Can’t judge Amarinder by political successes or failures alone, says writer of his upcoming biography
An author of four books, a progressive farmer, a columnist, and a TV show host, Chandigarh-based Khushwant Singh wears many hats. But, in the past four years, he’s been increasingly sticking to one. He tells HT how he put everything else in his life on hold to do justice to his latest book, a biography, ‘Capt Amarinder Singh: The People’s Maharaja’.punjab Updated: Feb 19, 2017 11:53 IST
An author of four books, a progressive farmer, a columnist, and a TV show host, Chandigarh-based Khushwant Singh wears many hats. But, in the past four years, he’s been increasingly sticking to one. He tells HT how he put everything else in his life on hold to do justice to his latest book, a biography, ‘Capt Amarinder Singh: The People’s Maharaja’.
What made you write this book on Amarinder?
It wasn’t my idea. Hay House (publishing company) had approached me before the 2012 Punjab elections. When I pitched it to him (Amarinder) three-four days after the Congress defeat, he asked who would read it. But then he agreed and the first interview took place 10-15 days later.
Was access a problem? Was it difficult to delve into his personal space?
No, he was cooperative, open and frank. I researched a lot and then framed my questions. We would chat for an hour or two before the trickle of people would begin. I must have read over 30 books besides the white paper on Punjab post-operation Bluestar, old gazettes, and newspapers. I also interviewed his family members, friends, course-mates at the National Defence Academy (NDA), staff, and bureaucrats. The notes left by his German governess, Hede Dayal, with her son, Mickey Dayal, were particularly illuminating. I also got hold of his school reports.
Isn’t the title deferential?
I don’t think so. It was a working title, and it stuck. Also, people are really drawn to Amarinder. He used to be covered with blue-black marks while canvassing in Amritsar.
Did he ever try to control the book?
No, never. Not once did he ask me to delete or insert something. I corroborated all the information I got, and tried to make the narrative as accurate and objective as possible. I felt so much responsibility towards history, towards Punjab, towards the subject. Also, you can’t give Amarinder a report card based only on his political successes or failures. He has so many facets; he writes, reads, cooks, travels.
Why did Amarinder ally with Congress, perceived as the villain of the piece in Punjab after 1984?
Rukhsana Sultana (actor Amrita Singh’s mother) persuaded him to rejoin the Congress. He was in political oblivion after being refused a ticket by the Akali Dal in 1997. He had to park himself somewhere. For the Congress, he was the only face with which they could go to Punjab, given his heritage and resignation over Operation Bluestar (1984).
Why this timing of release?
It’s sheer coincidence. This project consumed four prime years of my life; it changed the way I look at Punjab; it made me mature. I never knew when it would end. I sent the manuscript to the publishers in August-September 2016.
Here are the excerpts from ‘The People’s Maharaja’ :
Testy ties with the Gandhis
Amarinder Singh sought an appointment with Sonia Gandhi, which she flatly declined. She was infuriated and refused to meet him for months together, as his step also involved the termination of the water treaty as prescribed in the 1985 Punjab Accord (signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Harchand Singh Longowal).
Eventually, after four months, a meeting did take place. Gandhi’s opening query was: “Why did you pass that Bill?”
“For the sake of peace,” replied Amarinder in his defence. He then shared his concerns if he hadn’t passed that Bill: “Ma’am you have lost your mother-in-law and husband to terrorism. Do you want to lose yourself and your children also,” he asked. “If I hadn’t taken this step there was every possibility of history repeating itself. There would have been another Bhindranwale and another bout of terrorism if I had allowed the digging of the canal. The entire blame would have come on to you as the president of the Congress.”
Not convinced, Sonia asked him why he hadn’t asked her before introducing the Bill.
“Would you have allowed me ma’am?” countered Amarinder. Her answer was, “No”.
“That is why I didn’t seek your permission,” he said. The Congress president slowly cooled down.
Soldier to soldier: Meeting Musharraf
“I hope we didn’t shoot at each other during the 1965 war,” was the unexpected opening remark made by General Pervez Musharraf when Amarinder called on the then Pakistan president in Islamabad on March 15, 2005.
“Not at all, I’ve done some background check on you. You were in the 1 SP (self-propelled) regiment in the Sialkot sector and I was ADC to Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh. But you do owe my brother-in-law, Major Kanwaljit Singh Dhillon, a leg.”
“What did I do?”
“It was your shooting… that knocked off his leg.”
After that, there was a peal of laughter in the room when Amarinder reminded Musharraf that he was senior to him in service. “Sir, your commission date is April 1964 and mine is June 1963, making me nine months senior.”
Once a cordial tone and tenor had been set and both were talking as one soldier to another, Amarinder took out a list of names. Handing the list over to Musharraf, he said: “Sir, before we move forward, I would appreciate it if you would consider this list. They are the names of my people languishing in Pakistani jails. Many of them have completed their jail terms.”
Musharraf took a prompt note and ordered the immediate release of 83 prisoners who had completed their terms and ensured they crossed the border along with Amarinder.
Reversal of fortunes
On the morning of March 6, 2012, in Chandigarh, when Amarinder stepped out of his bedroom to join aides to watch the Punjab assembly election results unfold on TV, he had mixed feelings. The buzzing atmosphere inside the house and outside comforted him. The presence of dholis, a large police contingent and mediapersons reassured him that things would go well.
Three hours later…
“Can we order some sandwiches, please,” asked Amarinder. “Please make them vegetarian. There is a possibility that the results might turn around,” said the pandit sitting next to him, reciting a mantra. (The results were not going as expected by the Congress).
“Sir, please do as the pandit instructs,” said Bharat Inder Singh Chahal, who believed in soothsayers, and was probably responsible for bringing the astrologer.
“Pandit ji, we are half way through the results. The writing is on the wall. We have lost the election. At least let me have a chicken sandwich now,” said Amarinder.
There was hushed laughter in the room but disbelief and shock were writ large on everyone’s faces.
“Sorry, Yuvie, I let you down,” chipped in Lt Gen Tajindar Singh Shergill, who had strategised a part of the election campaign and was earlier confident that the Congress would win close to 70 assembly seats.
“No worries Maun (Shergill’s nickname). You win some and lose some,” replied Amarinder and then got up and shook hands with his school buddy.
A few hours later, Amarinder was cooking mutton with friends, a pursuit in which he has always found comfort and solace. “We can’t brood over the result. Let’s move on,” he said.