Simranjit Singh Mann, 71, has a skip in his step. As he settles in a chair to address a press conference on Friday, announcing the first set of candidates his party Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) will field in the coming assembly polls, his eyes gleam with hope.
The SAD(A) has not seen any electoral victory since 1999 (when Mann was elected as MP from Sangrur) but these elections could be different, his last hurrah. Mann had convened a rather successful ‘sarbat khalsa’ last year over the issue of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and the crowds that gathered at Chabba village in Amritsar to listen to Mann had the SAD-BJP alliance sit up in worry.
But only till Mann’s supporters did what they can be easily predicted to do—bring in Khalistan as the prime Sikh cause. Mann was promptly booked for sedition—for the 80th time, claims his son Emaan Singh—and as far as the government was concerned, Mann was not a challenge anymore. “Mann can win an election in Surrey Central, Canada not Punjab. Sikhs of Punjab don’t want Khalistan,” points out a political analyst.
“Who decides what people want?” counters Emaan. “If the government behaves like a bully and not allowing even the fundamental freedom to express, how can the truth come out? In 1991, the government did not allow elections in Punjab. Every independent voice was crushed and human rights violated,” he says.
Mann, a 45-year-old IPS officer, had given up his cushy job following Operation Bluestar and was in jail for five years, headed the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in absentia when he was elected MP in 1989 securing over 5-lakh votes, winning with an election margin unheard of in Punjab’s history. His party had won seven out the 13 parliamentary seats while three other MPs had his blessings. His historic win had made Mann a household name, a champion of the Sikh cause. He was released from jail within days of the results with all charges dropped.
However, in less than a decade of the dizzying heights Mann had been catapulted into, Punjab politics began to change. In 2007 assembly polls, all the 37 candidates fielded by Mann, including himself and son Emaan, forfeited their security deposits. In 2009, his party candidates secured a total of 43,000 votes and in 2012 assembly elections, Mann contesting from Fatehgarh Sahib got a little over 3,000 votes. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Mann again lost his security deposit, getting only 14,000 votes.
The demand for Khalistan shrank from public and political discourse and Mann gradually lost the support of those who had rallied around him. Captain Amarinder Singh, whose wife and Mann’s wife are sisters, signed the Amritsar declaration of 1994 (seen largely as a document that calls for the creation of a separate Sikh state) and Parkash Singh Badal signed a memorandum for the UN reiterating Mann’s cause. Later, both retracted from their actions.
“These leaders believed in the Sikh cause. But the state silenced them, buying them over to its side offering political goodies. My father continues to stand for the core values of the Sikhs. We are proud, self-respecting people and have seen the glory of the Sikh rule. What is wrong in striving for that using peaceful means?” says Emaan. But Mann’s politics, caught in a time warp, got him into endless troubles with the government, which had him arrested several times over the years.
BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON
Politics and officialdom run together in Mann’s blood. Belonging to one of the elitist families of Punjab, his father Sardar Bahadur Joginder Singh Mann MBE (Member of the British Empire), a strapping handsome Sikh, was a politician as also an honorary first-class magistrate. He was elected to the first Punjab legislative assembly in 1937, was member of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), later becoming MP and speaker in 1967.
Mann’s grandfather Sardar Harnam Singh (the family home in Fatehgarh Sahib is named after him) belonged to the lineage of Manns of Sheikhupura and the family owned vast lands and wealth in the pre-Partition Punjab. The family was generally supportive of the British and that led them to have titles. Mann’s maternal grandfather Sir Aroor Singh was the honorary caretaker of the Golden Temple and had presented a ‘siropa’ to General Dwyer after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The politically uncomfortable historical fact led Mann to apologise on his grandfather’s behalf in 2002.
Born in Shimla in 1945, Mann went to Bishop Cotton School and graduated from Government College, Chandigarh, with a gold medal in history honours. He joined IPS in 1967 and continued in service till 1984 when within days of his resignation, he was dismissed from service. The same year, he was arrested on various charges, including conspiracy to assassinate Indira Gandhi.
His daughter Pavit Kaur, who has penned a touching account of his five years in jail, says Mann carried forward the idea of his father that Sikhs should have a separate homeland. She recounts Mann, Faridkot SSP then, having met the then Damdami Taksal chief Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in 1979. Mann gives a detailed account of Bhindranwale, his manners and behaviour, but not a word about what transpired between the two. Bhindrawale’s father Joginder Singh later put his weight behind Mann, choosing him to lead the United Akali Dal in 1987.
DISLIKE FOR WORD ‘RADICAL’
Mann abhors the use of the word “radical” or “extremist”. “Once we are compartmentalised as this, it gives an easy handle to the state to persecute us. It is unfair. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has held that demanding Khalistan is not a crime, and yet my father is hunted relentlessly by the state in a bid to curtail him,” adds Emaan.
Once again, Mann and leaders of like-minded ‘Panthic’ outfits are claiming to fight all the 117 assembly seats. This is a litmus test for this man’s role and relevance in Punjab politics where he has been pushed to the margin.