Khushwant Singh (2 February 1915 – 20 March 2014) was an Indian novelist, lawyer, politician and journalist. AnIndo-Anglian writer, Singh was best known for his trenchant secularism, his humour, and an abiding love of poetry. His comparisons of social and behavioural characteristics of Westerners and Indians are laced with acid wit. He served as the editor of several literary and news magazines, as well as two newspapers, through the 1970s and 1980s. He was the recipient of Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India.
Khushwant Singh was born in Hadali, Khushab District, Punjab (which now lies in Pakistan), in a Sikh family. His father,Sir Sobha Singh, was a prominent builder in Lutyens’ Delhi. His uncle Sardar Ujjal Singh (1895–1983) was Ex. Governor of Punjab & Tamil Nadu.
He was educated at Modern School, New Delhi, Government College, Lahore, St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and King’s College London, before reading for the Bar at the Inner Temple.
Singh started his professional career as a practising lawyer in 1938. He worked at Lahore Court for eight years. In 1947 he entered Indian Foreign Service for the newly independent India. He started as Information Officer of the Government of India in Toronto, Canada. He was Press Attaché and Public Officer for the Indian High Commission for four years in London and Ottawa. In 1951 he joined the All India Radio as a journalist. Between 1954 and 1956 he worked in Department of Mass Communications of UNESCO at Paris. From 1956 he turned to editorial services. He had edited Yojana, an Indian government journal; The Illustrated Weekly of India, a newsweekly; and two major Indian newspapers, The National Herald and the Hindustan Times. During his tenure, The Illustrated Weekly became India’s pre-eminent newsweekly, with its circulation raising from 65,000 to 400000. After working for nine years in the weekly, on 25 July 1978, a week before he was to retire, the management asked Singh to leave “with immediate effect”. A new editor was installed the same day. After Singh’s departure, the weekly suffered a huge drop in readership.
From 1980 to 1986, Singh was a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 for service to his country. In 1984, he returned the award in protest against the siege of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army. In 2007, the Indian government awarded Khushwant Singh the Padma Vibhushan.
As a public figure, Singh was accused of favouring the ruling Congress party, especially during the reign of Indira Gandhi. He was derisively called an ‘establishment liberal’. Singh’s faith in the Indian political system was shaken by the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination, in which major Congress politicians are alleged to be involved; but he remained resolutely positive on the promise of Indian democracy and worked via Citizen’s Justice Committee floated by H. S. Phoolka who is a senior advocate of Delhi High Court.
Singh was a votary of greater diplomatic relations with Israel at a time when India did not want to displease Arab nations where thousands of Indians found employment. He visited Israel in the 1970s and was impressed by its progress.
Singh was married to Kawal Malik and had a son, named Rahul Singh, and a daughter, named Mala. Actress Amrita Singh is the daughter of his brother Daljit Singh’s son – Shavinder Singh and Rukhsana Sultana. He stayed in “Sujan Singh Park”, near Khan Market New Delhi, Delhi’s first apartment complex, built by his father in 1945, and named after his grandfather. His grandniece Tisca Chopra is a noted TV and Film Actress.
Singh was a self-proclaimed agnostic, as the title of his 2011 book Agnostic Khushwant: There is no God explicitly revealed. He was particularly against organised religion. He was evidently inclined towards atheism, as he said, “One can be a saintly person without believing in God and a detestable villain believing in him. In my personalised religion, There Is No God!” He also once said, “I don’t believe in rebirth or in reincarnation, in the day of judgement or in heaven or hell. I accept the finality of death.” His last book The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous was published in October 2013, following which he retired from writing. The book was his continued critique of religion and especially its practice in India, including the critique of the clergy and priests. It earned a lot of acclaim in India, where such debates are rare.
Singh died due to natural causes on 20 March 2014 at his Delhi-based residence, at the age of 99. His death was mourned by many including the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister of India. He was survived by his son and daughter. He was cremated at Lodhi Crematorium in Delhi at 4 in the afternoon of the same day. During his lifetime, Khushwant Singh was keen on burial because he believed that with a burial you give back to the earth what you have taken. He had requested the management of the Bahai faith if he could be buried in their cemetery. After initial agreement, they had proposed some conditions which were unacceptable to Singh, and hence the idea was later abandoned. He was born in Hadali, Khushab District in the Punjab Province of modern Pakistan, in 1915. According to his wishes, some of his ashes were brought and scattered in Hadali.