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Sikh Studies: Then and Now

Sikh Studies: Then and Now Five Centuries of Sikh Tradition: Ideology, Society, Politics and Culture


project the Khalsa as the defender of Hindus against the aggressive designs of Islam.

Sikh Studies: Then and Now

Five Centuries of Sikh Tradition: Ideology, Society, Politics and Culture – Essays for Indu Banga

edited by Reeta Grewal and Sheena Pall; Manohar, 2005; pp 394, Rs 975.


he present collection of 13 essays represents one of the two volumes brought out in recognition of Indu Banga’s significant contributions in different areas of Punjab/Sikh history. These are written by her colleagues, friends and students in appreciation of her important role as a teacher as well as a senior researcher in reconstructing the past.

Indu Banga and her teacher and colleague Jagtar Singh Grewal are both widely known and regarded for their pioneering role in making Punjab/Sikh studies as a distinct branch of Indian history writings in Indian Punjab.

The book under review is a collection of 13 essays on the history of the Sikhism since its inception under Guru Nanak in the mid-15th century. The history of Sikhism is carried forward to the very recent past when the province witnessed the tragic experiences as part of the Khalistan Movement. Interestingly enough, the two essays representing the two terminal themes of the volume are the contributions of Grewal who had earlier inducted Banga to Punjab/Sikh studies in the mid-1960s. The editors of the volume have also repeatedly underlined their debt to him in its preparation, but the volume also includes the writings of younger generation of scholars in Sikh studies. The present collection of essays has therefore not only a definite focus on the first 500 years of the Sikh past, but also been enriched by the valuable contributions of scholars with varied specialisations.

Of these papers, four relate to the precolonial period of Sikh history. In the first, Grewal suggests that Sikhism arose as a distinct religious order from its very beginning in the early 16th century. He questions McLeod’s thesis that it belongs to the ‘sant’ tradition and represents “a synthesis of elements drawn from Vaishana bhakti and the hath-yoga of Nath jogis, with a marginal contribution from Sufism”. Grewal finds that Guru Nanak founded a new faith as the basis of a new kind of social order. The essay more or less confirms his earlier findings on the significance of the message of Sikhism which he had brought out as early as 1969. The significance of the essay, however, lies in his brief and lucid exposition.

Karamjit K Malhotra claims to have studied the earliest of the Sikh ‘rahitnamas’ or manuals. It is a copy of the Nashiatnama and dated 1718-19. The manual deals with the religious life of the Sikhs, their ethical values and political aspirations. Malhotra underlines that there is nothing in this version of the manual to go against the assumption that it was composed in the lifetime of Guru Gobind Singh between 1699 and 1708. The study is certainly a serious attempt at analysing an important textual source of the “Guru” period. But the author does not give the folio numbers. There he may have a point in his claim that this manual ‘MS 770’ possibly goes back to the time of Guru Gobind Singh (d 1708). It is certain that at least one version of it lies behind MS 770 and the possibility should be acknowledged that this earlier version goes back to the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Perhaps we need more detailed and critical research to reach a meaningful conclusion on the issue.

Iqtidar Alam Khan offers readers some fresh insight into the martial and the political culture of the Khalsa. He reviews the growing militarisation of the Sikhs under the Gurus and points out that the Khalsa of Gobind Singh were not mercenaries, but devoted followers in faith. The distinctive culture seems to have survived down to the late 18th century. Khan concludes that there is no reason to

The inclusion of an earlier published essay on Punjab paintings by B N Goswami represents an outstanding addition to the volume and offers an opportunity of tracing their origin to the pre-modern times. The contribution primarily deals with the Sikh patronage of painting, but frequently goes beyond it. He outlines the social world of the different schools of painting of Punjab hill states, reviews numerous categories of sources which have often been left out by other art historians of India, questions many of the established views of the European scholars on Sikh paintings and finally, presents his conclusions in a style that can very well serve as a model to the younger generations of scholars working in any allied field of historical enquiry. The study raises serious doubts whether there was any sharp line of demarcation between Sikh and Hindu themes in many of these paintings. It also claims that during the period of British rule in Punjab some of the Sikh painters successfully met the challenges posed by European art and continued their tradition with a distinct style of their own.


There are five papers outlining the manifold experiences of the Sikhs under colonial rule. It begins with Anurupita Kaur’s analysis of the early census reports from the first five decades of British rule in the province. These sources offer “a dynamic image” of the Sikhs, with some glimpses of socio-cultural change among them. There was a steady increase in the number of Sikhs though the census definitions of the community suggest a lack of clarity. She has therefore tried to focus on some of “the limitations of the census data” pointing out how “a wide variety of self-identification among the Sikhs” prevailed during these years in Punjab. Joginder Singh’s studies on Sikh periodicals have long been an interesting area of recent scholarship in Sikh studies. It primarily deals with the early 20th century sources to bring out the transition from the socio-religious apprehensions of late 19th century to the explicitly political concerns of the early 20th century. The essay

Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007 concludes with the message explaining why and how many of the moderate Sikh periodicals became disillusioned with the ineffective and pro-government political role of some of the existing Sikh institutions. These sources were perhaps making the Sikhs culturally ready for a major political confrontation with the colonial rule in the 1920s under the Akalis.

Darshan Singh Tatla’s essay outlines the activities of Teja Singh “who was one among the several reformers to play a prominent role in creating a new consciousness among the Sikhs”. A brilliant product of the Sikh Sabha Movement, Teja Singh’s brief but busy career in Europe and America during the early years of the 20th century underlines his attempt in “countering the media stereotype of Sikhs as ignorant rural peasants, rallying them for a common cause, and forcing the Canadian politicians and administrators to take south Asian concerns seriously”. In the perspective of the recent development manifested in the rise of a few prosperous Sikh colonies in the west, the present generation of Sikh settlers perhaps needs to remember the pioneering role of this Sikh sant. He came to the west for serving the cause of the Sikhs and devoted a significant part of his life for protecting their home and hearth in the diaspora.

There are two other important contributions dealing with the history of the colonial period. These revolve round the politics of two Sikh native states and their changing relationship with the British in the years following the 1920s. Mohinder Singh refers to the Akalis’ sympathetic attitude to Ripudaman Singh, the ruler of Nabha, but he questions “the common belief that he [the Nabha ruler] was deprived of his throne mainly because of his having championed the Akali movement”. On the other hand, Kuldeep Kaur Malhotra’s contribution outlines the colonial state’s enthusiasm in protecting its ally in the face of the growing “nationalist” sentiments against the Maharaja of Patiala. These two essays point out how the colonial authority was often blatantly ready to defend its friends and to punish its foes among the native Indian rulers.


The four remaining essays of the volume cannot be similarly categorised within a rigid common framework of periodisation of Sikh history. Thus Gopal Krishnan’s paper links the colonial period with contemporary times. Two other essays (one by Shinder S Thandi and the other by Jagtar S Grewal) generally focuses on the post-independence politico-economic scenario in Punjab while that of Gurinder Singh Man covers the entire span of Sikh history narrating the experiences of the Panthic educational heritage. This set of papers, however, raises at least four present-day important issues like the significance of Sikh migration outside Punjab, the role of foreign remittances on the rural Punjab situation, the ideological debate over the Sikh identity question and its relation with the Khalistan Movement and finally, the wider relevance of the 500 years of Sikh educational heritage. In this sense, there is possibly a contemporaneous perspective to these essays and the editors have done an admirable job by bringing them closer with a loose string around them.

A few of these issues cannot altogether be resolved or kept confined at the Punjab level owing to their intimate affiliation with the interests of thousands of Sikhs residing beyond India. Many of the non-resident

Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007

Sikhs maintain regular links with the Indian state of Punjab through remittances, telephonic contact, cyber linkages, postal communication, marriage network and above all, personal visits. These new “patrons” have often played a crucial role in the contemporary Sikh milieu. To many of them, the unfortunate memories of the Khalistan Movement are still fresh. On the other hand, there are many who have never been to Punjab, cannot even read and understand Punjabi in the Gurmukhi scripts. Can these Sikhs, born and brought up outside Punjab, be able to appreciate the deep spiritual message of the Sikhism in the same way as their counterparts communicate among themselves in the Manjha-Malwa-Doaba areas of Punjab? These are some of the issues often debated in the west without any reference to the Sikh cultural specificities as seen in the different regions of Punjab.

Perhaps here also lies an important hallmark of the contemporary Sikh studies pursued in different parts of the globe. In recent years, with growing Sikh migration in the west, there has been a steady globalisation of Sikh studies and the present volume represents an interesting contribution towards that direction. More than a decade had elapsed since the publication of the Toronto University volume outlining the evolution of Sikh studies in 20th century (1988). But here is no attempt to compare the present collection of essays with its great predecessor from Toronto. But it underlines that the two young editors from Punjab University have successfully brought out a volume on Sikh studies with contributions from three generations of scholars from Punjab which had not been possible before.

The volume would soon be in the hands of a large number of scholars and students on Punjab and Sikhism. There is perhaps nothing wrong if some of them choose to ask the editors as to why there is no separate contribution on the evolution and significance of the dalits in Sikhism, the problems and aspirations of the Diaspora Sikhs as well as the wonderful creative experiences of the Sikhs beyond the world of paintings. This seems quite plausible. Those fortunate few who have already seen the film Amu may even find the volume an intelligent attempt to understand and assess in some part the many unpleasant experiences that had affected the state not so long ago.



Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007

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