A Journey through History: J.S. Grewal on the Pre-Partition Years (1927-47)

A Journey through History: J.S. Grewal on the Pre-Partition Years (1927-47)

in Interview
Published on: 28 October 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 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 the 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 (16661708): 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 first part of the interview with Prof. J.S. Grewal. The interview was conducted jointly by Prof. Indu Banga and Dr Karmjit Malhotra. 

Prof. Indu Banga (IB): Sir, it has been a great honour and pleasure to be talking about your work and career, spanning over seven decades or more. In fact, it has been a source of great motivation for students of different generations, and especially for those from rural backgrounds.

Going by what you have yourself written in your pioneering study of historiography or historical writing of the British on India, on medieval India, that to understand a historian you have to look at his outlook, look at his predilections, look at his background, look at the influences, educational, cultural, ideological influences that go into the making of the historian. So I thought maybe we could start with your early life.

Would you like to tell us something about your early life which you think could have had a bearing on your work as a historian later on?

Prof. J.S Grewal (JSG): I am not very sure about the beginning, but I remember a few things which I find interesting, still interesting. One thing which I notice is that the simple facts of life, of that early life in my village, they begin to become more meaningful when I look back in a perspective which is broadly historical. And the things which I noticed then, small things I noticed or did not notice then, they fall into place and I get the impression that the village life, though very simple, still remains very complicated and culturally quite rich in its own way.

IB: I do remember you talking about dhadis, the popular singers, kavishars, sants and other such people visiting your village—coming from diverse backgrounds and representing different aspects of Indian cultural tradition and religious life. Could you tell us something about them please?

JSG: Very true. When I look back, I can think of a number of such visitors to the village coming up with different kinds of expertise in their own way. For example, I remember some party performing Ram-Leela and also Raas-Leela. I remember, they visited the village from time to time. Not every year but occasionally, and it was a great occasion for the village. And then the singers, the kavishars, the dhadis and also, I recall, a Muslim fakir who would dance and sing. At that time, I didn’t know what it was but later on I could place it in Islamic history which made it very interesting. He used to sing of the death of Hussain in Karbala, the Battle of Karbala. Very moving indeed. And that is how kavishars would come there. The difference between the kavishars and other singers was that the kavishars would narrate a story and then recite what they have written without any musical instruments. Sometimes it could be just one person. There could be two, at the most three. But the dhadis could not be less than three but always four or five, parties of minstrels who came occasionally. And I also remember that they generally stayed with the family of Mirasis who lived in the village, and there some of them were also interested in music and the same profession.  

Karmjit Malhotra (KM): Were there any interactions between the Mirasis and the general?

JSG: Not really. They would say whatever they have to say and there would be listeners. Not any interaction so to speak.

IB: So this was a Sikh village that you were living in?

JSG: This was a Sikh village.

IB: But there were Muslims around that area, I presume?

JSG: Only three or four families.

IB: In the village?

JSG: In the village, one was the Mirasis, and the other was Barhai, the drummers. And then there was another family, they had no particular occupation but they were there, somehow subsisting. They were not landowners. The landowners were all Sikhs and belonged mostly to my own village in District Ludhiana. And also, some families from a few other villages, and I also noticed that the families who had gone from my village, they were more closely related than the other Sikh families or Jat families, the landowners who settled, who were given land in the village. The relations were cordial but [among] the co-villagers, the collaterals, the brotherhood, the relation was more intimate.

IB: If we were to think of the social configuration of the area, then your village was located amongst Muslim villages or janglis around, or there were more such Sikh villages in the neighbourhood, close vicinity.

JSG: It was a very interesting situation. On one side of my village were the old, the janglis or the people called janglis, (IB: the old settlers or the aborigines so to say.) Yes, the old settlers, nomads. They were confined to a short space, smallest space now, and they also cultivated land. But many of them were still shepherds. That was one village on one side. They were Muslim by faith. And the other villages … there was another village which was next to my village, that was also a Muslim village but they had gone there from the district of Amritsar. Their caste was Randhawa which is well known among Sikhs and Muslims and some Hindus also, probably.

Still another village which was not Muslim but Sikh, they had gone from the district of Ambala and yet another who had gone from Hoshiarpur, a Muslim village. I didn’t know exactly how to explain how I felt at that time but then I could notice some differences between people and also in their own attitudes, talking about them and about ourselves. This was a very complex and interesting kind of social situation. And I came into contact with the people of all these villages in a way sooner or later. And once again when I later took interest in history, I could place them in a larger perspective and also see the kind of small differences which appeared to me at that time.

IB: So did you interact with them at school level or school and college level?

JSG: In school, this was a middle school, a district board, Anglo-vernacular middle school in the neighbouring village which was a Muslim village and most of the students were Muslim. Only from my village Sikh students used to go there, and a few others. I started going to school in the 1930s. I used to go on foot, starting with early 30s. The relations between students were rather friendly when we think that there was no interaction generally between Sikh villages and Muslim villages. There was no occasion actually. It doesn’t mean that they would be hostile but then there were no occasions of meeting and having some common programmes. So with that background, I think, our relations were friendly relations with those boys who were studying in the school. And eventually, I personally had a few friends, quite good friends. At least once a friend of mine, a Muslim friend of mine, came to my village to visit and my parents were surprised a little but they didn’t say anything. And he was served food and then the utensils were cleaned.

IB: So were they invited to family functions?

JSG: No. There was no social kind of association or interaction.

IB: So what kind of differences did you notice?

JSG: Much of the things were common but there were some differences—cultural differences, differences of attitude and the self-image of the students would be different. Not only amongst Sikhs and Muslims but also between Muslims and Muslims, those who belonged to different regions, sub-regions. Similarly, among Sikhs also there would be differences of this kind. In the neighbourhood, there were villages from the district to which my parents belonged, Ludhiana for example. And others from Amritsar. So there was a difference between them also. Small things, but certainly some differences.

IB: Considering the larger context of the 1930s and early 1940s when riots had started taking place, even reaching the villages, rural areas of Punjab, did you also notice any tension building up between Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus?

JSG: Yes, there was. Actually when the first important riots took place in Lahore in early March, we were still in college. Then the colleges were closed, the university was closed and the exams were postponed. I went to my village and once when I had to go to the school, in connection with some small problem with a boy, I noticed then that the majority of Muslim students present were quite hostile. This was a surprise to me because I always had good relations with them. Then the tension went on mounting. And there came a point when we thought we should organise a kind of defence in the village. And we did that. They somehow thought of me to be the leader. So I took on that responsibility. It was no responsibility actually. We couldn’t do anything in a crisis but it was just sort of reassuring that we were preparing or we were prepared for eventualities.

IB: Did you take part in politics too of the period?

JSG: I wasn’t really much interested in politics. It was only later on when I took interest in history, I realised that politics is important and then I took some interest in political history also. But personally, I had no appreciable interest in politics. In a vague sort of way there was a feeling of patriotism for the country, that is true, and therefore some kind of affinity with the Congress, but not any political activity. In my village, I found it interesting that, later on, I could see the difference then but did not see the significance. There was one Akali family in the village. I would say they took part in the Akali Movement or the Gurdwara Reform Movement. They remained distinguished. They wore black clothes or blue clothes and that was the only family known as Akali. But the Sikhs of my village did not have any sympathy for the Akalis. I don’t think they ever voted for them. They voted generally for the Congress.

IB: Why were they not supporting the Akalis?

JSG: I think the simple question was of communication of message, some kind of contact. At a later stage, towards say before 1947, some Akali leaders started visiting the village and they had some influence. Earlier, it appears now, it was simply a question of not being approached. The Congress legacy was there and it continued till 1946.

IB: So before moving on to the actual partition and its aftermath or its effect on you and your family, if we were to look back and see, what kind of education you had had or any highlights of your education which stayed with you later on, and helped you, became your assets so to say?

JSG: When I think of the middle school, actually, it is interesting to look at the situation. Urdu was the medium of education. So we had to learn Urdu. I had learnt only elementary Gurmukhi in the village gurdwara, not amounting to much, but I could read a simple composition. Then somehow there was also Persian which one could opt for in the school and I opted for that. I can’t explain why, but I thought I should learn it and I started attending classes in Persian. Then there was a choice of subjects between agriculture and English language, so I chose English. So from class five I was learning Urdu, and then, I was learning Persian and English, which later on became much relevant to the work which I did.

IB: So did your family, or your father in particular, also have some kind of influence on your education? 

JSG: My father was not educated in the new system. But he took interest in the Granth Sahib which he remembered by heart. He could quote and actually even identify the page number from which any quotation was read. He had that kind of thorough familiarity with the Granth. And his interpretation, I could see later on, was Vedantic which was attributed to the Nirmala Sikhs by historians. And that was partly why he could take equal interest or more or less the same kind of interest in the Ramayan, Mahabharat and a book called Yog Vashishth.

IB: Did you also read these?

JSG: They actually would ask me to read it out. These books were Urdu translations, so I could read it and also was interested in knowing the contents. I read these books when I was in school actually, which was a little unusual.

KM: So you have read the Mahabharat and Ramayana?

JSG: In Urdu translation. I forget the names of the translators now.

IB: That is immaterial. So did you also read much of Urdu poetry in those days?

JSG: In the first place I read Urdu poetry, these are books which were there in the school. And when I continued to study Urdu on my own, the prescribed syllabus for matriculation, then for B.A. also, I retained my interest in Urdu poetry and also took on Urdu as an optional subject at the B.A. level. And the book prescribed was Mirza Ghalib. I had read Ghalib a little earlier but then there came a stage when I remembered most of his ghazals. And some of those I still remember; it is difficult to forget.

IB: And were you taking interest in Punjabi poetry, Punjabi folk literature?

JSG: Yes, that too. Actually, the short poems called kissa, narratives, they were popular in the villages. So I would go to the neighbouring town of Lyallpur occasionally—once or twice a year—and then I would buy whatever was available there and read them. It ended up in my getting hold of the Heer of Waris Shah, which is seen as a classic in Punjabi literature. I read that. And this was one book which was popular among the people. And some individuals used to develop expertise in singing Waris Shah without any instruments. And I remember I could hear one voice from the neighbouring village during the night coming clearly across singing Heer. And in my own village there was one person who specialised in it and used to sing it very well.

IB: So this was eighteenth-nineteenth century literature. Did you read some modern Punjabi literature too?

JSG: I was introduced to Mohan Singh’s Save Pattar—his first collection of poems—by my maternal uncle. He gave me this collection and said if you read it, you might like it. So that was my introduction to modern Punjabi poetry. And I learnt a little from that. Mohan Singh was the first secular Punjabi poet so to speak. Then, I don’t know how, I was introduced to the poetry of Amrita Pritam. These were the two writers I came to know first of all when we come to modern poetry.

IB: Did it strike you from a gender perspective—Amrita Pritam’s poetry—at that time?

JSG: No. I wasn’t aware of that. But then when she wrote a very famous poem on Waris (‘Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ [Ode to Waris Shah]), I couldn’t appreciate it very much because historically it doesn’t really appear to be the idiom in which it is put and the symbols which are used. I find they are not very appropriate. But that is a very famous poem. Once Prof. Tejpal Singh had a discussion with me on this point. He maintains that this is her best poem whereas I don’t think so.

IB: And what else did you do in college?

JSG: I played football.

KM: You have taken some interest in Punjabi periodicals like Preetlari. It had an impact on you?

JSG: At one stage I started reading Preetlari regularly and I found it very fascinating because of its liberal ideas—new ideas for me—humanistic approach to things around. And that was quite influential in a way.

IB: So, can we say that secular, liberal, humanistic ideas stayed with you which you had imbibed at this stage through your work?

JSG: I wasn’t conscious of that. It just so happened and I also liked religious poetry. For example, the Granth Sahib. I used to listen to the shabad being sung. I used to go to the Gurdwara quite regularly whenever there was any visitor, when kirtan was performed by those coming from outside. One party, I remember, stayed in the village for about a month and there used to be kirtan every evening. I attended that and liked it. But then I also annoyed the elders of the village. Once I spoke in the village gurdwara. I spoke about the untouchables, and (questioned) why they were not allowed to enter the main hall. They used to sit in the veranda. The senior people of the village were quite annoyed.

IB: What age would you be then?

JSG: I was still in the middle school.                 

IB: Now to get back to Partition, do you have any memories of what was happening around you, how did you get out of that place and then where did you go, what were the difficulties you and your family, in particular, encountered?

JSG: Actually what happened was, as I mentioned earlier, when the colonies were closed, things were not so bad as yet. One could sort of travel. So I went to my village. And then the villages were isolated. Earlier too there wasn’t much of a contact but during these months of 1947, they were isolated. So there was nothing to be afraid of till something happened. But then by May or so, I think, sometimes a little tension was visible. By June one could hear slogans of one sort or the other from the Muslim villages. And then in August it became really uneasy. Unease on both sides. When I came to India, that is, flew to India in September, I went to Delhi, flight was from Lyallpur to Delhi, so I went there. I travelled on a train without any ticket—there were no tickets. But trains were running and people were sitting at the top or anywhere they could sit. I was also sitting on the top of one. So I could see on the way some people running and others following them. I saw some villages on fire. In Ludhiana I saw some corpses lying around on the road. So one could see what had happened. And what happened on the Pakistan side, I didn’t see anything personally.

I had a narrow escape, so to speak, once or twice. I was going to Lyallpur, the neighbouring town, and we were in a tonga and on the way the horse stopped. We didn’t know what to do. There was a huge crowd on the road—Muslim crowd. So it just occurred to me that I should give the impression of being casual, and not take notice that there was anything unusual. I saw a hand pump close by. So I went to the hand pump as if to drink water. And among the crowd was a friend of mine. He also had a spear in his hand. He threw it away and came to talk to me as if there was nothing. Casually. But when I sat in the tonga again, he said, don’t return by this route. That was one.

IB: So he saved you.

JSG: He saved my life.

IB: Did you happen to see him again ever?

JSG: I saw him again in 1992, I think, when I went to Pakistan to participate in a seminar. Then I went to my village. I went to the school and found out that he was still living in the neighbouring village. So I met him there.

He was very happy apparently. And one thing I remember is that he put a number of notes in my pocket. I didn’t look at them, I kept one and returned the others. When I came back and saw the note, it was a thousand rupee note.