be named Dr S S Johl, Dr G S Kalkat and Dr Kharak Singh himself. We as a community were so enthralled when Manmohan Singh became the PM. We heard statements that he has brought the Turban prominence on world stage. It is true – but before the turmoil in Punjab in 1980s and 1990s, the Sikh Turban was seen with understanding and respect virtually all over the world due to intellectuals like Dr Kharak Singh, Dr Johl, Dr Kalkat, Justice Choor Singh (of Singapore) amongst many others, who not only carried their Sikh identity with pride but added to this pride due to some of the most brilliant work in their respective fields.

B S Danewalia, in his book Police and Politics in 20th century Punjab writes at one place that Akali leaders never understood the importance of legal and administrative framework and never rose above the level of a “bunch of agitators.” It was from Dr Kharak Singh that I learnt the importance of legal and administrative framework and how it may be harnessed to attain a community’s aspirations without resorting to an agitational approach. I remember an article that I had written and shown to Dr Sahib for comment. He called me to his office and very gently asked what I sought to achieve through that article. I said I wanted to apportion blame for the mess Punjab was in. He pointed to the part where I had used harsh language for a prominent Akali leader and to maintain my own neutrality treated his main rival (leader of another Akali Dal) to similar terminology. To add to it, I had used language that castigated the entire Congress and communist leadership as well. Dr Sahib gently said, “Through language like this, you are not going to change anything. In fact, you cannot make a positive difference in the present situation by abusing those who can. Our writings and our actions should be aimed at influencing those in a position to make a difference. You can say exactly the same thing without using the harsh terminology. Words chosen with care can open doors and words used carelessly can shut the doors in your face.”

That is a lesson, which has served me very well since that day towards end of 1998. It was then that I learnt the difference between a belligerent approach and a constructive approach. I learnt not to doubt the intentions of those whose actions may have affected us negatively. For, then one does not look to agitate, but looks for solutions so that similar events do not happen in future. As chairman of the Sikh Centre and secretary of the Sikh Council of New Zealand, this approach has proved most useful in my work.

The time that I spent at IOSS was all spent at Dr Sahib’s house. In fact, like many others who worked for IOSS, I became virtually a member of Dr Sahib’s family. Initially, it took me a long time to realize who was and who was not related to Dr Sahib through family ties, for I myself felt as if I had always been part of Dr Sahib’s family. The love and affection I got from Biji, the numerous discussions I had with Sumit Kaur and Birendra Kaur, the poetry recitations of Gurjot Singh that I enjoyed, have forever enriched my life. I cannot even begin to imagine the loss that they all have had to bear at Dr Sahib’s passing away. My heart especially goes out to Biji who always welcomed a steady line of visitors every day of the week with a smile and a ready cup of tea. Dr Sahib and Biji’s home was a true example of Guru Nanak’s dharamsaal. People from all over the world came to visit the Institute and sometimes stayed for days and enjoyed the hospitality like part of the family, without feeling even for a second that they might have overstayed their welcome. I do not think I will ever see the same openness and welcome of heart and hearth that I experienced in the household of Dr Sahib and Biji. It was Biji’s strength that enabled Dr Sahib to tirelessly work for the community.

The range of projects that Dr Sahib initiated and managed is so great that it boggles one’s mind. The Sikh history project, the Nanakshahi Calendar reformation, the Vanjara Trust, the Sikh Core Group, International Sikh Confederation, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, All India Gurdwaras Act, Sikh Personal Law, Gurmat Chetna Lehar — all these projects (to name only a few) have had an everlasting impact on the Sikh community. The way Dr Sahib, along with other stalwarts like S Daljeet Singh and S Jagjit Singh organized a series of seminars in UK, Canada and USA to successfully thwart the false propaganda by certain Western scholars is something that will continue to resonate with Sikh masses for generations to come. His in-depth writings on various aspects of Sikh history and philosophy occupy a very special place for me.

A little known aspect of Dr Sahib’s life is the mentoring he did of some prominent personalities from the field of creative arts and sports. Dr Sahib mentored portrait artists, feature film directors, folk singers, novelists and also sportspersons amongst a whole range of creative fields. What I learnt from him was that a Sikh’s life does not revolve only around the narrow definition of religion that we often mistakenly follow. “Our ever expanding understanding of Gurmat provides us the focus and strength to excel in a field of our choice. A Sikh is a generalist with specialist knowledge of a chosen field. We should know something about everything and everything about at least one thing,” he had once said to me when we were discussing the difference between a gurmukh and a manmukh.

Dr Kharak Singh’s passing away is a great loss to the community, but in his life are some very important lessons for all of us. He will continue to inspire generations of Sikhs with the way he lived his life – selflessly and imbued with Gurmat.


    ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved.