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The former Punjab chief minister who fought terror and loved tea

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On his death anniversary, two decades since his assassination, here’s a look at Beant Singh, the man who ended militancy’s choke-hold on Punjab.

New Delhi: On 31 August 1995, J.S. Maini followed Beant Singh, then the chief minister of a Punjab still recovering from militancy’s darkest day, into an elevator at the state secretariat in Chandigarh. Singh and Maini, his principal secretary, were headed out to sign some papers.

“Moments before the doors closed”, Maini later told his wife, “a friend called me out.” “We went back upstairs, and that’s when we heard the explosion,” he added.

Just as Singh was stepping into his white ambassador, a suicide bomber struck. Singh and the assassin were among 17 people killed in the attack, which the Khalistan separatist group Babbar Khalsa International claimed as their doing soon after.

It has been over two decades since the assassination of Singh, the man credited with breaking militancy’s choke-hold on Punjab after taking office at its peak. However, his legacy remains tainted.


Also read: After being attacked in New York, Akali leader challenges ‘Khalistan supporters’


Iron fist

Born into an army family in undivided Punjab in 1922, Singh followed his father Hazura Singh’s footsteps and entered military service shortly after graduating from Government College, Lahore. However, he was to break tradition 2-3 years later, when the family moved to Bilaspur, a village few kilometres away from Kotli, after Partition.

Singh started his political career as the sarpanch of Bilaspur in 1959, and climbed the political ladder to enter Punjab Vidhan Sabha as an independent candidate a decade later.

Despite a few setbacks along the way, Singh maintained immense resolve to “make a difference for the people of Punjab,” his grandson Gurkirat Singh Kotli, himself an MLA from Khanna, Ludhiana, tells ThePrint.

As Punjab dealt with chaos, Singh became the chief minister in 1992 on a Congress ticket. At the time, the state was recording an average daily death toll of 25 people. Well-armed radical Sikh groups roamed the streets with impunity, as their demand for a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, only grew more loud and bloody with each passing year. For most, Punjab had been lost to terrorism.

Former Punjab CM Beant Singh (L) with his then principal secretary J. S. Maini (R) | By special arrangement
Former Punjab CM Beant Singh (L) with his then principal secretary J. S. Maini (R) | By special arrangement

Merely months after Singh came to power, the state was put back on the road to recovery.

The lasting legacy of Singh, who, supported by his right-hand man and then Punjab Police chief K.P.S. Gill, can largely be attributed to his firm, no-nonsense approach that resulted in a rapid and effective clampdown on Khalistani militancy.

However, there were consequences to this unrelenting war on terror. Criticism over Singh’s orders as directly resulting in the death of numerous innocent, young Punjabi boys, who got caught in the crossfire between the militants and the police, has only mounted since.


Also read: I swear upon God, I don’t know what the 2020 Khalistan referendum is: AAP leader Khaira


The grandfather 

Singh’s grandson Gurkirat remembers him as a man who loved tea. “He was a teetotaler, vegetarian, and mostly liked home food,” he says, but, “he loved chai a lot. So much that he drank 10-15 cups a day.”

Gurkirat adds that his grandfather never took a holiday in his life, and his dedication to his job was so absolute, that “he never even took us anywhere to eat.” Recounting his time with his grandfather, Gurkirat says it was fairly limited.

“I don’t think he would sit with us for more than 30 minutes at a time because he always had some work to do or some people to meet. At least 2,000 people would come to his residence daily, and he was the kind of man who tried to make the effort to meet each of them individually,” he says.

Both Maini – now unwell but whose wife remembers everything that happened 23 years ago as if it happened yesterday – and Gurkirat remember Singh as a humble man who strived to remove the formal barriers between him and the public.

“Under him, the atmosphere had gotten so much better that security weren’t even checking people, that’s why the blast took place, because even the average citizen’s car would stand near his,” Gurkirat explains. For him, his grandfather was always “for the Congress and the people.”

At the time of the blast, a 20-year-old Gurkirat heard the explosion while sitting in a room on the second floor of the secretariat waiting for his grandfather. “5-6 cars were on fire and there were bodies lying strewn about. Everyone inside the building was running towards the windows and exits. I went home and told my grandmother, but at the time we weren’t sure if he had died. K.P.S. Gill later confirmed his death,” Gurkirat told ThePrint.

‘Controversial era’ 

Maini suffers from dementia today. But the cruelty of age has not diminished his family’s memory of his “miraculous escape,” as he referred to it, and the sombre, confusion leaden days that followed.

“I didn’t know where my husband was because the whole area was sealed off,” his wife, Gurpreet Maini says, recounting her frantic attempts to reach her husband after she was informed of the blast. “For a while there was a massive crisis, they were all taken aback and shocked at what exactly happened.”

“He was a good man, Beant Singh,” she adds, “but I think that era was very controversial. People say that a lot of innocent boys were killed in the process of cleansing this state of terrorism, and that’s probably why he was blown up.”

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2 COMMENTS

  1. M.S ,as all music lovers fondly remember, was a great singer of classical music, of my time. It is not only perfection but also the ‘bhava’ of her songs that had enslaved many people like me. There is the unquestionable divinity in all her super melodies. Pranaamam Amma.

  2. Mr Beant Singh Was A Traditional Politician and dyed in The wool congressman Who With his govt ushered In Peace and prosperity In a State Suffering The onslaught of Terror since the early 1980s.Having Travelled Around The punjab Grain Basket Of india As a Tourist In 1992 and Again In 1995 One Saw first Hand Hindus/Sikhs And Other Communitys Enjoying Life Once Again Visiting Cinemas. Attending Weddings,Cultural shows/Events In Urban And rural Areas of Jullundur/Ludhiana Districts.Old Along With New Industrys And Developments Starting Up In The State After Over a Decade.All Credit Goes To Mr Singh Who Left Behind a Great legacy In The Early/Middle 1990s.

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