Three-time MLA and senior Akali Dal leader who earned the title of ‘Jathedar’, Tota Singh, (81) passed away at a private hospital in Mohali on Saturday.
Family sources said that he was suffering from complications that arose from lung pneumonia since February. He was readmitted to the hospital two days ago after he complained of breathlessness and other issues.
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Having won the polls two times from Moga and once from Dharamkot, he was a close confidant of SAD patron Parkash Singh Badal. He had also participated in several “morchas” led by Akali Dal for rights of Punjab and had also spent jail term.
Former education and agriculture minister during different tenures of the SAD government, he had started his political career as a sarpanch of his village Didar Singh Wala in the Nihal Singh Wala division of Moga district.
A core-committee member of the party, Tota Singh was one of the oldest candidates in the Punjab elections this year and had contested from Dharamkot on SAD ticket but lost to AAP candidate.
One of the longest serving members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) from 1979 to till date, he was known as ‘jathedar’ for being one of the senior-most Akali Dal leaders in Punjab.
Prem Singh Chandumagra, party’s senior vice-president and former Lok Sabha member, said that Tota Singh worked with maximum party presidents. “From Sant Fateh Singh to Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Surjit Singh Barnala to Harcharan Singh Longowal, Parkash Singh Badal to Sukhbir Singh Badal – Tota Singh worked with all. He was a grassroots level leader who had remained on key posts of SAD right from village and district level to the highest core committee,” Chandumagra said.
“It was during his tenure as Mandi board chairman that maximum recruitments were done. The title ‘jathedar’ in the 100-year-old party Akali Dal is given to dyed-in-wool Taksali leaders who lead from the front and have those typical traits of a true Akali. He wasn’t just a politician but a panthik leader too who understood religious issues well being one of the longest serving members of SGPC,” he added.
In 1997, he won his first assembly election from Moga and was inducted into the cabinet of the SAD-BJP government as education minister. Then in 2002, he again won from Moga but in 2007 he faced defeat from this seat. Then in 2012, he contested from Dharamkot and won. He was again inducted in the cabinet as minister but the same year, he was convicted in a corruption case for alleged misuse of an official vehicle (during his tenure as education minister) and ruling to a year of imprisonment. He resigned from the cabinet and moved to the High Court. After the Punjab and Haryana High Court stayed his sentence, he was again inducted in the cabinet as agriculture and NRI affairs minister. In 2015, during his tenure as agriculture minister, there was a massive cotton failure in Punjab due to whitefly and alleged distribution of spurious pesticides, and opposition demanded his resignation.
The opposition had also targeted the SAD-BJP government in 1997 when being an undergraduate, Tota Singh was made education minister.
But it was in 1999-2000 during his tenure as an education minister that the Akali Dal government had introduced English as a compulsory subject at primary level from class I in government schools. Earlier, English as a subject started from class 6 in government schools.
In 2018, a court in Mohali had also acquitted him in a forgery case registered by the vigilance bureau, related to recruitment of 134 clerks by the Punjab School Education Board (PSEB), in which four others were convicted but Tota Singh, who was the education minister at the time of recruitments, was given a clean chit by the court.
He is survived by wife Mukhtyar Kaur, three sons and a daughter. His eldest son Balwinder Singh is deputy secretary with Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), another son Barjinder Singh Makhan Brar is also with the SAD, daughter Dr Paramjit Kaur is a medical practitioner in the UK, and the youngest son Dr Jaswinder Singh is a dentist based in Calgary.
Barjinder Singh Makhan Brar said that his father was elected as the party’s district president in 1969 when Ferozepur used to be the largest district and included Faridkot and Moga. “Not just the Badals, he was very close to other SAD presidents, including Sant Fateh Singh Surjit Singh Barnala, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Jagdev Singh Talwandi and Harcharan Singh Longowal. He always worked for the betterment of Punjab and Akali Dal, not any individual,” he said.
His proximity with Badals can be gauged from the fact that in 2017 and 2022 Punjab polls, party president Sukhbir Singh Badal allotted two tickets to the family (for Tota Singh and his son Barjinder Singh both) defying party’s ‘one family, one ticket’ rule , a move which also drew criticism from other SAD leaders who also wanted two tickets.
Tota Singh was also fond of writing and had released his maiden book ‘Gatha Purkeyan di’ in 2020. After drugs became an issue in Punjab, Tota Singh in one of his speeches had suggested dope testing for politicians before filing nomination papers and contesting polls.
“Right from day one in his politics, he remained with Akali Dal till the end. There were splits within the party and he joined Surjit Singh Barnala for sometime but he always remained an Akali by heart,” said Dr Daljit Singh Cheema, party spokesperson.
Five-time CM and party patron Parkash Singh Badal said, “..Punjabis in general and the Khalsa Panth, in particular, have lost a strong panthic voice that always remained unflinching in commitment to the tenets and ideals set before us by the great Guru Sahiban…’
Recalling his nearly half-century long association with Tota Singh, he said, “Jathedar Sahib was a tireless crusader and was always among the first to offer to make sacrifices for safeguarding the interests of the Sikh quom, Punjab and Punjabis. He played a major role in SAD’s tireless efforts to reclaim the glory of the Khalsa Panth after the community had been hit hard by the events of 1984. He, along with Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi and Capt Kanwaljit Singh, was the guiding spirit behind the Moga Convention on the 75th anniversary of the party.”
Party president Sukhbir Singh Badal said that Tota Singh was a ‘father figure’ for him.
Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann tweeted, “I mourn the passing away of Jathedar Tota Singh, a senior leader of SAD and former cabinet minister….”
For the party which has managed to win just three seats in recently held Punjab polls, demise of Tota Singh has come as setback especially in Moga, his home district and political bastion. “There’s no other Akali Dal of his stature in Moga”. This void will be hard to fill,” said a SAD worker from Moga.