By Dr. Harbans Lal
Sardar Ganga Singh Dhillon left for his timeless journey, as we call it in the Sikh tradition, on September 24, 2014. The cause was injuries resulting from an accidental fall followed by medical complications over a period of several weeks.
Although I had known Ganga Singh from his student days in Punjab, where he was an activist for the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), our more active collegiality began in USA. He migrated to Washington, DC a few years after I did.
Ganga Singh’s birth place was only 8 miles from the birth place of Guru Nanak: Nanakana Sahib, now in West Punjab, Pakistan. He finished school in the Guru Nanak Khalsa High School in Nanakana Sahib before joining The Sikh National College in Lahore.
His father, Sardar Kahan singh, was martyred near Nanakana Sahib.
Ganga Singh’s life was turbulent but full of chardi kala and vigor for what he wanted to accomplish. I remember him continually pestering me to include the issue of the Sikh Shrines in Pakistan in my presidential address at the Annual Conference of AISSF, to which I too subscribed with the same passion.
The partition of Punjab and India played havoc with the destiny of the brave Sikh people when the future of Sikh historical places and the footprints of our Gurus in the part of Punjab left behind in newly-created Pakistan was mischievously overlooked in the confused and haphazardly managed exchange of populations. They were erroneously lumped with the rest of the problems of partition.
We were assured publicly that the arrangements between the two governments were only provisional and the matter of the Sikh holy places would be resolved to our satisfaction.
But Ganga Singh was not going to trust these promises.
I cannot forget the wintry day in 1974 when I was driving Ganga Singh from Washington, DC to New York where both of us were scheduled to speak at the Richmond Hill Gurdwara on the formation of The Sri Nankana Sahib Foundation.
The idea was to secure free access to our shrines in Pakistan for visits and for the maintenance of the properties. It began to drizzle and the traffic had slowed down. We had a lot of time to spend in the car chalking out programs of the Foundation to secure free access to the historical gurdwaras left behind in Pakistan.
Sardar Ganga Singh followed the plans and gathered a delegation of 25 prominent Sikhs from India like Sardar Joginder Singh Mann. Chief Justice Harbans Singh, and Jathedar Man Singh Hambo, as well as a number of others from across the diaspora. They all supported the idea and Ganga Singh officially launched the Nankana Sahib Foundation at the very site of Guru Nanak’s birth place on November 11, 1975.
Sardar Ganga Singh, through his political connections, discovered only in 1998 that the Home Ministers of India and Pakistan, Gobind Vallabhai Pant and Sikander Mirza, had secretly signed an agreement in 1955 which declared Sikhism’s birthplace, the Janam Asthaan, and other historical gurdwaras as “evacuee properties” and thus leaving liitle room for negotiation.
Our eyes did not believe the smell of the 1955 arrangement, which designated the birth place of Guru Nanak at Nankana, and the birth place of Sikhism at Kartarpur, as ordinary properties. It just did not make sense to us.
It again goes to the credit of Ganga Singh along with the leadership of the Foundation to point out to the Pakistani leaders that as long as any Sikh lived anywhere in the world, Guru Nanak’s place of birth could not be considered an evacuee property as Mecca and Medina could not ever be termed or designated evacuee properties as long as any Muslim was alive.
These efforts resulted in the historical declaration on the formation of the Pakistan Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PGPC) by the President of Pakistan in April 1999. The President announced his action as a Vaisakhi gift to the Sikh Nation.
Immediately after the formation of PGPC, Sardar Ganga Singh asked me to contact the Foundation supporters to come up with plans to launch efforts to similarly identify and restore sanctity of the historical Sikh shrines in Bangladesh, Burma, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other countries.
During our struggle to secure free visits and rights to manage our shrines in Pakistan, we also learnt that the Muslim public needed to learn more about the actual history of the Sikh-Muslim relationship so that the Sikhs could form a cordial basis for their interaction with them. Such relations were crucial, especially with regards to the upkeep of their shrines in different countries.
Without an understanding between the two communities, the desirable sanctity of the Sikh shrines in Pakistan and in the Middle East could not be maintained.
Thus, Sardar Ganga singh marched ahead to form the Lahore Conference on Sikh Muslim Understanding.
Towards this goal a joint statement was made at the All Pakistan Ulemas Conference. Then the Foundation honored the Islamic scholars and artists at several public functions to promote networking with them.
The man I wish to remember today was wise, full of vigor and the burning desire to promote the Sikh national identity, to preserve Sikh heritage. It will be difficult to fill the void created by his departure.
He will be sorely missed.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SIKHCHIC IN SEPT 2014.
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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.
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