6th January 2019   •   opinion
Obituary: Harbinder Singh Rana, a pioneer on Anglo-Sikh relations, 1959 - 2018

Image: Family picture
On Thursday 27th December I learnt of the tragic death of my dear friend Bhai Harbinder Singh Rana, from Walsall, UK, whose contribution to Sikh heritage in Britain is unmatched.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was being the brains behind the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail (ASHT), where he was Honorary Director from its inception 25 years ago. He managed to uncover, elevate and archive Anglo Sikh history, art and culture to levels and quality hitherto unknown in Sikh circles.

Harbinder was also the brains behind the Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust, which managed to popularise the memory of the last ruler of Panjab, thus reconnecting old and new generations of Sikhs to their own history.

More recently he was instrumental in establishing the 1914 Sikhs, to highlight sacrifices made by Sikh soldiers in the First World War, and creating the National Sikh War Memorial Trust (NSWMT), to establish a more permanent memorial for Sikh soldiers during both World Wars.

Not only did he offer leadership and vision, he inspired others to see the importance of preserving and celebrating global Sikh heritage.

One such example is Amandeep Madra, who has also taken Sikh and Punjabi heritage, arts and culture to the masses through his own ground-breaking work at the UK Panjab Heritage Association and the Kashi House publishing, He recalls his first encounter with Harbinder:

"I first met him when he had arranged a black tie event to raise money for the Duleep Singh statue at Wentworth Golf Club. Prince Andrew was the chief guest, Harbinder had invited influential people from British cultural life and to watch him work them was a thing of beauty - he was equal parts charm, flattery, ruthless networking and single minded determination - always kind, always charming. It was at that event we were convinced by the V&A to publish a book of our work (which became Warrior Saints). It was 1998 and Harbinder was in his late 30s. My heart and thoughts are with his family. It's truly shocking and very saddening news."

His early life

Harbinder Singh Rana was born in 1959 in the a small village near Phagwara in Panjab called Jamsher Khan. He came to UK in 1964 at the age of 5 years with his parents and his siblings, 3 sisters and a younger brother.

Even though his parents were illiterate, Harbinder was able to excel in education and after graduating worked in the fields of policy analysis and management consultancy and in more recent years as a political lobbyist.

In 1984 we both found ourselves on the front line of the Sikh liberation struggle unfolding in Panjab. Following the 1984 Golden Temple attack, to support the struggle of our brothers and sisters in Panjab, an organisation called the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) was established in Walsall. Harbinder and I were among a team of five joint vice presidents to take the struggle forward.

Soon after the establishment of the ISYF in 1986, in what was perhaps the most testing period of his life, Harbinder was charged and later convicted to 4 years for indecent assault. Harbinder always pleaded his innocence and argued he had been framed by the Indian State for his political activism. Members of the ISYF branch did mount an unsuccessful defence campaign and Harbinder after following his release, continued his campaign to clear his name.

Later life

Despite this huge setback, Harbinder continued to serve the Sikh nation by establishing links with the higher echelons of British military and political establishment. This culminated in him an invitation to join the royal family of Great Britain on the royal boat on June 3, 2012, to mark the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Queen's coronation. In 2006, Harbinder accompanied Prince Charles during a visit to Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab to mark the 300 anniversary of the creation of the Khalsa.

I have no hesitation in stating that no single person had done more to promote Anglo-Sikh relations and history on the international stage.

There is no doubt that Harbinder Singh Rana was a phenomenal force, who not only got the attention of the establishment, but also touched the hearts of ordinary Sikhs, especially young Sikhs and also non-Sikhs alike. He was a ferocious networker who made everybody he met feel empowered and through a very gentle touch, he knew how to get the best out of people.

His approach was simple, keep in touch with those people whom he knew had talents and then offer them a vision with clarity and conviction. He was a man of few words and rarely would he give long discourses. However, it was his capacity to speak with authority, clarity and conviction that made an amazing communicator.

Harbinder Singh Rana leaves behind his wife, two daughters, one son and a grandson and he will be sadly missed by all. However, though he is no longer with us in body, his spirit lives on in the legacy that he has created. His contribution to the Sikh nation is enough to fill many lifetimes and because of his passion for Sikh history and heritage, we are all able to hold our heads that little bit higher with pride and dignity.

Dr Gurnam Singh is Associate Professor of Social Work, Coventry University, UK and a presenter on the Akaal Channel.

Editor's note: This obituary has attracted some justified criticism, to which the editor has responded here.
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Dr Gurnam Singh is Associate Professor of Social Work, Coventry University, UK and a presenter on the Akaal Channel.
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