John Singh: Digantar’s founder president

Rohit Dhankar

I am writing this with a deeply felt loss that John Singh (Jitendra Pal Singh), our founder president is no more with us in his physical existence, he breathed his last on 13th April 2016 night. I hope we will be able to uphold his values, and be guided by his social concerns and practical wisdom.

John’s field of action, of course, was much larger than Digantar. As far as I understand Digantar was really a very small part of it. But I am neither closely acquainted with all his personal and social work nor am able to give a fuller account of his personality and social contribution. All I am trying here is expressing our indebtedness as an organization to our founder president.

I have not met anyone like John and Faith (John’s wife) who would value an educationists opinion enough to abandon search for a good school for their own children and will start one in which their children could study with the marginalized children from the locality where they lived. John and Faith could afford any school in India or actually in the world for their children. In spite of that when David Horsburgh suggested that in the same amount of money they will spend for education of their own two children, they can provide good education to 25 other children as well. They reposed faith not only in this idea of David but also in, first one and then two, young inexperienced teachers who were trained by David. And thus Digantar was born.

And this proved only to be a beginning. Digantar in its initial phases was more closely guided by Faith in the pedagogy and activities; but John’s vision of its place in human life and social concerns, in which Faith agreed with him, was also crucial in guiding Digantar’s growth. Their decision to put their own children in a school where all other children were from very poor families and much below their social and economic status, and never ever demanding any special treatment for them from two teachers who were rather fanatical regarding treating every child as equal is something rarely, if ever, seen in present-day Indian society.

John’s involvement with Digantar children in sports, taking them for picnic in his own jeep and engaging them in various activities is something that helped tremendously both the teachers and the children grow in understanding and practice of human values. I wonder how he suffered the antics of two dozen free spirited children, unpalatable food cooked by them on picnic, and ideologically rigid teachers.

Personally I feel indebted to John for my own growth as a human being and confidence in what I stand for. Running a school which is totally different from all others in that part of the world, needed confidence and commitment; which I personally was not equal to in those days, if John and Faith’s support would not have been there.

He and Faith supported the school for 10 years personally, with their own money; and when the Digantar Shiksha Evam Khelkud Samiti was founded he guided it for many years. When the school and organizational activities grew he constantly supported that growth, guided in managing that, and that completely without a trace of micromanagement; gave complete freedom to the teacher. I and Reena will always be grateful for his unflinching confidence in our abilities as well as our moral compass.

Being a bad manager and having a strong propensity to be carried away with pure beauty of rational ideas I often got Digantar in financial and organizational trouble. Now when I look back it seem to me I could do that because deep down in my heart I believed that there is a protector in John who would bail us out. And John always bailed us out, to substantial personal financial loss, as well as protecting from harsh criticism in the organizational meetings.

At one particularly difficult time we spent money sanctioned for another project to keep the schools alive. When the funder was informed they demanded the money back; which was absolutely fair. John simply looked at the accounts, convinced himself there was nothing personal or wrong ethically. Asked us the reasons why did we do that? When we explained the danger of discontinuing education of 500 children he immediately understood and took on himself to negotiate a re-payment schedule with the funder, and convincing the funder that the mistake is only technical; without any financial misappropriation. I believe the funders were convinced because of John’s personality and personal responsibility for Digantar. He also helped financially with large amount to continue the work and allowed us to meet the re-payment schedule agreed upon with the funder. When I remember this incident it’s his protective instinct for Digantar which comes to my mind first, all else is just a manifestation of that.

His balanced attitude in guiding the organizational matters and appreciation of the value of the work being done was almost instinctive for him; it seems to me that all else naturally flowed from his deep humanism. Digantar at this moment is going through a crisis and John again got into action as soon as he knew about a year back. The schools are now slowly moving towards safety, and all people in Digantar are helping in that. But John’s distinctive guidance, posing faith in inherent strength of the organization and confidence in Reena’s efforts when no glimmer of hope was visible is something only he could have done. Though the executive committee as a whole is behind the efforts to get past the present crisis, I personally still get a feeling that Digantar is orphaned in a very significant sense.

John’s pride in Digantar’s work was obvious. Whenever he came to know about some new venture and success, or heard good word from someone among his numerous contacts he always shared and encouraged us. A few times he mentioned hearing good things from people who did not know that John is the founder president of the organization they were talking about. He shared such anecdotes with us with a satisfaction which showed his attachment to Digantar.

John was deeply spiritual without being religious or dogmatic. I have no trace of spirituality in me; but wish that his faith in soul and its evolution is correct; and that his spirit will continue to protect and guide us.

We will miss you dearly John.


9 Responses to John Singh: Digantar’s founder president

  1. ramnik says:

    A heart-touching tribute. ‘Condolences’ is a word too insignificant and small for such extra-ordinary men.


  2. dksrenu says:

    Such a humble tribute! Rest in peace John….


  3. Jharna says:

    Thank you Rohit ji for writing this post. For long, I had heard about how Digantar had began with the founders of Anokhi and their children among the first few students of Digantar.
    Rest in peace, John.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Rohit ji, your words flowed in motion… In sketching the vivid memories and persona of this great soul
    Respect and condolence..
    RIP John Sir


  5. Vandana says:

    Rohit ji, your words flowed in motion… In sketching the vivid memories and persona of this great soul
    Respect and condolence..
    RIP John Sir


  6. Richa MIttal says:

    It’s a great loss , something words can not express. I believe he is alive through his work and through the people as well as organizations like Digantar . He is going to live through all the children, teachers and many more whom he touched.
    As you aptly said – he will guide us throughout in spirit.
    May his soul rest in peace.


  7. Anurag says:

    Truely inspirational personality…@john.
    Rest in peace


  8. Radhika Chaturvedi says:

    Thank You Rohit Ji for sharing this with us.
    Having heard so much about the couple’s association with Digantar, one feels thankful for their grit, determination and courage in actualizing what they firmly believed in.
    Little did he know that his beliefs and efforts would continue to inspire several others who join in in pursuit of the meaning of ‘good education’.


  9. Anthony says:

    Thank you Rohitji for your touching account of John. People like John … strive to make our lives a little more beautiful! I’ve heard of Digantar …but never knew of the founder. People like John, come, once in a while, to remind us of the immense faith and trust we are capable of creatively creating. Education is a perfect platform to sow seeds of faith and trust, John chose well … may his courageous life inspire us to discriminate, discern and dedicate our efforts to enable a trusting environment in our classrooms. Dear John, May your soul rest in Peace!


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