A former Akali minister and former secretary of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex representative body of Sikhs, Manjit Singh Calcutta, was well known for his deep understanding of issues concerning the Sikh political history and Sikh Panth. Calcutta is survived by his wife, his son who runs a hotel in Amritsar and two daughters – elder living in Kolkata and younger in Canada. Manjit Singh Calcutta played a pivotal role in reuniting Akali stalwarts Parkash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra in 2003 after the divided Akalis — Shiromani Akali Dal led by Badal and Sarb Hind Shiromani Akali Dal led by Tohra — were defeated by Congress in 2002 Assembly polls.
In a telephonic conversation with this reporter at the time, Calcutta, a staunch supporter of late Gurcharan Singh Tohra, said that members of Tohra camp used to call him “Samjhauta Express” as he used to work for the truce between the two leaders after being approached by Badal.
Calcutta was among the five ministers who resigned in protest against Tohra’s expulsion as SGPC chief in March 1999 after a feud between Badal and Tohra over the latter advocating one-man-one-post for Akali leaders.
At the time Badal was, both, the SAD president and Chief Minister. Calcutta was at the time Minister for Higher Education. An excellent orator with in-depth knowledge of Sikh and Panthic issues, despite his growing age, Calcutta kept himself engaged in Panthic affairs and continued to air his views strongly on issues. While he was a strong critic of SAD control over SGPC and minced no words to criticise the controversial exoneration of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh by Akal Takht and express concern over the eroding authority of Akal Takht chief, Calcutta was against giving voting rights in SGPC polls to Sikhs who trim their hair in the Sehajdhari Sikh voting rights controversy.
Calcutta had first person accounts of meetings between Badal and Tohra when they had parted ways and about Badal’s efforts to “reunite with Tohra before and after 2002 Assembly elections”. Referring to one such meeting where he said he had taken Tohra to inquire about Badal after Badal had sustained an injury, Calcutta said that after the meeting of the duo when he went to say farewell to Badal in his room he saw him “wiping his tears with a towel”.
In over a decade long association with SGPC beginning 1988, Calcutta served as secretary, chief secretary and honorary secretary of the apex representative body of Sikhs. He left the post of secretary after Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission set 60 years as the maximum age ceiling for holding it.
Former SGPC secretary Dalmegh Singh, who worked with Calcutta and who was made officiating secretary after him, described Calcutta as “a well educated man and an excellent orator who had clarity on Sikh principles”.
He said Calcutta used to draw a token salary of one rupee while working as secretary with SGPC and lived in his own house in Amritsar.
Born in Kolkata, Manjit Singh first got associated with All India Sikh Students Federation in 1953 at the age of 15. He later went on to become president of the federation. “He subsequently moved to Delhi and served as Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee general secretary in 1980. Later, he also served as Committee president. The family moved to Punjab in 1985 after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots,” said Calcutta’s son Gurpreet Singh.
Gurpreet said that it was after his father moved to Punjab that he came to be known as ‘Calcutta’. “Earlier, he simply used to write his name as Manjit Singh. But, when the family moved to Punjab, he was advised to use name of the village as surname as has been the practice in Punjab. But, he said that he does not come from any village and that he was born in Calcutta and attached the citiy’s name as his surname,” he said.
Before getting into the hurly burly of politics, Calcutta worked as Sales Manager with Calcutta-based Frits and Singh Limited and was elevated as sales head of the company. Coming from a family which dealt in transport and hotels business he did his MA in English and then LLB. After joining politics, he rose through the ranks serving as general secretary of SAD during the tenures of SAD presidents Jagdev Singh Talwandi, Harchand Singh Longowal, Surjit Singh Barnala and Parkash Singh Badal, finally becoming a minister when SAD formed the government in 1997.