Guided by conscience


As country mourns the death of Surjit Singh Barnala, a quick peek into the well-received autobiography of the former chief minister of Punjab

It was on an autumn night in 1994 that the 71-year-old eminence took his wife's dye stick to blacken his grey beard, changed the frame of his glasses, wore an old kurta and sneaked into the dark, hoodwinking his family and security guards.

Story of an Escape, penned by former chief minister of Punjab Surjit Singh Barnala, gives glimpses of the life of the 'modern day Akbar', who gave up the royal ornaments and moved among the masses in disguise to sense the pulse of the aam aadmi. And, in that personal adventure, he was guided solely by his conscience.

One of the most popular and influential politicians, who enjoyed power both in Punjab and in Delhi, Barnala slept in trucks and open fields. From Chandigarh to Delhi and from Indore to Lucknow, the VIP vagabond experienced the splendour as well as the vagaries of rural India. In his 17-day journey, the “Sardarji” crisscrossed the entire north India incognito and mixed with the ordinary citizens, before falling into the hands of Lucknow police, who suspected him to be a Sikh terrorist.

Having spent his childhood and college days in Lucknow, Barnala loitered like a looney on the familiar streets of Aminabad, prompting the cops to chase him down and take him to the station. The man who ruled Punjab during its worst period of militancy, was himself branded a militant! Even at the police station, Barnala tried his best to conceal his identity, but as interrogation progressed, he named then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. The SP leader was the only person who he knew in the town!

“He did not understand what I was blabbering about. I mentioned Mulayam Singh Yadav's name again and asked him to get the chief minister on the phone. The inspector did not know what to do. He obviously thought I was slightly touched in the head,”
Barnala says in the book.

Assuming he was deranged, the cops put him on a train to Ambala, which marked an end to his solo adventurous trip.

Raman effect at Benting Hall

But before landing in the police net, Barnala had found time to walk down the memory lane at his alma mater, Lucknow University. He studied law in Lucknow University from 1942 till 1946. On entering the Benting Hall, he reminisces a funny episode from his college life. He recounts how Nobel laureate C.V. Raman used to pull up his trousers constantly while addressing the students. On one occasion, “Raman was so engrossed in explaining the intricacies of the Raman Effect that he forgot to do (pull up the trousers) and they dropped down to his knees causing much amusement to the audience.”

After the class, Raman told the students that at a certain stage in life, we forget such small things. “Later in life, he often forgot even to zip his trousers,” Barnala quips.

Close to PM chair

A moderate among the hardcore Akalis, Barnala “narrowly missed” the chance of becoming the prime minister in 1979. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy's plan to form the government with Barnala as the prime minister was scuttled by Congress leader Jagjivan Ram who claimed the support of majority in the house.

"I met the President the next day. He shook my hand and smiled, ‘Mr Baranala, you narrowly missed becoming the Prime Minister of India.' I thanked him for the consideration shown towards me,”
he writes in his autobiography.

Barnala almost became the prime minister again in mid-90s, but this time he was ditched by his own party, Shiromani Akali Dal. His name was considered for the prime minister's post when no party got a clear majority in 1996, but SAD President Parkash Singh Badal announced his unconditional support to the Bharatiya Janata Party which lost power after just 13 days in government.

Punjab insurgency

Militancy was at its peak in Punjab during the run up to the 1985 assembly elections and many of the mainstream leaders faced frequent threats from terror groups.

“This is your last day. Eat and drink whatever you can today because you won’t see the sun rise tomorrow.”

This was one of the messages the militants had left for Barnala a few days ahead of the elections, apparently because of his role in the Rajiv-Longowal Accord. Longowal, the then president of SAD, was killed in a crowded gurudwara in broad day light.

“I procured a bullet-proof jacket and started tying curved steel plates under my turban because the killers had taken to shooting at the head. A bulletproof podium was also prepared. It was carried to all the election meetings I addressed. I always carried a briefcase with a steel sheet fixed in the cover to serve as a shield, if needed. I also had steels sheets to cover the glass panes of my car. The rear glass screen was specially protected because many persons had been killed by terrorists firing through it,”
says Barnala in his book.

Mystery soothsayer

Barnala, who has served as the governor of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand, also touches upon his strange encounter with a soothsayer at the Raj Bhavan in Chennai. The astrologer told him that V.P. Singh's government at the Centre would go soon and that Chandra Shekhar would become the next prime minister. He also predicted that though the Congress party would win the upcoming parliamentary elections, Rajiv Gandhi would not be the prime minister.

For Barnala, who was neither pious nor interested in astrology, all these sounded like trash. However, much to his surprise, each of these prophecies proved correct in due course of time.

(Barnala breathed his last on January 14 at 91 following a brief spell of illness.)

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