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Tohra: The longest reigning 'Pope' of Sikhs

April 01, 2004 03:53 IST

Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who passed away on Wednesday night, was the longest reigning 'Pope' of the Sikhs. He rose from humble beginnings to emerge as a patriarch and rebel in the rough and tumble of the community's religio-politics.

Born at Tohra village of Patiala district in Punjab in September 1924, he began taking an interest in religion from an early age and was an active Akali worker even before the partition of India. He became general secretary of the Patiala unit of the Akali Dal in 1947.

A graduate in Punjabi from the Lahore University, Tohra worked at the grass roots level for the next two decades and came into contact with Leftists, including Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjit.

Known as a hardliner, Tohra's image in Akali politics was that of a non-conformist and had at various times clashed with Surjit Singh Barnala and Parkash Singh Badal who had headed Akali Dal governments in Punjab in the eighties and nineties.

He joined hands with Badal in June 2003 after the SAD-BJP alliance lost power during the last assembly elections in Punjab.

An agriculturalist, Tohra participated in several agitations, including the Riyasti Praja Mandal Movement in Nabha, over Punjabi Suba and for the farmers of Haryana, and even was imprisoned several times, including during the Emergency.

Tohra became the acting president of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee, which manages key Sikh shrines, in 1972 after the death of Sant Chanan Singh. He was formally elected SGPC president for the first time in November that year.

The SGPC is considered the mini-parliament of the Sikh community and Tohra headed it for a record 27 years at a stretch before he was unceremoniously removed from the key post following a split in the Shiromani Akali Dal in the wake of his revolt against Badal's leadership.

He was very popular in Punjab until Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala emerged on the scene and militants began calling the shots.

Tohra's differences with then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal contributed to the fall of the Akali-Janata coalition government in 1980.

That began a period of crisis for Tohra did not oppose Bhindranwala's hardline views and instead seemed to succumb to his cult.

After Operation Bluestar in 1984, Tohra became an embittered man and did not endorse the Punjab Accord, which the Rajiv Gandhi government signed with the Akalis for sharing political power with Harchand Singh Longowal.

He took another controversial step some time later by getting militants to demolish the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh community, which had been rebuilt after Operation Bluestar by 'pro-government' religious leaders.

This act turned him into the bete noire, not only of the Centre but also of the then Akali government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala.

He was detained under the National Security Act but continued to be elected SGPC president for several years in absentia.

Throughout this bleak period, Badal supported Tohra. The friends parted in 1999 after the SGPC chief pressed for Badal's removal as SAD chief.

The origin of the feud could be traced to his November 1998 demand for a one-man-one-post policy for Akali Dal leaders, a remark seen by political observers as an indirect attack on Badal who was at that time both the chief minister and SAD president.

Badal got Tohra removed as SGPC chief on March 16, 1999, a few days before the commencement of the tercentenary celebrations of the birth of Sikh religion at Anandpur Sahib.

Tohra was then expelled from SAD forcing him to form a new party, Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal, with five members of the Badal cabinet, including Manjit Singh Calcutta, Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Harmail Singh Tohra, Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Koli, who had resigned in protest against the expulsion.

Badal, however, consolidated his grip on the Akal Takht by removing Bhai Ranjit Singh from the post of jathedar in February 1999 and installing Giani Puran Singh.

In the February 2001 assembly elections in Punjab, the SAD was routed, Tohra's SSHAD failed to win even a single seat and Badal was at the receiving end of the Congress government's anti-corruption campaign.

On June 13, 2003, Badal and Tohra finally buried the hatchet after the latter welcomed the former's appearance before the Akal Takht and expressed satisfaction over the mild religious punishment ordered by the Sikh clergy to the former chief minister.

As part of the rapprochement deal, Tohra was appointed SGPC president in July 2003 after he accepted Badal's pre-eminence in the SAD.

Tohra was associated with several Sikh educational institutions.

He had served as a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1969 to 1976, was re-elected in May 1980, April 1982, April 1998 and again in March 2004. He was a member of the Lok Sabha in 1977-79.
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