Reminising on the Dramatic Moment when Pundit Nehru was Shouted Down

Sikh Civil Disobedience in 1953

Can  anyone  imagine  Pandit  Jawahar Lal Nehru,  the  first  Prime  Minister  of  India  and  a beloved  of the masses par excellence  being  shouted  down  in a public meeting in independent India and in his heyday?  Yes, it  did  happen  once.

The place  where  it  happened  is  Fatehgarh  in Patiala  District  of  Punjab  and  the  day  was  December 27 in 1953. The  unprecedented  part  of  that  tense  drama  is that the  great  Pandit  Nehru  left  the meeting  without addressing  it,  so  peeved  was  he  at  the  sudden  turn of events. The  moment  is  worth  recapturing  because Nehru was known  to  handle  even  the  worst  type  of audiences like a  master. Even  when he  bullied or slapped some of them  which  happened  many times,  the people just clapped  him.

The most remarkable outcome of the first general  election in India  was  that  The Congress party led by  Nehru  won  handsomely  in  the  Parliament  and  all  other states, virtually  stampeding  the  opposition. It was only  in one  state  named  PEPSU (Patiala  and  East Punjab States Union)  that  the  Congress  was  not  only defeated but the  Akali  party led  by  Master Tara Singh  won and formed  the  government.  Sardar  Gian  Singh  Rarewala took oath as  the  first  non-Congress  Chief  Minister in any state of  India  on April 22, 1952.  Now  this  was what was wholly  unacceptable  to  the  great 'democrat' that Nehru is made out to be  by his biographers and chroniclers. Nehru  could not tolerate his authority  to rule all  over  India  being  challenged by a regional party.   So  on  the  very  first  pretext ( a  wolf  and lamb story indeed),  Akali Government  led  by Rarewala was dismissed  in March  1953.  Governors' rule was clamped, using  new  constitutional  powers. The  Sikhs  made  a lot of  protests  by  holding  demonstrations  and conferences.  Even Dr. Ambedkar, the  author of the Constitution spoke in the  Rajya  Sabha against  the  central  order over an elected  government.

Fatehgarh  is  the  place  where  the two  younger  sons of  Guru  Gobind  Singh  were  bricked  alive  during the time of  Mughal  ruler   Aurangzeb  on  December 27,1704. Every year lakhs  of  Sikhs  gather  there  to  pay  homage  to the martyrs  on 25, 26  &27  December. This  takes  the shape of  an annual  big  fair.  Now  it  is  a  tradition  in  Punjab  that  wherever such  large  congregations  gather,  the  political parties hold conferences to  propagate  their  points of view. Religious tradition are  confined  to  the inner  sanctum of the historic  gurudwara. The  elections to Pepsu Assembly were  to  be  held  in  order  to  re-elect popular Government after completion  of  one year of Central rule. Therefore,  the  importance  of  the  Fatehgarh fair in December 1953  became  much  more  to  the Congress  as well  as  to  the  Akali  Party.

In order  to  gain  the  sympathy  of  the   Sikhs, the  Congress  managed  through  Pepsu  government  to  invite Pandit Nehru to  address  the  congregation inside the  holy gurudwara. The  Sikhs  were  already feeling hurt with the  overthrow  of  their  elected government by the centre.   So  the  proposed  visit  of  Nehru  became  a  sort  of public  confrontation  between  the  crucified  and injured Akali psyche and  the  ruling Congress. Master Tara Singh, the  leader  of  the  Sikhs,  felt  that  Nehru  had  no genuine  reason  to  come  and  address  a  religious  meeting  in  a  gurudwara,  he  being  secular,  as  he  called  himself.  So  he  announced  in  a  big  public  meeting  on  the  night  of December 26, 1953  that  Nehru  would  not  be allowed to speak. This  was  a  great  challenge  to  the  authority of the  State  government.

Those  who  have  seen  the  old  gurudwara (which has  now  been  demolished  and  replaced  by  a  new one) and are  familiar  with  its  topography will  vouchsafe  that  it was like a small fortress with only small front entrance. Outside  the  gate,  the  Akalis  used to hold their  public  meeting  and  on  the  other  side  of  the  road,  the Congress and  other  parties  used  to  put up their stages. Inside the  gurudwara there was  also  a small hall  where  religious  discourses  were  held.

The  large  police  force  took  over  the control of entire area and since the early morning put restrictions on the entry of devotees inside the gurudwara.  Mr.  B.N. Rao former  ICS,  was the Advisor and de-facto ruler of PEPSU. He  did  not  want  to leave anything  to chance.  In  the  congregation inside the gurudwara he sent 300  policemen in mufti  in order to have  an  undisturbed  captive  audience  for  Nehru.  No Akali  worker  was  allowed  to  enter  the Gurdwara  or  stand  near the  entrance.

I  was  then  a  raw  youth  of 20  years  studying in  Mahindra  College  Patiala  and  also  an  active member of the Sikh  Students  Federation. I  and  my  friends heard  the  decision  of  Master  Tara  Singh  not  to  allow Nehru  to  speak.  About  20  of  us  decided  to  enter  the Gururdwara  by  disguising ourselves.  All  were  successful except Bedi Gurbax  Singh and I , since the police inspector monitoring  the  entry  gate recognized  us.

Pandit  Nehru  after  alighting  from  the plane at Ambala motored down to Fatehgarh, a distance of about 40 miles. He was accompanied by Maharaja  Yadvinder Singh,  the  RajPramukh  of  Pepsu, Mr. B.N.Rao, Col. Raghbir  Singh,   Brish  Bhan and some  other dignitaries. He  got  down  at  the  outer  Darshani  Deori (entrance gate) and started   walking  towards  the  Gurudwara. There  were  many  people  who  started  shouting  pro-Nehru  slogans  and   showered   flowers  on  him.  At that  moment  Bedi and I jumped  in  and  started  moving  in  front  of the  dignitaries  shouting  slogans,   'Nehru go back',  'Master  Tara  Singh  Zindabad'.  The  police  was stunned  but could  not  remove  us.  Nehru  looked  confident   and unnerved  as  he  looked  towards  us. In  this  way  we  could  enter  the  Gurudwara  along  with  his  entourage.

Nehru  removed  his  shoes  outside  the  gate and  came  in  and  went  to  the  dais  which  was  hardly  one  foot high. A  loudspeaker  was  already  installed  there.  He  immediately  took  the  mike  and  started  speaking. Hardly  could   he mutter  any  word  when  all  of  us  got up and started  shouting  and  raising  slogans.  Police  failed  to  check us and  we almost  surrounded  the  front  of   the dais.  At  that  moment  out  of  sheer  religious  passion,  one  of  us  succeeded  in  snatching  the  mike.   As  this  was   going  on  Nehru  stood  unperturbed.  Maharaja  Patiala  and   others  with  folded  hands  beseeched  us  to  let  Nehru  speak.  They  assured  us  that  he  (Nehru)  would  not  make   any  political speech  but  only  pay  his  homage to the  sahibzadas.  We  insisted  that  unless  Master Tara Singh  was  brought there  and  he  permitted it,  we  would not let Nehru speak. Immediately a senior police officer  escorted  Master  ji  inside.  Masterji  stood  in  front of  Nehru,  defiant. Their  eyes  met  but  only for a few  seconds.   No word was uttered by either one of them.  Immediately Pandit Nehru  came  down off the dais and perhaps to  avoid  an  ugly  scene, left  the place. Mr.  B.N.  Rao in  sheer  depression  lost  consciousness  and  had  to  be bodylifted  by  the  policemen.

As soon  as  the  Prime  Minister's  party left, the  police  came  down  heavily  on  the  Akali  congregation. A severe  lathi  charge  was  made  in  order  to  teach the demonstrators  a  lesson. The  situation  became  tense  as   people also  started  throwing  brickbats  on  the   police.  The sheer wisdom of experience of a  few senior  police  officials  prevented  the  police from  firing,  otherwise  it could  have  been  a  worse  tragedy.

Soon after,  the  religious  procession started  and  all  people  joined. We  also  managed  to  sneak  into the procession to  save  us  from the  wrath  of  the police. The state   government  was  humiliated  and  they  decided  to   register  a  conspiracy  case  against  senior  leaders. Nine  of us  including  S.  Atma  Singh  a  former  Akali Minister were  arrested  to  face  the  charges  of  attempted  murder. The Fatehgarh  conspiracy  case  went  on  for  two   years, the  Deputy  Commissioner  and  Superintendent  of   Police  being  eye  witnesses. My  friend  Jagdeep  Singh Kang and I  were   acquitted  but  the  rest   were  sentenced   to  seven years  imprisonment.   It  is  interesting  to  note  that  the  Akalis  decided  to merge en masse with  Congress  in 1956.  In  the  political  deal, the sentence of all the accused  was  condoned!

Throughout  my  long  career  in  government  I  had  to  live  with  the  stigma  of  being the  one  to have  shouted down  Nehru.

Tarlochan Singh.

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