Gurcharan Singh Tohra

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Panth Rattan Shiri Gurcharan Singh Tohra
Born Gurcharan Singh Tohra
(1924-09-24)24 September 1924
Died 1 April 2004(2004-04-01)
New Delhi, India
Nationality Indian
Occupation Former president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)
Political party Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)
Spouse(s) Bibi Joginder Kaur

Panth Rattan Shiri Gurcharan Singh Tohra (24 September 1924 – 1 April 2004) was a president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), a Sikh body in charge of controlling Gurdwara (Sikh places of worship). He died of a heart attack in New Delhi on 1 April 2004 at the age of 79.[1] He remained the head of the SGPC for a record 27 years, and was one of the most influential and controversial Sikh leaders of the 20th century.

Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam described the Sikh leader as a "prominent political and social leader who was well known for his work during his many years in public life".


During his lifetime and after his death, Gurcharan Singh Tohra was addressed by many sobriquets. It included Pope of the Sikhs, Pearl of the Panth,[2] Kingmaker, Pope, Messiah, Reformist, Conformist, Forever-Dissenter, Wily Fox, Wily Politician,[3] and Machiavelli. Followers often addressed him as Pardhanji (President) or Jathedar.

Punjab politics[edit]

Born at Tohra village of Patiala district in Punjab in September 1924, he had an early interest in religion and was an active Akali worker even before the partition of India. He became General Secretary of the Patiala unit of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1947.

Tohra, a graduate in Punjabi from Lahore University, worked at the grass root level for the next two decades and came into contact with Communists, including CPI-M leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet though he did not become one himself.

Known as a hardliner, Tohra had carved out for himself the image of a non-conformist with the powers-that-be in Akali politics and had taken frontline SAD leaders Surjit Singh Barnala and Parkash Singh Badal who had headed Akali Dal governments in Punjab in the eighties and nineties. He was known for his own brand of politics. It was his integrity and honesty that endeared him to many followers[4]

Tohra was a member of Lok Sabha in 1977–79 though earlier he was elected as a member of the Rajya Sabha five times from Punjab from 1969 to 1976 and re-elected in May 1980, April 1982, in April 1998 and in March 2004.

He played a huge role in Sikh political affairs in post partition India. Along with Parkash Singh Badal and Jagdev Singh Talwandi, he was regarded as the triumvirate of Sikh politics in Punjab. Unlike the other two, his main domain was the Sikh religious institution, the SGPC. Though he dabbled with electoral politics often, Tohra made his mark in Sikh religious affairs. He is credited with rebuilding the institution of the Akal Takhat.[5]

Early days[edit]

An agriculturalist, Tohra was first jailed in 1945 during the Riyasti Praja Mandal Movement in Nabha, in 1950 for formation of popular government in PEPSU. In 1955 and 1960 Tohra was put behind bars in connection with Punjabi Suba agitations, in 1973 in connection with Kisan agitation in Haryana, in 1975, under MISA and under NSA and TADA and religious matters, including Dharam Yudh Morcha and Operation Blue Star (1984).

Tohra became the acting president of SGPC, which manages key Sikh shrines, in 1972 after the death of Sant Chanan Singh and was formally elected its president for the first time in November that year.

Tohra continued to head the SGPC, considered the mini-parliament of the Sikh community, for a record 27 years before he was unceremoniously removed from the key post following a split in SAD in the wake of his revolt against Badal's leadership.

Tohra was arrested during the Emergency and was very popular in Punjab until Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala emerged on the scene and militancy took over Sikh politics.

Operation Bluestar[edit]

Gurcharan Singh Tohra was among the Sikh leaders who were arrested from within the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star, the Indian army action in 1984. Tohra, was the President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee during the army operation. The Akal Takhat was damaged during the army operation and it was rebuilt by kar seva led by Baba Santa Singh. Some factions of the Sikh community believe that Tohra along with other members of the then Shiromani Akali Dal had given the nod to the central government of India to launch the attack as they felt Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a threat to their political careers.

Troubled times[edit]

Tohra's differences with then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal contributed to the fall of the Akali-Janata coalition in 1980. That began a period of crisis for Tohra as he seemed to favour Bhindranwala's ideas which did not sit well with the opposition.

After Operation Blue Star in 1984, Tohra became an embittered man and did not endorse the Punjab accord put forward by the Rajiv Gandhi government to the Akalis for sharing political power with Harchand Singh Longowal. He took another controversial step some time later by having Sikhs demolish the Akal Takht which was rebuilt after Operation Blue Star by pro-government religious leaders. The Takht was rebuilt by the Sikhs over several years. This turned him into the 'bete noire' not only of the Centre but also of the then Akali government in Punjab headed by Surjit Singh Barnala which had opposed the move.

He was detained under the National Security Act but continued to be elected SGPC chairman for several years in absentia. Throughout this bleak period, Tohra was supported by Badal but in 1999, the two leaders, considered the best of friends, fell out after the SGPC chief pressed for Badal's removal as SAD chief.

Tohra-Badal feud[edit]

The feud of Gurcharan Singh Tohra was Parkash Singh Badal was described as "Clash of Titans".[6] The origin of Tohra-Badal feud could be traced to the former's casual remarks, made in November 1998, suggesting one-man-one-post for Akali Dal leaders. According to historian Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, the personal opponents of Tohra availed this opportunity and provoked Badal to expel the latter from the SGPC and the Akali Dal.[7] At this, Badal had Tohra removed as SGPC chief on 16 March 1999, a few days before the commencement of tercentenary celebrations of the birth of the Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib.

Tohra was then expelled from SAD forcing him to form a new party Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal with five members of Badal's cabinet, including Manjit Singh Calcutta, Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Harmail Singh Tohra, Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Koli, who all resigned in protest against the expulsion.

Badal consolidated his grip on Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, by removing Bhai Ranjit Singh as its top Jathedar in February 1999 and installing his hand-picked Giani Puran Singh. Tohra was also replaced by Bibi Jagir Kaur the first woman president of the SGPC.[8]

Adversity brought Tohra and Badal together again after SAD was routed in the February 2002 assembly elections in Punjab and Tohra's SSHAD failed to win even a single seat.

Badal was at the receiving end of Amarinder Singh-headed Congress government's anti-corruption campaign as vigilance personnel searched his premises as well as those of his MP son Sukhbir Singh Badal in Punjab and outside.

After this, considering the panthik interests more important the then prominent Sikh leader and scholar Prof. Kirpal Singh Badungar left his seat of SGPC president for Tohra. On 13 June 2003, Badal and Tohra finally buried the hatchet after the latter welcomed the former's appearance before the Akal Takht and expressed satisfaction over the mild religious punishment ordered by the Sikh clergy to the former chief minister. Tohra was appointed as SGPC President in July 2003 after he accepted Badal's pre-eminence in the SAD.

New party[edit]

After splitting with the Shiromani Akali Dal led by Parkash Singh Badal, Tohra floated his own party called the All India Shiromani Akali Dal (also called the Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal).[9] Five ministers of the ruling government Science and Technology Minister Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Higher Education Minister Manjit Singh Calcutta, Public Works Minister Harmel Singh and Ministers of State Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Kohli quit the ruling government and joined Tohra. Veteran leader Surjan Singh Thekedar also joined Tohra. However, during the 2002 assembly elections, the party did not fare well. The Congress came to power in 2002 and both Badal and Tohra were in the opposition. Later, in 2003, Tohra rejoined the Shiromani Akali Dal.[10]


Gurcharan Singh Tohra was married to Joginder Kaur who died at the age of 83 on 26 January 2011.[11] Tohra had adopted a daughter Kuldeep Kaur, who is married to Harmail Singh Tohra. Harmail had entered politics and was a Minister in the Parkash Singh Badal led Akali government. However Harmail resigned during the Badal-Tohra feud.


Despite being in opposite political campus, the national leadership in India paid tributes to Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party was upset at Tohra's remarks comparing the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the Indira Gandhi,[12] Vajpayee paid his tributes to Tohra on his death.[13] He described Tohra was a leader with deep saintly traits, "A follower of dictum of simple living and high thinking, Shri Tohra made invaluable contribution to the regeneration of social, political and religious life of Punjab. In his death, the country has lost a popular and inspiring figure," the Prime Minister said.[14] Veteran journalist Khushwant Singh stated that Tohra "could have become the uncrowned king of the Sikhs", but "his vision remained limited to launching morchas and going to jail".[15] Though politically ranged against each other, both belong to Patiala then Chief Minister of Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh stressed the "honest life" of Gurcharan Singh Tohra.[16]


  1. ^ Gurcharan Singh Tohra passes away, The Economic Times
  2. ^ The Tribune
  3. ^ Khushwant Singh
  4. ^ Sikh Review
  5. ^ Singh, Bajinder Pal, 2001, "Spring in the autumn of the patriarch", The Indian Express [1]
  6. ^ Singh, Bajinder Pal, 1998 "Clash of Titans", The Indian Express
  7. ^ For comprehensive details: Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SHIROMANI AKALI DAL (1920–2000), and, Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SIKH HISTORY IN 10 VOLUMES, vol 8 and 9, published by The Sikh University Press (2012)
  8. ^ Singh, Bajinder Pal, 1999, "From a maths teacher to SGPC chief", The Indian Express [2]
  9. ^ Singh, Jagtar, 1999, "Facing the litmus test", The Indian Express
  10. ^ The Indian Express, 2003, "Akali factions led by Tohra, Badal unite
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ Singh, Jagtar, 1998, The Indian Express
  13. ^ NY Times
  14. ^ [4]
  15. ^ Khushwant Singh, 2004, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the Jathedar, Deccan Herald [5]
  16. ^ [6]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SHIROMANI AKALI DAL (1920–2000), Singh Brothers Amritsar (2000).
  • Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer: SIKH HISTORY IN 10 VOLUMES, volumes 8 and 9, The Sikh University Press, Belgium (2012)
  • Balkar Singh: Gurcharan Singh Tohra (2004)