Sardar Pritam Singh with daughter Kiran Deep Sandhu. Photo: Special Arrangement
With his remarks on the India businessman who tried to install him as the Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, the current Prime Minister of Nepal has drawn attention to the life of Sardar Pritam Singh, the “Transport King of Nepal” . The story recollected by Prachanda in a book launch event on July 3 dates back to 2014 when his eldest daughter Gyanu was slipping away because of cancer. Prachanda stayed with Mr Singh at his house in Delhi when the latter reportedly volunteered to make him the PM of Nepal once again. Prachanda was Prime Minister in 2008-’09 and had to resign because of a political crisis. The attempt did not succeed then but Prachanda did become Prime Minister once again in 2016 and again in December 2022.
The story provoked criticism about the interference of the “Indian lobby” in Nepal. However, the episode also highlighted the remarkable life that Pritam Singh has lived until now.
The story of Pritam Singh took off in January 1959, when as a 24-year-old Sikh man he stood on the banks of the Ganga in Patna. The young man had come from Jammu with the plan to do transport business in Nepal. He had three GMC trucks and was accompanied by three other friends. Nepal was a forbidden country for nearly a century and had opened up to the Indian business class only in 1950 with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship that allowed Indians to do business in Kathmandu.
There were no bridges over the Ganga at Patna and the steamers that transported trucks could accommodate his trucks only 15 days later as they were booked for passengers for the next fortnight. The steamer owners demanded him to dismantle his trucks as they were not capable of transporting trucks. He came up with the idea of tying multiple small boats to form single large platforms that could be guided by oarsmen to the other bank. After some vigorous discussion with dozens of oarsmen on the banks of the Ganga, the men agreed to tie several small boats and covered them with wooden planks that served as an innovative mode of transport for taking the trucks to the other side. The trucks had crossed the biggest river but north Bihar before Raxaul had many other smaller rivers that made movement for these trucks impossible. That left the option of transporting via train, but Pritam was not sure if the trains would take his trucks on board. So Pritam Singh and his friends drove the trucks back to Muzaffarpur where they found a welder to produce flanged wheels for the trucks.
“This plan had to be implemented with much discretion because by law, it was a criminal act, whereby they had planned on using the rail tracks for movement of trucks.
If anyone had found their intention of using the rail tracks, Sardar Pritam Singh and his team would have spent days in jail instead of pursuing their dream of reaching Nepal to start their transportation business,” Kiran Deep Sandhu, his daughter in the book “Roads to the Valley” that was launched by Prime Minister Prachanda. Flanged wheels are used to transport heavy vehicles on rail tracks.
Once fitted with the flanged wheels Pritam Singh’s trucks turned into a cross between a train and a truck. After this they came to the railway line and drove in the darkness of the night on railway tracks and reached Raxaul. They were careful not to get caught by the district administrations and somehow after driving on the rail tracks for several nights reached Raxaul. Those three trucks that crossed from Raxaul were the first modern trucks that were driven on the territory of Nepal in its history.
Nepal entered the era of connectivity of South Asia and Sardar Pritam Singh announced his entry into the life of Nepal with his daring and out of box thinking. Starting with the reign of King Mahendra, Sardar Pritam Singh has been a constant companion of Nepal’s development journey which brought him in close contact with all the rulers of Nepal.
In an exclusive chat with The Hindu, Mrs. Sandhu recollected how her parents responded to the news of the June 1, 2001 massacre of the royal family in the Narayanhiti Palace. An anxious Pritam Singh broke the news of the massacre of the royal family and asked his wife Sardarni Harcharan Kaur that he wanted her and his children with the rest of the family members to leave Nepal immediately as violence was expected to break out on the streets. But Kaur refused saying, “We are staying in Nepal if you are not leaving with us.” “My father has lived in Nepal for nearly seven decades and there is no question therefore to shift anywhere else,” said Kiran Deep Sandhu. Political instability was however not the biggest challenge that Pritam Singh has faced in Nepal.
The three GMC trucks that he had driven into Nepal in 1959 had gone on to become a flourishing Nepal Public Motor Service (NPMS). In the next five years when western Nepal was hit by a terrible famine, the scarcity of food and basic resources was such that people from the mountains were forced to come to the Terai, or the plains of Nepal. The country required urgent food support. India volunteered with 10,000 tonnes of food grains. King Mahendra summoned Sardar Pritam Singh and asked him to bring the grains from India. The smiling entrepreneur accepted the challenging task of transporting the food across the mountains of Nepal, but he had one condition. The King had to issue 100 new number plates as he would bring additional trucks from Jammu and Kashmir to transport the item. After packing the license plates in a big box, Pritam Singh returned to Jammu and Kashmir which is known for its hardy drivers who are expert navigators of the mountains. He hired fresh drivers and pressed the trucks into service. His negotiating skills proved helpful and the Raxaul border was left open for 24 hours allowing the trucks to enter smoothly. All the license plates were issued and the grains from India reached Nepal. A grateful King Mahendra gifted Rs. 5,000 as tip, money certificate to the Sikh entrepreneur who became a household name in the famine hit country. Along with establishing NPMS, over the years Pritam Singh has also become synonymous with the Modern Indian School that he established in 1978.
Alongside his other work has been in preserving the values of Sikhism in Nepal which was visited by Guru Nanak Dev during his third Udai ,or spiritual journey, in the 16th century. The first Sikh Guru was invited by the King of Nepal Jay Jagat Malla to visit Kathmandu where he spent time meditating in multiple locations. Till this day, Kathmandu respectfully preserves those locations associated with Guru Nanak. Apart from looking after his transport empire that has trucks plying in all parts of the Himalayan country, Sardar Pritam Singh visits the school daily, and conducts his prayers in the way that his Sikh parents had taught him in his childhood in Srinagar.