Born On: May 5, 1916
Born In: Sandhwan, Punjab
Died On: December 25, 1994
Career: Freedom Fighter & Politician
Zail Singh, throughout his life, had been praised and criticized for his unflinching devotion to the Nehru-Gandhi clan. While early in his career such loyalty was instrumental in his rapid rise to the top, later on his outspoken commitment for the 'family' received only scorn and colored every other aspect of his character. To rise from a humble village life to the top position in public affairs of India requires a lot more grit and determination than only sycophancy, and Zail Singh showed that he had all that was required in a leader, which not even his enemies and critics could deny. For he started to display the qualities that would prove invaluable in his political career from a very early stage and the first of these was the epitaph 'Giani' fondly bestowed on him by people, which means 'one who is well versed in religious texts'. Coupled with his natural oratorical skills, he could very easily sway people. This quality which served him throughout his life was the very characteristic of a mass leader. To this day he remains one of the most enduring and controversial leaders of India.
Childhood & Early Life
Sardar Zail Singh, also known as Jarnail Singh was born in 1916 to Bhai Kishan Singh, a carpenter and Mata Ind Kaur in Sandhwan in the formerly princely state of Faridkot. He was the youngest of five brothers and sisters. He lost his mother at a very early age and was brought up by his mother's sister. His father was a simple and upright man who was a devout Sikh and so imparted in his children extensive religious learning. As a result, Zail Singh gained fluency in reading the Guru Granth Sahib as well as developed a broad knowledge of Sikh philosophy and history, though he received only little formal education. Later, he enrolled in the Shahid Sikh Missionary College at Amritsar even though he was not a matriculate. Early in his life he impressed his teachers and other people with his flair for public speaking, and mastered his oratorical skills while at college. He would captivate his audience with his speech mixed with Urdu verses and snippets from Sikh religion and history and also put his subtle sense of humor to good work.
At the age of 15, Giani Zail Singh joined the Freedom Movement to liberate his country from foreign rule. In 1938 he joined the Riyasati Praja Mandal and was instrumental in establishing a branch of Congress Committee in Faridkot. At that time Faridkot was ruled by Raja Harinder Singh and this did not go down well with the Maharaja who had him arrested and sent to prison for five years. It was while in prison that he began to adopt the name Zail Singh. After his release from prison he was harassed by the Maharaja and so he had to spend a couple of years outside the state. Heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, in 1946 he launched the Satyagraha Movement leading mass protests for freedom. He also campaigned against feudal rule and set up a parallel government in defiance of the Maharaja.
After India gained Independence, Zail Singh worked towards building mass support for Faridkot's accession to India. When Punjab was divided, the small princely states were grouped into a new state, Punjab and in the year 1949 a non-party government was established in which Zail Singh was appointed the revenue minister. In 1951, the first election was held and in the congress-led government, he was elected as the agricultural minister. In 1955, he was sworn in as the President of the state Congress and after serving as the agricultural minister; he was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1956 and served as a Member of Parliament till 1962. In 1956, Zail Singh was also elected as the Vice President of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee. He contested the General Elections in 1972 and was elected as the Chief Minister of Punjab.
In 1977 when Indira Gandhi was voted out of power, Zail Singh placed his full support behind her and in 1980, when she came back to power; he was rewarded for his loyalty as she made him the minister of home affairs in the new government. The same year, he was also elected to the lower house of Legislature, the Lok Sabha. The congress party in the year 1982 announced that he was their candidate for the President of India and was subsequently, elected to the highest office of the country unanimously. As President, Zail Singh had to tide over some of the most tumultuous period in the nation's history. This period saw the height of Sikh extremism, the storming of the Golden Temple by the army on the orders of the Prime Minister, the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi and the subsequent political upheaval.
Fall From Grace
When Singh was the President, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple to flush out the Sikh Extremists holed there. This hurt the sentiment of the Sikhs, as the temple was considered to be their holiest shrine, and they accused Zail Singh of not stopping her, as they thought that he had the power to do so, or resigning in protest. Since he continued acting as the President, it isolated him among his own community. Four months after the storming of the Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi's body guards assassinated her. Zail Singh immediately appointed her son, Rajiv Gandhi as the next Prime Minister. However, it was not smooth sailing with the new Prime Minister. A major conflict arose when Singh refused to sign a bill in 1987 making it into a law. This and his negative comments of Rajiv Gandhi further made him lose favor with the government.
Giani Zail Singh passed away in 1994, in Chandigarh, at the age of 79 when he succumbed to his injuries in a car accident while returning from a pilgrimage from Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib.
1916: Zail Singh was born in the princely state of Faridkot.
1938: Established a branch of Congress Commitee in his native town, for which he was sent to prison for five years.
1946: Launched the Satyagraha Movement in Faridkot and campaigned against feudal rule.
1949: Appointed the Revenue Minister in the state government after independence.
1955: Elected as the President of the State Congress.
1956: Was elected to the Rajya Sabha.
1972: Elected as the Chief Minister of Punjab.
1980: Elected to the Lok Sabha and also appointed as the minister of home affairs.
1982: Became the President of India.
1994: Zail Singh passed away, aged 79.