The Congress party has lost several stalwarts in recent months. After Tarun Gogoi, Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vohra, the loss of Sardar Buta Singh comes as a reminder that times, they are a-changin’. Our outstanding batsmen who scored valiantly for the party have returned to the pavilion when we needed them at the crease the most.
The departure of people who have been the faces of the Congress and the mind of its top leadership at a time when electoral fortunes have turned indifferent, leaves the party staring at gaping holes. Sardar Buta Singh’s political career and life were a living example of assimilation and integration of Indian society. Born in a modest, Mazhabi Sikh family he rose to become a trusted colleague of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi. Giani Zail Singh and Buta Singh were at a critical juncture in Congress politics — the crucial link between Sikhs and the party. Buta Singh’s quiet handling of the fallout of military action at the Golden Temple will remain the most discreet contribution to national unity.
It was no easy task for a Sikh leader of the Congress to stand by the party and yet carefully guide the bruised and battered mind of his community back to their glorious participation in nation-building. At one point, when the Congress was ousted by the Janata Dal, Buta Singh handed over his official residence on Akbar Road to be used as the party office, confining himself to a bare room with a desi khat. He was a remarkable example of faithfulness and determination with more comfortably placed colleagues deserting ship. When one thinks of the vicissitudes that Buta Singh panned — the sober, gentle, steadfast man of all seasons — he can only be described as the Congress rock.
Secularism, as it came naturally
The time that Sardar Buta Singh lived in was, despite periodic political setbacks, a period of permanence and steady thinking. He was, like many of his generation, deep-rooted in the secular mould of politics: there was neither any pressure felt to show oneself to be a man of faith, nor the opposite desire to flaunt oneself to be emancipated of religion. It was just the way one was: the surface attributes silently underscored diversity while inside there was wholesome inclusiveness and acceptance of inclusivity. People who complain about secularism having been reduced to a meaningless and hollow cover for political appeasement need only study the life of Sardar Buta Singh.
Secularism, as it came naturally and transparently, is what his life and politics were about, and there is a great deal for us to learn from. Yet, it was secularism of modesty and unselfconscious commitment, not an assertive evangelist dogma. Humble, self-effacing, patient, attentive and comforting was the persona that became a crucial dimension of a communicative Congress.
Outreach, mediation, reconciliation, accommodation with clarity on ideology was the Congress of that era and Buta Singh fitted the role admirably. Consequently, he became indispensable to successive Congress leaders, a comfortable presence in times of stress and trial.
A true Indian
The years during which Buta Singh played a critical role in politics were a testing time for any Sikh leader and each one reacted and responded to the trying events differently.
While the irrepressible Amarinder Singh found it difficult to resist the mood and settled for a stint with the Akali Dal, Buta Singh has left no record of incisiveness or uncertainty. He was never heard complaining about how bad things had become or indeed expressing his helplessness in responding to the mood of Sikhs. He neither gave in to frayed emotions nor was ever seen as a helpless observer. In the end, a badly damaged fabric was restored and Buta Singh was, as a gesture of appreciation and confidence, appointed to the constitutional office of Governor of Bihar. But politics and attitudes had changed, indeed expectations of public life had transformed radically.
It must have been a deep disappointment for him not to have been able to steady the rollercoaster electoral and legislative politics of Bihar leading to the interference of the Supreme Court. But Buta Singh, instead of hanging on to the position, chose to retreat into retirement as a decorated general of many tough battles who could not win his last battle because the rules of combat had altered radically. However, even as he took his final bow, as indeed with each significant step he took throughout his illustrious career, Buta Singh left a mark distinct and instructive.
He lived his life as a true Indian and a committed Congress worker. In an age when the marketplace has a scarcity of the two, Buta Singh will be a reminder and inspiration to younger generations who hope and are destined to serve their land.
Salman Khurshid is a Congress leader, senior advocate and author. Views are personal.