A Student’s Perspective on Sikh Studies by Ajeet Singh
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In primary school, tasting insults about my appearance and background, I was made to understand the nature of my difference. It would be an error to dismiss such taunts as the ignorant cruelty of children, for, as I grew, I found that these condemnations did not cease, but rather increased in number and subtlety. As a teenager consuming Bollywood’s unabating detritus, I found that opinions of the basic wrongness of my identity were not confined to the schoolyard. Growing into adulthood, journalists insinuated that my anachronistic religion had to accept their modernity. Today, political men draped in khadi assure that all was well and that amnesia is preferable to memory. The jingoism of such nervous elites, sharing the incessancy of the taunts of the playground, required only the most cursory of thought to refute. Far more troubling were my findings as I began to delve deeper into my studies; scholars were marshaling their efforts into telling my history was fabricated and my traditions invented. I was told that I and my people were a problem, a relic of an earlier age their dispassionate analysis could bring into the present.
Whatever the motive of these indignities, be they the puerile cruelties of the playground, the inexorably sinister forked tongue of power, or the imperious assumption of the authority of the West to appraise the non-West, they shared in common the faith in the basic wrongness of my heritage. I do not know exactly what it was that inspired me, but I was not tortured by these barbs. Perhaps it was due to the Sikh education my parents and grandparents had imparted in me. Maybe it was because many of these arguments seemed simplistic. But I like to think that because of my name, I found resolve in a noble ancestry. Thus, entering the field now as a student, my path was in many ways less of a conscious decision than a curiosity to humbly grasp at truth, one that intuition suggested had not been verily told.
Before surveying the state of the field, it is of use to elucidate the role of the intellectual more generally. The contemporary scholar’s mission is fourfold: to educate and credential students, to train new researchers, to intervene in the public sphere, and to advance the frontiers of knowledge. Yet, it quickly becomes apparent that in a community with a fairly new tradition of education surrounded abroad by public unsure of its character and, at home, a centralized state suspicious of its loyalty, that a Sikh academician is faced with burdens far beyond the norm. For the diasporan Sikh intellectual, the imperative to mediate between the public and community must outweigh the pressures to decouple engagement for the pursuit of rarefied obscurities.
Mediation is, of course, imprecise as it implies a kind of paternalism; indeed, community voices have frequently expressed independence from scholarly opinion, sometimes vociferously so. But this tension can actually illustrate this conception of scholarly responsibility. We should perceive such rancor as less of peasants bearing pitchforks and torches and instead recognize such fulminations as the result of a feeling of an unrealized social contract to ameliorate the community. The Sikh intellectual that recognizes the aspiration that academic freedom ought to be tempered by community contribution will be well-served. Certainly this view is not mainstream, but it is worth considering and must not be treated lightly by those entering the perilous terrain of Sikh studies.
Thus far, Sikh studies, especially in North America, has focused primarily on the development of Sikhism during the Guru period, especially the canonization and exegesis of scripture as well as an extended criticism of the colonial Singh Sabhas. It is apparent that considerable lacunae exist both chronologically and methodologically. For the former, the much of 18th century remains remarkably unsettled and the 20th century has been much neglected, especially the postcolonial period. For example, we know relatively little about the misls and the evolution of Sikhi under aristocratization; moreover, for academics, 1984 and its aftermath remain taboo. Furthermore, in the North American academy, social and economic history has been on the wane for years, especially in South Asian history, in favor of cultural and intellectual history. Social and economic studies can provide great insights into areas, such as the reign of Ranjit Singh, that have been otherwise well-covered.
Critical historiography has been notably absent. For example, the interrogation of Sikh identity becomes problematic when authors neglect the context of their own scholarly production as situated in a period of Sikh assertion and state negation. Though it is widely accepted that all scholarship is political, it is curious that Western Sikh studies has so oft aligned with the agenda of Indian nationalism. A metacritique of this peculiar relationship would fruitfully demonstrate the tensions within the field’s assumptions and how they have impacted contemporary politics beyond the academy. Such studies would also suggest new preliminary questions. Why has scholarship been so complementary to the project of the postcolonial nation-state? Whereas post structuralism ordinarily critiques relations of power, how has it served among the state’s political technologies in the case of the Sikhs? What has made academia favor Dalit identity and denigrate that of Sikhs? In this manner, it is less interesting to critique and overturn old work, thus implicitly accepting the terms of its debate and the significance of its questions, than to supersede hoary agendas with fresh questions.
In a larger sense, the struggle of new scholars will be to open Sikh studies up to a wider audience, both scholarly and lay. Too often, the Western (and Indian) establishment has dismissed Sikhs as obscure, particular, and violent. With Western social science transfixed by Islam and terrorism since 2001 (and before), it has tended to analyze Sikhs in the familiarly hackneyed context of religious irrationalism, civilizational conflict, and the problem of secularism in the Third-World. Those scholars with interests divergent from the community’s have found it easier to achieve tenure through such stock output than with a more rigorous understanding. This challenge, requiring the utmost creativity of future students, can, I think, be surmounted by bringing Sikh studies into dialogue with other disciplines in the humanities, perhaps the intellectual ferment of South Asian history after the intervention of Subaltern Studies, to name one innovative research program. Judaic studies also offers another contrast in the use of rigorous scriptural interpretation and an interrogation of identity without a vitiation of collective aspirations. There is much to learn from these examples. It may likely be a broadening of perspectives and a sharing of insights that will prove most effective in diversifying beyond the Sikh audience.
Future researchers should also recognize that they have a significant prior foundation to build upon. Existing Punjabi language programs and courses in Sikh history provide an excellent foundation to support strengthening the field. New generations of scholars must ensure that such programs are developed and extended. Once the basic infrastructure is in place, it will be possible for scholars to expand graduate education in Sikh studies to ensure that the field continues to grow. The legacy of the previous generation will be thus invaluable to rooting a vibrant Sikh and Punjab studies in North American universities.
Thus far, scholars of Sikhism have understandably occupied much of their time with this very necessary groundwork. Yet, this has meant that community outreach and public intervention, with few exceptions, has been neglected. By taking advantage of the labors of the previous generation in establishing academic programs, younger scholars can work to balance their multifaceted roles. The scholar as a community activist or organizer, ideal for serving a minority of minorities, can and should be realized. The new generation will have the opportunity to build on the work of previous pioneers to arrive at more holistic definition of the intellectual.
Still, there remain significant obstacles toward joining the scholarly conversation, especially with regards to training. Perhaps more so than the questions asked and explored by scholars, it is the level of scholarship that is a major consideration for future integrity the field. What is good scholarship? Here we can outline several prerequisites, such as broad language proficiency, attention to source work, aptitude in theory and historiography, an attention to geography and culture, and increasingly, skill in diverse methods, such as ethnography. The importance of languages, especially Persian, which is imperative to understanding pre-colonial sources while Urdu is necessary for the study of colonial Punjab. That a Sikh scholar must have fluency in Punjabi and Gurmukhi script goes without saying, but knowledge of other languages such as Braj Bhasha and even Hindi can also illuminate scripture. Though it is perhaps possible to publish without such a background, major contributions will continue to require intensive training.
Despite these concerns, this remains a field with considerable possibility. The establishment of endowed chairs, of which there are a now relatively large number, can nurture young scholars and promote new scholarship in an era of declining university support for the humanities. Though the imminent retirement of a generation of the most prolific scholars creates concern for the guidance and mentorship necessary to enter scholarship, it also creates the opportunity for new voices to establish themselves. The relative lack of reproduction of researchers during the 1980s and 1990s has meant that there are only a few young scholars presently working, but a new generation is entering study that promises to contribute to this evolving project. These developments augur hope for the forging of creative new research agendas and a revitalization of our subject. I am both optimistic for the time ahead and proud to be taking part in creating it.