Musings of a Swiss Sikh: Essays on Sikh History
A Review by Dr Hardev Singh
Author: Dr. Jogishwar Singh, Switzerland
Publisher: Sanbun Publishers, New Delhi
Pages 128; Price. Rs. 150.00; US $9.95 (Paperback)
Dr. Jogishwar Singh (Cheema), the author of this book, is a multi-dimensional personality who came into my contact after he published his travelogue, “Journey to Sikh Shrines in Pakistan” in a series of articles in The Sikh Review. Most of the essays in this book have been published in ‘Abstracts of Sikh Studies’ and the ‘The Sikh Review’ during the last decade.
It will not be out of place to introduce the Swiss Sikh, author of this book. I was wonder struck after reading his career graph: M.Sc. (Honours) in Physics followed by Masters in History, both from Punjab University, Chandigarh. Dr. Singh qualified in the prestigious IAS examination (1976) and served as Deputy Commissioner in Himachal Pradesh before leaving for Switzerland in 1984, after the infamous Operation Blue Star. He began a new life and career in Europe. Presently, he is Managing Director with the world famous Edmond de Rothschild Group in Geneva.
The book under review consists of 6 Chapters. Its title is some what intriguing, as almost half of it, comprising Chapters 2 and 6, is focused on Travels of the Author to Pakistan. Any way, he tries to mix up Travelogue and Sikh History under the same title. The other four Chapters cover different themes from Sikh History which reflect the musings of the author as a Sikh Historian. The author displays his knowledge of Sikh History but his perceptions seem to be quite different in comparison to established historical tradition. I may call it a paradigm shift in Sikh historical interpretation.
Chapter 1 is a well researched document on the theme, “Sikh Obedience Patterns in History”. The main aim of the author is to understand and interpret the events of Indian Punjab during 1980s in context of Sikh history and tradition. He is a strong proponent of Miri-Piri concept or inseparability of religion and politics in Sikh religion. Author defends his thesis (page 7) as follows: “The whole historical experience of Sikhism reflects such inseparability. This intermingling of religion and politics was not something suddenly introduced by the sixth Guru, subsequently sanctified by his grandson, Guru Gobind Singh ji. This development was inherent in the evolution of Sikhism. The earlier Gurus were not apolitical holy men who turned a blind eye to the prevalent political situation around them. Guru Nanak Sahib comments extensively on the prevailing political rot of his age”.
The author argues in favour of Khalsa Raj (page 10): “After bringing into being a revolutionary organisation, the Guru placed a revolutionary ideal before his men, the objective of the Raj Khalsa or people’s democracy”. He echoes the sentiments of Professor Puran Singh (Spirit of The Sikh, Vol. 1, p. 9): “The Khalsa is the ideal future international state of man: it is an absolute monarchy of the kingdom of heaven for each and every man, the absolute democracy. Guru Gobind Singh founded the true democracy of the people in which there were no dead votes or votes won by mental persuasion or interested coercion”.
Sikh attitude to political authority is summed up by the author as follows (page 18): “Based on Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s teachings, the natural political order preordained by the Zeitgeist of the Sikhs can only be a democratic polity. It cannot be a state based on absolute despotism of the individual, be he a monarch, a dictator, a Prime Minister or other. Regimes tending to be dictatorial evoke immediate resistance from the Sikhs”.
The author finds fault with the monarchy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (page 25): “Ranjit Singh’s monarchy did not conform to the kind of democratic polity envisaged in the ideals of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s Khalsa. Obedience to a centralised political authority had no place in Sikh tradition”. The downfall of Sikh kingdom is attributed to the Brahmanical practices introduced during his reign and his Dogra favourites who betrayed the interests of Sikh Panth without hesitation.
The author does not spare the present Sikh leadership in his criticism (page 31): “The present day situation in the Punjab more than amply reflects this tradition of personal pettiness prevailing over common interests of the Panth. No conscientious Sikh can afford to remain unaffected by the intellectual poverty, venality and sheer mediocrity of present day Sikh political leadership”.
In the last section of Chapter 1, the author traces the history of Sikh extremist movement. He squarely blames the Congress for this rot (page 33): “The Congress felt that so long as the Akalis controlled the SGPC, their hold on sizeable chunks of rural Sikh votes could not be broken. This policy did yield temporary gains in the sense of weakening successive Akali agitations but ultimately proved to be counter productive by sowing the seeds of extremism, when this policy was renewed in the 1980s”.
The author makes a clear distinction between pre-1947 Khalistan ideology and the present one. He disapproves the present ideology as it contradicts the Sikh obedience patterns in Sikh history and is at variance with democratic Sikh practices (page 35): “Recent ideas of Khalistan, discernible in the utterances of some people in Punjab, seemed much more theocratic and fundamentalistics in concept. A theocratic Khalistan cannot be in accordance with the principles of the Sikh faith. It would be at variance with democratic Sikh practices inherent in Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s ideas, practised during the Sikh war of independence against oppressive rule”. The author laments that the Sikh youth have lost their moorings (page 36): “Only time will tell whether politicians will have the sagacity to avoid giving a casus belli to Sikh youth having lost their traditional obedience patterns”.
“Journey to Sikh Shrines in Pakistan” is the longest Chapter of this book running into 50 pages. Its text is based on author’s diary recorded from his date of departure on 10th March 2007 from Lausanne, his native place in Switzerland, to his return from Islamabad on 20th March 2007. During this trip, the author visited all historical gurdwaras, his ancestral villages (both paternal and maternal) in Pakistani Punjab. The author has given minutest details of his sentimental journey to Sikh shrines and his ancestral village. He is all praise for the hospitality of his Pakistani hosts. However, he tries to conceal their identity by calling them AR, SB, S etc.
Passing through Attock, he remembers Akali Phula Singh and Hari Singh Nalwa and recalls his heritage: “We were then real lions. We are donkeys today, led by miserable wretches”. On page 55, I discovered a historical blunder when the author writes: “Princess Bamba was the grand daughter of Dalip Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest son”. In fact, she was daughter of Dalip Singh, who had no grand children. Despite these minor flaws, this essay reads like an adventure into some fairy land.
Chapter 3 “Do Sikhs Understand Sikhism” is a highly critical and thought provoking essay by the author. It poses many questions for further analysis of Sikh scholars. I found some answers to my query: “Why Sikhism fails to impact at global level”? In author’s opinion, the message of the Sikh Gurus is so oriented to liberation from all kinds of superstitions, rituals, baser instincts and baser follies that Sikhs are just not intellectually up to a level where they can understand its full import. The author is highly critical of role of various sectarian groups (Jats, Bhapas, Aroras, Khatris, Mazhbis) which joined Sikh society to ameliorate their status in Hindu society of India. He concludes his hypothesis (page 97): “I am convinced that the root cause of Sikh social morass today is the basic fact that large majorities of various social groups embraced Sikhism not because of conviction about its message but because of relative social advantages that they sought out of it. This was true in time of our Gurus and this is true today”.
Chapter 4 “Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Zenith or Nadir” also demands a critical review by the Sikh historians. The author traces the present state of Sikh decline to Maharaja Ranjit Singh (pages 104-05): “Ranjit Singh’s rule marked the zenith of Sikh political power but also marked the beginning of the nadir of Sikh social and moral decline. The present state of Sikh Panth: caste ridden, ritual ridden, bereft of any proper leadership, vaunted more for drunken, loutish behavior than any intellectual achievement, can be directly traced to trends that developed during Ranjit Singh’s rule. His kingdom marked the antithesis of the Sikh political model envisaged in the Tenth Guru’s teachings”.
In chapter 5, the author appreciates the system of direct democracy in Switzerland. He finds a unique parallelism in the Swiss Landsgemeinde and Sarbat Khalsa concepts. The author has traced the evolution of Landsgemeinde from the remote origins to modern times. The author concludes this Chapter with his observations (page 118): “Most Sikhs live today in India which does not have its former Rajas and Maharajas. However, the fundamental importance of the Sarbat Khalsa as the fulcrum of community decision making has never been restored amongst Sikhs. The Swiss managed to retain the essential ethos generated by their Landsgemeinde. The Sikhs have not managed to have similar success with their Sarbat Khalsa”.
Chapter 6 describes author’s recent visit to Chillianwala in Pakistan, the site of a famous battle during the Second Anglo-Sikh war. The reason for author’s visits to Pakistan is to link with his roots. He finds true Punjabi culture in Pakistani Punjab and calls Indian Punjab as ‘Bollywood Punjab’.
The author is highly critical of modern day Sikh society and laments the role of Sikh leaders, Sikh youth, Sikh deras and Sant Babas (page 121): “Leaders are motivated more by consideration of personal aggrandisement than service to the Sikh Panth; youngsters in Punjab with their brains addled by drugs and alcohol; people flocking to Deras and charlatans masquerading as Gurus, ignoring the sublime message of Sri Guru Granth Sahib; Sikh society riddled by casteism, arrogance, crass materialism and female infanticide”. The author gets rejuvenated after these visits to sites associated with the lives of our Gurus and Sikh heroes who act as role models for our Swiss Sikh author.
What I observe after reading this book is that the author suffers pangs of separation from Sikh homeland of his dreams. The book reflects his pain at what he observes as blemishes in Sikh society and Sikh leadership. He offers some suggestions to ameliorate the lot of Sikh youth (page 36): “Punjab has to be put on the path of rapid economic progress, thereby providing employment for Sikh youth not absorbed in gainful employment by the agricultural sector. Sagacious policies have to be pursued by those in power to convince Sikh youngsters that the Sikh way of life is not in danger”.
“Musings of a Swiss Sikh” is recommended for Sikh youth and Sikh scholars of history to critically examine the hypotheses put forward by the learned scholar. It also reflects the feelings of Sikh Diaspora who are emotionally attached to the welfare of Sikh society, in general, and Sikh Panth, in particular.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2012, All