The Economist Statesman: Dr. Manmohan Singh

Khushwant Singh

Dr. Manmohan Singh

Renowned as an esteemed economist and statesman, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the 13th Prime Minister of India, has firmly established himself as a prominent figure in the global economic and political arena. He is widely recognized as one of the most influential personalities worldwide. Throughout his career, Dr. Singh has dedicated himself to serving his country and consistently demonstrated remarkable humility. I had the privilege of witnessing this firsthand when I met ‘The Economist Statesman’ for the purpose of this short biography.

Meeting Dr. Manmohan Singh

“We are running late. For God’s sake, get ready on time for once. We are going to meet the former Prime Minister of India,” I said in a raised voice while waiting for my wife and son to get ready so that we could reach Dr. Manmohan Singh’s Delhi residence on time.

Author and founder of The Global Sikh Trail, Khushwant Singh with the former Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh

The meeting had been arranged by Daman Singh, his daughter, after we had become closely acquainted during a session on her biography of her father and mother. “My father has never applied for a job. All jobs have been offered to him,” she said to a packed crowd at the amphitheater of Hoshiarpur Government College, where Dr. Manmohan Singh had once studied. Titled Strictly Personal: Manmohan & Gursharan, the biography and conversations with the ever-affable Daman Singh would serve as the foundation for writing this biographical account of a man whose humility and knowledge cannot be adequately described. These attributes can only be felt and experienced, which I had the fortune of.

“Tea or coffee?” he asked after Daman ushered us into his study. We all placed our preferred beverage orders, but that was just the beginning of a lifelong lesson in humility, especially for my twenty-two-year-old son, Adiraj. He could never have imagined that a former Prime Minister would stir the sugar in his teacup and serve it to him while discussing his college curriculum at Ashoka University, Sonepat. “My daughter, Upinder, also teaches there,” said Dr. Manmohan Singh, initiating a conversation with Adiraj. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “She’s considered a little old school,” he added, much to my dismay. Dr. Manmohan Singh smiled, and soon we began talking about his earlier days.

Time Travel

Born on 26th September 1932 in British India, in a small village called Gah in West Punjab (now Pakistan), Dr. Manmohan Singh’s life story is perhaps one of the most inspirational tales that will be etched on the walls of The Global Sikh Trail and the annals of modern Sikh history.

When Manmohan was still an infant, his mother Amrit Kaur passed away, and he was raised by his grandparents – Sant Singh and Jamna Devi – and the extended family. He formed a strong bond with his grandmother, to the point that he would wake up at 4 am to watch her light the stove. He cherished his grandmother’s missi roti, chhole, and vaadiyan pulao.

Coming from a deeply religious Sikh family, Manmohan’s namkaran (naming ceremony) took place at the holy Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal (now in Pakistan). He later revisited this place twice on official expeditions during his life.

Manmohan had a modest upbringing. His father, Gurmukh Singh, worked as a clerk in a firm of commission agents that imported dry fruit from Afghanistan and mostly resided in Peshawar. Consequently, the father and son had minimal interaction for nearly 11 years.

Manmohan stayed with his grandparents, who were uneducated and did not own much agricultural land. To make ends meet, his grandfather would run errands for shopkeepers.

Gurmukh would send money to his parents, which helped them raise Manmohan and sometimes spared his father from doing errands.

At the age of four, young Manmohan began learning Gurmukhi from the granthi (religious leader) at the village gurudwara (Sikh temple). A year later, on April 17, 1937, he enrolled in a small Urdu medium school in the village. Interestingly, while he learned English much later, as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh would write his speeches in the Urdu script and occasionally in Gurmukhi.

The village formed a tight-knit community where teachers became friendly neighbors and celebrated all festivals together. Dr. Singh always had an abundance of raisins and nuts to share with his friends as they played kabbadi, marbles, gulli-danda, and hide-and-seek.

After smoothly completing fourth grade, Manmohan went to live with his uncle Gopal Singh in Chakwal (now in Pakistan) and enrolled in Khalsa High School. He missed his doting grandparents but thoroughly enjoyed school. Throughout his student years, he received scholarships, even up to his PhD, which is a rare achievement in any student’s career.

Although it’s hard to imagine Manmohan as a mischievous boy, like any other growing child, he played innocent pranks. His pranks included licking off the cream layer from the yogurt when his aunt asked him to buy it from the local shop. He even stole money from his cousin’s savings and took a bus alone to Gah. The simplicity of the village, depicted through watercolors, was later captured on canvas as a gift for Dr. Manmohan Singh by the former President of Pakistan, the late Pervez Musharraf.

Khushwant Singh