A Journey through History: J.S. Grewal on Exploring Regional History and Punjabi Literature

A Journey through History: J.S. Grewal on Exploring Regional History and Punjabi Literature

in Video
Published on: 29 November 2019

Indu Banga and Karmjit K. Malhotra

Indu Banga is Professor Emerita, Punjab University, Chandigarh and formerly Professor of History, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. She has published extensively on agrarian, urban, institutional, social and cultural history of medieval and modern India and Punjab.
Karmjit K. Malhotra teaches at the Department of Punjab Historical Studies, Punjabi University, Patiala, and has published over twenty significant research papers and a monograph, The Eighteenth Century in Sikh History: Political Resurgence, Religious and Social Life, and Cultural Articulation (OUP 2016).

J.S. Grewal in conversation with Indu Banga and Karmjit K. Malhotra

Jagtar Singh Grewal is a prominent historian of medieval and modern Indian history, especially the history of the Punjab and Sikhs. He has published over three scores of books—monographs, collections of articles, Persian sources and other edited works—and over a hundred research papers in the past 55 years. His publications relate to the history of historical writing, Indian history, both medieval and modern, history of the Punjab region from pre-historic times to the present, Punjabi literature as a source of history, and the history of the Sikhs from the late fifteenth century to the present.

Born in a Sikh village in Punjab, in pre-Independence India, Grewal was interested in history since childhood. He received his PhD in History from the University of London in 1963 for his thesis on British historical writing on medieval India. This was the first thesis on historiography by an Indian scholar. Later it was revised and published as Muslim Rule in India: The Assessments of British Historians (1970).

Grewal joined the faculty of Punjab University in 1964 and, in 1969, his Guru Nanak in History, was published by the university as a part of Guru Nanak’s quincentenary birth celebrations. Path-breaking in its approach, the book drew from sources other than Guru’s compositions, analysed the political, social, and religious milieu of the times and his responses to them. This work earned Prof. Grewal his D.Lit. in 1971. He was invited by Cambridge University Press in 1980 to write a volume on the Sikhs for the New Cambridge History of India series. A round study of change and continuities in the context of the region and the country, The Sikhs of the Punjab, was published in 1990 and has been reprinted many a time to become a classic.

The importance of urban studies was recognised in India when Prof. Grewal published In the By-Lanes of History: Some Persian Documents in 1975. In this work, Grewal studies 150 deeds of sale, mortgage, gift, agreement and declaration executed in the court of the qazi of Batala town from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century in Punjab. Through a rigorous analysis of these documents and their seals and hundreds of attestations in different scripts, combined with the evidence of other sources, including frescos, inscriptions, graffiti, and field work, Prof. Grewal reconstructs the history of a medieval Indian town.

By the time he retired in 1987, Prof. Grewal had gained a formidable reputation as a historian, known for his rigour and meticulousness. In 1984, he had been elected as the General President of the Indian History Congress. The Indian Council of Historical Research invited him to be a National Fellow, and he wrote two books: Historical Perspectives on Sikh Identity (1997) and Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition (1998) to facilitate a dialogue between Western academia and Sikh scholars. Subsequently, he was invited by the Centre for the Study of Civilizations, New Delhi, to be an Editorial Fellow for preparing two volumes on the History of Medieval India: The State and Society in Medieval India (2005) and Religious Movements and Institutions of Medieval India (2006). During 2006–08, he was invited as a Visiting Professor at the Punjabi University, Patiala, and he delivered over a hundred lectures on different themes. Selections from these lectures have been published by the university in two volumes. Invited to be the Professor of Eminence at the same university during 2010–16, he produced a monumental study, entitled Master Tara Singh in Indian History: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Politics of Sikh Identity (2017). This monumental work reveals nearly all important aspects of Master Tara Singh as the most important Sikh leader in twentieth-century India.

Some of the other publications of this phase are significant for the choice and treatment of the subject by Prof. Grewal. In the History, Literature, and Identity: Four Centuries of Sikh Tradition (2011) he analysed the core of Sikh texts from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century to discuss issues like conscious conceptualisation of a new dispensation, processes of community formation, social transformation, and politicisation leading to the emergence of a new political order. This is complemented by another volume analysing secular Punjabi literature from the thirteenth to the twentieth century, entitled Historical Studies in Punjabi Literature (2011). Prof. Grewal emphasises that the emergence of new literary genres during the colonial period is a pointer to social transformation, but a work of literature has to be unwound to get at the historical situation that produced it. Prof. Grewal’s most recent work, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708): Master of the White Hawk (2019) highlights that the unifying theme in the life of Guru Gobind Singh was confrontation with the Mughals, which culminated in a struggle of political power and the creation of the Khalsa in 1699 as a political community with the aspiration to rule.

Several awards were conferred on Prof. Grewal, including those by the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, Asiatic Society, Bihar, Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna, Sikh Educational Society, Amritsar, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Panjab University, Chandigarh. In 2005, the President of India awarded the Padma Shri to Prof. Grewal for his intellectual and academic contributions.

Following is the edited transcript of an extract from a video interview with Prof. J.S. Grewal. The interview was conducted jointly by Prof. Indu Banga and Dr Karmjit Malhotra. 

Indu Banga (IB): There is considerable focus on region, on the history of the region in your work, and that of your students in those days and of the department as such. So I was wondering if you could tell us something about your idea of regional history, what it is, how it should be pursued, and the why of regional history?

J.S. Grewal (JSG): I think partly because of the kind of work which had been done on works titled History of the Punjab, and partly my interest in geography, where a region is defined differently: not as a political unit but a geographical region with certain features. So out of that arose this awareness that we should not talk of the states established in any part of this region but look at the whole region at any given point of time or during any given point of time, in order to see what kind of developments were taking place. My assumption probably was that cultural developments, among other things, are related to the physical environment, so the regions become meaningful in defining the cultural zones as well. So on this assumption one could study not only a political unit that would be included in the region but the region itself would be defined in geographical terms: not a political unit of any given time but a geographical unit which you study over centuries, over millennia, so that you see what kind of continuity, what kind of changes are coming about. And, finally, I think I was convinced that studying regional history is one way of improving our understanding of Indian history. As a smaller unit you can work more intensively on a region and if this kind of work is being done all over the country, then a historian of India is in a better position to write a history which is actually different because the information is now different, and problems have been brought to light, and some interpretations of regional history are also there. So the general historian of India is in a far better position to write a history of India if regional studies are there. So to my mind, the region was not isolated—not what was regarded as the chauvinistic approach where you belonged to the region and therefore you are studying it and saying that it was wonderful or glorious—but in order to understand the history of the region, first of all, better, and ultimately to understand Indian history better.

IB: This reminds me of your book that covers pre-historic and ancient Punjab up to [early medieval in] 1000 AD, in which you are looking at the Indus Valley or the Vedic civilisation or the later developments in the framework of the region, looking at the Punjab region going through this period which has not been done by any one.

JSG: In fact, that was very interesting. I did not think of writing that book from the very beginning. What happened was that the NBT sent me an invitation to write a general history of the Punjab, 200 pages or so, covering the entire history and I was very happy to accept the invitation and I started working on that. When I started working on that book to be written for the NBT, I felt very unhappy about the sort of work . . . I thought I would be able to write on the basis of secondary sources, the work already done but then I didn’t find anything satisfactory in the kind of work that had been done. So I started doing that myself, trying to get hold of the primary sources and then trying to make some sense of that. And I spent a lot of time on that alone and eventually I gave no book on the general history of the Punjab to the NBT, I could only do Ancient History, Prehistoric and Early Medieval. So that was the outcome. I apologised to NBT but dedicated the book to them.

IB: If we could move to another of your long-lasting, abiding interests, and that is interest in literature. You have published Historical Studies in Punjabi Literature, which came out in 2011 or Love and Gender in the Rig Veda and Medieval Punjabi Literature published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Then you have worked on different genres like the vars, Gurbilas and the rehatnama. And the sakhis which emerged in the eighteenth century. And then you also worked on Punjabi drama in the colonial period. At one place you say that the emergence of new genres is a pointer to social transformation. So could you please explain that a bit, how do you think that way?

JSG: I came to believe that if literature was a product of the historical situation in which it was written, it should be possible to analyse literature in order to know something of that history, so my interest in literature was not that I was a scholar of literature but that of a historian. I am not concerned with aesthetic questions, I am not concerned with concerns of the author otherwise, but what (was the) kind of relationship that appeared to be there in this literary work and the historical situation in which it was written. I also suggested that literature is called the mirror of society but this kind of relationship does not exist. Every work has to be analysed in order to find out what kind of relationship was or is there. So from this angle I have written on religious work, articles, books as you say, and I found it fascinating and also very useful. For example, I gave a paper at a seminar on ‘Love and Gender in the Rig Ved’, and some scholars were surprised, others were shocked. They did not think that Rig Ved could be treated that way. But then there is evidence of this kind that patriarchal values and institutions, they do start with . . . and there are indications in the Rig Ved that this process has already begun. And similarly, in medieval Punjabi literature, the question of gender generally, because this was an important concern by that time of the historians. And my concern also. This was one example.

But then there are ways in which a historical work can be related to the situation in which it was written and it illuminates the period as well as the work itself. Heer Waris Shah (Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah) I analysed, I spent a long time on that. In fact, I recall that I took into account every word that is written in the Heer Waris and wrote a paper which was appreciated by the scholars of literature, Punjabi literature.

Karamjit Malhotra (KM): So your view is that it is not a tragedy. Waris Shah’s Heer is not a tragedy.

JSG: That is true. The scholars of Punjabi literature used to regard it as a tragedy because Heer and Ranjha died at the end. But I found that there is a mystical dimension too. There is a term used, Ishq e mijaazi majaaji. In that tradition, Ishq e haqiqi is love of God and majaazi is love of a human being. But they are treated in a way that ultimately they stand at par because they both lead to the same ultimate end, of an eternal union. If a work is going to end in eternal union of these two protagonists, then it is not a tragedy. A tragedy would be if we end with their death. As it is treated by Muqbal, another poet of the eighteenth century.

IB: Muqbal and Ahmed, both probably.

JSG: Ahmed also. In their work the qissa is a tragedy. It ends with the death of Heer and Ranjha. But in the case of Waris Shah, it doesn’t end there. Actually, they were seen going together. He suggests that, ultimately, they have come together and they would live blissfully together in eternity.

KM: You had also studied a Sufi text. So could you tell us something about the text which was considered as a masterpiece by the readers?

IB: Kashful Mahjoob probably.

JSG: Yes. Kashful Mahjoob is wonderful. It is a very wide-ranging in its treatment of the subject, its historical approach, and there are also descriptions, discussion of the basic ideas, and also descriptions of various orders that had come into existence by the eleventh century. I wrote a paper also for the Indian History Congress. By the way, Kashful Mahjoob was the first work in Persian insofar as mysticism is concerned, and it was written in the Punjab, it so happened. So the first classic of Sufism in Persian was written at Lahore.

IB: You have also worked on Punjabi Sufi poets like Farid, Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah etc. Waris, of course, we just talked about. So do you notice any peculiarities of regional articulation of Sufism, or Punjabi Sufism so to say?

JSG: Yes, surely, but I call it indigenisation of Sufism, because the Sufi ideas, beliefs, attitudes, they are expressed in Punjabi language in their case, and if you do not know the history of Sufism or the phenomena of Sufism at all, you think that this is Punjabi. Punjabi culture, not really any idea coming from outside. So that was why I gave the title indigenisation. And I know for certain that there are thousands of people in the Punjab who do not know the background and they think that these are Punjabi ideas, this is Punjabi culture. And from my interest in history, I also suggested—it occurred to me and I think it is very true, it is commonplace—that if this was happening in the Punjab, this would be happening in other regions of the country, especially north India, and this turned out to be true. Sufi poetry is available not only in Punjabi but also in Sindhi, in Gujarati, in Marathi.

IB: Bengali?

JSG: In Bengal. So it was a wider phenomenon. Persian mysticism, literature in Persian became less important in due course. By the sixteenth century or seventeenth century much of the writing concerning Sufism was in the regional languages. And this literature is still available to us and it can be studied. And I tried to study these masters of Punjabi literature.

IB: You made a reference to gender a little while ago when you were talking of love and gender in Sufi literature and other literature. Then you have also written on Guru Nanak and patriarchy. So could you tell us something more about how Guru Nanak remains distinct, if he does remain distinct, in terms of his attitude towards gender or women in general?

JSG: There has been a lot of debate on this. One view is that Guru Nanak stood for equality between men and women; this idea is emphasised. And there are expressions in the compositions of Guru Nanak which support this, about a dozen quotations one can give making it absolutely clear that he wouldn’t like to make any distinction. This is one part. Most of the Sikh scholars dwell on this part wherever they examine this point. But then you also find in his poetry that he is taking for granted the family those days: this family happened to be patriarchal. And if you take it for granted that the family is an institution which is wonderful, which should be promoted in every way one can, in the form of the ideal wife in particular in the family, then you are advocating inequality because in the home there was no equality, and if you accept that family as the unit, social unit, you are accepting inequality to that extent. So in Sikh literature you find a kind of tussle between the ideal of equality and the ground realities, the empirical realities in the social order. So this is my basic understanding and I try to project this in that monograph, Guru Nanak and Patriarchy. And later on, I have thought about this subject more and I think this is a real problem. Idea is one thing, the extent of its application is quite another. And we have to keep in mind both of these in order to assess any given situation.

IB: Would it be true of caste as well in Sikhism?

JSG: Caste. My understanding is that there is a cultural baggage of people, cultural and social baggage of people leaving one set of beliefs when they accept another set, conversion as we use the word. And in conversion all that cultural baggage is not thrown away suddenly. People keep a lot of that cultural baggage with them and it depends upon the history of the subsequent generations whether or not they would drop more and eventually become different kind of persons in several ways. But the baggage of caste was there when people from the Indian social order called the Hindu social order accepted the path of Sikhism. So the caste is relevant. For Sikh history it was relevant then, it is relevant now.

But to say that there is a caste system among the Sikhs is not correct. When we talk of caste system, we are talking of a hierarchy which is permanent, which is related to your birth as well, which is related to your occupation as well. You can’t change it. It is hereditary. But this was not true of the Sikh movement. Equality in the Sikh movement meant, I think, that women had equal right to spirituality and the implication of that. For example, they could go to the gurudwara, they could study the scriptures like men, they could attain liberation in life like men, in theory. But they are working at home, there is no work outside the home, there is no profession. So you have this situation in which there is partial equality and inequality at the same time. Similarly, among men in Sikhism there was no bar on occupation. The only condition was that it should be honest. And therefore it was not hereditary. So neither the caste category, nor the profession of a Sikh is supposed to be hereditary. Therefore, I suggest that there is no caste system as such. What we have is the background of caste relations, caste customs, which are still there and people have to—they either use those, and also sometimes you become aware that this is not really supposed to be done or this is not what is expected of a Sikh. So there again there is a sort of tension which has gone on.

For example, there is a new kind of emphasis in the compositions of Guru Gobind Singh, as if the ideas of Guru Nanak on inequality had been compromised to such an extent that Guru Gobind Singh felt that an iteration of those ideas was necessary. So there is a new kind of emphasis on equality in Guru Gobind Singh. But it is not different from what Guru Nanak is saying. The difference would come when the interest is extended to the political sphere. Then in politics also you have to think of equality in some way or the other, and in the eighteenth century we were talking, referring to the Sikh polity of the eighteenth century, there again the idea of equality is relevant, but not in the way in which it is understood today—as democratic, or ‘confederate’ (the word is used). It was applied on the ground, in the sense that every Singh, every Sikh, was duty-bound to wear arms, to bear arms, and to fight. He had the right to conquer and to rule. So this was the interpretation given to equality, the primary interpretation, so that every individual, every leader, eventually became a ruler for some time—whether it was for a short while or a long time—and they ruled on their own authority which they thought was derived from God. So in this sense you have the relevance of the idea of equality for Sikh polity of the eighteenth century and of some later institutions.

For example, it is a pleasant surprise that the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), when it was constituted in 1925, internally it had full democracy: that meant that a particular kind of Sikh could vote, men and women. And at this time, every democratic country in the world did not have voting rights for women; in India it was far, far from that position but in this particular organisation, in a restricted sort of sense, universal suffrage was being introduced. This I think is due to the background which I am referring to. The idea of equality would remain operative in a small way here and there once enunciated by Guru Nanak.

KM: So what was the caste composition of the Sikh rulers in the late eighteenth century?

JSG: Among the Sikh rulers, most of them, the great majority, 95 per cent would come from lower class background—in the traditional order, not above the Sudras. Very few that would be of the Vaish category and Lohar caste, the rulers among the Sikhs.

KM: So do you think that if we look at the literature, Sikh literature, space is created for the ‘subaltern classes’?

JSG: Surely. There is a lot of space created, and there is almost a revelation of this kind that the largest number of followers of Guru Gobind Singh belong to the lower castes and like Guru Nanak, he is identifying himself with them in his own way. He has written a few compositions on the Khalsa and he says that everything which I have achieved is due to them, everything which I own belongs to them.

KM: Were there Sikh writers also belonging to lower classes?

JSG: There was one, for example, Kunwar Singh; his Gurbilas is well known. It is a major work of Punjabi literature, mid-eighteenth century. He was a vintner, a kalal. So he belonged to the Sudra category.

IB: So we are talking about the eighteenth century and even the earlier period, do you think ideology has been a factor or a motor force in history in general and Sikh history in particular?

JSG: That is very interesting. We have to actually take a decision on that ourselves according to our understanding. I recall that Prof. Bhattacharya, when he came to a seminar here at Chandigarh, he asked me pointedly, ‘You seem to attach a lot of importance to the study of religion.’ So I said that is true but my assumption is, I may be wrong, but my assumption is that ideologies are important in human history. If that ideology is secular, we have a lot of appreciation for that today but if that ideology is religious, I somehow think it is not [considered] relevant. But I don’t think so. I believe that ideology does remain important for human beings and their life, their action, their whatever, in several ways it would remain relevant and therefore I try to study religious movements because a lot of people believed in that and their lives were concerned with this kind of position. And for me it is an important part of history. To leave out religion would be to leave out a large chunk of life which actually mattered to the people. And, therefore, we are not writing good history if we are omitting this aspect of human life.

IB: Have you treated religion as a social reality?

JSG: As social reality I do, but I must also add that it is not only Sikhism that I have taken interest in, I have taken interest in Islam, I have taken interest in Indian religious systems other than Sikhism. I have written one article on Christianity. My interest is in religion primarily, not in Sikhism. That would be a corollary of my basic interest.