Zail Singh

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Zail Singh

Gyani Zail Singh (May 5, 1916December 25, 1994) was the seventh President of India, serving from 1982 to 1987. His presidency was marked by Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.


  • All I could do was to ask the prime minister of the country not to allow the blood of innocents be spilled for the crime committed by two misguided security men.
    • In: K.R. Sundar Rajan "Presidential Years:Zail Singh's posthumous defence of his controversial tenure."
    • When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and riots broke out in Delhi and other parts of the country, his pleas to control the situation did not result in positive response from Rajiv Gandhi.
  • I asked Rajiv to be frank. I had no love for office or power. I could walk out any time. I was like a sojourner in an inn.
    • When there were rumours that there were proposals under consideration by Rajiv Gandhi and his cronies to either send him back to Punjab as Chief Minister or Impeach him as President, in: K.R. Sundar Rajan "Presidential Years:Zail Singh's posthumous defence of his controversial tenure."
  • No one actually brought me any money. But there were many commitments made...Chandraswami said he knows some Sultan. He wanted me to contest for the second time. Somehow, this fellow had a dislike for Rajiv perhaps because Rajiv refused to encourage him.
    • When it was rumored that he was thinking of contesting for Presidential election for a second term. In: K.R. Sundar Rajan "Presidential Years:Zail Singh's posthumous defence of his controversial tenure."
  • At one stage, Venkataraman had agreed to become prime minister but he never told me this directly.... Once the news of his being in touch with the dissidents was leaked out, he was offered the presidency and that was the end of it.
    • On being asked if R. Venkataraman showed any interest in becoming prime minister. In: K.R. Sundar Rajan "Presidential Years:Zail Singh's posthumous defence of his controversial tenure".

Presidents of India, 1950-2003


In: Janak Raj Jai Presidents of India, 1950-2003, Daya Books, 1 January 2003.

  • The imperative need of the hour is to visualize the grave dangers not only to our cherished political and social system, but to the very foundation of our values, if there is not greater discipline in national life...Undoubtedly, the nation has registered progress, especially during the last two or three years, but we must accelerate the pace and increase the momentum. We need vigour and the will to rekindle the moral timbre to channelize our energies for constructive purposes. We must eschew communal frenzy...
    • His first speech on assuming charge as President of India, p. 170.
  • Towards the end of May 1984, Indira Gandhi mentioned nonchalantly that some people had suggested to her to send the police into the golden temple complex to flush out militants entrenched therein, but he was not exactly convinced on this course as it was likely to have an unfavorable fall out. But at the same time, she said she could not see any alternative.
    • In: p. 172.
  • I seriously pondered over Mrs Gandhi’s thinking. I told her that this course would not be proper, as it would have serious repercussions. The entry of police into the complex was bound to inflame the public mind. Plausible alternatives could definitely be considered. She positively gave me an impression that she agreed to what I said. I tried my best to persuade her not to take any provocative step, but to adopt subtle methods to dislodge the armed men from religious places. Reflecting over this suggestion, she said that she would certainly apply her mind to other means, but did not disclose how her mind was working.
    • In: p. 172.

About Zail Singh

  • He was a close political confidant of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister from 1966-77 and 1980-84, who engineered his selection as President by the electoral college. Critics said this was a result of what they called his sycophancy, but the move was more widely seen as an attempt to calm Sikh militancy in Punjab.
    • Sanjoy Hazarika, in: "Zail Singh, 78, First Sikh To Hold India's Presidency".
  • The honour has gone to a veteran soldier in the flight of freedom, and a man of the people. He is a man of humble origin but his achievements are impressive. Through unflinching devotion to the cause of freedom and development, and readiness to suffer for it, he has won the people’s trust. being so close to the soil and with his understanding of the weaker people's problems, and robust common sense, the President elect can be depended upon to serve the constitution with earnestness and dignity.
  • I am not in the habit of making forecasts; but when I do I am usually right. I forecast that he will be the most popular President that India had so far. He is first Sikh, the first Punjabi, and the first person belonging to the backward classes to occupy Rashtrapathi Bhavan.
  • He was tall, fair complexioned, well built, beautiful turban with white “achkan-[[w:Churidar|churidar”, all-in-one form in his handsome personality. The only other to use the white turban was Dr Radhakrishnan. Dress in all white symbolizes purity. His love for a red-button rose which may be spontaneous reminds us all of Jawaharlal NehruGandhiji’s political mentor who was never seen without a red-button rose.
    • Janak Raj Jai in: "Presidents of India 1950-2003", p. 179-70.
Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar where the Operation Blue Star took place.
  • He overwhelmingly won election to the largely ceremonial office. There was much speculation, however, that Gandhi had selected him in order to mollify Sikh extremists in Punjab, who had since mid-1982 become increasingly militant in that state.
  • Darabara Singh blamed him [when he was Home Minister] for encouraging Sikh religious leader, Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, in his militant activities. … Darbara Singh said that when Bindranwwale had visited Delhi with his gun totting supporters, arrangements were made to arrest him on the national highway on his way back to Punjab, but he [Zail Singh] as Union Home Minister, cancelled these orders.
  • The June 1984 assault on the Harmandir Sahib complex by government troops, which killed hundreds, put him in a difficult situation with the Sikh community—made worse by the violence against Sikhs that erupted following Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards four months later.
  • He named Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, to succeed her, but he soon fell out of favour with the new prime minister. He further inflamed the government by refusing to sign into law a 1987 bill permitting official censorship of private mail.

Presidential Years:Zail Singh's posthumous defence of his controversial tenure


K.R. Sundar Rajan in: Presidential Years:Zail Singh's posthumous defence of his controversial tenure, Outlook India Magazine, 4 December 1996.

  • He was surprised when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made him Union home minister after her return to power in 1980. He must have been even more surprised when she chose him as the Congress party's candidate for presidency two years later. It was clear to all but the gullible that she wanted a thoroughly dependable president. Moreover, a Sikh in Rashtrapati Bhawan could be a mollifying factor with militancy on the rise in Punjab.
  • He claimed that even when he was the Union home minister, Indira Gandhi had been hesitant to discuss Punjab affairs with him and had given a free hand to Chief Minister Darbara Singh. The two had always been at daggers drawn.
Rashtrapati Bhawan (President's House)
  • After succeeding his mother, Rajiv Gandhi asked K.K. Tewary, a Congress MP, to make the reckless charge on the floor of the [[w:Lok Sabha|Lok Sabha that the president had sheltered terrorists in the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
  • He refutes as a canard, the allegation made by two BBC men in their book that it was he who had brought Bhindranwale to the political centre stage. Another "fantastic lie", spread by his detractors was that he had touched Bhindranwale's feet. He attributes all this calumny to Darbara Singh.
  • He [Rajiv Gandhi] reacted in a lukewarm manner, saying that he was reviewing the situation. Ultimately, the army was called in but told not to open fire.
    • During the riots against Sikhs in Delhi and other parts of the country, when thousands of innocent Sikhs were being butchered he made frantic calls to Rajiv Gandhi to call in the army to quell the situation.
  • Senior journalists including some editors had the time of their lives acting as self-appointed advisers to the president or prime minister. Slanderous stories doubting his patriotism were planted in the press. He [therefore] cannot be blamed for sending a message to Rajiv Gandhi that he too, was consulting legal experts on the possible dismissal of the prime minister or his prosecution on corruption charges.
  • The dismissal threat was only a "deliberate ploy" by him to frighten the prime minister and regain the initiative for himself. The truth is that constitutional experts and even some opposition leaders had told him that the president had absolutely no authority to sack a prime minister enjoying majority support. Obviously, it was a war of nerves he was waging.
  • In a dramatic move, he withheld his consent to a Bill to amend the Indian Postal Act of 1898, saying that it was too sweeping in its scope. He felt that the Government wanted arbitrary powers to intercept postal communications indiscriminately. This created a big sensation and memories of Indira Gandhi's infamous Emergency were revived. Obviously, the President was hitting Rajiv Gandhi where it would hurt most.

First among equals President of India

During his visit to South Africa.

Scharada Dubey in: First among equals President of India, Westland, 2009

  • Being able to stand up to injustice throughout once life, in the midst of great social change and upheaval, requires a robust and unconquerable spirit. One president of modern India had such spirit in ample measure. In his life time he challenged feudal princely power and foreign domination, and fought against communalism and social injustice. He was recognized as a learned and aristocratic personality but was also someone who was completely unassuming and a friend of the poor and downtrodden. He successfully combined as all these exceptional qualities
    • In: p. 69.
  • His humble origins as well his family’s background of being artisans of previous generations meant that he grew up with a healthy respect for work done with one’s hands. He learned to stitch clothes, crush stones, plough fields, lay roads and dig wells, understanding the needs and aspirations of the common man like few others have done in childhood.
    • In: p. 69.
  • His earliest inspiration came from the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his companions on 23 March 1931. **In: p. 71.
  • In 1938 when he tried to set up a branch of the All India Congress in the state of Faridkot to spearhead the freedom movement, then a princely state under the British, he was proclaimed and treated as an ordinary criminal and sentenced to five years solitary confinement.
    • In: p. 71.
  • He came under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and his message of peace, and he restarted the freedom movement in Faridkot. On the rising the national flag during this period there was wave of violence when Jawaharlal Nehru himself came to hoist the tricolor [national flag]. This event was the beginning of his lasting close contact with Nehru.
    • In: p. 71.
  • During a revolt against the maharaja of Faridkot by setting up a parallel government he was arrested, was tied up and was threatened to be dragged by a jeep through the streets of Faridkot if he did not mend his ways. But peoples' reaction to this action resulted in abandoning the idea.
    • In: p. 72.
He worked to defeat the forces of communalism and exploitation in Punjab during the period 1962-72. In 1972, he became the Chief Minister of Punjab and ushered industrialization and green revolution. - Scharada Dubey.
  • He worked to defeat the forces of communalism and exploitation in Punjab during the period 1962-72. In 1972, he became the Chief Minister of Punjab and ushered industrialization and green revolution. During this period he was close to Indira Gandhi, and in spite of difficulties and embarrassments he contested for Lok Sabha elections, when Indira Gandhi took him as the Home Minister in the central cabinet. In this capacity he handled the Assam agitation by bringing together the warring parties, and also dealt with communal riots in any part of the country with tact and innate sense of fair play without malice.
    • In: p. 74-75.

Giani Zail Singh's daughter [Dr. Gurdeep Kaur] says PM, govt ignored his pleas for help


India Today Online in: 1984: Giani Zail Singh's daughter says PM, govt ignored his pleas for help, India Today, 3 February 2014

  • The year 1984 was the most painful year for my father. He was deeply hurt both by Operation Blue Star and the anti-sikh riots. His agony was that despite being the supreme commander of Indian defense forces, he was neither consulted before Operation Blue Star nor could he, in spite of his best efforts, stop the riots against innocent Sikhs.
    • His daughter Dr Gurdeep Kaur.
  • He was a very strong man and he could fight his own battles, but the Operation Bluestar was one that shook him and brought tears to his eyes. Four days after Operation Bluestar, when he visited Golden Temple and Akal Takhat Sahib, he came back devastated and in deep anguish. He was shaken by the damage caused to the sanctum sanctorum.
  • He was deeply perturbed over breaking out of riots. He tried calling the PMO, the then Home Minister and other concerned authorities in a concerted effort to stop the atrocities being committed on innocent Sikhs. His calls either were not returned or lines were getting disconnected for reasons unknown, thus revealing helplessness at that time of 'the Most Powerful Man' of independent India who also happened to be the supreme commander of Indian defense force.
  • In the first 48 to 72 hours, no one including the Prime Minister turned up at Rashtrapati Bhavan to brief the President as is the convention even now in India.
  • He could not pass an executive order to call even a soldier to stop the riots. Pressure was built on him by various Sikh organisations to quit...[but] he took the conscious decision in the larger interest of the nation in general and Sikh community in particular to stay put.
  • Had he as supreme commander resigned at that time, there would have been chaos and Sikhs would have suffered immensely. It was because of his decision that Sikhs could become army heads and PM now.
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