Towards Reconsideration of CRB
Dr Sulakhan Singh Mann
Since 1947, interpretations of the Sikh past by the historians of indigenous and foreign background have witnessed a considerable qualitative and quantitative change in the areas of Punjab studies as well as the modern Indian historiography. Harjot Oberoi’s ‘The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition’ (1994) is a latest addition in the field of modern Indian studies in general and the Sikh studies in particular. The author claims it to be work in ‘the social history of modern India’, which is a revised version of his doctoral thesis.
The focus of the study is on the Sikh experience in the 19th century with much of the emphasis on the problem of a single Sikh identity and homogenization of the Sikh Community over the past years. Obviously, it seems to be, more or less, an attempt in the direction of W.H. McLeod’s ‘Who is a Sikh?’
‘The problem of Sikh Identity(1989). Hence, it may be better understood in the light of the existing interpretations of the modern Sikh identity and the historiography of the late 19th and early 20th century Sikh history and religion. However, the author does not claim his monopoly over the earlier interpretations of the Sikh part as he is quite aware of the fact that one interpretation is expected, rather desired, to be superceded by another time and again, because there is no finality in history.
In the view of an eminent British philosopher historian, E. H. Carr, ‘the modern historian has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical’. How far Oberoi has succeeded in performing this dual task in the compilation of his work under review is a question of particular interest. Similarly, there are some other important questions which need to be looked into for purposes of better understanding of any historical work and its author. The same British scholar has rightly stated: ‘before you study the historian, study his historical and social environments’. Furthermore, he writes, ‘you cannot understand or appreciate the work of the historian unless you have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approached it; secondly, that standpoint is itself rooted social and historical background.’ Hence, it may also be helpful, to look into the question of social and historical background of Oberoi and his standpoint which he has applied in his understanding of the 19th centurey history of Identity, culture and diversity in the Sikh traditions.
In his work, Oberoi has made an attempt to give an alternative terpretation of the Sikh experience in the 19th century Indian social context. Existing interpretations of the Sikh’s past during the period, in his view, are based on two principles, one of silence and other of negation. By the principle of silence he means to say that ‘historical texts are virtually silent about religious diversity, sectarian conflicts, nature worship, witchcraft, sorcery, spirits, magical healing, omens, wizard miracle saints, goddesses, ancestral spirits, festivals, exorcism, astrology, divination and village deities’. Thus according to him contemporary scholarship either tends to ignore vast terrain of Sikh life in the 19th century or views it as a superfluous addition which has to be negated. Thus, he suggests that it is time to give up the ideological blinkers imposed by the complex changes in economy, society and politics under the Raj.
On the whole, Oberoi attempts to study the problems of conceptualization of religion, religious community and a single religious identity in the 19th century Indian social context in general and the problem of a single modern Sikh identity and its formation and transformation in specific historical epochs in particular. In his view, the broad classification of the Indian people in terms of their religions or single religious identities as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Sikh’ are not self-evident, rather they are “specific constructions rooted in par-ticular historical epochs”. Moreover, he writes, that universal religious communities are not a key to the understanding of a pre-British society. Because, the values and cultural equipment were determined not so much by the religious loyalties but by the clan rules i.e. the kinship, patronclient relationship and asymmetrical reciprocity.
In general, Oberoi has understood religion as a social and Cultural process. For him, religion in Indian society was ‘never a well demarcated and self-conscious unit’. His analysis of the 19th century Sikh history and religion with undue emphasis on the phenomena of religious diversity and the simultaneous existence of multiple religious identities within the Sikh tradition is very largely based on his views a Out heterogeneous nature of a religion or a religious community as a combination of “disparate sacred traditions”. Therefore, to him, the question of religions affiliation or attachment of a person to a particular sacred tradition was more relevant than the question of his identity as a ‘Sikh’ or a ‘Hindu’ or a ‘Muslim’.
Within this framework, he has explained the phenomenon ‘immense diversity’ within the Sikh society for much of the 19th century. The Sikh society, in his opinion, consisted of over a dozen ‘great’ and ‘little’ sacred traditions with which the Khalsa and the non-Khalsa Sikhs were found attached primarily due to the pluralist framework of the Sikh faith and the absence of a centralized church and an attendant religious hierarchy. Moreover, this was also due to the fact that the religious boundaries between the ‘Sikh Great’ and ‘Little traditions’ were highly blurred.
In support of his thesis of religious diversity and the simultaneous existence of multiple religious identities within the Sikh panth, Oberoi has identified various sub-traditions with which the Sikhs were fo.und affiliated. Surprisingly enough, for him, the Nanak Panthis and the Khalsa Sikhs constitute a separate sacred tradition (sampardaya) within the Sikh faith like that of the tradition of the Udasis and the Nirmalas and the Kukas and the Nirankaris. Not only this, he has understood the Sahajdharis and Sarvarias besides the folllowers of Ram Rai, Baba Gurditta, Baba Jawahar Singh and Guru Bhag Singh, as independent or separate traditions of the Sikhs. I fail to understand how does he differentiate between the Nanak Panthi Sikhs ‘and the Sahajdharis on the one hand and the Sahajdhari Sikhs and the men of serveral other non- Khalsa traditions including the Udasis on the other? In what sense do the Sarvarias constitute a separate tradition of the Sikhs like that of the Udasis and the Nirmalas? On the whole, in his classification of the Sikhs into various traditions or subtraditions, Oberoi seems to have followed the colonial model of religious diversity emphasised by many a British administrators and ethnographers of the Sikhs in their works during the late 19th century. Moreover, it is somewhat difficult to substantiate Oberoi’s claims regarding the existence of the Nanak Panthis, the Sahajdharis and the Sarvarias as separate categories of the Sikh traditions. So far, they have been studied as such by the historians of the Sikhs.
The main purpose of Oberoi’s work seems to have been to pose counterview to the Smgh Sabha’s standard definitions and their drive for a homogeneous Sikh community. The major concerns of the reformist Sikhs , in his view, were to purge the Sikh faith of religious diversity, Hindu accretions and Brahlmlcal stranglehold. This resulted into a radical change in the Sikh traditions from “an amorphous” entity in the mid 19th century into a “homogeneous community i.e. the “Khalsa Sampardaya”. Thus, in this way, of all the competing entities that went into constituting the long history of the Sikh movement, it was the Khalsa Sampardaya that succeeded in imprinting its image on the ‘new community’, to which Oberoi refers as an ‘episteme’. The ‘Sanatan Sikhs’ of the vanous sub-Sikh traditions were either displaced or became subordinate to the ‘new Sikh Identity’ i,e. the Tat Khalsa. This historical process in the constitution and reconstitution of the modern Sikh identity and its crystallization during the first decade of the 20th century seems to have compelled Oberoi to give an alternative interpretation of the Sikh past in the 19th century with much of its emphasis on the problem of singularity of Sikh identity.
In Oberoi’s view, the question of standard definition of a Sikh or his single religious identity in the history of the Sikh movement in the mid-19th century does not arise. This problem of a single Sikh identity for him was mainly due to the pluralist nature of the Sikh faith which caused immense religious diversity in the Sikh society for much of the 19th century. Thus, he writes, that there were “several competing definitions of a Sikh and most of the Sikhs moved in and out of ‘multiple identities”. He explains this with reference to the lack of a single source of authority within the Sikh tradition and the extremely blurred nature of the religious boundaries between the centre and the periphery. Thus, he fails to acknowledge that the social and ideological bases of the religious formation generally lie at the centre.
Oberoi’s understanding of the Sikh identity in the pre- and post- Khalsa period during the 18th century has its limitations. He generally refers to the nature of an early Sikh tradition in the pre-and post- Khalsa period as ‘ambiguous’ and ‘fluid’ without having a proper understanding of the nature and character of the Sikh identity in its specific historical perspective since the days of the Sikh Gurus. For-mation of the ‘Khalsa Sikh’ identity in the 18th century with a distinct code of conduct and Khande- Ke- Pahul was, in fact, a culmination of the early Sikh historical developments. Surprisingly enough, for Oberoi, the Sikh identity even in the mid-19th century was ‘an amorphous entity which got a concrete or definite shape in the colonial period as a result of the political, economic and cultural changes under the Raj.’ If on the one hand, Oberoi has tried to impose the late 19th century colonial model of Sikh society on its history of the early period, on the other, he has made an attempt to build up a counter argument to the late 19th century Sikh elites thesis of the Sikh identity. Thus, it seems Denzil Ibbetson has found a true disciple in the scholarship of Harjot Oberoi.
Although Harjot has used a very wide variety of contemporary source materials for his analysis of the culture, identity and diversity; the Sikh tradition in the 19th century, yet his over-dependence on the late 19th century British official records and the Sikh literature of and on the Singh Sabha Movements is quite obvious. Hence, he has rarely made use of the contemporaneous Persian and Sikh historical literature for his understanding of the nature of Sikh tradition and the resultant formation of the Sikh identity in the pre- and post-Khalsa period till the annexation of the Punjab by the British in the mid-19th century.
Oberoi’s understanding of the Sikh tradition and his inter-pretation of the Sikh identity in its historical perspective suffers from some methodological shortcomings. For instance, he does not question the authenticity of the testimony of Ruc hi Ram Sahni’s father which he has used in support of his thesis of religious diversity and fluidity in the Sikh tradition. Similarly, he has taken up the observational evidence of a Christian traveller at its face value without understanding the limitations of such testimonies. Moreover, he has failed to make clear distinction between the real historical facts and the several insignificant facts to be discarded as material of no historical value. His very choice of historical facts clearly reflects that his view of Sikh history and religion is highly subjective although he has made an attempt to use the insights of an anthoropologist and a sociologist for his understanding of the Sikh past. His approach and method to the study of Sikh identity and diversity in the Sikh tradition has not been guided by the principle of historical specificity. Had Oberoi comprehended the 18th centw:y historical processes in the making of the Khalsa Sikh identity, vis-a-Vis the Mughal state, he would not have overemphasised its crystallization vis-a-vis the colonial state. The Singh Sabhaites only made best. use of the contemporary institutions.
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