Chronicling The Illustrious Career Of Dr Harbhajan Singh Of Gojra

If there is one city in Pakistan that has dedicatedly nurtured our national sport (hockey), it is none other than Gojra. With a population of 0.7 million, Gojra is also a tehsil headquarter and is the biggest tehsil of the district.  Over the decades, this city has served as a nursery for hockey players and has produced more than one hundred and twenty players. Many of these players also went on to become captains of the national team. But hockey is not the city’s sole claim to fame. There is another reason for its glory: its illustrious eye specialists.

There was a time when Gojra was famous all over India for its expertise in the field of eye surgery. People from distant areas would visit to have their eye-related diseases remedied. Even today, although there are many options for eye patients due to the great advancement in health facilities, Gojra continues to attract patients from other cities in large numbers.

Before partition, one of the pioneers who made the city a haven for eye patients was none other than Dr Harbhajan Singh whose name is still fondly remembered by the few remaining members of the older generations. If you visit the pages related to Gojra on social media, you will definitely find a mention of this legendary eye surgeon who served the city before the partition of the subcontinent.

However, besides the fact that he cured countless eye patients, nothing has been documented about him or the whereabouts of his family. While I was researching about the social and cultural history of this tiny town, the name of Dr Harbhajan Singh popped up time and again and I was completely clueless about his biography. Nobody had cared to pen down the facts about one of the greatest benefactors of the city, so that he too, like many others, is on his way to be forgotten as we in Pakistan suffer from the malaise of forgetting, erasing and distorting our histories. But soon I came across Tariq Gujjar and drew hope that all is not lost.

Tariq Gujjar is deeply entrenched in our socio-cultural roots and doesn’t shy away from sharing stories of our glorious composite culture. A poet, social activist, and language campaigner, Gujjar’s primary and last love is Punjab, its history and its cultural diversity. He runs a YouTube channel titled “Ek C Punjab” in which he has interviewed hundreds of people who witnessed the gory massacre in the wake of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

Gujjar came to my aid in my quest for Dr Harbhajan Singh’s story. He had managed to locate the maternal granddaughter of Dr Singh in Ludhiana in the Indian part of Punjab. Achint Kaur Sandhu was simply overjoyed to know that someone from the other side of Punjab wanted to know the details about her illustrious grandfather. She needed a bit of time to get her facts straight and promptly supplied me with the necessary details and photographs about Dr Harbhajan Singh. Thus, after more than seven decades, the residents of Gojra and Punjab are going to learn about the life and times of the fabled eye surgeon who was one of the few great surgeons of his time.

Born to Hazara Singh and Harnam Kaur in the city of Rewa (Madhya Pradesh), Harbhajan Singh lost his father at an early age and hence had to shift to his ancestral village Narangwal, in district Ludhiana. After receiving his initial education at his home town Ludhiana, Harbhajan Singh landed in Lahore and joined the prestigious Kind Edward Medical College. He acquired his MBBS degree in 1917 with distinction in forensic sciences and medicine.  He joined Punjab Medical Service in the same year and thus started his spectacular career.

Dr Singh had the ability to win hearts wherever he went, even apart from his extraordinary expertise in the field of ophthalmology. His first posting was in Una, Himachal Pradesh, and after a few years he landed in Gojra, a small town near Lyallpur (Faisalabad). Here he was destined to play a gigantic role in serving ailing humanity and his presence made Gojra the topmost center for diseases of the eye in the sub-continent. It was said that he was one of the three acclaimed eye surgeons of undivided India, with the other two being Sardar Bahadur Sohan Singh and Dr Mathura Das. According to his granddaughter Achint Kaur Sandhu, not only the people of the subcontinent but also those from Afghanistan and Iran visited him at Gojra while he was posted at the civil hospital there. In recognition of his services, he was awarded the title of Sardar Sahib in 1932 and Sardar Bahadur in 1941 by the viceroy of India. Dr Harbhajan Singh lived in Gojra for nearly three decades and by the time he had to leave it in 1947, he had already treated and given eyesight to thousands of people of the region.

Dr Singh’s greatness is not limited to his exemplary career. A story that is related about Dr Singh is of the time when a patient came to him to get his eyes treated, only to find out that he would soon be losing his eyesight altogether because of the disease that afflicted him. The patient was already poor and the thought of losing his eyesight badly shattered him. He worried about his children who would have to go without food if he were to become blind and lose his livelihood. Seeing the man’s anguish, Dr Harbhajan Singh promised to adopt one of his daughters. Dr Singh kept his promise and raised the child like his own daughter and later married her in a respectable family. This incident speaks volumes about the sterling ethics and kindheartedness of Dr Harbhajan Singh.

As I was digging out further details about the local residents, a journalist, Malik Amjad Islam, mentioned a book in Urdu which touched upon various aspects of Gojra. He was kind enough to send me these few pages from a book Khoj which was authored by Liaqat Ali Sandhu. Sandhu briefly discussed various facets of the history of Gojra. I was delighted to find a mention of Dr Harbhajhan, albeit only passingly. However, Liaqat Sandhu pointed me to Dr Mannan Chughtai, who knew Dr Harbhajan and is still alive. I was simply overjoyed to find someone who might share his first-hand experiences with me. Dr Mannan Chughtai, general surgeon, was living in Samundri, a small town that is almost half an hour away from Gojra. I instantly got in touch with my cousin Ch Amjad Hussain who was able to obtain the mobile number of Dr Chughtai. I called his number and after a while was able to talk to Dr Mannan Chughtai.

Dr Chughtai, almost in his 90s by now, spoke slowly but clearly: ‘I was a student at MP High School and I would watch Dr Harbhajan Singh daily in his eye hospital. Our school shared a wall with the hospital. He used to live in a house nearby with his family. One of his sons was also my class fellow at school, although I can’t remember his name. Harbhajan Singh was a highly respected man of Gojra and people from all communities and sects would shower immense respect and love on him. So much so that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians jointly elected him as the president of the Peace Committee of Gojra. He had a very kind and God-fearing soul and donated generously to many mosques for their upkeep.”

Dr Chughtai also revealed that the legendary singer K. L. Saigal was a patient of Dr Harbhajan Singh’s. I couldn’t believe my ears and I asked Dr Chughtai for more details. He told me that the whole city would be brimming with excitement when K. L. Saigal came to Gojra to get his eyes treated. “I was in my school one day and as I moved toward the window to look out from it, my eyes fell on Saigal. I remember he was wearing dark glasses that day. I recognised him immediately as I had seen many posters of his”.

I was also able to talk with Ghafoor Hussain Baig, aged 77, who is also well-versed in the history of Gojra. Baig also shared memories of Dr Harbhajan with me when I called him. I found out from him that Dr Singh lived in a government residence in Civil Hospital Gojra and later he had another residence in the city where National Bank stands today. He also owned an agriculture farm off Gojra Samundri road (in what is known as Pul 45 these days). Moreover, “He planted the choicest plants there and built a palatial haveli”. He told me that Dr Harbhajan was unrivalled as far his expertise in his field was concerned. Baig also remembered K. L. Saigal being Dr Singh’s patient, in addition to other well-known people of India of his time.

Dr Singh left Pakistan after partition and was posted to Hoshiarpur, India. He didn’t stay there too long as he breathed his last in 1948 due to food poisoning. He was 54 years old when he left the world and thus an excellent career came to a sudden end.

The question that remains to ask of ourselves is whether we, the people of Gojra and the wider Faisalabad region, paid him the tribute which he deserved. The answer is a resounding no, although there are a few people in the city who have tried to pay him a befitting homage, like Sardar Fraz Wahlah – a leading solicitor in London – who recommends that there should a road named after Dr Singh in the city. Indeed, much more needs to be done to honor the memory of our exemplary heroes like Harbhajan Singh. Dr Singh’s role is no less than anyone else in bringing this important city in Punjab a good name. The least we can do to keep our history alive is to name a hospital or a road after such an illustrious person whose presence once used to grace us and who once used to be a neighbour to our elders.