Witness to an era

Witness to an era

Memories have become silted, and at the age of 90 (and that was in 1982) they are not easy to dredge. Yet Mangal Singh tries manfully, and the result...

Memories have become silted, and at the age of 90 (and that was in 1982) they are not easy to dredge. Yet Mangal Singh tries manfully, and the result is a scene built up not by long descriptions but by deft touches, as it were, which, however, are more than mere enumerations. Here is no wide sweep of the background with details picked out but rather detail added to detail, not necessarily sequentially---little dabs that build up a composite picture of India's freedom movement in Punjab, and the setting is brushed in majestically at the end.

"We were originally from Gill village in Ludhiana district," he recalled. "My father was a landlord. From Gill we all shifted to Lyallpur in�." His memory does not stretch back that far, and so, abandoning the effort, he says: "in 1893 or 94, I can't be sure." He went to school in Lyallpur and then did his graduation from a college there. After a short stint in British government service, Mangal Singh quit and joined the freedom movement and sort of proclaimed his entry by launching from Lahore a Punjabi daily newspaper, named 'Akali'. "Off and on I wrote editorials exhorting Sikhs not to join the armed forces because, if they did, they would be used either for holding down their compatriots or for fighting wars not even remotely connected with them.

The then government was so furious that it sent me to jail for three years," Mangal Singh recalled in a voice not totally innocent of pride. But his words rang out and roused turmoil of enthusiasm and indignation. "Then came 1935-36, and so did elections to the Central Assembly under the Communal Award." There were two seats for Sikhs, and one of them was for the Lyallpur area. The Akali Party put up Kartar Singh, a lawyer from Ferozepur, "but he refused to contest against rich and powerful candidates". Thereupon the party picked on Mangal Singh, but he told the party he had no money to fight an election.

"That was the time when Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya suddenly and without any apparent reason started taking interest in the affairs of Sikhs. He visited the Lyallpur area, and we told him that we had no funds to fight elections. He asked us not to worry on that score, and that all that we needed to do if and when we were short of funds was to inform him of it." On Mangal Singh's wizened face there appeared a smile which could as easily be interpreted to symbolize respect as raillery.

Although he said nothing about it, perhaps an unintended inflexion in his voice throughout the interview indicated that his attitude towards Motilal Nehru was a lot more reverential than that towards Malaviya, or even Lala Lajpat Rai. "The Akali Dal then put me up as its candidate. It was a triangular contest; one candidate was Harbans Singh of Ferozepur, a staunch supporter of the then Maharaja of Patiala and who, consequently, had a flush of money. The third candidate was Fatehjung Singh, a very rich man who was contesting as an independent. Yet, I won." The voice showed surprise that he had!

At this point in the interview occurred a time-warp. From some forgotten niche of memory came tumbling an earlier historic event. "In 1927-28 the Congress set up the Motilal Nehru Committee. I was made a member of it. The Simon Commission was due to arrive from England. The committee was to draft a Constitution for India, to be presented to the commission. While Motilal was its chairman, I was one of its six or seven members." A blueprint was evolved and presented to the commission, but Shaukat Ali, a member of the committee, dissociated himself from it, saying that the draft constitution militated against the interests of Muslims. "From that day the Akali Dal identified itself totally with the Congress. Its policies became our policies." All the same, Mangal Singh's broad and humanitarian viewpoint modified the acerbity of many a situation, but it is clear from reading between the lines that he treated great men of those days verily like the child in Hans Andersen who looked with innocent impudence at the King.

After all, many of his contemporaries were largely made by circumstances. Mangal Singh, on the contrary, moulded circumstances and created his own opportunities. His flint required steel; his foil needed counterfoil. Both were in plentiful supply.

At this point in the interview occurred the second time-warp. "I forgot to tell you about how I came to found Hindustan Times," Mangal Singh said with the excitement of a child in his voice. "Since Punjab was getting far too assertive for the British government's comfort, Sir Malcolm Halley, an official member of the Central Assembly, was appointed Governor of the Province. Before leaving Delhi, Sir Malcolm had announced that he was going to fix the Akalis." True to his word, the first thing he did on arriving in Punjab was to order the closure of all newspapers owned and run by Sikhs. "But once they get their teeth into a thing, Sikhs are not the ones to give up easily," Mangal Singh said, back on his sentimental stamping-ground. He wrote to Sikhs settled in the USA, informing them of what had happened and appealing for financial aid with which to start a newspaper for Sikhs. Mangal Singh also decided that the place of publication of the new daily should be beyond the reach of Sir Malcolm. The exposed nerve of a popular dilemma touched an answering vibration in many persons and parties. The Congress set up a committee to help the Akalis. Gandhiji selected KM Panickker for the job.

About the same time "we received 1, 50, 000 rupees from Sikhs in the USA." Panickker said the sum was enough to launch the paper with, but advised the Akali Dal against choosing some sectarian name for it. "So I filed the declaration for The Hindustan Times. Panickker became its first Editor.

He was a very great intellectual who seemed to have genuine sympathy for Sikhs." It did not take Mangal Singh and others in the Akali Dal long to realise that idealism was not enough to sustain a newspaper, and that it had to be combined with shrewd business sense. "We had the former but lacked the latter, so much so that very soon we were in deep financial trouble." But since they had staked their all on the venture, they could not close it down without loss of face; nor did they have the means to keep it going.

"At that stage, Providence came to our rescue in the form of Central Assembly elections." The Congress had by then split, with Malaviya and Lajpat Rai forming the Nationalist Party. The Congress wanted to buy The Hindustan Times to help the electioneering of its candidates. Motilal Nehru sent Kasim Ali to Mangal Singh for negotiating the deal. Malaviya and his party were equally keen to acquire the newspaper to use it to get their candidates elected. Much as Mangal Singh wanted to sell the paper to the Congress, he could not do so because the Congress did not have ready funds and the Akali Dal was in no shape to settle for deferred payment. So the newspaper was sold to Malaviya whose party had plenty of money.

Malaviya took Mangal Singh to the Maharaja of Darbhanga who offered to pay whatever amount was demanded. "But we were not avaricious. We took from him only what we had actually spent on the newspaper," Mangal Singh said, straightening up. Even Malaviya could not run the newspaper for long, and eventually sold it to G. D. Birla. A pause comes in the reminiscences, and then: "When we started it, The Hindustan Times was published from the Naya Bazaar area, now renamed Swami Shraddhanand Marg."

Finally, freedom came and, with it, Mangal Singh retired from public life. From that position, as from a frame, his clear, quizzical eyes had until death gazed at quicksilver political changes in the country the while the beard grew white around his smile. Finding him suddenly lost in thought, I withdrew quietly.

- MV

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