"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Remembering a humanist Prime Minister whose legacy has become more relevant Featured

Gurpreet Singh

November 27 marks the tenth anniversary of the passing away of Vishwanath Pratap Singh aka V.P. Singh - the former Prime Minister of India.

Singh died following a battle with cancer. He had served the world’s so-called largest democracy as Prime Minister from 1989-1990 and left behind a rich legacy of secularism, but the news of his death was eclipsed by the Mumbai terror attack a day before on November 26, 2008. While the incident that left 166 people dead rightfully captured media headlines, there was certainly more to the virtual silence over the news of his death.

Though Singh came from a royal family, history will always see him as a leader with poor man’s lens.

He had started his political career with the Congress party from Uttar Pradesh. However, he later parted ways with the party under the leadership of the late Rajeev Gandhi. The turning point came when he was forced to resign as Defence Minister in Gandhi’s government after he came to learn about high level corruption in the country’s defence deals.

He later cofounded Janata Dal, which came to power with the help of the left parties and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). This was a new political experiment that brought the left and the right together to form a non-Congress coalition government.

Singh took over as Prime Minister under very challenging circumstances. There was an insurgency going on in Punjab for a separate Sikh homeland, while Kashmiri militants were also calling shots for independence. Gandhi had left behind not only the legacy of corruption, but also communal politics. He rode to power riding an anti-Sikh tide in December 1984, in the aftermath of the Sikh massacre organized by the Congress party following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister and Rajeev’s mother, by her Sikh bodyguards. The slain leader had ordered a military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar in June 1984 to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship. The ill-conceived army operation left many devotees dead and several important buildings inside the complex heavily damaged. This had enraged the Sikhs worldwide and led to the murder of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984.

As if this wasn’t enough, the BJP had intensified its campaign for building a Ram temple at a disputed site of Ayodhya. The BJP claims that Mughal emperor Babar had destroyed an original temple that stood at the birthplace of Lord Ram – a revered Hindu god in Ayodhya - and had built a mosque to humiliate the Hindus. They wanted the mosque to be replaced with a temple. Their vicious campaign culminated in the demolition of the mosque in 1992 by Hindu mobs. To outdo the BJP, Rajeev Gandhi also allowed the Hindus to perform prayers at the disputed site, and further precipitated the crisis by letting public broadcast relay a TV serial based on Ramayan.

Singh therefore had a tough road ahead. In spite of these challenges, he never wavered from his stand on secularism and proved himself as a diehard defender of diversity.

In order to assuage the feelings of the Sikhs, he travelled to the Golden Temple Complex in an open jeep to start a dialogue with the Sikh leadership. Years later, while he was visiting US for cancer treatment,  he told me during a phone interview for Radio India in Surrey that he had especially asked a Sikh soldier with an unsheathed sword to be deployed behind him when he addressed the nation on Independence Day, to let the world know that his government trusted the Sikh community and wanted to restore their confidence in the Indian mainstream.

A Sikh friend of mine was the son of Harinder Singh Khalsa, a former Indian diplomat and currently an Aam Aadmi MP, who had resigned in protest against the army attack on the Golden Temple Complex. He told me that Singh’s government gave his father a safe passage to return to India. Khalsa, who was posted in Norway, was framed by the Indian authorities and couldn’t come back home until V.P. Singh came to power.

Singh had also taken a very strong stand in support of affirmative action for Dalits or so-called untouchables and backward groups, by increasing their reservation quota in public sector jobs. This enraged the BJP and the upper caste elite. There were angry protests everywhere in the country. I still remember that in Chandigarh, where we lived at that time, the upper caste elite spearheaded agitations against Singh and he was publicly abused by the protesters. One night they asked the people who lived in our locality to switch off the lights in the entire block to protest against reservation. My father, who supported Singh and disliked Rajeev Gandhi, was firm and decided to defy these dictates. He honestly believed that Singh was doing the right thing by trying to help uplift the communities that were oppressed for years by the upper caste elite.

The BJP was openly inciting the protesters. After all, it believes in the caste system that is still practiced by orthodox Hindus, and desires to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. Even as the BJP was supporting Singh’s coalition government from outside, it was constantly flexing its muscles on the question of caste and religious identity to consolidate majority Hindu votes for a future election.

Singh’s government finally fell when the BJP was adamant to carry on its controversial chariot march to Ayodhya. It happened in November, 1990, when a chariot march led by BJP leader L.K. Advani was stopped in Bihar under the orders of Singh’s trusted ally, the staunch secularist Chief Minister Lalu Yadav. Both Singh and Yadav did not want the BJP to vitiate communal harmony in the country. Singh obviously knew the risk involved, but instead of going with the flow for political survival, let Yadav go ahead and arrest Advani. This led to a vote of no confidence against Singh in the parliament. While Singh did receive support from the left parties, his government was defeated in the no confidence motion and soon became history.

Singh’s exit from power gave right wing politics room to grow in the coming years. Not only was the mosque in Ayodhya razed to the ground under the command of the BJP, it led to more violence and bloodshed. There were anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai followed by serial bombings blamed on Islamic extremists.

In 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya, where a makeshift temple still stands, caught fire leaving more than 50 people dead. The BJP government in Gujarat, led by the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, blamed Muslim extremists for the incident. The whole episode was followed by anti-Muslim massacres engineered by the BJP supporters.

The Mumbai attack that happened exactly ten years ago cannot be seen in isolation from those past incidents of communal violence and serial blasts, which have their roots in the sectarian politics of 1980s. Ironically, Singh, who stood for secularism and humanism, passed away when Mumbai was under siege.

I still remember him warning me during the interview that the BJP poses a great danger to secular fabric of Indian society. Incidentally, this interview took place after the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

Today under Modi, Muslims, Christians and Dalits are being targeted all across India by Hindu extremists with impunity. Had Singh been allowed to run his government, or had he ever been given a brute majority by the Indian electorate, the history of India would have been different. It would have been very easy and comfortable for Singh to align himself with the Hindu majority and enjoy the fruits of power, instead of standing up for minorities and the oppressed communities. Instead, he chose the most difficult path to become a champion of the underdog. His legacy has become even more relevant when we look around to see how leaders like Modi or Trump are openly indulging in divisive politics and promoting majoritarianism, while minorities continue to live in fear.  The silence over his death and its tenth anniversary only shows how majoritarianism has penetrated into the media industry. This is not to suggest that Singh was a perfect politician. He may have had many limitations and contradictions, like other political figures, but we must give credit where it belongs and keep alive the memories of his contribution to social justice.



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Last modified on Tuesday, 27 November 2018 04:45
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Gurpreet Singh

Cofounder and Director of Radical Desi


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