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Doctor, Poet, Visionary

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Daljit Singh was one of those rare personalities who, despite possessing strong views, had no adversaries in life. He enjoyed the respect of the broadest possible spectrum of social life, from the President of India to the most ordinary man on the street, and from rightist political streams to extreme leftist ones as well. Born on 11 October 1934 in Amritsar, he lived most of his life in the city, until he breathed his last on 27 December 2017.

His father, Sahib Singh, was a respected scholar of Gurbani, and his interpretations are considered most authentic in academic and religious circles. The compassionate humanism of Gurbani which was nurtured at home, turned Singh into a doctor who served humanity in the best of terms. After becoming an ophthalmo­logist, he served for 23 years in government medical colleges at Amritsar and Patiala, before opening the Dr Daljit Singh Eye Hospital at Amritsar, which has treated many patients over the years. Singh was a pioneer in the surgery of cataract extraction and intraocular lens (IOL) implants. The first IOL implant surgery in India was carried out by Singh in 1976. He continued with this technique even when most eye surgeons shifted to outer lenses. He was specialist doctor to the former President of India, Giani Zail Singh, and earned many awards, including the Dr B C Roy award in 1994. He was awarded the Padma Shri earlier, in 1987.

Apart from a successful doctor, who served the poor at very affordable costs, Singh was a political and social commentator, a political activist, and a sensitive poet, choosing to express himself in his mother tongue, Punjabi, instead of English. His book on eye care was published by Punjabi University, Patiala, but his other books of sociopolitical commentary were published by various other publishers in Amritsar. He wrote around 300 poems in Punjabi in three collections, of which I translated 90 selected poems into Hindi. But it is his books like Duja Pasa (The Other Side) and Sach di Bhaal Vich (In Search for Truth), which carry his most radical views on world polity.

Singh always remained sympathetic to leftist movement in Punjab, and any number of comrades would petition him for medical or financial help. Bhagat Singh was his favourite hero, and he wrote
numerous poems as a tribute to him. An idealist to the core, Singh was a member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from its inception, and despite his age, became one of its most respectable faces during the 2014 parliamentary elections, when he was pitted against political bigwigs like Amarinder Singh and Arun Jaitley. Such was his conduct, that not a single ugly word was spoken from his campaign against his rivals. He enjoyed immense respect, often attending his rivals’ election rallies to make contact with people to ask for votes, and no one would object to it. He lost the elections, but won the hearts of the people, polling more than 80,000 votes despite competing against formidable rivals. Singh was also a part of AAP’s disciplinary committee in Punjab, but was disillusioned. Although he technically joined the Congress party later, he remained practically aloof from ­politics and limited himself to his writing. AAP rebel and member of Parliament Dharamvir Gandhi—who was his student in the 1970s at the Government Medical College, Amritsar—considered Singh his mentor.

Until about two years ago, Singh was still attending to patients in his hospital, following a gruelling schedule, which began at 4 am and would end late in the evening. I met him last year at his home, when he had finally given up his hospital practice, and was not keeping well. Yet, he persevered with his writing. His wife Swaran Kaur predeceased him a decade ago, and now his two sons and two daughters-in-law, who are all doctors at the Dr Daljit Singh Eye Hospital, take care of his legacy. The impact that Singh had on his family was profound. I witnessed this first-hand, when last year, I saw Kashmiri youth and older victims of police brutality unleashed through the use of pellet guns, being attended to by Singh’s daughter-in-law Indu Singh, a retinal expert, who was tearfully trying to explain to them that their vision could not be restored.

The Dr Daljit Singh Eye Hospital was also a home to many Punjabi writers, for along with the treatment, they received great hospitality, and were hardly charged, despite being able to afford it, either in their personal capacity, or through means of the government treasury in their official capacity. Amritsar was known for its two formidable social personalities, Daljit Singh and playwright Gursharan Singh. The city now misses both. And I, for one, will greatly miss the “custodian of my eyes.”

Chaman Lal

New Delhi

Updated On : 9th Feb, 2018

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