Deconstructing emotion as an element of reading the history of the Punjab and the Sikhs

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Harjot Oberoi’s first book The construction of religious borders: culture, identity and diversity in the Sikh tradition is considered revolutionary by some; for others, it borders on blasphemy. In this book, Oberoi argued that the Sikh identity as we know it is only a late development that came into being with the emergence of the Singh Sabha movement in the late 19th century.e century. Before that, the boundaries between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were diffuse and blurred, and many practices and beliefs were shared.

In the process, he also downplayed the centrality of the Sikh gurus and the Adi Granth. In the controversy that followed, Harjot Oberoi was seen as another scholar in the mold of WH Mcleod and others who sought to revise the fundamentally faith-based understanding of religion, thought, and identity. sikhs. The controversy culminated in Oberoi’s resignation from the chair of Sikh studies at the University of British Columbia.

This volume consists of an introductory chapter and six essays. Five of the six essays were published earlier – one as early as 1980 – and we need to balance their vintage quality against the author’s claim to have them revised and augmented. In the introduction, which is unpublished, Oberoi develops its intellectual framework. Stripped of the inevitable academic discourse, his thesis is that from the time of Valmiki, to the Kashmiri poet-historian Kalhana and the venerable Sikh historian poet Bhai Santokh Singh, Indian culture has preferred to interpret the past through poetry rather than reason. pure. The story thus becomes a game of passion governed by the Indian aesthetic of rasa, where emotions take precedence.

When does the story start? by Harjot Oberoi (Permanent Black)

This contrasts with the rational Western traditions established by Plato, Thucydides, Hegel and so on, Nietzsche being the exception to upholding raw emotion as the engine of human history. Modern historical studies, marked by close recourse to archives, impartial evaluation of sources, verification protocols, etc. are, according to Oberoi, a recent phenomenon in India and not always acceptable to a public more sensitive to an emotional and confessional approach. in the past. This seems like a questionable presumption in itself – if reason is applied correctly, and not just for iconoclastic purposes, most intelligent people, including Indians, should be able to accept it.

Determined to deconstruct emotion as part of the reading of history, Oberoi applies his rational toolbox to six situations, rooted in colonial and post-colonial modernity and loosely connected to Sikh tradition. The subjects of the essays vary widely, as often happens when disparate writings are brought together to produce a volume, and the application of the introductory intellectual framework is relatively uneven. Nonetheless, at least three of the essays can be highlighted here.

The essay on the Kuka (or Namdhari) community recalls its emergence and the brief uprising in the mid-1800s in which 65 Kukas were blown out by the British from cannon. Oberoi argues that the Kukas were neither “an incoherent group” nor anti-colonial heroes of the Sikh tradition alone. Their actions were motivated by their religious and social beliefs based on their ideas of sanctity and ritual purity.

The Kuka ideology and beliefs did not materialize “out of nowhere,” Oberoi argues, but had a long history both within the Sikh community and within Indian culture. While “Indian culture” is a broad enough term to absorb anything under the sun, it is difficult to accept that the Kukas can trace all of their beliefs and practices back to mainstream Sikh cosmology. Perhaps it is with regard to the notions of purity, which the Kukas have taken to the extreme in their dress codes, personal hygiene, diet and behavior: animated by the devotion to purity, of which the cow was also a symbol, they launched several attacks against the butchers.

But their varying interpretation of Sikh scriptures and their belief in a living human guru ran counter to the broad Sikh belief; Sikhs, according to the injunction of the tenth Guru – Guru Gobind Singh – place their faith only in the Holy Book, the Granth Sahib, as a Guru and not in a living being. Nor can the imperial attire of their leader Bhai Ram Singh conjure up images of guru Gobind Singh, performing miracles, circulating apocryphal prophecies to gain legitimacy, and rituals of song and dance (Kukas derives from “Kuks” or cries emitted during ecstatic meditative trances) would be inspired by the dominant Sikhism; it is precisely these attributes that have set the Kukas apart at best.

Oberoi’s essay on the Ghadar movement takes a fresh look at its spectacular rise and expansion. The movement started on the American West Coast among diaspora Indians – farmers, woodworkers and students in Berkeley – has gathered adherents with surprising speed. His planned armed insurgency in India failed and the colonial authorities hit the Ghadarites hard, hanging and imprisoning hundreds, but there is no denying the essential inspiration behind the movement.

Oberoi traces it back not to the spirit of Indian nationalism but to the theory and practice of world anarchism. The founder of the movement, Lala Hardyal – a student at Oxford then a teacher at Stanford – was deeply rooted in the anarchist thought of Piotr Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin and Proudhon.

The Ghadar, Oberoi convincingly shows, although engaged in armed struggle, was not just a movement of bomb throwers; he also launched a war of ideas. Printing presses, poetry, brochures and periodicals brought water to the revolutionary mill of the militants of Ghadar. The cosmopolitan nature of the movement was also marked by the fact that the Ghadarites were actively hostile to religion and were openly secular and non-denominational; in this they differed from the nationalist militant organizations of Bengal and Maharashtra.

We don’t need pundits or mullahs,
No prayers or litanies that we need to recite,
These will only scuttle our boat,
Draw the sword, it’s time to fight.

The Ghadar was truly a transnational movement, in contact with the highest authorities in Germany, Japan and China and spread over at least ten countries. Its goal went beyond freedom to social transformation. This review leads Oberoi to conclude that the role of the Indian diaspora has not been fully taken into account in the reading of Indian nationalism. However, this is where his argument runs out; the remainder of the essay examines Bhagat Singh’s version of local anarchism. Hopefully Oberoi takes a more in-depth look at the diaspora’s contribution in a later essay.

Oberoi’s only new essay in this volume – the one on the inner life of Bhagat Singh – lifts the whole volume. Bhagat Singh, who went to the gallows at the age of 23, did not leave a voluminous autobiography. All we have is his published work, including his prison diary, and a reference to the books he read to chart his “epic pursuit of a meaningful life.” Once he joined the revolutionary party, Bhagat Singh identified “ruthless criticism” and “independent thought” as the essence of his revolutionary doctrine; old beliefs had to be rightly challenged and if they collapsed, a new future had to be shaped from the ruins of the past.

As for his reading, Bhagat Singh’s achievements are incredible and best illustrated by the story, which may or may not be true, that on the day he was to be hanged in Lahore Central Prison, he asked his lawyer to tell him bring a book of Lenin. . During his short, dazzling life he had not only read but understood and copied extensively Ghalib and Wordsworth, Rousseau and Marx, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Dickens and many others. The books he read were often banned or not readily available, and he did not have the benefit of a Western education; a pocket dictionary was his constant companion.

Mural by Bhagat Singh with a quote that reads: “Bombs and guns don’t make a revolution. The sword of the Revolution is sharpened on the whetstone of ideas. Photo: Kudrat Wadhwa

Oberoi’s essay provides much needed depth to understand one of the true heroes of modern India. Hopefully this understanding will help save Bhagat Singh’s memory from being reduced to a calendar caricature as the heroic bomb thrower that everyone today wants to adapt as a mascot and restore his personality as “who was intellectually inclined and deeply thoughtful, a man who spent long hours scouring and reading books with unusual passion “and who walked to the gallows not only with raw courage, but with deep inner conviction .

For those who may have been impressed by the richness of scholarship and the readability of Harjot Oberoi’s first book despite the controversy it sparked, this volume will be somewhat disappointing. The contents, written at different times and covering various topics, are quite interesting in themselves but do not form a coherent argument. Often weighed down by abstruse theory, When does the story start? is unlikely to cause the kind of storm that Oberoi’s first book did. In an age when religious identities are worn on the sleeve, this can actually be a good thing.

Navtej Sarna is a former Ambassador of India to the United States and author of several works of fiction and non-fiction. More details on navtejsarna.in.


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