Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal
It was a sad news from the UK for all of us ex-Federationists, no matter where we lived, to hear of the sudden demise of Sardar Harcharan Singh. His remains were cremated on June 21, 2017, at Kingston Upon Thames, UK. He left behind his wife since 1963, Satnam Kaur, and three married children: Parveen Kaur, Mohan Paul Singh and Sharan Kaur, and 8 grandchildren.
I am still young enough to remember November 19, 1953. On that day, All India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF) officials saw both Harcharan Singh – AISSF General Secretary, and Sardar Karam Singh – Delhi Circle President, off on their journey to the UK for higher education. Two days earlier both were given send off hugs at the Delhi Railway Station and an evening felicitation at Bombay’s Mangini Restaurant. Through them, and through Dr. Raghbir Singh and Jagtar Singh Sidhu who were already in the UK, we were dreaming of internationalizing the Aims and Objectives of AISSF.
We remember Harcharan, also, promising to make space in the UK for those who wanted to follow him in the coming years. I was one among them with hazy desire to go abroad for higher education.
Before departing for the UK, Harcharan had already graduated from the Delhi University in Law LLB & LLM (double graduate). In the UK, he took courses in Engineering and Chemistry.
A Wise and Deep-Thinking Youth Leader
As far back as I recall, Harcharan was an activist in every forward-looking Sikh organization. He used to tell us that when he personally experienced the horrors of the partition of the Indian subcontinent, they aroused his sentiments to serve the nation. He became active in students movement very early on.
Harcharan led a protest march of the university students on August 9, 1946. As a result, he was arrested and kept in Delhi District jail until September 2. Then he was the first and later the last President of the Delhi Students’ Congress.
Harcharan Singh made a point to personally go to India Gate in New Delhi to witness the British flag being lowered to give way to the hoisting of the Indian Tricolor flag. That was the major symbolic event to mark the freedom of India from the British rulers. Also, it was there that young Harcharan genuinely felt that the Sikhs had failed to get their fair share of India’s independence.
The partition of Indian sub-subcontinent as a price paid for India’s independence included an exceptionally unfair partition of the Sikh lands and history. As a result, it generated a sense of insecurity in the Sikh mind whether they would be able to grow in an environment in which their distinct national expression might not find fulfillment.
It is this type of anxiety that led Harcharan to join AISSF. Soon after joining AISSF he became the Organizer of the Delhi Circle of AISSF and progressively he was upped to the Office of the General Secretary of AISSF.
Sikh Youth Who Confronted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel
An instant that I will never forget. As I described above, the Sikhs were caught undefended and unsure about their future status in the free India. The Sikh leadership of the time had miserably failed the Sikhs both in their political future and unfair borders of the divided Punjab. The stress was magnified when they could not get any concrete answer from any power to be about their future either in India or in Pakistan. One thing they knew that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel would have a significant role in configuring the future government of India.
The AISSF leadership was very eager to talk to Sardar Patel who had become the Deputy Prime Minister of India and who was on his way to be the architect of India’s political makeup. After all, he had won full confidence of the Hindu majority and was going to be in authority for consolidating India’s princely kingdoms. These territories included several sovereign Sikh states.
Sardar Patel would not meet with the AISSF leadership until Sardar Harcharan Singh devised a way.
AISSF volunteers found out that Sardar Patel used to regularly take a morning walk almost every day on the roadside in front of his bungalow at 1, Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi. Sardar Harcharan Singh was designated to find the exact time of the walk and the precise pathway. After a few days of stacking Sardar Patel in front of his residence, Harcharan succeeded in determining the exact time and exact route for Sardar’s walk.
Harcharan Singh then took two of his trusted colleagues and secretly began to track Sardar Patel to determine appropriate opportunity to confront him. One day, they succeeded to suddenly appear right in front of Sardar Patel on his walk. They stopped him there. They were very courteous, and they respectfully exchanged greetings with Sardar Patel. Although, finding 3 young Sikhs in front of him must have startled Sardar Patel, but he maintained his gracious repose.
The AISSF leaders then methodically narrated the Sikh concerns about their future in the free India. They asked if Sardar Patel could spell out in general what was in his mind on that account.
Sardar Patel patiently heard the Sikh young men but kept silent pretending that he was deeply looking into the Sikh grievances. However, after a period of silence, he advised AISSF leadership to see Sardar Baldev Singh who was going to be the future Minister of Defense. Patel promised that he too would pass on the Sikh anxiety to Sardar Baldev Singh who could then negotiate with the Congress Party leaders about the issues of concern. The Sikh youth insisted on getting some pointers from his own thoughts on the issue, but Sardar Patel would not budge from his stated answer.
A home for all at Leamington Spa
Initially, after arrival in the UK, Sardar Harcharan Singh found a factory job that moved him to Leamington Spa before returning to London to work at the Royal Mint near Tower Bridge.
On my way to the USA in 1956, I broke my journey in the UK for a few weeks. I stayed with Sardar Jagtar Singh Sidhu who had been earlier AISSF activist from Ludhiana. As Jagtar was in touch with Harcharan, he bought me a train ticket to visit Harcharan.
Although Harcharan was only a couple of hours away from London, the train took over four hours due to an ongoing repair of the railroad track. When I reached the destination, it was after midnight, and no one was there to receive me. Those days there were no internet or mobil phones to inform the host of any change in the time of arrival.
I carried my suitcase and walked out of the Railroad station only to find a single taxi at the taxi stand. When I approached the cab, the British driver opened the door to seat me and started to drive before I had any chance of telling him my destination.
I was kind of scared of the Britsih driver but gathered enough courage to ask him as to where was he taking me. He gave me the address which was actually Sardar Harcharan Singh’s residence. I asked as to how did he find out that I was a visitor to that location.
I can not forget what the British taxi driver told me after he had confirmed that I was a new arrival from India. He revealed that everyone coming from India and not having a temporary shelter was welcome at that address for a few days. Thus every passenger from India is driven to that very location. The driver also offered not to charge me any fare if I did not have money in my pocket.
I can not think of a better humanity than that Harcharan Singh practiced by providing shelter to anyone who was a stranger in the new place and needed help.
Activist in the United Kingdom
In 1963, Harcharan married Satnam Kaur and moved to Surbiton in 1970. I regularly visited him in Surbiton, considering it as my home away from home.
To make his living, Harcharan Singh worked for 20 years at Engelhard Industries of UK. Until his retirement, he was Company Director of Greasby’s Auction House. His colleagues remembered him for his kindness, honesty, hard work and sense of humor. Throughout, Harcharan’s passion was to promote Sikh values and Sikh causes through various initiatives in the UK.
In 1970’s, Harcharan helped start the Kingston Sikh Association that held monthly congregations in Tolworth. He served as General Secretary of the Association for many years.
In 1980, Harcharan organized the first Sikh Retreat at Hatfield Polytechnic where he provided teachers brought from India to teach Sikh values to youth.
In 2006, Harcharan Singh helped build the first Permanent Gurdwara in Kingston UK upon the Thames. The Gurdwara objectives included promotion of Sikh Study Circles besides the daily religious services. I recall often presenting at the Study Circle gatherings at this place. It is the same street where Giani Max Arthur Macauliffe (1838-1913) lived the last few years of his life.
It was these types of discussion groups that helped found the Sikh Students Federation in the UK.
Harcharan was an active member of the Sri Nanakana Sahib Foundation that was founded to promote upkeep of historical Gurdwaras left in Pakistan. In 1990’s he helped organize Sikh pilgrimages from the UK to visit Gurdwaras in Pakistan. Further, he sponsored the Rababi group of Bhai Lal from Pakistan to play kirtan in the traditional tunes for the UK Sikh congregations.
Sikh Messenger and Federation of Sikh Organizations
Lord Indarjit Singh of Wimbledon recalls that he first met Harcharan in 1957 when he came to their house in Birmingham to meet Master Tara Singh. Masterji had been invited to the UK by his father, Dr. Diwan Singh during his Indian visit.
Dr. Diwan Singh was a freedom fighter and then most prominent Sikh in the UK. His association with Master Tara Singh and the AISSF began when he earlier visited India to establish a relationship with the Sikh leadership. It was then that I met Dr. Diwan Singh along with other AISSF and Akali Dal leadership. It is, also, then that Master Tara Singh appointed Dr. Diwan Singh as one of the co-opted members of the Shromni Gurdwara Parbhadak Committee. Thus, he represented Sikhs living abroad.
I remember Harcharan Singh telling us about his meeting Masterji in the UK and how proud he was of his photo he had with Masterji.
Harcharan joined Indarjit to form the Federation of Sikh Organizations in the UK in the early 80s, to help fight for the right of a Sikh boy, Gurinder Singh Mandla, in Birmingham to wear a turban at school. Indarjit was the Sikh expert in the now famous case which went all the way to the House of Lords and secured protection for the right of all Sikhs to wear their symbols in schools as well as at their place of employment throughout the UK. Harcharan Singh was instrumental in organizing the Federation of Sikh Organisations to demonstrate massive community support for this and other Sikh causes in the UK.
Harcharan Singh worked closely with Indarjit Singh in managing Sikh Quarterly, the Sikh Messenger. At the time, Indarjit was a co-editor of the Sikh Courier along with Mrs. McCormack. The Sikh Courier published essays on Sikh religion, culture, and history. However, there was a need to have a journal in the UK that aired the growing persecution of Sikhs in India. Thus, Indarjit and his co-editor started a new journal, the Sikh Messenger. Harcharan worked tirelessly getting advertisement and building circulation to get the magazine off the ground.
Dr. Indrajit Singh also started the Sikh Prison Chaplaincy in the UK to provide spiritual & emotional support to Sikh prisoners and discourage re-offending. Harcharan was prominent in this valuable service, as Regional Manager for the London Area.
Harcharan Singh continually worked with British politicians, Mayors, and MPs. Everyone sought his help, and he willingly offered his time and resources. This benefitted the Sikhs in the UK great deal.
1984 in India and Sikh Prisoners in Pakistan
During the Holocaust of 1984 in India, several Sikh youths were taken prisoners in a Pakistani jail. Sardar Harcharan Singh helped Sardar Pritam Singh QC and Sardar Ganga Singh of the Nanakana Sahib Foundation in providing daily necessities to those prisoners. The Sikh prisoners badly needed legal assistance, clothing, medicine and health care, religious articles, and moral support.
When the prisoners had completed their terms, and they were released from the prison, they had nowhere to go. They could not continue to live in Pakistan. Indian authorities did not hide their intention to try them for pending charges, and to torture them in Indian jails. Sardar Harcharan Singh helped the Nanakana Foundation to move and settle the released prisoners in Europe and in Canada as refugees.
Similarly, Harcharan provided shelter and transportation to the victims of 1984 as well to the Sikh leaders who had to escape arrests and torture in India. Some fled to Europe or Canada to seek help for the Sikh causes in India. Sardar Harcharan Singh with his colleagues was their shelter in the UK. He organized food, housing, and means to travel to wherever they intended to go. Akal Takht Jathedar Jasbir Singh Rode and his party, I remember, were among them who used Harcharan’ s resources in the UK and as means of transportation to Malaysia, etc.
When I hugged Harcharan Singh at Bombay Port to see him off to the UK in 1953, I had no inkling that, in 2017, I would be sending him off to the Journey to Timeless, Akal Chalana, as we call it in the Sikh vernacular. Harcharan Singh was a close colleague and an active family member of what we began to label as the family of ex-Federationists. Harcharan and his colleagues served the nation and the humanity in a special way and with a special dedication. I will miss him so will many members of our AISSF family and friends in the larger Sikh community. He served the nation with dedication and until last breath of his life.
Send all communications to:
Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons)
Professor Emeritus & Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.
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