In mid 1960s when I was posted back to South Block after posts in Cairo and Algiers, quite often I would go over for lunch or after office hours to South Avenue, where Chaudhary Dalbir Singh, newly elected Lok Sabha (Lower House) Member of Parliament (MP) from the new state of Haryana carved out of Punjab, resided. Two things left an abiding impress on my mind. One, a few months after his election, Chaudhary Dalbir Singh returned an Ambassador model car to his constituents who had gifted it to him to help him discharge his lawmakers duties saying that in MP’s salary and allowances he could not afford to pay the petrol (Rs 1.10 per litre then).
The other incident was very poignant. One day he confessed, ”Gajender, it is very embarrassing that children now say; papa, you used to bring sweets and apples when in Patiala and Chandigarh earlier but now no more.” Just before his return to politics, he was member Punjab Public Service Commission to select state level top civil servants. Prior to that he was a member of Punjab council of ministers under Sardar Partap Singh Kairon.
In these days of brazen and almost wholesale corruption of the political class across the political spectrum except perhaps some leftist parties and individuals, as evidenced by the acts of central cabinet minister Raja, MPs Kalmadi, Kanimozhi and many others & counting, the present generation of Indians would find it hard to believe that once such totally honest and incorruptible politicians walked on the Indian soil.
Dalbir Singh was born in a Dalit family of landless agriculture laborers family of Kani Ram in village Prabhuwala in Hissar district of pre-partitioned Punjab, traditionally a neglected and backward region of the state. Youngest child in the family, Dalbir lost his mother early in childhood. His extended family including uncle Chandgiram were all very poor but were very keen that Dalbir, an intelligent and active child, should get the highest possible education and uplift the family fortunes .A family story goes that once when very seriously ill, a wise Sadhu (holy man) cured him and predicted that he would one day ride an elephant i.e. be a great man.
Sensitive even as a child Dalbir Singh faced and suffered upper caste discrimination right from the very first day in primary school, a behavior he had to face, resist and fight all his life in schools and colleges. He finished his primary school education at Prabhuwala and a neighboring village. He was then shifted to Hissar for education in a charitable middle school and later government high school. Here he met with and forged a lifelong friendship with Mani Ram Godara, a Bishnoi, and both took plunge into politics at a very young age.
During the closing decades of 19 century, Punjab, including the region around Hissar fell under the influence of Arya Samaj movement which had emerged to counter caste based discriminatory and obscurantist Hindu thought and practices .The movement also laid great emphasis on education and organized modern and science education at DAV schools and colleges .All members of Dalbir Singh family were imbued with, influenced and followed the precepts and teachings of Arya Samaj.
The author born at Bhiwani, then a subdivision of Hissar district is aware of the backwardness of the desolate, waterless sandy district. During 1940s and 1950s, the region especially Bhiwani and Hissar areas were dusty and waterless towns, with sand dunes encroaching right inside Bhiwani’s western limits. There used to be perpetual water scarcity in the region. Summers brought in hot abrasive sand storms. There were many big ponds dug to store rainwater for drinking, washing and for the cattle.
Arya Samaj teachings taught equality and opposition to caste and religious discrimination. It also forbade liquor and even meat eating. The author, a Rajput, took to meat eating only when he went over to Banaras for his engineering degree. But now, in the wake of prosperity following extension of irrigation to the region and the green revolution the situation has unfortunately changed to increased violence and alcoholism, a serious menace.
Adjoining Rajasthan, Hissar district produced many rich Baniyas aka businessman who with others established many charitable educational institutes. Apart from many schools, Bhiwani city boasted, a degree Vaish (now KiroriMal) college and a Textile Engineering Institute attached to one of the two textile mills. Neighboring Rohtak city boasted two degree colleges and a Medical college too.
When in class X Dalbir Singh was married to Kalawati in 1946, a marriage arranged through the good offices of a common Arya Samaj reformer. Such child marriages were common in those days. But the bride would stay home till puberty. Kalawati’s family was better off with its own lands, her brother Ram Singh, the first Dalit graduate among Dalits of the region, was a Panchayat Officer in Punjab state .It was a good match for her family since Dalbir Singh; a promising and intelligent student would do well in life. Ram Singh and his family, also Arya Samajis, had wholesome impact on young Dalbir. Since Ram Singh was once posted at Lahore, a major center of education, it was felt that Dalbir Singh instead of studying at Hissar should pursue his college education at DAV College Lahore. Here apart from Godara, Ch Chand Ram, also a Dalit studied and they became good friends. Ch Chand Ram also emerged as a major political leader.
In 1947, after India’s division into India and Pakistan and partition of the Punjab province Dalbir Singh was forced to shift to Rohtak to complete his graduation, which he duly did .It must be emphasized that, tall and wiry lad, he was an excellent athlete both in his school and college days .Till his terminal illness in mid 1980s he maintained excellent health and spirits.
After graduation, at Ram Singh’s prodding Dalbir Singh did apply for the job of a Block Development Officer, a very good job in those days, and received the appointment letter too .But he declined to take up the appointment , much to the consternation, anguish and distress of his family specially father Kani Ram .They had slogged and made extreme sacrifices so that he could complete his education, not that Dalbir Singh himself had not undergone many privations .The family expected him to take up the job and alleviate poverty ,bring some prosperity and happiness to the family .
Finally one day Dalbir Singh told his father that he would not take up a job. He had endured too much caste, creed, regional, rich and poor discrimination so he was determined to devote his life to resist evils of the Indian society and help reform it. He remembered that while studying at Lahore he was constantly a victim of cruel and inhuman treatment at the hands of princelings and rich students. His mind was made up and he would strive and try to eliminate various evils and ills of the Indian caste based society. Father Kani Ram agreed.
Next day Kani Ram watched his son speaking for the first time at a Congress party public rally at Hissar and criticizing Punjab chief minister Kairon , whose achievements in the development of the state were eulogized and lauded by all and sundry . Dalbir Singh rightly proclaimed that ‘yes, Punjab had progressed but only the Punjabi speaking part i.e. Jullundur division and not the backward Ambala division of which Hissar was a part It remained so till the Sikhs after many agitations and Morchas got their Punjabi Suba and the backward region emerged from the shadow of underdevelopment and neglect in 1966 . The new state of Haryana led by some dynamic leaders, taking advantage of many inbuilt and inherent advantages including proximity to Delhi has emerged as a most dynamic and rich state of India. While a minister in Delhi for nearly two decades, Ch. Dalbir Singh assiduously helped out in pursuing the economic development of Haryana by taking up his state’s cause with the centre. I have a feeling that he cherished a deep desire to lead the Haryana government and implement his vision of his home state himself. But his opponents in the party in Haryana ganged up and kept him away from the state.
Having watched the freedom movement from close quarters under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and Congress party’s ideology of secularism, equal rights for all religions and special incentives to uplift scheduled caste and tribes, neglected, humiliated and exploited since millennia attracted young and idealistic Dalbir Singh, since he had himself suffered at the hands of upper castes and rich all his life. But he rarely mentioned these hurts to me. He sometimes would relate how petty officials mistreated the public specially the poor and the downtrodden.
Ch. Dalbir Singh remained steadfast and true in his loyalty to the Congress and its ideals and policies, in a state where many a politicians’ ideology is fickle and saleable, which gave the name Gayaram Ayaaram politics i.e. of shifting and changing party affiliations for gain. I remember very vividly one evening in 1967 when I dropped at Ch Dalbir Singh’s flat on South Avenue .A number of well-known Haryana politicians, who did well for themselves had just visited him after having pledged loyalty to Moraji Desai who had challenged PM Indira Gandhi’s leadership.” How dare they even suggest such a thing, he fumed .He remained steadfast to the Congress and its ideology till the very end. He never wavered, never ever.
Young , enthusiastic , wide eyed and idealistic when the 1952 elections were, he and Godara turned up at the Congress party office in Delhi .By luck Nehru arrived and was very impressed by Dalbir Singh , a young enthusiastic graduate , a rarity among Dalit aspirants. He and Godara, in spite of opposition from older and well established leader’s opposition like Devi Lal, were both allotted Congress party tickets. Dalbir Singh won from Tohana but his election was set aside on the pretext of being under age i.e. less than 25 years .By the time he won the election petition time had arrived for the 1957 elections.
Kairon had returned to power by then. A down to earth politician and good administrator, he recognized the talented, idealistic Dalbir Singh’s dedication and gave him Congress ticket in 1957. Not only that after the elections Dalbir Singh was inducted into the council of ministers as deputy minister .He was barely 30 years in age .The rest as they say is history. Chaudhary Sahib was soon a great favorite of Kairon because of his sincerity, hard work, sense of purpose and integrity.
First Meeting with Ch. Dalbir Singh and some Memories
It was 1960, when I taught electrical engineering at Thapar institute, Patiala. I had just finished my written examination for IFS and was waiting for the UPSC personality test. Around this time my wife’s college friend Basheshar Nath, a political worker of the Congress party from Karnal, turned up along with someone who had some problem to be redressed in the department of Irrigation and Power, then under Ch. Dalbir Singh. The young politician had made news in the Chandigarh's newspaper ‘The Tribune’ for being an unusual politician who attended law classes in the evenings to further educate himself.
So Basheshar and a few others, we all travelled to Chandigarh. When we reached the Kothi (residence) of Chaudhary Sahib, we were told that he was out and would return soon. So we sat down in his living room. It so happened that Basheshar went to the bathroom when somebody looking like a politician, in Dhoti -Kurta and Nehru jacket and Gandhi cap entered the sitting-room, looked at us. Naturally he did not recognize us. Nor did we. But we naturally stood up somewhat non-plussed. With a straight face he said that he was the younger brother of the minister who would be soon returning and climbed up the stairs. We had not seen his photograph or met him, but we were not convinced that he was the minister's younger brother.
Of course soon Chaudhary Sahib came down by which time Basheshar had comeback and we all had a good laugh. Throughout our long friendship we had a very easy and bantering relationship about babus and netas . We were young straight forward and perhaps came closer because of his coming from Sirsa and me from Bhiwani, both then sub divisions in the same Hissar district, a backward region of Punjab.
Chaudhary Sahib had a tremendous sense of humor. He would relate stories with great aplomb and timing with a straight face. He then joined with a hearty laughter which was very infectious. With a slight crinkliness in his eyes , his smile was dazzling, which could have set many a heart aflutter.
Once a man from his constituency came to him, requesting that his transfer be stopped. Chaudhary Sahib knew that the man never voted for him and even worked against him during polls. But instead of ticking him off ,Chaudhary Sahib laughed and narrated how he himself was transferred from one ministry to another in Delhi . If he could not stop his own transfer how could he help the constituent. This was his way of telling the constituent off ,politely and with humor . He was a store house of Haryanvi jokes.
Chaudhary Sahib was very happy when I qualified for the then coveted IFS in 1961, since none from our region had done so . When I was leaving for Cairo in end 1962, he came over to Delhi to wish me bon voyage and best of luck. We kept on meeting regularly whenever I was posted at the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi , since he had shifted to central politics in 1967 after being elected a member of the Lok Sabha .He was made a member of the council of ministers soon after. Sometimes we would play rummy with some of his political friends. It was perhaps the only way he would sometimes relax. He was totally devoted to political work for the party and for the people.
He was a man of sterling qualities with a long term vision and devoted to the uplift of the downtrodden. He had unimpeachable honesty and integrity. This was evident from his very simple lifestyle. Knowing his honest nature, he was never asked to collect funds for the party but quite often he headed the Congress party organization in Haryana. He spent all his time to ameliorate the conditions of the masses and for the Congress party.
When barring two wins in north India , all Congress candidates, including Indira Gandhi lost the post emergency 1977 elections, being not too well off , some friends suggested that why should he not supervise agriculture of some land he possessed. He replied that he was good only at solving poor peoples’ problems and laughing added, and also being taken by one ambassador car or another from one public platform to another and do ‘vichar pragat‘ i.e. express his views on various problems facing the country and the people.
Quite often I would stay with him when I visited India from abroad for vacations and met with some of the political leaders from Haryana and elsewhere like Devi Lal, Bhajan Lal, Prof Sher Singh and others. Our friendship built on mutual respect and affection since 1960 meeting at Chandigarh never changed. He was very hospitable and would even get non-vegetarian dishes from outside for me, although he himself was a vegetarian.
In 1985 before I took over as Chairman and Managing Director of Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd, I went over to him for advice since he was once minister of Fertilizers and Chemicals, the controlling ministry. Apart from other advice he told me how some of senior officers in the ministry had shares of Pharma companies which was a clear conflict of interest. His advice was very useful. During my tenure I found that ministry officials would increase drug prices for private sector units (which had perhaps allotted them shares) but dillydallied when I asked for increase for government owned IDPL’s drugs. Some big private Pharma companies had an MP or two almost on a retainer basis to promote their interests.
Although I was very surprised and distressed when he told me that he had pleurisy, I was stunned when he passed away in 1987. Unfortunately I was not even in Delhi.
Fortunately for his friends and admirers, his daughter Kumari Selja joined politics, encouraged by Rajiv Gandhi. A capable politician, she has been in the council of ministers whenever Congress has been in power, almost since she was elected to the Parliament in 1992, again at a very young age. She is MA, M. Phil and became a cabinet minister in 2009. Her elder sister is also MA and a married housewife. Never in our discussions did Chaudhary Sahib ever express any unhappiness or regret at not having a son, a never failing male obsession in India. He gave the best possible education to his daughters.
I have known Kumari Selja, same age as my daughter since she was a child. Like her father, tall and slim, always elegantly dressed in Salwar Kameez, she is his replica. In 1995 she came to Ankara, where I was then posted to sign Cultural Agreement with Turkey. Turkish ministers and others were very much impressed with her. Such a capable and likeable politician at such a young age, they told me. She has amply delivered on the promise shown then.