Gyani Zail Singh (Punjabi: ذعیل سنگه, About this sound pronunciation (help·info); 5 May 1916 – 25 December 1994) was the seventh President of India, serving from 1982 to 1987. Prior to his presidency, he was a politician with the Indian National Congress party, and had held several ministerial posts in the Union Cabinet, including that of Home Minister.
His presidency was marked by Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He died of injuries in 1994 after a car accident.
He was born in Sandhwan, Faridkot district on 5 May 1916 to Kishan Singh. He was a Sikh by religion, was given the title of Gyani, as he was educated and learned about Guru Granth Sahib at Shaheed Sikh Missionary College in Amritsar.
In 1947, with the reorganization of India along secular lines, he opposed Harindar Singh, ruler of Faridkot State and was incarcerated and tortured for five years.He was called on to be the Revenue Minister of the recently formed Patiala and East Punjab States Union, under Chief Minister Gian Singh Rarewala in 1949 and later became Minister of Agriculture in 1951. From 1956 to 1962, he was a member of the Rajya Sabha.
Zail Singh was elected as a Congress Chief Minister of Punjab in 1972.He arranged massive religious gatherings, started public functions with a traditional Sikh prayer, inaugurated a highway named after Guru Gobind Singh, and named a township after the Guru’s son. He created a lifelong pension scheme for the freedom fighters of the state. He repatriated the remains of Udham Singh from London, armaments and articles belonging to Guru Gobind Singh.
In 1980, Zail Singh was elected to the 7th Lok Sabha, and appointed to join Indira Gandhi’s cabinet as Minister of Home Affairs.He patronised Bindranwale and twice helped stall action against him on murder charges by disposing in the parliament about his non-involvement
In 1982 he was unanimously nominated to serve as the President. Nonetheless, some in the media felt that the President had been chosen for being an Indira loyalist rather than an eminent person. “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that. She chose me to be President,” Singh was quoted to have said after his election. He took the oath of office on 25 July 1982. He was the first Sikh to hold the office.
He served beside Gandhi, and protocol dictated that he should be briefed every week by her on the affairs of the state. On 31 May 1984, The day before Operation Blue Star, he met with Gandhi for more than an hour, but she omitted even sharing a word about her plan.Following the operation he was pressured to resign from his post by Sikhs. He decided against resignation fearing to aggravate the situation on advice from Yogi Bhajan. He was subsequently called before the Akal Takhat to apologize and explain his inaction at the desecration of the Harimandir Sahib and killing of innocent Sikhs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October in the same year, and he appointed her elder son Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister
His remaining term was full of controversies on account of his soured relations with prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. During this time, he ensured that the prime minister adhered to protocols and forced him to remove KK Tewary, a congress MP who alleged on the floor of the Lok Sabha that the president had sheltered terrorists in the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Singh used a pocket veto to refuse assent to the “Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill” in 1986 to show his opposition to the bill. The bill was later withdrawn by the V. P. Singh Government in 1990.
On 29 November 1994, Zail Singh was involved in a serious vehicle accident near Kiratpur Sahib in Ropar District on his way to the Anandpur Sahib. He later died at the Post Graduate Institute, Chandigarh less than a month later on Christmas Day, 25 December 1994, aged 78, and was cremated at the Raj Ghat Memorial near Old Delhi