Surjit Singh Barnala: A leader guided more by conscience than political expediency

Sardar Surjit Singh Barnala, the former chief minister of Punjab, had an uncanny ability to assume anonymity and hitch-hike across the country like a backpacker. At the height of the Punjab crisis, he did his disappearing act much to the chagrin of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders and the Punjab police, after his first stint as the chief minister.

Unlike former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Barnala was a true Lucknow boy. He spent his childhood and student days in Lucknow and graduated from the university there. With a bag slung over his shoulder, he reached Lucknow and lodged himself in Naka Hindola Gurudwara without revealing his identity.

 Surjit Singh Barnala: A leader guided more by conscience than political expediency

Surjit Singh Barnala. File photo. PTI

Those were the days when Mulayam Singh Yadav was the chief minister and the Uttar Pradesh police were fighting a virulent variant of Punjab militancy in the Terai region of the state where there is a sizable Sikh population. Most of the militant found shelters in large farm houses and forest covers of the Himalayan foothills where the police were inadequately equipped to deal with the situation.

The spillover of this militancy also affected cities like Kanpur and Lucknow where militants were striking at will. Anonymous guests in Gurudwaras were under the close watch of the local police. Needless to say, Barnala soon found himself in the police dragnet.

One morning he was picked up, taken to the police station and interrogated for hours on end to reveal his “game plan and associates”. The inspector scolded him for being evasive and not revealing his identity. At last Barnala revealed his real identity and told the cop, “My name is Surjit Singh Barnala and I am the former chief minister of Punjab.” A team of cops who interrogated Barnala was quite bemused and one of them quipped, “Every suspect who comes here is either chief minister or prime minister, tell me your real identity or we know how to extract information.”

Unlike Punjab-based SAD leaders who were less conversant with the nuances of UP Hindi, Barnala understood the menacing tone of the police inspector and realised his own vulnerability. He understood that dithering and prevaricating on police queries would invite application of third degree method for which the UP cops were notorious. He then became his usual self — a seasoned and educated politician with a good track record of an administrator. He resorted to English and asked the inspector to connect him to the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav at once.

Barnala’s transformation from a meek anonymous Sikh traveller to an authoritative person rattled the policemen. The inspector relented and dialed Mulayam's number. The moment Barnala started conversing with the chief minister’s staff and got connected to Mulayam, the inspector realised his mistake and apologised profusely. Needless to say, Barnala’s rest of the journey was easy but not in incognito.

Once I asked him about this experience, Barnala told me that English was his saviour as he could not have convinced the police in either Hindi or Punjabi.

Barnala always came across as a gentleman politician who made his modesty a political ornament. In a state where machismo defines the political contour, Barnala was a cut above the rest. As the chief minister, he was the first one to raise the issue of keeping religion separate from politics.

In an exclusive interview to me in 1985, he candidly expressed his view that the post of the SAD chief and the chief minister must not be held by the same person. “Since the SAD is a religious party, the party chief must hold the constitutional post like the chief minister who swears by secularism.”

If the SAD had taken Barnala’s suggestion seriously, the party would have been more guided by democratic impulses than turning into a dynastic outfit that promotes cronyism and criminality in its worst form. Barnala’s last disappearing act, on 14 January, for his eternal journey is a reminder that Punjab has a tradition of leaders like Barnala who were guided more by their conscience than political expediency.

Updated Date: Jan 15, 2017 18:27:44 IST