“Moving between the Punjab and Britain, Australia, and the United States, Between Colonialism and Diaspora tracks moments in the making of Sikh identities across imperial and postcolonial encounters, from military masculinities to bhangra, from the 1840s to the present. Tony Ballantyne is establishing himself as one of the most exciting voices amongst a new generation of historians.”—Catherine Hall, author of Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830–1867
Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial Worldby Tony Ballantyne
Bringing South Asian and British imperial history together with recent scholarship on transnationalism and postcolonialism, Tony Ballantyne offers a bold reevaluation of constructions of Sikh identity from the late eighteenth century through the early twenty-first. Ballantyne considers Sikh communities and experiences in Punjab, the rest of South Asia, the United
Bringing South Asian and British imperial history together with recent scholarship on transnationalism and postcolonialism, Tony Ballantyne offers a bold reevaluation of constructions of Sikh identity from the late eighteenth century through the early twenty-first. Ballantyne considers Sikh communities and experiences in Punjab, the rest of South Asia, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world. He charts the shifting, complex, and frequently competing visions of Sikh identity that have been produced in response to the momentous social changes wrought by colonialism and diaspora. In the process, he argues that Sikh studies must expand its scope to take into account not only how Sikhism is figured in religious and political texts but also on the battlefields of Asia and Europe, in the streets of Singapore and Southall, and in the nightclubs of New Delhi and Newcastle.
Constructing an expansive historical archive, Ballantyne draws on film, sculpture, fiction, and Web sites, as well as private papers, government records, journalism, and travel narratives. He proceeds from a critique of recent historiography on the development of Sikhism to an analysis of how Sikh identity changed over the course of the long nineteenth century. Ballantyne goes on to offer a reading of the contested interpretations of the life of Dalip Singh, the last Maharaja of Punjab. He concludes with an exploration of bhangra, a traditional form of Punjabi dance that diasporic artists have transformed into a globally popular music style. Much of bhangra’s recent evolution stems from encounters of the Sikh and Afro-Caribbean communities, particularly in the United Kingdom. Ballantyne contends that such cross-cultural encounters are central in defining Sikh identity both in Punjab and the diaspora.
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Between Colonialism and DiasporaSikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World
By Tony Ballantyne
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFraming/Reframing Sikh Histories
Sikhs and Sikhism confound many of the stereotypes that are used to make sense of South Asian society, especially now at the start of the twenty-first century. The Sikh community is frequently defined in masculine terms, whereas India and Indian culture continue to be imagined as feminine. The stereotype of a caste-bound India is punctured by any visit to the langar (kitchen and dining hall) of a Sikh place of worship (gurdwara) where free food is distributed to worshippers and visitors alike who sit together without distinction or hierarchy. Where Indian thought is known for its elusive abstraction and the nation is renowned for its philosophers and poets, Sikhs are famous for their pragmatism, earthiness, and work ethic. And although generations of Western observers have suggested that "history" is fundamentally foreign to Indian mentalities and that India is commonly packaged to tourists as a "timeless" land, Sikhs have a profound interest in history and historical writing.
Certainly many Sikhs are skeptical of the ability of non-Sikhs to interpret "their" past, but it isvery hard to imagine many Sikhs endorsing the line of argument forwarded in Hinduism Today, a popular journal with a large subscription base both in India and in South Asian diasporic communities. The December 1994 issue of the journal suggested that "India and Hinduism live beyond history.... Other faiths, excluding some tribal and pagan paths, are rooted in events. They began on such and such a day, were born with the birth of a prophet or the pronouncements of a founder. Thus they are defined, circumscribed by history. Not Hinduism. She has no founder, no birthday to celebrate. Like Truth, she is eternal and unhistorical." Conversely, history, in fact, is at the forefront of Sikh politics and in discussions within the Panth over identity. In an important 1987 essay, Robin Jeffrey noted that Sikh politicians seemed to experience a "constant pressure to invoke history," a concern that characterized the language of Sikh politics and separated Sikhs from other South Asian communities. Although Jeffrey's essay is pessimistic in tone given that it was written in the midst of the fallout from Operation Bluestar (when the Indian army was sent into the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar) and subsequent to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, it did focus attention on many Sikhs' preoccupation with history. In fact, Jeffrey's argument might have been pushed further had he looked beyond high politics to other domains where this interest was manifest, most especially in the historical images of the gurus and Sikh heroes that have been a staple of popular bazaar prints since the nineteenth century.
The emergence of e-mail and the Internet have fed the Sikh communities' ongoing engagement with the historical debate over the last decade or so. The recent launch of the Sikh cybermuseum is an excellent example of the ways in which new technologies allow the preservation and dissemination of historical material, thereby allowing Sikhs throughout the world to access an impressive range of documents and images. Various Sikh individuals and groups also use the Internet to provide a bewildering array of historical material. On the Web, Punjabis frequently and fiercely debate history on various discussion lists, Web sites, and news groups. The "Sikh diaspora" Internet discussion list, for example, is one important forum that allows Sikhs throughout the world to engage with the leading historians of Sikhism as well as exchanging information and interpretations. On this list, a vast range of issues are discussed and debated, including the promotion of the Punjabi language within the diaspora; the teachings of the gurus; court cases relating to Sikhs such as those that deal with the legal status of wearing turbans and ceremonial daggers outside of India; and the contentious question of who is a Sikh.
Such debates are of great intellectual and cultural significance for Sikhs, especially when they focus on the origins of Sikhism, the composition and provenance of sacred texts, and the "five Ks"-the outward signifiers of Sikh identity (so named because each begins with a "k"): kes (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan (ceremonial dagger), and kachh (short breeches). While these discussions frequently take on a polemical tone-reflecting the very real political stakes attached to representations of Sikhism in the wake of the Indian government's campaign against the Sikh activists who sought to create an independent Sikh homeland-they are borne out of ongoing encounters between scholars of the Sikh past and Sikh communities, both within South Asia and abroad. By and large, scholars of Sikhism have focused their attention on historical issues that are close to the heart of many Sikhs, and this effort has meant that the field has been nourished by a profoundly important and mutually sustaining engagement between Sikh studies as an academic discipline and the Sikhs themselves. Unfortunately, however, there have been relatively few attempts to explore the fundamental assumptions that shape Sikh studies. Those that do exist, typically present either a narrative of the subdiscipline's development or explore the supposedly fundamental rifts between Western critical scholarship and understandings of the Sikh past produced from within Sikh communities. Here I adopt a more schematic approach that charts the shape of the field by identifying a variety of analytical positions that are differentiated by their divergent visions of the shape of Sikh history, their various epistemological frameworks, and the conflicting methodologies they deploy.
Thus, what follows is an attempt to map the major analytical positions that dominate the historical work produced within the subdiscipline of Sikh studies in the hope that both common ground and points of conflict within the field can be brought into stark relief. In other words, in this chapter I identify the most important ways in which scholars have narrated and framed Sikh history. I identify five "framings" that dominate the study of the Sikh past and I briefly examine key works that represent the methodologies and assumptions that shape the historical vision of each framing. In so doing I explore a series of epistemological and methodological problems in order to clarify the assumptions that currently govern the field and to push Sikh studies toward a more sustained engagement with a broader set of questions that are central to contemporary humanities scholarship. After setting out this heuristic typology, I map an alternative vision of the Sikh past, an approach that underscores the importance of cross-cultural encounters, the power of colonialism, and the important forms of cultural traffic that have cut across the borders of the Punjab region and the Indian nation-state.
A Map of the Field
Here at the start it is useful to identify five divergent approaches to the Sikh past: the "internalist," the "Khalsacentric," the "regional," the "externalist," and the "diasporic." Even though the boundaries between these approaches are not always absolute or rigid, as a group they provide a useful heuristic device that allows us to "map," or set out schematically, the dominant framings of the Sikh past that have been elaborated over the past century or so. The following discussion of this fivefold typology, which also highlights important variations within each position, undercuts the easy oppositions and binary logic that shapes the opposition between "Khalsacentric" and "Eurocentric" approaches to the Sikh past that have been drawn recently by opponents of Western critical scholarship. Such a typology also marks a significant refinement of the simple opposition between "internalist" and "externalist" approaches to Sikh history that I have highlighted elsewhere.
The first of these five analytical traditions is what I have termed the "internalist" approach, the way of framing the Sikh past that has dominated Sikh historiography over the last century. Despite the significant methodological, epistemological, and political differences that can be identified as marking four distinct versions of the internalist scholarship-normative, textualist, political, and cultural-those working within the internalist tradition are united by a common analytical orientation. Internalist scholars prioritize the internal development of Sikh "tradition," the authority of its sacred texts, the social composition of the Panth, and political struggles within Sikh communities rather than the broader regional, political, and cultural forces that shape the community from the outside.
The oldest of these traditions is what might be termed the "normative tradition," or what Harjot Oberoi has identified as the "Tat Khalsa" tradition. This vision of the Sikh past, which I discuss at some length in chapter 2, emerged out of the intense struggles over forms of devotion, community identity, and political power that dominated colonial Punjab's public sphere during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Just as colonial officials, Christian missionaries, Hindu reformers, and Muslim leaders forwarded conflicting visions of Punjabi history and culture, Sikh pamphleteers, editorialists, and social reformers debated the boundaries of their community and the nature of the Panth's development. Within the context of colonialism, history writing became a crucial tool for community leaders who crafted epic poems, polemic pamphlets, and commentaries on "scripture" in the hope that by clearly defining the community's past they would be able to cement their own vision of the community's present and future.
In particular, history writing was a crucial tool for the rival factions of the Singh Sabha reform movement, which flourished throughout Punjab after it was initially established in Amritsar (1873) and Lahore (1879). The so-called Sanatan faction of the Singh Sabha insisted that their practices were in keeping both with Sikh custom and with what they imagined as the ancient, even eternal, devotional practices of north Indian Hindus. Sanatanis frequently saw the gurus as avatars (incarnations) of the Hindu gods Ram and Krishna, worshipped images and idols, and accepted the varnasramadharma, the paradigmatic Brahmanical view of the centrality of the fourfold divisions of varna (caste) and asrama (stage of life) in shaping an individual's identity and obligations.
On the other hand, the modernist Tat Khalsa faction of the Singh Sabha advocated a clearly delineated Sikh identity and used historical writing to argue that Sikhism was a religious tradition entirely independent of Hinduism. Most famously, the great Sikh intellectual Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha proclaimed, in a 1898 pamphlet, "Ham hindu nahim" ("We are not Hindus"). Nabha's pamphlet, like other texts produced by Tat Khalsa ideologues, was simultaneously an attack on the power of the Hindu reformers of the Arya Samaj in Punjab and a response to the Sanatan tradition that remained popular with Punjabi aristocrats and the rural masses. These Tat Khalsa reformers rejected Urdu as a medium for education and administration, proclaiming that the Punjabi language written in the Gurmukhi script, the very script used in the sacred Adi Granth, was the primary language of Punjab. While they battled the threat of Islamicization they saw embodied in Urdu's dominance, they also crafted a complex series of life-cycle rituals that set them apart from Punjabi Hindus. The Tat Khalsa leaders insisted that Sikhs were a distinct and self-sufficient community, and this belief was articulated most clearly when Sikh leaders informed the governor-general in 1888 that Sikhs should not be "confounded with Hindus but treated in all respects as a separate community."
To inscribe a firm boundary between Sikhs and Hindus, historical texts produced by Tat Khalsa historians have rested on two narrative strategies. First, they evoke ideal types-that is, historical role models who embody the ideals of the Khalsa. Suspicious of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's piety and morality and unsettled by Dalip Singh's conversion to Christianity, these works look back to a more distant Sikh past, untainted by colonialism, for heroes who were proper Sikhs. The heroic martyrdom of the ninth guru (Tegh Bahadur) and the martial spirit of the tenth, Gobind Singh, served as exemplary models, as did the great protector of the fledgling Khalsa in the early eighteenth century, Banda Singh Bahadur. These heroes and martyrs devoted their lives to faith in, and the promulgation of, a distinctive Sikh identity in the face of Mughal oppression, and Tat Khalsa historians enjoined their contemporaries to be equally resolute in the proclamation of the distinctiveness of their Sikh identity.
Following from this, the second key element of Tat Khalsa historical narratives is an insistence on the dangers posed by "Hinduism." Like many British administrators, Tat Khalsa reformers conceived of Hinduism, especially in its popular forms, as an all-consuming jungle or as a boa constrictor capable of crushing and consuming religious innovation through its supposedly stifling weight and incessant expansion. The efforts of Hindu reformers and the laxity of uneducated Sikhs not only blurred the boundaries of the community but also threatened the very future of Sikhism. Only a return to the teachings of the Adi Granth and the strict maintenance of the rahit (code of conduct) would prevent Hinduism from engulfing Sikhism altogether.
This normative tradition of historical writing was consolidated in the early twentieth century by the likes of Bhai Vir Singh, and after partition it was increasingly professionalized by a new generation of scholars, most notably Ganda Singh and Harbans Singh. Both of these authors wrote what we might term "corrective histories"-that is, works that challenged interpretations of Sikhism popular outside the community (such as the belief that Nanak's teachings were essentially syncretistic) and disputed evidence within the historical record that indicated diversity in Sikh identity and practice. This corrective approach is most obvious in Ganda Singh's edited collection of European accounts of Sikhism, where his glosses and footnotes not only correct European misapprehensions, but also rebut European claims that Sikhs engaged in practices that contravened the injunctions of the Rahit. In short, this framing of the Sikh past became the dominant vision within the Panth, or at least within the Khalsa, and was increasingly regarded by informed non-Punjabi South Asians and British commentators as the authoritative vision of Sikh history.
In the late 1960s this normative tradition faced its first serious challenge with the publication of W. H. McLeod's Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. McLeod, who quickly established himself as the most influential modern historian of Sikhism, introduced rigorous professionalism into the study of the Sikh past at the same time that he proffered the new interpretive strategy of textual criticism. Published in 1968, one year before the quincentennial of Nanak's birth, McLeod's Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion was at odds with the reverential and even hagiographical tone of the numerous volumes that marked this important celebration. Indeed, McLeod's book was not a celebration of the Nanak of faith who was cherished by Sikhs as the founder of their religious tradition; instead it was a critical assessment of what we know about "the man Guru Nanak." As his sources McLeod used the janam-sakhis, the life stories of Nanak that circulated among his followers, and from this material he set about evaluating the reliability of each sakhi or gost (chapter). On the basis of the material's miraculous content; the existence of corroborating external sources, including the Adi Granth; the agreement between different janam-sakhis; and the genealogical and geographical evidence, McLeod placed each narrative into one of five categories: the established, the probable, the possible, the improbable, and the impossible.
Excerpted from Between Colonialism and Diaspora by Tony Ballantyne Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Tony Ballantyne is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire and a coeditor of Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, also published by Duke University Press.
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