A Journey through History: J.S. Grewal on the Issues and Methodology in History

A Journey through History: J.S. Grewal on the Issues and Methodology in History

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 in1987, 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 the sixth segment of the conversation with Prof. J.S. Grewal conducted jointly by Prof. Indu Banga and Dr Karmjit Malhotra  

Indu Banga (IB): I was looking at your work both as an institution builder, as a historian, as a supervisor. Once again, I think we may find its roots in your earlier exposure, but it has been inter-disciplinary in every sense of the term: that you remained located in one discipline but you are open to other disciplines and you may borrow their methods, techniques, concepts, approaches and make them your own for any particular project or any particular work. So this we notice in the department of history, in the kind of research that was pursued there.

J.S. Grewal (JSG): I would like to mention, first of all, that if we look at the beginnings, the origins of disciplines like economics, like sociology, we can go back to the eighteenth century but not really further beyond. In ancient times there was only one discipline that was called history, in order to study human behaviour, human action. But by the eighteenth century some individuals in Europe, western Europe, they came to feel that this was not really satisfactory. Politics was not the only activity among human beings. And, therefore, if you are interested in some other aspects of human life, history is of no use to you. So you have the beginning of economics, study of economics and sociology in the late eighteenth century. And this development further led to the emergence of new disciplines. And then scholars found that they are so divided amongst different disciplines that they can get to know only a part of the reality that they wish to know. And they thought of going back to a position where the advantages of all the disciplines could be derived in their research work, in their understanding. So this was the beginning of multidisciplinary approach to problems. I recall that I have seen seminars in which one single theme was given but scholars were invited from different disciplines—sociology, history, psychology, economics—in order to focus on the same problem, so that you have the views or the understanding of more than one scholar on the same subject which enriches our understanding, improves our understanding. So this was the multidisciplinary approach, which is still there and which can be encouraged.

But interdisciplinary is, I think, a little more complicated, a little more subtle. There you have the approach in which one single scholar is combining the concerns and methods of different disciplines in order to pursue a particular theme or subject. So that is rather difficult to pursue. But then the ideal is worthwhile because the scope of historical studies has expanded. It is no longer past politics. If you have other aspects of human life which you wish to study, then you cannot do it with your old methods, nor with your old sources. So the basic problem before the historian is that there are sources for a particular kind of problem, and there is a question of interpretation. And in order to interpret you can make use of the methods of various disciplines if you happen to know them, to combine them in any way you find useful. So the interdisciplinary approach, obviously to my mind, produces better results, because the same source is seen from different angles and the same kind of evidence is seen from different angles, in order to form a view of any particular situation or any particular problem that we wish to study.

IB: Which particular disciplines have you been open to in your own research?

JSG: In my research it would vary from subject to subject. If I am talking of literature, then obviously literature is the area which is added to my interest in history. If I am studying gender, then I would be interested in sociology. Geography is always helpful to you. The question ‘where’ is important in history and it is good to remember that. And I find sometimes it is very helpful, useful to keep the space in mind—where are the things that are happening and are those in any way related to one another? So the space element is a part of historical thinking. The question ‘when’ is very important, but ‘where’ also.

IB: The use of fieldwork that you did for Batala, the By-lanes book.

JSG: That also, when you don’t have written evidence readymade before you, you try to collect your own evidence from the field. There would be different methods for that but the basic idea is that this kind of information is not available in written records and therefore you are collecting it from other sources to be used in the same way, or slightly different ways.

IB: In your study of Gurbani, that is the Sikh scripture, is your approach that of a theologian or a historian? It is a very thin line between the two but still . . .

JSG: My approach obviously would be that of a historian. I am not a theologian nor is my interest.

IB: This particular work on a study of Guru Granth Sahib that you published in 2009—Doctrine, Social Content, History, Structure and Status—how is it distinct from other such works on the Sikh scripture—where the imprint of the historian is particularly apparent?

JSG: You may have books with this title but not the subtitle. The doctrine would be there in any study, but then not social awareness.

IB: Social awareness on the part of the gurus?

JSG: On the part of the gurus. And in the Granth Sahib itself. So this, I think, is a very important feature of the Granth Sahib, when there is a lot of talk about social matters and political matters, and there are views on politics, there are views on society. We were just talking of gender relations, caste. So you have the original evidence in Sikh history on all these areas, problems, in the Granth Sahib itself.

IB: Do you notice any particular emphasis on social commitment and its . . .?

JSG: This is a part of Sikh ideology in Guru Nanak. In the first place, he chooses the life of a householder over the life of a renunciate, which is important to him. And this is a form of social commitment. Social commitment eventually would include politics. But that is not absolutely new in the sense that Guru Nanak himself, as I said earlier, also was very much preoccupied with politics. He has a comment to make, a longish comment to make on political events, in which briefly he would talk of the bloodshed involved. He would talk of the rape involved, he would talk of the murder of innocent people—these are the aspects which he did not like, which he denounced, and therefore any battle, war of this kind would be denounced. But there are historians who have drawn the conclusion that he was a pacifist, he was against violence which is not true. Even in these compositions he says that if there is a fight between equals, it is okay. But when a strong party is simply murdering the weaker, that is not done. Or elsewhere he would appreciate the warrior as a category [of people] who are true and who are true to their profession, and on the basis of that their end [death] is good, in the sense that they would attain liberation. And this would be the ideal then of the Singhs, of Guru Gobind Singh, to fight for a righteous cause, and death for a righteous cause is the basis of liberation. So there is a continuity and change, simultaneously continuity and change of this kind, in Sikh history as in other histories.

IB: You made a reference to the Singh identity, but I was wondering, what do you have to say about the idea of distinctive Sikh identity, specially the thrust of this particular work—Four Centuries of Sikh Tradition: History, Literature and Identity Over the Four Centuries. So how you have treated the question of a distinctive Sikh identity in this particular work?

JSG: I would put it this way, that I noticed a controversy amongst historians about the late-nineteenth-century socio-religious resurgence in which the question of identity was important. So what I found was that most of the scholars, most of the historians, believed that the question of Sikh identity was raised for the first time during the late nineteenth century and never before.

In this connection I read Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha’s Hum Hindu Nahin. And I discovered that his argument is that this issue has been raised by others. Hum Hindu Nahin is my answer to those people who are asserting that Sikhs are Hindus. This question was never raised before and therefore never answered before. It has been raised now and therefore I am answering this.’ And his answer is very interesting. He says, basically, ‘If Hindu means an Indian, which was the meaning of this term initially, originally, then we are Hindus. If it means that we subscribe to temple worship, we subscribe to particular gods of people called Hindus, we are not Hindus.’ This argument appealed to me. This was reasonable. This was a rational sort of argument, and in addition to that he went back to Sikh literature in order to produce evidence that this identity has been there from the very beginning. Now this may be a simplified version of the situation, and therefore I kept this question in mind, reading the Granth, reading Bhai Gurdas, reading any Sikh work I kept in mind the question of identity, is there any awareness of this kind? If it is, what it is. So what is absolutely certain and clear is that this was not really the product of the late nineteenth century, sometimes the question was raised earlier: even if it was not raised, the statement was made by the Sikh writers and Sikh leaders on their identity, so much so that the term tisarpanth, the third panth—the other two being Muslim and Hindu—was used in the early eighteenth century. Bhai Gurdas who is writing in the late sixteenth–early seventeenth centuries, does not use the word the tisarpanth, he uses the word ‘nirmalpanth’ but his assumption is the same: that the Sikh panth is distinct and different from Hindu and Muslim.

IB: Did Guru Nanak himself establish the panth, or it came into existence after him?

JSG: Guru Nanak’s position is very interesting. Harjot Oberoi, for instance, emphasised that the word Sikh doesn’t occur in the bani of Guru Nanak. This is not true. The word Sikh occurs in two senses. One, ‘Shikh’, that is, ‘teaching, instruction, injunction and elementary teaching’.

IB: ‘Shiksha’ in the same root as . . .

JSG: Yes. And ‘sikh’ in the sense of ‘disciple, a follower’; ‘Sikh of the Guru’ would be the common term used, and this also gives a clue to the situation that the word sikh was commonly used: it was used for any follower, any disciple—the follower of ‘A’, the follower of ‘B’—so that one could ask, ‘Kiske sikh ho? (‘Whose sikh are you?’).

So recently I have read—I was going through this Puratan Janam-Sakhi. This relates to the life of Guru Nanak, episodes from his life or his life itself, the earliest work on Guru Nanak’s life in terms of his biography. And in several situations, he is talking about the people, not Sikhs of the Guru but sikh of ‘A’, sikh of ‘B’, sikh of ‘D’—so that the usage was general. ‘Sikh’ was used for a follower, for a disciple, for a student perhaps, but that meaning was overshadowed; in the fifteenth–sixteenth centuries it was used in the sense of a follower, a disciple. So the Sikh of the Guru makes sense, that now we are talking of these people, not other people, not other sikhs or other persons, but Sikhs of the Guru. This is the term used in Dabestan. He says, his concern is that they are known as ‘the Sikhs of the Guru’.

Dabestan is a Persian work written by a Parsi on contemporary religions including Sikhism, and he is talking about Guru Nanak and his successors till the time of Guru Hargobind, whom he knew personally.

IB: That is in the 1640s.

JSG: 1640s. He completed his work in the early 1650s, Dabestan-e-Mazaheb, which is a description of several religions including Sikhism.

KM: Sir, your work The Sikhs of the Punjab is considered as a classic by the readers. And you have placed it in a larger context of Punjab and Indian history, and it is regarded as a reference book. Through your work do you think you have tried to bridge a gap between the professional historians and the traditional scholars?

JSG: Not really, but I tried to. In the 1980s there was a lot of controversy in Sikh studies, dividing what is called the Sikh scholars (or traditional scholars or those who subscribe to that methodology and world view) and the professional historians (who were earlier called western but now this distinction is not there). There is a historical method; anyone can use that in one’s study and therefore become a professional historian.

So it occurred to me that there should be a dialogue, not really that one party is attacking the other and the other is answering, and not coming to any compromise or any understanding or any agreement. So with that idea I wrote ‘Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Traditions’, trying to project the positions adopted by [those who are] called Sikh scholars, Sikh writers, what are their objections to the work being (done) by professional historians, and what is the position of the professional historians themselves, so that they could come to a common platform if possible and thrash out the differences and move forward. But this did not happen. The grooves became deeper and deeper. So by now both the parties claim that they have won.

The Sikh writers believe that they have settled scores with all professional historians for all times to come, and they are pursuing precisely those themes and those ideas which were there in the ’80s on their side.

The professional historians on the other hand think that they have met the attack successfully, and there is nothing really serious about the traditional writers and their criticisms, so we have to do nothing and go ahead with our own programme.

There is an exception to this, I would say. During the present decade there are a few scholars, at least one I know, who thinks that Hugh McLeod’s work is not adequate, it has limitations, but it does not mean that we remain preoccupied with him, we should go ahead. And when he says we should go ahead, he is not talking of the traditional historians, he is talking of the professional historians, that it is possible for them to ignore both these parties and move ahead with their own research and he suggests how this research can be pursued. So this is a new sign in a way. And my name also figures there in the second category. The first category is historians who believe that nothing is seriously wrong with McLeod and you can pursue that by modifying a little and go ahead. So the author doesn’t approve of this. He says this (is) not really possible. We are mistaken about it. Then he suggests my name, that he has his own interpretation after he has pointed out the limitations of McLeod but then he is not moving ahead with the programme which is possible and which can be done only with the help of primary sources on a large scale. So this he has, and therefore he would like to do that.

At least he is suggesting that his proposal is that the life of Guru Nanak, the compositions of Guru Nanak and the earliest manuscripts, they should be studied, sort of integrated, in order to get results. So I think it makes a lot of sense, but there is a lot of optimism also that the form of literature called janam sakhi would answer all questions about Guru Nanak. I don’t think this is really true, because the interest of the janam sakhi compilers/ writers, was not very wide: it was limited to a few questions about the life of Guru Nanak and his teachings.

I would still like to pursue my old interest with some difference, that is, the approach I used in Guru Nanak in History, which is to study the response of Guru Nanak to his historical situation. That book is divided into two parts clearly. Part one is the milieu which is reconstructed from sources other than the compositions of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak doesn’t figure there even once. Then I analysed Guru Nanak’s compositions. So this is the format of the book.

Now I would like to raise the question of contemporary politics, for example, and then what is Guru Nanak’s response to that; or contemporary administration, what do we know about that and what is Guru Nanak’s response to that: one problem and immediately the response, so that the reader gets a better idea of Guru Nanak’s position. And this I would like to combine with what we know of his life or what is there in the janam sakhis, taking the Puratan Janam Sakhi as an example.

KM: What is your conceptualisation of Sikh history?

JSG: Study of Sikh history? Like any other subject, it is not different from studying any other subject of historical significance.

IB: I mean the hallmarks of your methodology or approach will remain the same, that you are close to evidence, humanistic in your approach, rational, secular, liberal, open-minded.

JSG: This would apply, perhaps, more to what I write on Sikh history, because I have to write very carefully, keeping in view the sensitivities of people around, not everyone but some of them. And also I personally have a very high opinion of the kind of movement that we have here. There are certain values which I think were very important. We were talking of equality, that is one. But even more important is the idea of paropkar, that is, you do things for others. We were talking of Bhai Gurdas. He says it very explicitly that we are, that is, the Sikh panth is different from others in the sense, one sense, that whereas others do everything for themselves, we do things for others as well. It is not for Sikhs alone but for any human being, a Sikh should help another human being in any way he can.