Remembering defender of secularism who died for standing up for people’s unity

Written by Gurpreet Singh | Published on: March 17, 2018
This month marks 30 years of the assassination of Jaimal Singh Padda- a leftist activist from Punjab who died for standing up for secularism.

Early Life
Born in 1943, Padda’s father Santokh Singh Mastana was a Sikh farmer and an activist associated with the Akali Dal – a regional party of Punjab that claims to represent the interest of Sikh peasantry. As Padda grew up, he inherited the Sikh values from his father and always believed in the progressive aspect of Sikhism. Padda who eventually became a dedicated social justice activist drew lot of inspiration from the Sikh philosophy that is based on the principles of egalitarianism and teaches its followers to stand up against repression. He used examples from the Sikh history to connect with the masses who understood religion more than the dynamics of left wing politics. Padda was good in sports and fond of reciting poems when he was in the high school.
Social Work and Politics
Under the influence of a veteran Communist in his native village Lakhan Ke Padda, he gradually got drawn to the Communist movement. He started getting involved in activities, such as raising awareness against social ills and superstition through plays and cleaning up village streets and drains. They also tried to educate people about current affairs and various struggles using ordinary tools such as blackboard in the village.   
Padda had to struggle hard to earn his livelihood through farming as he had a very small landholding and tried his luck by driving taxi outside Punjab. He also taught the seniors as part of the state run program of educating the illiterates.
He got married to Amarjit Kaur in 1964 and the couple had three children. However, the life of domesticity and economic hardships did not deter Padda from spending more time in political activism. In 1967, he became involved in the revolutionary communist movement that started with the uprising at village Naxalbari in West Bengal following police repression of tillers fighting to liberate themselves from the shackles of the landowners.
He now represented the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). As a member of this group he led many agitations and had to suffer police torture and arrests. He raised voice for the revolutionary communists who were killed by the Punjab police in staged shootouts. He was also in the forefront of the agitation against Emergency that was imposed by the then Prime Minister Late Indira Gandhi in 1975.  
Amarjit Kaur stood behind him like a rock throughout this period. But more challenges were yet to come.
Padda was a good singer. His voice and rebellious poetry became handy in mobilizing crowds for the public meetings of CPI (ML). This had inspired prominent documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan to make a film on the communists who were fighting against reaction and the state in Punjab. The film is named after the lines from Padda’s famous song “Una Mitran Dee Yaad Pyari” (In sweet memories of those comrades).
The Punjab Crisis
In 1980s, Punjab went through another political crisis. This was a time when the Akali Dal was asking for political autonomy of the state and concessions for the Sikh minority who merely make two percent of the Indian population. Some believe that the Indian state under Indira Gandhi kept lingering on the issue in order to polarize Hindu majority against the Sikhs.  This saw the emergence of a parallel movement of Sikh extremists who believed in an armed resistance. As a result, death squads began targeting innocent Hindus and political critics, including moderate Sikh politicians.
Under those circumstances, the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar became a battle ground. Accusing the militants of turning the place of worship into a fortress, Gandhi ordered a military invasion on the shrine that resulted into the deaths of many innocent pilgrims and devastation of important buildings inside the temple complex. This had enraged the Sikhs all over the world following which Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October, 31 1984. Gandhi’s Congress party organized anti-Sikh massacre in different parts of India not only to avenge the death of their leader, but to win the next general election by creating Hindu-Sikh divide and scapegoating Sikhs.  
Padda has been vocal against both the Sikh and the Hindu fundamentalists during this time. His slogan was “Naa Hindu Raaj, Naa Khalistan, Raaj Karega Mazdoor Kisaan.” (Neither Hindu state, nor Khalistan, we want the working class to rule)
Even though he had organized public forums to challenge the stereotyping of the Sikhs outside Punjab and their continued harassment by the police in the name of war on terror, he kept receiving threats from Khalistanis who also saw communists as their enemies. So much so, Padda who wore turban and sported flowing beard was also detained on couple of occasions on suspicion of being a Sikh militant by the police. The state did not really discriminate between the Khalistanis or the communist revolutionaries.
On one occasion, Hindus from his village intervened to get him released. He had two houses in the village. One was located in the Hindu dominated colony. For his safety he mostly stayed there during the night. On March 17, 1988 he was killed right outside this house by the shooters belonging to Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) that later claimed responsibility for his murder. Years later though, the KCF leader Labh Singh had acknowledged in his diary that to kill Padda was a mistake. Singh wrote that though Padda was against Khalistan for ideological reasons, he wasn’t someone who was working in the interest of the Indian state.