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Review: Deconstructing Emotion as an Element in Reading the History of Punjab and the Sikhs

In essays that range from the Kuka Uprising to the Ghadar movement and the inner life of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Harjot Oberoi looks at the role of passion and reason in driving key historical moments in India.

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Harjot Oberoi’s first book The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition is considered ground-breaking by some; for others, it borders on blasphemy. In that book, Oberoi argued that 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. Before that, the boundaries between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were diffused and blurred and many practices and beliefs were shared.

In the process he also deemphasised the centrality of the Sikh Gurus and the Adi Granth. In the ensuing controversy, Harjot Oberoi was seen as another scholar in the mould of W.H. Mcleod and others who sought to revise the fundamentally faith-based understanding of Sikh religion, thought and identity. The controversy culminated in Oberoi resigning as the Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of British Columbia.

The present volume consists of an introductory chapter and six essays. Five of the six essays have been published earlier — one as far back as 1980 – and we must balance their vintage quality against the author’s claim of having revised and enlarged them. In the introduction, which is new, Oberoi develops his intellectual framework. Shorn of inevitable academic-speak, his thesis is that right from the time of Valmiki, down to the Kashmiri poet-historian Kalhana and the venerable Sikh poet historian Bhai Santokh Singh, Indic culture prefers to interpret the past through poetry rather than pure reason. History thus becomes a passion play governed by the Indian aesthetic of rasa, where emotions get primacy.

When Does History Begin? by Harjot Oberoi (Permanent Black)

This contrasts with the rational western traditions established by Plato, Thucydides, Hegel and so on, with Nietzsche being the exception who championed raw emotion as a driver of human history. Modern historical studies, marked by a close reliance on archives, dispassionate evaluation of sources, verification protocols and so on is, according to Oberoi, a recent phenomenon in India and not always acceptable to a public more attuned to an emotional and faith-based approach to the past. This appears a questionable presumption in itself – if reason is properly applied, and not for iconoclastic purposes alone, most intelligent people, including Indians, should be able to accept it.

Determined to deconstruct emotion as an element in reading history, Oberoi proceeds to apply his rational toolkit 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 put together to produce a volume, and the application of the introductory intellectual framework is relatively uneven. Nevertheless, 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 during which 65 Kukas were blown by the British from the mouth of cannons. Oberoi argues that the Kukas were neither “an incoherent band” nor were they anti-colonial heroes of the Sikh tradition alone. Their actions were motivated by their religious and social beliefs based on their ideas of holiness and ritual purity.

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Kuka ideology and beliefs did not materialise “out of nowhere,” argues Oberoi, but had a long history both within the larger Sikh community and Indic culture. While “Indic culture” is a wide enough term to absorb anything under the sun, it is difficult to accept that the Kukas could trace all their beliefs and practices to mainstream Sikh cosmology. This may be fine as far as notions of purity go, which the Kukas took to an extreme in their codes of dress, personal hygiene, food and behaviour: fired by devotion to purity, of which the cow too was a symbol, they launched several attacks on butchers.

But their varying interpretation of Sikh scriptures and their belief in a living human Guru went against broad Sikh belief; the Sikhs, as per the injunction of the tenth Guru – Guru Gobind Singh — place their faith only in the Holy Book, the Granth Sahib, as the Guru and not in any living being. Nor can the bearing of imperial accoutrements by their leader Bhai Ram Singh evoking images of Guru Gobind Singh, the performance of miracles, the circulation of apocryphal prophecies to derive legitimacy,  and rituals of chanting and dancing (Kukas derives from “kuks” or shrieks emitted during ecstatic meditative trances) be said to be inspired by mainstream Sikhism; it was precisely these attributes that made the Kukas at best a separate sect.

Oberoi’s essay on the Ghadar movement takes a fresh look at its dramatic rise and expansion. The movement launched on the American West Coast among the diasporic Indians – farmers, lumber workers and students at Berkeley – gathered adherents at startling speed. Its planned armed insurgency in India failed and the colonial authorities came down hard on the Ghadarites, hanging and imprisoning hundreds, but there is no denying the essential inspiration behind the movement.

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

The Ghadar, Oberoi convincingly shows, though committed to armed struggle, was not just a movement of bomb-throwers; it also launched a war of ideas. Printing presses, poetry, pamphlets and periodicals were all grist to the revolutionary mill of Ghadar activists.  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 organisations of Bengal and Maharashtra.

No Pandits or Mullahs do we need,
No prayers or litanies we need 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 high authorities in Germany, Japan and China and spread across at least ten countries. Its aim went beyond freedom to social transformation. This examination leads Oberoi to conclude that the role of the Indian diaspora has not been fully considered in the reading of Indian nationalism. However this is where his argument peters out; the rest of the essay examines Bhagat Singh’s version of home-grown anarchism. Hopefully, Oberoi will examine the diasporic contribution further in a subsequent essay.

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Oberoi’s only new essay in this volume – that on the inner life of Bhagat Singh – lifts the entire 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 of the books that he read to map out his “epic pursuit of a meaningful life.” Once he joined the revolutionary party, Bhagat Singh identified “merciless criticism” and “independent thinking” as the essence of his revolutionary doctrine; old beliefs had to be challenged with reason and if they collapsed, a new future had to be fashioned out of the ruins of the past.

As to 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’s Central Jail, he asked his lawyer to bring him a book by Lenin. In his short meteoric life, he had not just read but understood and extensively copied Ghalib and Wordsworth, Rousseau and Marx, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Dickens and many others. The books he read were often proscribed or not easily available and he did not have the advantage of a western education; a pocket dictionary was his constant companion.

Mural of Bhagat Singh with a quote that reads: “Bombs and pistols do not make a Revolution. The sword of Revolution is sharpened on the whetting-stone of ideas.” Photo: Kudrat Wadhwa

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

For those who may have been impressed by the rich scholarship and readability of Harjot Oberoi’s first book notwithstanding the controversy it caused, the present volume will be somewhat of a disappointment. The contents, written at different times and covering varying subjects, are interesting enough in themselves but do not sit together as one cohesive argument. Often weighed down with abstruse theory, When Does History Begin? is unlikely to cause the kind of storm that Oberoi’s first book did. In a time when religious identities are being worn on the sleeve, that may actually be a good thing.

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