The partition of the Punjab in 1947 in the wake of the withdrawal of British sovereignty from the Indian subcontinent remains the most momentous event in the history of the Punjab since 1849. This development is intricately connected with the response of the Sikh community as a whole to the Muslim demand for Pakistan. Of all the Sikh leaders whose presence was discernible on the political scene during this period, Master Tara Singh (his original name was Nanak Chand Malhotra) of Harial village in Rawalpindi district was the one whose perseverance, doggedness and practical approach influenced the course of events that eventually led not only to the division of the Punjab between India and Pakistan but also to the exchange of population and property. Master Tara Singh was one amongst many who appeared on the Sikh scene in the wake of the Nankana tragedy and offered to dedicate his life to the service of the Khalsa Panth.
With 35 years behind him, he started giving shape to the ideas, as they came to him, to uplift his community. He decided to engage himself in a vocation that could help spread education among the Sikhs. Tara Singh was not a man of means but he had the will, perseverance, and honesty of purpose, and that helped him occupy the centre-stage of Sikh politics within less than a decade. He could have an inside view of the Sikh mindset, as he had risen in the Sikh political hierarchy from the position of secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to the presidentship of the Central Sikh League, Akali Dal, and the SGPC. While interacting with Hindu and Muslim leaders, he would often try to imagine the odds the Sikhs would face as a microscopic minority amidst the Hindu-Muslim communal animosity. All this made Tara Singh conclude that in such circumstances the most important thing would be to ensure the distinct identity of the Sikhs as an important minority community. But this did not mean a policy of isolation.
He reacted to every development keeping the Sikh position uppermost in his mind; never caring for the accusations of being narrow in outlook, often hurled at him. Congress leaders at times tried to undercut him by winning over the second-rung Akali leaders to their side or by encouraging factionalism in the Akali Dal. But, Tara Singh remained steadfast. By experience, he came to understand that the Hindu-Muslim communal divide was going to determine the future course of events of Indian politics. The partition of Bengal in 1905 and its revocation amply demonstrated that. Tara Singh was basically a liberal and was a votary of united India with the joint electorate. This explains his vociferous opposition of the Nehru Report which he considered a reiteration of the Lucknow pact. (There was no mention of the Sikh position in this report).
The early thirties saw a quick succession of events - the Simon Commission row, the Communal Award, the All Party Unity Conference, Dr. Ambedkar’s offer to embrace Sikhism along with his untouchable followers. It was amidst the chain of such events that Master Tara Singh first thought of reorganisation of the Punjab to produce a communal balance. This was in 1931. He mentioned this to Mahatma Gandhi, who termed it communal. To this Tara Singh replied, "Communalism can be fought only with retaliatory manoeuvres of the same kind".
The pro-British Sikh elite organised the Khalsa National Party to challenge Tara Singh’s pro-Congress stance when the Sikhs at large were feeling disgusted with Congress leaders’ ambivalent behaviour towards such emotional issues as Sees Ganj (Lahore) dispute and conversion of untouchables to Sikhism. Tara Singh still held the ground and did not choose to break away from the Congress although he asserted the authority of the Akali Dal and decided to fight the 1937 elections only by adjustment of seats with the Congress. Perhaps there was no other option left in the face of the rising tide of Muslim nationalism. The results of the elections showed that the Sikh voters preferred an independent policy, to be pursued for the protection of Sikh interests in the face of the danger of a permanent Muslim hegemony in Punjab. The sizable percentage of votes garnered by the pro-British elitist Khalsa National Party (29 percent of the votes polled) indicated that the Sikhs were not averse to narrowing down differences even with the British in order to gain a better deal in the emerging political scenario. This encouraged Master Tara Singh and his colleagues to support the British. He appealed to the Sikhs to get enlisted in the army in large numbers even at the cost of incurring the displeasure of both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress failed to appreciate that though Akali Dal led by Master Tara Singh was deeply committed to the idea of complete independence but their relations with the Congress were determined by the interests of the Sikh community and events taking place in Punjab. The Sikhs during this period were in the midst of a crisis that threatened even their survival in Punjab. Therefore, for Master Tara Singh the first priority was to counter every political move of M.A. Jinnah that tended to advance the idea of Pakistan and establish Muslim hegemony in the Punjab.
After the 1937 elections, a Unionist Government headed by Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan assumed office in the Punjab. Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, an arch rival of Master Tara Singh, joined the ministry from amongst the diverse anti-Akali groups that had come together to form the Khalsa National Party. Both Sikandar Khan and Majithia joined hands against Tara Singh. Tara Singh on his side charged Sir Sikandar with trying to establish Muslim hegemony under the Unionist garb. He seemed to have had a premonition about the things to come because only a few months later Sikandar-Jinnah pact was made public whereby Muslim members of the unionist party joined the Muslim League. This was the period when Tara Singh was frantically trying to stress upon the relevance of the Sikhs in Punjab and repair his damaged relations with the Congress. His sole aim was to get the best possible terms for the Sikhs during the transfer of power. He even allowed the Akalis to support the Congress in its fight for complete independence and join satyagraha. The British initiative to apply palliative on the wounds inflicted by Sir Sikandar on Tara Singh and the Akalis was allowed to succeed in the form of Sikandar-Baldev Singh pact whereby Baldev Singh joined the Unionist Government with the promise of some petty concessions for the Sikhs. To maintain contact with Muslim League sources as also to mitigate their hostility, he allowed Ajit Singh Sarhadi to join the minority government. The fear rampant among the Sikh masses that in the event of a transfer of power among two sovereign states, the Sikhs would be either torn into two equal halves or at worst thrown into Pakistan to suffer permanently, started turning into reality with the Pakistan Resolution in March 1940, at Lahore by the Muslim League.
Events started moving faster. The death of Sir Sunder Singh Majithia meant the decline of the Khalsa National Party. Giani Sher Singh, a powerful force in Kharak Singh’s Central Akali Dal, joined hands with Tara Singh. These developments gave Tara Singh the position of an ‘arbiter’ among the Sikh leaders. His representations before the Cabinet Mission (1942) were heard seriously and his vociferous opposition to Pakistan was noted with all its implications. The reorganisation of the Punjab as a solution to the communal tangle was never out of his mind. The memorandum presented to Sir Cripps by the Sikh delegation (only Master Tara Singh was invited. He took along with him Baldev Singh and Giani Kartar Singh) stated: "Sikhs cannot attain their rightful position or protect their interests effectively unless the Punjab is redistributed into two provinces with the Ravi forming the boundary between them". The result of all this was that the Cabinet Mission did take note of the difficult position of the Sikhs as also their stiff opposition to the formation of Pakistan. The principle "geographical contiguity and territorial readjustments" had also found mention in the Lahore Pakistan resolution. Master Tara Singh could see through all this.
Although the Cripps Draft Resolution had been rejected by the Congress and the Akali Dal, the fact remains that a clause in the Cripps proposal ‘giving the provinces the right to opt out of the Indian Union’ was the first admission of the possibility of Pakistan. Master Tara Singh could perceive this quickly. Therefore, he started looking for various proposals for partition of the Punjab without any loss of time, so as to save as much territory as possible. He even thought of the exchange of property and population. For Tata Singh, the most disturbing factor was the remark made by Sir Cripps that British could practically do nothing once a successor dominion decides upon non-observance of its promises and obligations. On the other hand, the Muslim leadership of the Punjab and M.A. Jinnah got unnerved because of Tara Singh’s relentless tirade against Pakistan. In this connection, the Azad Punjab Scheme put fourth in 1943 warrants special mention because it reflected the Sikh mind. The proposal envisaged the detachment of Muslim majority districts from the Punjab to create a new state in which no single community constituted a majority. Presenting the scheme, Master Tara Singh declared "the Sikhs wanted to avoid perpetual slavery of both the Hindus and the Muslims." He also made it clear that the Sikhs wanted a share in the political power.
From 1944 onwards, the Congress lost all right to speak for the Sikhs. The Akali Dal led by Tara Singh was recognised as the sole representative organisation of the Sikhs. When Viceroy Wavell initiated steps for grant of full self-government, he convened a conference at Simla wherein Master Tara Singh was invited as the sole Sikh representative. He was gratified that one Sikh representative was to be taken on Viceroy’s Executive Council. He resisted the pressure of Maulana Azad who wanted the Akali Dal to send somebody approved by the Congress. The Congress virtually was reduced to the position of a Hindu party. During the deliberations, Master Tara Singh insisted on the partition of the Punjab if demand for Pakistan was conceded. In 1946, elections were ordered to the provincial and Central Assemblies. These elections proved to be a turning point. The Muslim League emerged as the single largest party but a hurriedly formed coalition of Unionists, Akalis and the Congress kept the League out from the corridors of power. For the Muslim League, the villain of the show was Tara Singh. In desperation, the League succumbed to the temptation of resorting to extraconstitutional means. The Unionist premier, Khizar Hayat, could not withstand the pressure tactics and resigned. The Muslim National Guards, a paramilitary outfit of the Muslim League, was activated to take on the Hindus and the Sikhs, resulting in the outbreak of riots in Rawalpindi and Multan divisions. Still, Muslim League leaders thought they could woo the Akali Dal led by Tara Singh in order to capture power.
The Akali Legislature Party met at Assembly Hall, Lahore, on March 4, 1947. When Tara Singh emerged from the assembly building followed by 23 Sikh legislators, the crowd shouted "Pakistan Zindabad". Master Tara Singh and his followers retaliated by chanting "Pakistan Murdabad". Such was the spell of Master Tara Singh’s courage and the ongoing crusade against Pakistan on the Hindu-Sikh masses that a rumour spread in the city that Tara Singh had torn the League flag hoisted by some people on the Assembly building. The fact has been denied by Master Tara Singh in his autobiography. But the fury of the Muslims against Tara Singh was so intense that his house in his ancestral village, Harial, in Rawalpindi district, was burnt down and 59 of his relations were hacked to death. That was the price paid by Tara Singh for demanding partition of the Punjab. Four days after (March 8, 1947) the Punjab Assembly incident, the AICC passed a resolution demanding partition of the Punjab. After this, Tara Singh got busy with ensuring the security of Hindu-Sikh population in Pakistan. Jinnah was not giving any assurance of their security and Tara Singh had already demanded an exchange of population and property. Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and Maulana Azad opposed this move. But Master Tara Singh’s determination; organisation of Shaheedi Dals and the Akal Sena to prepare the people for civil defence in the face of the development of civil war-like conditions in the entire rural Punjab, paved the way for the exchange of population and property.