By Dr. Harbans Lal
Dr. Inderjit Kaur, the tireless head of Pingalwara, very kindly invited me to speak at the 2015 Anniversary celebration of Bhagat Puran Singh. Since my ageing body does not permit long travel any more, I promised instead to contribute an essay toward Bhagat ji’s memorial.
Earlier I had already published my account of Bhagat Ji’s attributes and about my close association with him. Here, to benefit from another opportunity, I wish to refresh the national memory of Bhagat ji’s commitment to two of the Guru Granth Universals: compassion and perseverance for a noble cause.
This relates to the time when Bhagat ji was confronted with registering the legal name of Pingalwara to qualify for public financial support. He wanted the name to uphold the Sikh values.
Before I go further, let me digress for a moment to tell you how Bhagat ji’s institution, now known as Pingalwara, became a physical address for which Bhagat ji had to resort to a hunger strike.
Soon after the partition of Punjab, Bhagat ji realized that he would not be able to save the patients under his caregiving without giving them a roof over their head. At the time, they were all huddled in roofless buildings to which the patients had been transferred from a refugee camp.
They were now on the ground under a banyan tree, exposed to the elements, under the care of Dr. Maan Singh Nirankari who was providing free medical services to Bhagat ji’s patients. The roofless buildings posed a danger of flooding from rain and other serious hazards caused by the chilling cold.
All of this greatly distressed Bhagat ji.
Bhagat ji summoned one of his supporters, Lala Des Raj, to tell him that he would rather die than see his patients freeze to death. Bhagat ji proceeded by giving away a peace of gur, raw sugar candy, to symbolically begin a hunger strike until he found a solution. Bhai Des Raj immediately contacted a Sikh philanthropist in town for help. Sardar Surjit Singh Majithia responded with an offer to pay for a roof over the building and asked Bhagat ji to postpone his decision to go on fast while a contractor was being sought for the job.
However, the very next day Bhagat ji was told that he could not continue to occupy the building as it had been declared an ‘evacuee property’ earmarked for refugees who were evicted from their homes in Pakistan. Instead, Bhagat ji was offered by the city administration a place in Inder Palace Cinema which was earlier deserted due to the partition related rioting in the city.
Bhagat ji accepted the offer.
Soon after Bhagat ji moved his 90 destitute patients to the Cinema building, he was informed for the first time that the Cinema had already been auctioned to the Thapar family for real estate development. Mr. Thapar, when contacted, offered to sell the building to Bhagat ji for the amount he had paid and with no profit. Bhagat ji tried but could not raise the required amount of funds. The then premier Sikh institution, Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), offered to pitch in but its contribution was not enough.
Sarai Ram Talai As The First Pingalwara
By now desperate, Bhagat ji began to scour the city for a shelter to house the destitute patients under his care. He had earlier heard of the philanthropy of a Sehajdhari Sikh family in town. Bhai Parkash Chand and Bhai Rattan Chand had inherited Sikh traditions from their ancestors from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time.
Originally their five story home was built in the vicinity of Darbar Sahib for the convenience of daily attendance. Later, circumstances led the family having to move to Rattan Chand Road in Amritsar. But they continued to have parkash of Guru Granth Sahib in their new home. The family hired a full time granthi for daily seva which included kirtan and Gurbani recitations.
Bhagat Puran Singh sensed an opportunity and went to see the family with a delegation of the city’s Sikh elders. Bhagat ji described his desperation to the Bhai Chand family, and explained that his patients were being asked to move out of Inder Palace Cinema. He asked the two brothers for their ancestors’ property at Ram Talaai in Amritsar. Bhagat ji reminded his hosts of the high repute of their family for generous philanthropy.
After a few minutes of silence, both brothers folded their hands while thanking Bhagat ji, saying that they felt great honor with the opportunity of serving their Guru in this way. Further, they added a financial grant to the offer, should the property need any repairs. The only thing they wished in return was that Bhagat ji consider to keep the memory of their father Rai Bahadure Kalyan Dass alive.
The Sikh scholar Professor Narinder Singh Soch described the Kalyan Dass property as the first real home of Pingalwara. It was there that the flag of Pingalwara was hoisted for first time. The patients now had a roof over their heads and a place to be comfortable while under treatment. That too, for the very first time.
Thenceforth, Bhagat ji could concentrate on moving his institution forward and make plans for further expansion.
Not Just A ‘Sikh’ Pingalwara
Master Tara Singh, the incontestable leader of the Sikhs in those days, was very close to Bhagat Puran Singh and was a supporter of his cause. But he had another grand idea for Bhagat ji’s Pingalwara.
Earlier, when Bhagat ji was trying to raise funds to pay for the Cinema facility, he had almost reached his goal, except for the contribution from Master Tara Singh. Master ji would not come up with funds from the institutions he controlled. SGPC had already resolved to set aside a significant amount towards buying the Cinema facility but it was not enough without the assistance of Master ji.
Quotes from Bhagat Puran Singh Ji
“The thoughts of great men are the common heritage of humanity and let our countrymen receive inspiration and guidance from these thoughts.”
“Freedom is not an achievement but an opportunity.”
“Those who die for their country are martyrs and those who live for their country are greater martyrs.”
“Dignity in death is a birthright of each living thing.”
Master Tara Singh told Bhagat ji that Cinema facility was not suitable for his institution. What Master ji had in mind was to use land owned by SGPC and build a Sikh Pingalwara under the management of SGPC.
Bhagat ji would not accept any such thing for two reasons. First, he was following his Guru’s edicts that all human beings must be served without any distinction of cast, religion or any other distinguishing divider … the only criterion was to be that they needed care.
Secondly, he would not accept that such an altruistic institution to go under the management of SGPC where group politics and selfish leadership might prevail from time to time. Bhagat ji could clearly envision the future of institutions under the SGPC.
Instead, Bhagat ji wanted that the Pingalwara should radiate Sikh values and remembered as a Pingalwara to serve all without distinction and it administratively stay under his authority to ensure its universality. This decision was certainly a wise decision in view of what is going on in the management of SGPC-run institutions in Punjab today.
The Present Location
After Sardar Hukam Singh was elected to the Indian Parliament, he came to Amritsar to pay his respects at Darbar Sahib. Bhagat ji read of his visit in the newspaper and immediately arranged for the new Sikh MP to visit Pingalwara. At the end of this visit Bhagat ji asked for financial help to pay for the running expenses of his institution. Sardar Hukam Singh assured Bhagat ji that he would ask the Union Minister Mehar Chand Khanna to visit Pingalwara for this purpose.
Soon after Sardar Hukam Singh’s visit, Mr. Khanna and his wife visited Pingalwara, and after a firsthand observation of the helpless patients, the Minister committed to help.
He asked Bhagat ji if his institution was registered under the Charitable Institutions Act so that a grant application could be made. Bhagat ji asked his helpers to comply with it as soon as possible.
Here, Master ji again proposed that it should be registered as a Sikh Pingalwara under SGPC management to seek the grant but Bhagat ji stood fast on his own plan.
The All India Pingalwara Society, Amritsar, was registered as such with the Registrar of Companies, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh on March 6, 1957. Soon thereafter Mr. Khanna consulted the Hospital administration and recommended a grant of Rs. 40,000 to the Pingalwara.
On November 11, 1958, Bhagat ji purchased the present site for the Head Office of Pingalwara for Rs. 16,964 from the District Rent and Managing Officer, Amritsar.
This became a reality due to the help of the Union Rehabilitation Minister Mehar Chand Khanna, to whom, this time around, Dr. Gopi Chand Bhargava had spoken. Dr. Bhargava was then the Chief Minister of Punjab. He knew Bhagat ji and his commitment to the universal Sikh values from his Lahore days where he became Bhagat ji’s admirer.
Pingalwara means “the home of the crippled” and it is as such that it serves, nothing more and nothing less. Bhagat Puran Singh would have been 111 years old today. He would have been thrilled to see how far his mission and vision of service had come, and how well it is being served by its current leadership in even going beyond its original boundaries.
Universal Sikh values of steadfastness for compassionate undertakings of altruistic causes and for serving humanity without prejudice are alive and well. Bhagat ji’s lifelong struggle is a shining illustration. He was the kind of person that the Guru Granth Sahib described on page 760.
ਜੀਵਨ ਰੂਪ ਅਨੂਪ ਦਇਆਲਾ ॥
Whose life is an embodiment of unmatched compassion.
Presently, there are many Pingalwaras in Punjab of India, and some outside, in other parts of that country. There are even plans to establish such Pingalwaras beyond.
Friends of Pingalwara in USA recently established Pingalwara in the Nation’s capital in USA at 3801, NW Massachusetts Ave. This site is close to the White House and on the historic avenue that houses many embassies and other significant sites.
I know that Bhagat Puran Singh ji would be thrilled to see the expansion of his altruistic institution under the inspiration from Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Modified from an earlier version published in daily journal Sikhchic of September 25, 2015 issue. http://www.sikhnet.com/news/compassion-and-perseverance-sikh-values-bhagat-puran-singh-upheld
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Harbans Lal, PhD; D.Litt (hons)
Emeritus Professor and Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neuroscience, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.