On the Khalsa identity

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

The Khalsa & the Punjab: Studies in Sikh History, to the 19th Century edited by Himadri Banerjee; Tulika Books; New Delhi, 2002; pages xxxiii+192, Rs.375.

A CURSORY glance at the title of the volume, the third in a series brought out to mark the tercentenary of the Khalsa, can lead one to believe that it is all about the Khalsa identity as it evolved in 19th century Punjab. A sizable section of Sikh scholars has questioned the colonial forms of knowledge and epistemologies that have sought to categorise people. Many of them have addressed the contribution of the Akali leadership to the formation of the Khalsa identity. Others have questioned the genesis of the Singh Sabha movement and accused it of robbing Sikhism of its openness, stressed by the presence of eclectic personalities such as Guru Nanak, Kabir and Sheikh Farid in the Sikh scriptures.

The present volume, comprising papers presented at the Indian History Congress, takes a different approach in studying the Khalsa identity. The 15 concise papers contained in the book belong to the older generation of Punjabi scholarship committed to the use of Gurmukhi and Persian sources. At least one paper, written by the eminent historian Irfan Habib, uses the Granth Sahib as a source material. The book delves into the religious community of Sikhs and tries to find the reasons for the growth of the Khalsa. It scrutinises Sikhism's relationship vis-a-vis Islam and Hinduism, among other religions. However, it leaves it to the reader to explore how the past affects the present.

Two papers present rounded and polemical discussions on the Khalsa created by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. The paper by J.S. Grewal goes into the reasons for the formation of the Khalsa. Grewal notes that the institution of the Khalsa was a departure from the movement of Guru Nanak. He effectively makes a distinction between the Sikh Panth and the Khalsa. He notes: "Baptism of the double-edged sword was voluntary for the Khalsa even in the lifetime of Guru Gobind Singh. Therefore, the Khalsa consisted of Singhs and non-Singhs. After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, the Singh became synonymous with the keshdhari Khalsa and the non-Singhs came to be known as sahajdharis."

He highlights how the five Ks (or kakkars - kesh, kara, kanga, kripan and kaccha) tended to constitute the "Sikh identity" for non-Sikhs as well as Sikhs, leading to the exclusion of sects like Nanak-panthis, which had hitherto been part of Sikhism. Grewal perceives this change to be a positive one, which established the success of Guru Gobind Singh. His normative approach leaves several questions unanswered. If the Guru had wanted all Sikhs to be part of the Khalsa would he not have made baptism mandatory for all? Did Guru Gobind Singh want to make the Khalsa the dominant form of Sikhism? Grewal would want us to believe so.

It is instructive to note that such claims have been disputed by Harjot Oberoi (The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition), who has shown how the growing hegemony of Khalsa Sikhs has not put an end to religious fluidity within the Sikh tradition. A large number of Sikhs continued to interpret and reinterpret the Sikh tradition differently from Khalsa Sikhs, with the result that there was immense diversity within Sikh society for much of the 19th century. Oberoi emphasises how most Sikhs moved in and out of multiple identities grounded in local, regional, religious and secular loyalties. Consequently, religious identities were blurred and several competing definitions of who constituted a Sikh were possible in the 19th century.

In an insightful paper, Iqtidar Alam Khan makes the point that neither the Khalsa nor Guru Gobind Singh was against Islam. The Guru had made it clear through his actions that he was not against Islam but the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. Iqtidar Khan traces the genesis of the Khalsa to the politics of the day whereby the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, at the hands of the Mughal officials of Lahore, is seen as the event that triggered the militarisation of the Sikh community, which eventually led to the rise of the Khalsa. Such an interpretation brings clarity to the position of Sikhism vis-a-vis Hinduism and Islam.

Three papers dealing with the activities of Sikhs in the Punjab and one reviewing the same in South India, also form a part of this volume. All these concentrate on the 18th century political history of the Punjab. They cover the period when the Mughal power was declining and the forces of Ahmed Shah Abdali were gaining strength along with the Marathas. The last of these papers is a short write-up by B.A. Saletore, who has shown how Sikhs became conspicuous in the South, especially in Karnataka, between 1675 and 1708. This was the time when the Sikh community in the North was transformed from a socio-religious group into a military power. His sources are stone inscriptions, copper-plate grants, sanads, and a Kannada work, Hydernama, on the life of Hyder Ali. Saletore concludes that Hyder Ali knew the worth of the Sikhs and used them in his military services.

The next three papers primarily deal with the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sadly, the paper, by N.C. Banerjee, says nothing new. It merely highlights the achievements and ideals of Ranjit Singh. After going into the early life of the Maharaja - the contributions of Ranjit Singh's mother-in-law Sada Kaur to his personal growth - the essay focusses on Ranjit Singh as a successful diplomat and a crafty politician who kept war as the last resort. This and the next chapter present a complimentary but simplistic picture of the Maharaja who is held in high reverence by most scholars of Sikh studies. They make no attempt to evaluate any such scholarship critically.

In his paper Fauja Singh highlights how Ranjit Singh used insincere invitations and letters to bring his enemies to his court and then get them imprisoned. He writes: "Whenever and wherever he found any stiff resistance, instead of meeting it with promptness, he usually adopted the policy of temporisation and waited for a better opportunity."

Writing on the military history of Sikhs, he illustrates how Ranjit Singh used a European system of military within an Indian framework. In his essay Surendra Nath Sen has dealt with General Ventura, one of Ranjit Singh's French generals who played an important part in the modernisation of the Sikh army.

The next paper, by Indu Banga, is a comprehensive summation of Sikh political outlook from Banda Bahadur to Ranjit Singh. It looks into two main questions: What was the ideology and ethos of the Khalsa? What was its bearing on the processes of struggle and acquisition of power after Banda? Two papers deal with the post-Ranjit Singh period, from Ranjit Singh's death to the British annexation of the Punjab. The first, by Indubhushan Banerjee, critically studies Ranjit Singh's involvement in the Kashmir rebellion.

The next one, by Ganda Singh, is an interpretative analysis of Ranjit Singh's wife Maharani Jind Kaur's letters to the British government. One of these letters is in Jind Kaur's own handwriting, while the other two are transliterations of the originals.

In one of the most interesting papers, Irfan Habib establishes the scope of future research by using the Granth Sahib as a source of material on 16th century agrarian conditions. Irfan Habib writes that "not only does it (the Granth Sahib) contain the verses of Nanak and his spiritual successors, but also preserves in their original linguistic garb a number of compositions ascribed to Kabir, Ravidas, and to other like-minded teachers." Habib's chapter brings clarity to the economic history of the period.

The book on the whole is of value to a wide range of readers and makes for easy reading. It is of use to not only researchers and students but anyone who is interested in learning about Sikh history.

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