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Vernacular Writings on the Sikhs

Vernacular Writings on the Sikhs The Other Sikhs: A View from Eastern India by Himadri Banerjee; Manohar Books, New Delhi, 2004; K L TUTEJA The book under review is a study of the writings on the Sikhs published in three vernacular languages of eastern India, viz, Bengali, Oriya and Assamese from the middle of the 19th century to the end of colonial rule in 1947. The author, Himadri Banerjee


Vernacular Writings

on the Sikhs

The Other Sikhs: A View from Eastern India

by Himadri Banerjee; Manohar Books, New Delhi, 2004; pp 279, Rs 550.


he book under review is a study of the writings on the Sikhs published in three vernacular languages of eastern India, viz, Bengali, Oriya and Assamese from the middle of the 19th century to the end of colonial rule in 1947. The author, Himadri Banerjee’s task was rendered more arduous by the fact that several of these writings were scattered at different places, including some in the more remote areas of eastern India not easily accessible.

Vernacular writings on the Sikhs in eastern India were first initiated in Bengal in the beginning of the 19th century. Later, similar works were also published in Orissa and Assam in local regional languages. Published over a period of more than a hundred years, the writings on the Sikhs covered a variety of themes, both of historical and fictional nature. These comprised a number of biographies, novels, plays, poetry, essays, etc. As far as historical writings are concerned, their main focus was on the history of Sikh gurus, the persecution of Sikhs in the 18th century, the rise of Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century, and Sikh participation in the freedom struggle. Some eminent writers on the Sikhs included Akshaykumar Datta and Rabindranath Tagore. In general, vernacular writers offered a variety of opinions reflecting their own ideological frame of mind and also the contemporary milieu in which they lived. Banerjee believes that these vernacular writings are of immense value for comprehending “how (the) ‘Panthic’ message was transmitted and perceived in this part (eastern) of the country”. It is however necessary to mention here that some of these works having a historical content appear somewhat different from those that have been written giving a special emphasis on the origin and growth of the Sikhs as a distinct identity in the context of Punjab history. In fact, the vernacular writings on the Sikhs in eastern India dealt with the history of the Sikhs more in the social and cultural context of India as whole.

However, there are also instances, particularly in Assam, where a specific local culture had a decisive bearing on the approach towards the Sikhs and their past. Banerjee thus postulates that the study of such writings “enrich our understanding of Sikhism in the wider context of Indian unity and diversity”.

Sikhs in Eastern India

According to popular tradition, the settlement of Sikhs in eastern India began at the time of Guru Nanak when small numbers of them migrated to Assam, Orissa and neighbouring areas. They zealously guarded their religious beliefs and built a number of gurdwaras some of which later became important centres of Sikh pilgrimage. It is noteworthy that when the Sikhs settled down in the new milieu, they made the necessary cultural adjustments, thereby enriching the pluralistic nature of local societies in different parts of eastern India. In this regard, Banerjee observes that the Assamese Sikhs were the same time not averse to “adopting local lifestyle, value system, dress rituals and other parameters of (the) indigenous culture”. However, it is also true that Sikhism did not invoke much interest among the local population in these regions before the beginning of the 19th century. There is practically no mention of Sikhs in the popular Buranji literature related to the Ahom kings of Assam. But, at the same time, it is also true that in some areas inhabited by the migrant Sikhs, life and teachings of Guru Nanak did gain popularity. Phul Singh Chetri, an Assamese Sikh, was not only knowledgeable about the Sikh religious tradition but was also well versed in the local regional language. His work on Sikhism, Banerjee writes, “provided a distinct regional dimension to Assamese studies on Sikh history”.

Other Assamese writings on the Sikhs had a “distinct local character and their sources also lie outside recorded history, in the local folk culture”. This genre of writings on Sikh religion mainly included the works of Lakshminath Bezbarua on Guru Nanak and Shashikanta Gogia on Guru Teg Bahadur’s martyrdom. Banerjee believes that the Sikh studies in Assam were deeply shaped by the ideology of regional nationalism. It is well known that following the establishment of colonial rule in Assam, the divide between the “locals” and “outsiders” (read Bengalis) gradually widened and the new Assamese intellectuals made all efforts to assert their own regional and cultural identity which also included strengthening of their regional language. Moreover, this ensuing debate on the question of locals versus outsiders, the Assamese Sikhs faced a serious crisis of identity. For instance, in a fictional novel, an Assamese author not only projected the Sikhs as “outsiders” but also questioned their loyalty to Assam. Yet in another novel of the period, the Sikhs were shown as an integral part of local society having deep commitments to Assam. An increasing pan-Indian consciousness also led a number of Assamese to write on the Sikhs and their religion as part of common cultural heritage of India. At the same time, for a number of local intellectuals, regional consciousness fitted in equally well with the larger nationalist cause.

Features in Writings

Banerjee does not find any kind of “regional” bias in the Oriya and Bengali writings on the Sikhs. He delineates a number of features common in both these writings. Occasionally a number of Oriya writers reproduced the Bengali writings in their own language. For instance, Oriya poet Nabikishore’s description of the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, was based on

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006 Rabindranath Tagore’s writings. Whatever distinctive features these Oriya writings on the Sikhs had lay more in form than in substance.

Vernacular writings on the Sikhs in Bengal were initially initiated by the intelligentsia of Calcutta, which was a vibrant intellectual centre in colonial times. These “new” intellectuals as “cultural entrepreneurs” were trying to reorder the society and culture under colonial rule in the light of their emerging needs and concerns. Although products of western education, vernacular writers consciously chose to write in their own indigenous language which as Partha Chatterjee says, belonged to “their inner domain of cultural identity”. Their choice of language proved effective in the dissemination of information and ideas to people of their own linguistic region. The task of these intellectuals was further facilitated since regional languages were acquiring a “standardised” form, and print – culture was spreading fast. Those who wrote on the Sikhs acquired their knowledge largely from the European writings on the subject. But, a number of them who happened to visit the Punjab also made use of the local sources especially the Janamsakhis which in the Sikh tradition, despite their lack of hagiographical content, remain basic source of information for the study of religion and history of the Sikhs.

Brahmo Samajists and other liberal intellectuals were pioneers in Sikh studies in eastern India. Banerjee believes that Brahmo Samajists found Nanak’s teachings highly relevant for carrying out their own programme of socio-religious reform of the contemporary society. Brahmo writers emphasised the “resemblance between monotheism and worship of the formless present both in Brahmoism and in Guru Nanak’s Sikhism”.

Akshaykumar Datta wrote a long piece on the first Sikh guru, Nanak, in Bengali that portrayed Nanak as an honest religious preacher engaged in the moral and social upliftment of humanity. At the same time, Datta was not prepared to accept the attribution of mythical powers to Nanak, as per the Janamsakhi. In short, Datta offered a rational explanation of Nanak’s message. However we witness a notable shift in the approach of later Brahmo writings on the Sikhs. Mahendranath Bose, a close associate of Keshabchandra Sen, wrote Nanak Parkash, a biography of Nanak based on Janamsakhi literature. Unlike earlier Brahmo accounts, he did not reject the supernatural legends attached to Nanak. Later Ratindranath Tagore, another Brahmo, went to the extent of describing Nanak as an “Indian avatar” who was “above all doubt, debate and discussion”. In this work Nanak was not only “wrapped in the mysticism of religious faith” but was also shown as a “defender and saviour of Hinduism in medieval times”. However, it is surprising that Banerjee does not offer any explanation for this shift. As a matter of fact this shift was closely associated with the ideological transition then taking place within the Brahmo Samaj. Its earlier spirit of eclecticism and rational approach was on the decline, and brahminical rituals including ‘arti’ and ‘puja’ were adopted by the Brahmo Samaj. This shift was specifically evident in a section of Brahmos who unambiguously expressed their commitment to Hinduism and endeavoured to project themselves as defenders of the Hindu faith.

Accommodating Nationalism

Another feature that emerged in these Bengali and Oriya writings was the spirit of nationalism. But it appears that Banerjee sometimes does not contextualise these writings against the prevailing ideological and political conditions thereby, missing the ambivalences and ambiguities present in them. The rising new intelligentsia imbued with the vision of a pan-Indian identity often chose to write in their respective vernacular languages on issues of common cultural heritage including the history of the Sikhs. In the present case, they highlighted the humane and spiritual content of Guru Nanak’s message with a view to asserting rich cultural heritage of the Indian nation .It was indeed perceived as a powerful instrument to reassert their self-respect under conditions of colonial subjugation. The sense of alienation provoked by British rule could find expression through a proud glorification of own cultural heritage. This spirit was visible in Rabindranath Tagore’s article on Nanak published in a popular Bengali magazine. In Oriya too, similar writings were published highlighting “a closer interaction with different all India symbols and traditions”.

Simultaneously these writings selectively invoked those aspects of Sikh history that could be used to instil patriotism and to strengthen the forces of anti-imperialist struggle. Banerjee has drawn our attention to the writings on the 10th guru, Gobind Singh. Gobind Singh was portrayed as a

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Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

selfless person who resisted oppression and fought for justice. Rabindranath Tagore, in particular, wrote three poems on Gobind Singh keeping in view the contemporary nationalist scenario. In Orissa, Nabikishore also came out with a poetic work on the 10th Guru. The central concern of these writers was to project the guru’s image in a manner that could be emulated by the Indian people in their struggle against colonial rule.

With the advent of Gandhian nationalism, at a time when the anti-imperialist consciousness had deeply gripped the mind of the people, a number of vernacular writings lauded the contribution made by the Sikhs in the national movement. In particular, the Bengali and Oriya press covered the Akali movement (launched by the Sikhs in 1920s to reform their gurdwaras) to show that the latter was making a significant contribution to the anti-imperialist struggle. Inspired by the spirit of nationalism eminent Bengali historians also produced well-researched works on Sikh history. N K Sinha wrote two well known books (Ranjit Singh and Rise of the Sikh Power) purely from a nationalist point of view.

Imprint of Communalism

Banerjee, as noted above, has drawn our attention to the fact that a number of vernacular writings especially those published in Bengali offered a Hinduised perspective of Sikh history. In such writings, a conscious attempt was made to present the Sikhs as part of larger Hindu community. This is quite evident in the works of Ratindernath in Bengali and Rajnikanta Datta in Oriya. Both forcefully pleaded that Nanak was essentially a Hindu reformer who was motivated to reform and defend the contemporary Hindu society in medieval times. Moreover, the resistance offered by Gobind Singh against Aurangzeb was part of the larger “struggle carried by the Hindus against the forces of Islam”. In other words, these writings provided an account of Sikh history that can, to an extent, be described as from a Hindu communal perspective.

But this was not the case in all writings. In some works, attempts were also made to present the Sikh past in a way that could strengthen the forces of communal harmony. Rajinderlal Acharya in an essay on Nanak stated that his mission was to achieve a synthesis between the two communities. An identical view was expressed in Oriya by Gopalchandra. Moreover, another Bengali writer (also a Muslim) pleaded that despite Gobind Singh’s enmity with Aurangzeb, the former was not opposed to Islamic religion in principle. Here, it is appropriate to mention another work by Tagore on Gobind Singh. Distressed by the violence that erupted in Bengal after the partition of 1905, Tagore stated that Gobind Singh’s endeavour to militarise the Sikh masses was not in accordance with the humanistic and spiritual character of Nanak’s message. Perhaps Tagore this time, was compelled to give a different version of Gobind Singh because some communal elements within the Hindus were skilfully invoking the example of the guru’s struggle against the Mughals to foment hatred against the Muslims.

However it is still necessary to explain what led some of these writers to describe Sikh history from a larger Hinduised perspective. Banerjee raises this issue many a time but does not delve deep enough to answer this question. He merely satisfies himself by juxtaposing such writings against those of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. This indeed is understandable because Bankim’s writings had a farreaching influence on the Hindu bhadralok society. But the whole issue needs to be more critically explored since such an approach to the Sikhs’ past was not only seen in Bengal but also in Punjab at the turn of the 20th century. Here we may mention the work of Gokul Chand Narang (The Transformation of Sikhism) who forcefully argued that Nanak was primarily concerned with reforming Hindu society. In Narang’s work, Gobind Singh’s resistance against the Mughal empire was described as part of the common struggle the Hindus had been carrying on against the believers of Islam. This is mentioned to point out that there indeed was a strong assertion of trans-territorial Hindu identity in the country especially in north India and Bengal since the late 19th century onwards and some Hindu communal elements sought to portray the fact (like their counterparts among the Muslims) that there indeed was an innate enmity between the Muslims and Hindus including the Sikhs. Such trends provided the backdrop for vernacular writers to present the Sikh history from a Hinduised perspective.

In order to understand this issue, it is necessary to take into account the nature of Hindu consciousness that was spreading fast since the late 19th century. In the early phase of colonial rule, the Orientalists played an important role in constructing Hinduism as coherent religion comprising a vast body of shared beliefs, myths and rituals. This homogeneous version of Hinduism was later selectively appropriated by the Hindu middle classes, especially in Bengal and Punjab, to carve out a distinct trans-territorial identity which not only established their distinctiveness from those who ruled over them but also gave them a self-respect in one way or the other in the colonial situation.

An Ahistorical History

At the same time, Banerjee writes: “In this part (Bengal) of India, Hindu and Sikhs were almost…synonymous. All Bengali writers were not equally interested in discerning the exact line of demarcation between a Hindu and a Sikh, then fiercely debated in Punjab”. It is well known that in Punjab, among the Sikhs too, there was an effort to define a distinct Sikh identity. A number of Singh Sabhas were formed

– the Singh Sabha movement – through which the Sikhs attempted to construct a Sikh identity by emphasising the basic tenets of Sikhism and purging their religion of those elements that had any similarity or relation with Hinduism. Some incidents underlying tensions between Hindus and Sikhs occurred in Punjab of which Banerjee also makes a passing reference. Nevertheless, many Hindus did not perceive the Sikhs as opponents or the “other”. They also did not find it necessary to contest the growing idea of a distinct Sikh identity because, unlike Christianity and Islam, the origin of Sikhism was seen as originally rooted in Hinduism. This explains as to why some Bengali writers, who were ideologues of Hindu communalism were indifferent on the matter of Sikh identity and focused their writings around building a strong Hindu consciousness with the Muslims as their arch-rivals in civil society.

Finally, as far as historical works in local languages are concerned, Banerjee rightly observes that these writers did not care much for consulting necessary records for their description of Sikh history. In several cases, Banerjee comments that “history frequently surrendered to fancy”. A fundamental point that in such writings, the primary concern was not only what had happened but what ought to have happened in history. On the whole, a closer look at the vernacular writings on the Sikhs

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006


Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

shows that their writers were rarely interested in making a rigorous analysis of the Sikh history. Instead, they selectively made use of the Sikh past either as a site for participating in the debate on issues of their interest or by invoking the past in a manner that could help in bringing about necessary changes according to their own conviction and concerns. In the end, it could be said that this work falls short in providing a fresh insight into the study of Sikh history and religion. Yet, its significance cannot be minimised, as Banerjee certainly succeeds in making a distinct contribution to the intellectual history of late colonial India.


Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

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