The ‘People’s Captain'
Amarinder Singh Chief Minister, Punjab, India
When one has written a full-bodied 392-page biography of an individual as diverse, vibrant and eclectic as Captain Amarinder Singh, scaling his story down to a short biography really does get the tough going. This is the story of a man who was born into utter privilege but transcended it to become an undeniably successful public and political figure. And now, in whose hands, as the recently sworn in chief minister of Punjab (15 March 2017), rests the destiny of a much vibrantly alive state.
I will begin the story with a small but nonetheless telling anecdote that confirms Amarinder to be the endearing man he is to people who know him closely. The anecdote, a very poignant one into Amarinder’s character dates to the year 2011 and pertains to an interaction between my son Adiraj, who was just twelve then and him. ‘Dad, amongst all your friends, I love Captain Amarinder Singh the most. He is the only one who extends etiquette even to someone as young as me and always stands up to greet me.’ For a child that young to take note, of what some might call an insignificant mannerism of such a towering personality speaks volumes about Amarinder.
A Blue-blooded Heritage
Amarinder’s ancestry can be traced as far back as the twelfth century AD. It played a decisive role in shaping the destiny of Punjab, edifying as well as not. While volumes can be written on his rich legacy, from being Bhatti Rajputs to Sidhu Jats, or his ancestors’ journey from Jaisalmer in modern Rajasthan to Phul in present-day Punjab, some of the most significant occasions are when his forefathers came into the Sikh fold and the rise of Ala Singh, the founder of Patiala or Patti Ala. History records that the Patiala household was blessed by none other than the Tenth Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh in 1696. It is believed that on 2 August 1696, the Guru sent a hukumnama (letter of command) addressed to his forefathers, Rama Chand and Tilokha Chand along with a battle standard and eleven shastras or weapons urging them to present themselves in his court with men and horses. It is this hukumnama that is said to have conferred a special status on the house of Patiala.
In 1702 the brothers were baptized into the Sikh fold by the Guru himself at Damdama Sahib near Bathinda. This was three years after he formed the Khalsa (the collective body of Sikhs), whereby all Sikhs became Singhs.
The roles of Rama Chand and his brother become very significant since they brought the family into the Sikh fold by suffixing the title ‘Singh’. Two of Rama Singh’s six sons also suffixed ‘Singh’ to their name; one being Ala Singh, who founded the town and acquired chiefship of Patiala (patti meaning territory and Ala the name of the founder). Ala Singh’s role is substantially important for not only establishing the Patiala lineage but also setting primogeniture, the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child as a rule, which runs in the family till today. Ala Singh is also credited with founding the Phulkian Sikh misl the twelfth of its kind. Accused at times of working against the interests of Sikhs, Ala Singh, infused with fresh energy from his newly adopted religion, led a warrior’s life. In 1763, Ala Singh built a mud fort around the mound, now known as Qila Mubarak (‘Blessed Fort’), where a flame has been continuously burning since then. It was from this fort that he lorded over his territory.
Ala Singh’s conquests hit a roadblock in 1761 when he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Afghans at Barnala (now in Punjab). He was taken captive and produced before Ahmad Shah Abdali (aka Ahmad Shah Durrani), the Afghan king. A ransom of four lakh rupees was demanded for his release. In March 1762, Abdali bestowed upon Ala Singh the title of ‘raja’, apart from embracing him and giving him a robe and nagadas (war drums).
From Raja to Maharaja the journey of Amarinder’s ancestors has been a roller coaster ride. The most infamous amongst them is his grandfather Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, better known for his 365 wives, idiosyncrasies and pioneer of sports, an iconic patron of the Sikh community and the Punjabi language. On Maharaja Bhupinder Singh’s death in 1838, his son Yadvindra Singh acceded to the throne and went on to acquire great stature as a modern thinking and a patriotic maharaja. However, his most stellar contribution was that of a nation builder. He was the first Maharaja to integrate his kingdom into the newly formed Indian Union, signing the Instrument of Accession on 5 May 1948, after which other maharajas followed suit. He was quick to adapt to the fast political changes taking place in India and he would ensure that the heir to his throne, Amarinder would take that transition with equal ease. And hereby unfolds the story of Amarinder, from being Yuvraj (heir-apparent) in the New Moti Bagh Palace of Patiala to the thirty-sixth chief minister of Punjab.
Little Amarinder’s birth was a momentous occasion for parents, Maharaja Yadvindra Singh and Maharani Mohinder Kaur of Patiala.After all, the crucial issue of a male ‘heir to the Patiala throne’ had been resolved since his two elder siblings, Heminder and Rupinder, were girls. Another son, who was named Malvinder, was born two years later.