Jalandhar (Punjab): The Union government has given the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award to US-based businessman Darshan Singh Dhaliwal, who was deported from the Delhi airport in October 2021 for organising the biggest langar during the farmers’ protest. It is the highest honour conferred on non-resident Indians, persons of Indian origin, or an organisation or institution established and run by them.
President Droupadi Murmu conferred the award to Dhaliwal during the 17th edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas held in Indore, Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday. Dhaliwal, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a US national of Indian origin. He was recognised for his contribution in business and community welfare.
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During the year-long farmers’ protest against the three Central farm laws, when Dhaliwal came to India, the immigration officials at the Indira Gandhi International Airport asked him and other family members to choose between supporting the protest or entering the country. He had organised a langar at the Singhu border in memory of his father.
After Dhaliwal was denied entry as he landed at the Delhi airport, former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene in the matter personally.
After receiving the honour, Dhaliwal was quoted by the media saying, “PM Modi is really going out of his way to work with the Sikh community, both inside and outside India. He is doing a lot for the country. And I don’t know what else can he do?”
That Dhaliwal has received one of the biggest honours for NRIs has created buzz for two reasons: first, the Modi government’s apparent change in stance on Dhaliwal; and second, Dhaliwal’s praise of the Modi government.
Darshan Singh Dhaliwal’s brother is Patiala-based Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader and former Punjab minister Surjit Singh Rakhra.
Dhaliwal moved to the US in 1972. He owns over 100 petrol and gas stations in the US across six states. A name to reckon with in philanthropic work, he had also set up langar and funded relief work in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu, given scholarships to scores of students in India and elsewhere, helped many Indians in setting businesses in the US and donated money for a soccer ground in Milwaukee, US, besides providing funds for various projects in Punjab.
‘Happy about the honour’
Talking to The Wire over the phone, Dhaliwal said that he received a letter about the award three weeks ago. “I came to India to receive the award with my wife and daughter. I am happy that the Indian government honoured me with the highest-level award for any NRI or PIO.”
Asked to comment about the Modi government’s decision to felicitate him after deporting him in 2021 for organising langar and supporting the farmers’ protest, Dhaliwal said that PM Modi personally spoke to him when he was invited among a Sikh delegation in April 2022. He met the prime minister at his residence in Delhi. “I was not troubled when I was deported during the farmers’ protest and I have nothing much to say even now. I am elated to have received such an honour. I have always remained with my community and will continue to serve them,” he said.
He claimed that Modi told him, “Hum se galti ho gayi thi jo humne aap ko wapis bheja, aap ka baddapan hai ki hamare kehne par aap phir aye [We committed a mistake by deporting you but you were gracious to accept our invitation).” He added, “PM Modi met me in front of 150 people at his residence.”
The meeting that Dhaliwal was referring to was called ‘Sadbhavana: A Gesture of Goodwill’ in April 2022, which was led by Prime Minister Modi and Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri.
On his statements lauding Modi’s initiatives for the Sikh community, Dhaliwal said, “PM Modi waived GST on langar, opened Kartarpur Sahib corridor, gave a new international identity to the Chote Sahibzaade [the sons of Sri Guru Gobind Singh] and celebrated the 400th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur at the national level. Nobody ever did these things for the Sikh community. He is the first one who did it.”
However, when asked to comment about the numerous farmers who lost their lives during the protest at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders and Prime Minister Modi’s stand on the farm laws, Dhaliwal said, “I was supporting the farmers for their stay and food. I was not for the law nor was I against them. I have got nothing to do with it.” He said that the protest was political and he only does social work.
The businessman also said that he met Prime Minister Modi during the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman event on Monday. “He recognised me and said that he will be visiting the US in September. I asked him to visit us there,” he said.
Darshan Singh Dhaliwal meeting PM narendra modi at Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards-2023 in indore, MP #darshansinghdhaliwal #NarendraModi #PravasiBhartiyaDivas2023 #Indore #MadhyaPradesh #punjab #indian @narendramodi #PMOIndia pic.twitter.com/cWpa7A88Sh
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As per a Hindu report, after the repealing of the three farm laws, Dhaliwal was seen at an event in Chicago, US in June last year, where two books on Prime Minister Modi were unveiled by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Indian Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu. Dhaliwal, who stood beside the Indian Ambassador to the US, had unveiled the books that were dedicated to PM Modi.
Notably, Modi had also addressed the nation during the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur at Lal Qila, Delhi. That event was seen as a step towards winning over the Sikh community after the farm laws were repealed. Farmers from across the country, particularly those from Punjab and Haryana, led the yearlong farmers’ protest at Delhi’s borders, leading to a wedge between the Modi government and the farming community.
BJP’s Sikh outreach efforts
Responding to the honour bestowed upon his brother, SAD leader Surjit Singh Rakhra said, “All I can say is, der aye durust aye [Better late than never]. We had nothing against the government when my brother was harassed and sent back from the Delhi airport during the farmer’s protest and we have nothing much to say now. The media reported it widely, but we didn’t say anything.”
“We don’t know if there was a misunderstanding because of which my brother had to face so much trouble. At the most, we could request the Union government to allow him to come out of the airport, but nothing materialised at that moment. However, we are thankful to the government for honouring my brother. It is a big honour for us,” he said.
Chandigarh-based journalist, author and commentator on Punjab affairs Jagtar Singh termed the Modi government’s decision as an attempt to appease the Sikh leaders.
“They are trying to appease the Sikh leaders. The broader agenda of the BJP is to win over the Sikh community. They have been following this policy for more than a year now. Even last year, some people had come to India, which included even those who were blacklisted by the Indian government. Secondly, the basic issue is BJP’s aspiration to grow in Punjab. They want to create a parallel Sikh leadership in Punjab,” he said.
To a query on whether the Modi government’s outreach towards the Sikh community will impact the social and political equations in Punjab, Jagtar Singh said, “The Sikh leaders who the BJP is approaching have no base or mass leadership in Punjab. There are people whom the BJP has been roping in but it does not seem to be making an impact. The BJP on its own cannot lead in Punjab. They will have to stitch an alliance with some party to gain ground.”