Was Dyal Singh Majithia a devout Sikh?

Rajesh Kochhar

He was not, but The Tribune says so.

Dyal Singh Majithia( 1848/9-1898) has been rightly described as the most notable Punjabi of his time. (Majithia as the last name is a geographical indicator; Dyal Singh’s clan name was Gill or Shergill.) Extremely wealthy through landed inheritance and his own commercial enterprise, he devoted his entire wealth and life to public cause. His most enduring legacy is the founding in 1881 of The Tribune, which has remained a well-respected and influential newspaper of Punjab region. It is no coincidence that The Tribune is a year older than the Panjab University Lahore; the paper was set up to successfully advocate the cause of the new university as a modern institution.

Dyal Singh was ‘an admirer and supporter’ of the Brahmo movement. Although in Punjab Brahmo Samaj speedily lost ground to the more militant and broad-based Arya Samaj, it did constitute a small but valuable intellectual resource comprising Bengalis and a handful of well educated Punjabis.

Since Dyal Singh had no children he decided in consultation with his friends and advisors to vest most of his immovable and movable property in three public trusts, one for The Tribune,  and the other two for a proposed College and Public Library both subsequently named after him. The three executors of the will, Jogendra Chandra Bose, Charles Golak Nath and Harkishen Lal, were all advocates or pleaders. They were also named trustees of The Tribune and made members of the other two, larger, trusts as well.

Dyal Singh’s last will was opposed tooth and nail by his relatives especially his estranged Amritsar-based wife Rani Bhagwan Kaur and to a smaller extent by the Karachi-based ‘Mrs Lily Catherine Gill’, ‘an East-Indian lady, claiming to have been married to the deceased’. An application for probate of the will was made by the executors on 18 February 1899. A two-judge Civil Court which examined the matter at length rejected the contentions made by the objectors and granted the probate on 19 April 1900. Bhagwan Kaur then took the matter to the judicial committee of the Privy Council which dismissed her appeal on 5 August 1903. 

On the founder’s day this year,  that is on 2 February 2016, The Tribune paid tribute to its founder through an article titled ‘Visionary who helped shape modern Punjab’, written by Rajinder Mohan S Chhina, Honorary Secretary, Khalsa College Charitable Society, Amritsar. The article claims that Dyal Singh ‘was a devout Sikh’.

The Tribune has often written on Dyal Singh. It is the first time mention is made of his devoutness as a Sikh. The claim is extraordinary, because it is not supported by any evidence. All known evidence in fact points to the contrary.

A major objection raised by Dyal Singh’s widow concerned his religion. She argued that ‘certain personal habits of the testator [ Dyal Singh] in respect to diet and otherwise were inconsistent with Hindu or Sikh orthodoxy, and so excluded him from the term Hindu in the Act’. Note that for the purpose of various acts applicable in the case, the term Hindu included Sikh. The Chief Court asserted, and the Privy Council concurred, that even if  Dyal Singh’s religious and social practices were ‘heterodox’, this did not mean that he ceased to be a Sikh.

Chief Court’s judgment on Dyal Singh’s probate case has come to be recognized as an important document in the legal history because of its pronouncements on what constitutes religious inclusion. Had Dyal Singh been a devout Sikh, the prolonged litigation would have been unnecessary.

Irony in The Tribune’s 2016 tribute to its founder should not be missed. On the one hand, tributes are being paid to Dyal Singh’s vision and leadership. At the same time attempts are being made to place him in a religious straitjacket.

 

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