Manjit Singh Calcutta (1938-2018): Bengali-Akali who helmed SGPC in turbulent times
As an able administrator, Calcutta put back SGPC on track after Operation Bluestar in 1984, when he was supposed to block re-entry of militants into Golden Temple complex as well as engage with the central and state govts.punjab Updated: Jan 18, 2018 09:27 IST
Veteran Akali leader and former Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) chief Manjit Singh Calcutta passed away on Wednesday, after an unblemished career of five decades in the Sikh politics. He was 79.
Calcutta, who is survived by wife, a son and two daughters, breathed his last at a private nursing home in Amritsar, after a brief illness.
Panthic to the core, Calcutta had many claims to fame. Besides being an erudite thinker, he had command over gurbani, Sikh ethos and working of religious institutions. As an able administrator, he put back SGPC on track after Operation Bluestar in 1984 wherein the building of the Akal Takht was damaged.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place
After taking over as SGPC secretary as a de facto chief, Calcutta was in a ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’ situation as he was supposed to block the re-entry of militants into the Golden Temple complex as well as engage with the central and state governments. He initiated talks with the Centre and managed the Sikh affairs well when most of the Akali leaders were jailed post Operation Bluestar.
He earned the epithet of ‘Bengali-Akali’, for being born and brought up in Calcutta, and dyed in the Akali wool. A law graduate and post graduate in English literature from University of Calcutta, he was fluent in Bangla, Hindi, Punjabi and English. He used his fluency in English to aptly translate words of Panthic lexicon in acceptable terminology, which otherwise was considered as “separatist”.
In 1995, Calcutta organised a three-day World Sikh Conference in Amritsar. The Akalis who attended the conference said it was a mega event which set the tone for SAD winning 1997 state polls.
Was a die-hard Tohra-loyalist
Calcutta remained a die-hard Gurcharan Singh Tohra-loyalist and never changed sides, despite an offer from Parkash Singh Badal to contest the SGPC polls, after Tohra’s death in 2004.
He remained secretary of SGPC from 1988 to 1997 and was elevated as chief secretary after he played an key role in bringing about a truce between Badal and Tohra, after a long period of estrangement between the two stalwarts.
In 2003, he took Tohra to meet Badal in Delhi when the latter was recuperating from a hip fracture. He later took Badal to meet Tohra, who had undergone heart surgery in Patiala. Akali leaders say Badal had a liking for Calcutta, but the latter’s blunt attitude kept the two leaders at bay in party meetings. Calcutta’s stint in SGPC after Tohra’s was short. Badal objected to his praise for Manmohan Singh when he took over as the Prime Minister.
Got in trouble for giving Siropa to Amarinder
A few months later, he became a casualty when he offered siropa to the then CM Capt Amarinder Singh, who came to take part in kar sewa for cleaning the Golden Temple sarovar. Asked to resign, Calcutta took no time to move out.
Before plunging into the Sikh affairs, Calcutta began his career in a multinational company with a base in the US. Due to his family’s Panthic affiliations, he came in touch with the Akalis in Calcutta ahead of a conference to build nationwide opinion for Punjabi suba morcha in 1960s. He also held positions in Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) and became DSGMC president in 1993, when he was also a secretary in SGPC.
“He was one of the brilliant brains the Akali Dal had. He was a dedicated worker and never changed sides,” said Prithipal Singh Kapur, a Sikh historian.
In 1995, Calcutta organised a three-day World Sikh Conference in Amritsar. The Akalis who attended the conference said it was a mega event which set the tone for the Shiromani Akali Dal winning 1997 state polls.
In the polls, Calcutta successfully contested as MLA and became a minister. But by 1999, he moved out of the government when Tohra-Badal fell apart. He chose to be with Tohra and remained the latter’s loyalist.