Partap Singh Kairon is widely acknowledged as the architect of post-Independence Punjab Province (or Punjab, Haryana and Himachal as of today)
A man with an expansive worldview, Partap Singh Kairon was a force of change for Punjab. Here was a khadi kurta-pajama clad man who proudly spoke colloquial Punjabi and fluent English, with traces of an American accent. Their family was well known for supporting the cause of education, and for its anti-colonial leanings. He had gone, with his brother Jaswant, to America to study further after graduating from Khalsa College, Amritsar.
In the US, Partap Singh earned his Masters in Economics from University of California at Berkeley and went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for Masters in Political Science. He was on the university debating team. The lad from Kairon village had to work on farms, plucking fruit, and for the Ford Motor Company to supplement his income. Although he would be back in India by 1929, and thus escape the devastating effects of the Great Depression, what he saw there would inform his decisions.
Political activism was in the family. The Ghadar movement had an impact on him; he dallied with communism and became active in Akali politics. It led to his arrest for civil disobedience, a jail sentence later commuted to a fine, and his recognition as a leader, soon general secretary of the Akali Dal in 1934. He would cement his position in the 1937 election by soundly defeating the Congress candidate, Baba Gurdit Singh of the Komagata Maru fame, for whom Jawaharlal Nehru had campaigned. Ironically, later, he opted to stay with the Congress when the Akali Dal walked out of its alliance with the party in 1942. As an MLA, he worked for agrarian reforms and presented the Jhatka Meat Bill, which was passed in due time. He was vocal and active in his opposition of the malba tax, which was eventually abolished.
Partap Singh made a mark as Minister for Rehabilitation and Development (1947-1949), a crucial position since lakhs of refugees needed relief, accommodation and work. He was practical, pushing for results and trusting his team to do the right thing. He was also highly valued as an organiser by the Congress leadership in Delhi. With Bhim Sen Sachar at the helm, the language controversy had taken a communal turn and Kairon was steadfast in his opposition to those who played the sectarian card.
Replacing Sachar, Partap Singh Kairon became Chief Minister of Punjab on January 21, 1956. He transformed Punjab with his leadership, and by bringing in administrative reforms, institutions, industries, and best agricultural practices. He was a firm administrator who prioritised efficiency over seniority.
The familial emphasis on education was reflected in the new universities established during his tenure. These included Kurukshetra University (1956), Punjabi University (1962) and Punjab Agricultural University (1962). Free compulsory education was introduced in 1961 — till Class VIII for boys and Class IX for girls.
He aggressively courted industrial projects. These included a fertiliser and heavy water factory in Nangal, a sugar factory at Dhuri and the HMT factory in Pinjore. He courted institutions and brought in the PGI (inaugurated in 1963) and the Indo-Swiss Training Centre (initially planned for Pune). He actively sought out industrialists outside Punjab and brought them to Faridabad. In Chandigarh, you hear stories from the Saboos and the Purewals about how he helped them set up non-polluting industries. He was active in improving agricultural practices and developing dairy farming, setting up the Karnal project. He had seen the effect of development in the western world and wanted to take his state forward.
Gurinder Singh Kairon, the late Chief Minister’s youngest son, joined hands with civil servant Meeta Rajivlochan and her historian husband M Rajivlochan to write the book. They had unrivalled access to records of the Kairon family as well as public sources, which have been mined extensively. The book is rich in information and detail.
The last part of the volume addresses the charges of corruption which hounded Partap Singh in his later days. The manner in which his rivals raised them, and his defence in the submissions to various commissions set up to enquire into them, is discussed in some detail. The Das Commission gave a lot of oxygen to the charges, but what it took exception to was that a government doctor had accompanied the diabetic Chief Minister on official trips! Sounds quaint now.
Partap Singh was a man of the masses and had a tremendous ability to connect with them. He could also be abrasive when rubbed the wrong way. In time, this led to several rivals banding together. Their influence rose, and after the death of Nehru, his primary backer, and the Das Commission report, on June 23, 1964, he resigned. He wrote articles for newspapers in which he expounded on his vision and was also critical of the government. He was hounded by his successor, family properties were raided, without any recoveries.
He was down, but certainly not out when he was assassinated near Rai in a manner that still defies explanation. This has, inevitably, led to conspiracy theories that are mentioned in the book. In his death, Punjab lost a unifying force that had shaped the state in a manner which would be the envy of many contemporaries. Partap Singh Kairon is dead, the legend lives on. We get to revisit his life and achievements through this book.