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 the excerpt from the conversation with Prof. J.S. Grewal conducted jointly by Prof. Indu Banga and Dr Karamjit Malhotra
Indu Banga (IB): Your father seems to have helped you and provide you with all the money and the means while he could for you to study whatever you wished to study and do whatever you wanted to do. You were living quite comfortably in Lahore and there was a great contrast between the kind of life you had in Lahore and the life you had eventually after Partition at Ludhiana. So we may now begin with the third phase after you joined Punjab University, Chandigarh. Chandigarh strictly speaking is the beginning of your teaching of history.
J.S. Grewal (JSG): Yes.
IB: Talking about your research during this period, I notice that you took interest in several new areas which somehow stayed with you almost till now. So I was particularly struck by your collection of documents—Mughals and Jogis of Jakhbar and then the Mughals and Vaishnavas of Pindori—Mughals and Sikh rulers and the Vaishnavas of Pindori—which you worked on, edited and translated, transcribed jointly with Prof. B.N. Goswamy. Could you tell us something about how these documents provided a totally new perspective on the history of India as well as Punjab and Sikh history?
JSG: In the first place I would like to mention that it was my work on historical writing, doctoral work, that made me aware of the kind of sources which can be useful for writing history and official documents were quite on top at that time. So I was already inclined towards doing that kind of work when Dr Goswamy suggested that we might collaborate to produce a study of those documents.
The other point which we had in mind was that no document, the subject of what was to give madad-i-maash, this revenue-free land to non-Muslims, Hindu institutions, this was not known generally. There was only one example but not anymore. Here was an opportunity once again to bring to light this dimension which was mentioned by historians sometimes but for which there was no concrete sort of evidence. So in both these cases, the Vaishnavas of Pindori and the Jogis of Jakhbar… the Jogis this was the first book… this had documents from Mughal emperors giving grants to the Jogi establishments. So this was the first of its kind and therefore important in terms of Mughal polity and state patronage.
Secondly, no institution related to Shaivism had been studied, not even an article written, so far as medieval Punjab was concerned. So this was the first article on a Jogi establishment. The existence of those centres was known but nothing more. So for the first time we got a glimpse into this very important movement which dominated the Punjab anyway for several centuries till we come to the time of Guru Nanak… and he also pays the greatest attention to the Jogis in fact. They were so important to him. So these were some of the aspects which we could see as a possibility if we published those documents.
And then I went to Aligarh to discuss it with Prof. Irfan Habib. Eventually Dr Mohammad Habib actually got interested the moment I mentioned that I have those documents. And they also felt strongly that, yes, these documents should be published. We soon realised that we had made a mistake in omitting the Sikh rulers from the Jogis of Jakhbar when we studied the document on the Vaishnavas. In that case also this was the first sort of institution to be studied at any length in the Punjab, a Vaishnava institution in any concrete terms covering a history of over 300 years. But with this difference that in the case of Vaishnavas we included Sikh documents also, because the state patronage continued after the change from Mughal to Sikh rule. This was one important dimension.
Secondly, for the first time we came to know something of the administration of the Sikh leaders or the Sikh chiefs in this early phase. And gradually we realised that these documents had a great value in understanding Sikh polity as well because these documents were issued on the authority of God, Akal Purakh, and in the name of the chief or the leader concerned. So this was something totally new, totally different from what had been written on the Sikhs particularly during the eighteenth century. And this actually became the basis of my thinking and then it figures in his own work more extensively. The whole question of Sikh polity had to be revised, at least for us it has been revised. I think the basic confidence came from this kind of evidence which is very concrete and for which we can be very sure that this is what it means.
So these documents, though small in number, qualitatively they have proved to be of great significance.
IB: So that reminds me of your seminal essay on the eighteenth-century Sikh polity which you wrote for the Seminar on the medieval Indian state in which you are actually questioning all the assumptions that are there about the eighteenth century, the idea of the misl, the idea of the gurmata, the idea of the dal Khalsa and the rakhi. So would you like to say something about that?
JSG: At that time I was teaching the history of the Punjab and these questions came to my mind while I was teaching and I wasn’t sure about the answers. What I felt, if I recall correctly, was that when we come to Sikh rule, not really the struggle for political power but actually when they have come into possession of territories and are ruling, then we don’t hear of these institutions as frequently as earlier. So which gave me the impression—I think that is still my impression—that these institutions were there but relevant very largely for the phase in which there was a struggle for political freedom. And after the territories had been conquered and divided amongst chiefs, among the leaders, then they were ruling individually. And this was not a new thing, this gets linked up with the documents of Vaishnavas of Pindori and the Jogis of Jakhbar because the seal of one of the chiefs, Jai Singh who ruled over Batala, it builds the date 1750 which means that the first order he issued was in 1750: mid-eighteenth century when Mughal rule was still there, not replaced by the Afghans. So the individual leaders had started occupying pockets of territory here and there in the central doabs of the Punjab. So that way these documents were important.
IB: So these documents came out in 1967 and 1969 and this particular essay was written in 1966. And I am reminded of your book on Guru Gobind Singh which came out in 1967. What do you remember of your book on Guru Gobind Singh, because I do remember Prof. Nurul Hasan mentioning that after reading your book his respect for Guru Gobind Singh increased immensely. So what was your approach to the study of Guru Gobind Singh?
JSG: I think there are two things basically. One is that we try to use contemporary, near-contemporary, evidence as much as possible. And not really relay what was said in the twentieth century or even late nineteenth century. One was the question of sources which were used. And I find that the number of contemporary and near-contemporary sources used in this book was larger than in any other volume written on Guru Gobind Singh at that time or even later. This book on Guru Gobind Singh, this is still relevant actually, it has not been replaced so far as the scholars are concerned. And the new generation of historians have referred to it as a seminal work, as a work which is still relevant. So this was one part. The question of the kind of evidence that we used. Secondly, Guru Gobind Singh is a religious figure and we presented a totally humanistic and rational interpretation, explanation, of whatever we had to write upon.
This was a work suggested by the university in connection with the celebration of the centenary of the birth of Guru Gobind Singh and we had to do it.
IB: On behalf of the department?
JSG: Partly as our work of the department. So we planned this volume and this was my first experience of a somewhat prolonged research in a theme of Sikh history. So it was a sort of new discovery for me also, although as a boy in my village, I had heard local speakers talking of Guru Gobind Singh and talking with great enthusiasm and great reverence and in a fashion which is very moving when they take out a procession on the day of his birth. And some images, some idea of Guru Gobind Singh was there. And I had started teaching, therefore I had read some of the best historians at that time, Banerjee for example, Sinha and Banerjee, and Dr Gupta and others with whom we are familiar now. With this background, and the new documents at our disposal, and this conviction of ours that we have to present things in humanistic and rational terms, so this volume did have a freshness of its own kind. And maybe a few things which do not support the tradition at the moment, small maybe, but those elements were there.
IB: In Chandigarh itself you came upon another opportunity to study Sikh history in a major way when the 500th birth centenary of Guru Nanak was being celebrated. Punjab University asked you to write about him. And this was in 1969 itself. And the book was to come out in the same year. And only a year earlier, W.H. McLeod had published his Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. So ordinarily one would have thought that you would find it difficult to say something worthwhile soon after the publication of McLeod’s work. So how did you go about your study of Guru Nanak, to make it different?
JSG: McLeod’s work was based on all the known sources studied quite thoroughly and he was trying to discuss two things basically, as some other historians also do: the life of Guru Nanak and the teachings of Guru Nanak. He argued that we have very little about the life of Guru Nanak. In fact, towards the end of the section, he uses only one and a half pages to state what we know about Guru Nanak’s life. And about the teachings, he analysed them in terms of Christian theology, the position of Guru Nanak, very largely in those terms. So this was his position.
I met him before undertaking this work and I put it across to him that I was thinking of writing on Guru Nanak. He is very modest, generally, and polite, but immediately he said, ‘I don’t see any possibility of a new work on Guru Nanak now.’ So I said, ‘I don’t propose to do what you have done. I would like to have a different approach’, and that approach by now is known since the book was out and it has been read and printed, reprinted. This is where Toynbee once again becomes somewhat relevant. He was talking of challenge and response generally and I thought of studying Guru Nanak in terms of his environment independently of his work. I don’t listen to Guru Nanak about his historical situation. I try to reconstruct it from sources other than the compositions of Guru Nanak. So the political situation, the social, the religious, I try to reconstruct, and then I turn to Guru Nanak in order to find out what is his response to this historical environment. So when I mentioned that this is what I would like to do, he immediately said, ‘Well, this is a good possibility and it may be useful.’ So this was how the book was published later on.
And for a long time I did not really notice, did not think of any sort of comparison between what McLeod had done and what I had done, but recently there was a debate—not very recently but in the ‘80s, ‘90s—there has been a serious debate in Sikh studies and I took interest in that, and then I realised for the first time that my differences with Prof. McLeod were there from the very beginning. In these two volumes there are differences not only of approach but also of conclusions.
When you study Guru Nanak, verse by verse and line by line, you find that he does not appreciate any of the contemporary religious systems of belief and practice, and he is constructively critical of everything that he finds around him. To place him in that situation and a part of that situation is almost impossible. On the other hand, you have claims and positive statements of Guru Nanak as much as the criticism of others, in which he claims that he is telling you something new… a new path. So this was my conclusion. Whereas McLeod would like to place Guru Nanak amongst the Sants like Kabir, like Ravidas. So he, in his view, Guru Nanak belonged to the Sant tradition. In my view, Guru Nanak founded a new system, a new ideology, a new set of beliefs and practices, a coherent kind of whole which is independent of any scripture, any dispensation that we know of. And later on, since 1969, I am more and more convinced that this happens to be the position because at least I can understand and interpret Sikh history better if this is the starting point. And the later evidence appears to support this view.
So all along then the differences arise and my understanding of Sikh history becomes very much different from that of W.H. McLeod and some other scholars who have written recently.
IB: Right. So you said, ‘coherent system’. So does Guru Nanak give his ideas in a coherent way or you have to actually construct that from his writings?
JSG: These ideas are there, expressed, each in its own place. There may be, these connections must be there in his mind but he is not writing a thesis, he is not writing a treatise so that he puts it across as a coherent whole. He is interested in those ideas, he emphasises their importance and it is for us to see. For example, if we talk of the guru, if we talk of hukum, if we talk of nazar, that is grace, if we talk of the word shabad, we talk of name. These terms are there in Kabir. And many historians would like to argue that you have these ideas there and you have them in Guru Nanak, therefore they belong to the same tradition. But if you study the concept of naam in Kabir and then in Guru Nanak, you can see the difference. Similarly, the shabad, the guru, the word is the same but the concept is not the same. And when you put them together with their relative importance, then you come upon a totally different kind of ideology than (what) we find in Kabir. And then there are differences of other kinds. Guru Nanak is the only medieval important writer who is interested not only in religion but also in politics and society. And therefore, his social concerns, his political concerns also figure in his understanding of things.
On the question of gender, for example, there is a basic difference between Kabir and Guru Nanak. Kabir, according to his ideology, has nothing to say because essentially he doesn’t think in terms of any kind of parity among genders or equality in terms of gender whereas Guru Nanak does. On caste, their views were very, very close to each other. But not on every aspect of social life.
Similarly, in Kabir there is some inkling of the political situation around him. In Guru Nanak there is a whole sort of… there is a range of evidence. The metaphors for politics start from the very beginning. You study the compositions of Guru Nanak and you find that consistently he is using political metaphors. God is sultan, is emperor, badshah. And he is talking of the throne, he is talking of power, he is talking of administration metaphorically. He is doing this before we come to any direct statements. When he makes direct statements on the contemporary political situation, he leaves no doubt that he is extremely critical of corruption, of oppression, of discrimination, of injustice. We don’t find any account of this kind in any other major writer of medieval centuries, including Kabir.
So his work has to be seen as a whole. I got the opportunity of doing this because of the approach in Guru Nanak and history that this is his historical situation and this is his response.
IB: It seems to be the basis of the entire structure of Sikh history that you have created by now, I think raised by now . . . (KM From Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh . . .)
JSG: There is a change, I mean there is an alternative kind of interpretation, understanding of the whole range of Sikh history, not just one phase or one period.
IB: So it would question even the so-called debate. It seems so redundant, useless—whether Guru Nanak was a revolutionary or a reformer, or simply the idea that he was merely a reformer and Sikhism was actually started by Guru Gobind Singh, or the idea that Guru Gobind Singh provides rupture, or the idea that Guru Nanak was a pacifist kind of a person and later Gurus made the departure. I mean all these ideas stand questioned, I think.
JSG: The idea of difference between Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh came from the very beginning of historical writing on the Sikhs by the British historians. Their interest was political. In the nineteenth century, second half, when they were writing, when they started taking interest in the Sikhs, this was primarily, entirely, due to the fact that the Sikhs had become a political power. And they had the impression that Guru Nanak was a pacifist, was not interested in—he was against war and against bloodshed and against violence. This impression they had like many other historians and writers. So they were looking for the point of time at which this changed. So you have this dichotomy, Guru Nanak as a pacifist and Guru Gobind Singh as a militant. So you can trace this stereotype back to the late eighteenth century–early nineteenth century.
IB: We have already talked about your seminal work on Muslim Rule in India: Assessments of British Historians, published by the OUP, which is the revised version of your doctoral thesis. Since you have talked of stereotypes, I was wondering what kind of stereotypes these British historians generated for us and which were followed up, continued by the Indian historians?
JSG: Actually you have stereotypes in nearly all areas. What happens is that historians or scholars or writers, they begin, at some stage they start writing on a subject. In the beginning the evidence is not sufficient but there is a temptation to generalise. So some historians, some writers would come up with a generalisation on the basis of inadequate evidence. That idea is acceptable to the contemporaries. But even when there is more evidence, and evidence is there even against that stereotype, it doesn’t die down quickly and doesn’t die necessarily. So these stereotypes we will come upon again and again.
In British history, the foremost and the fundamental stereotype is the periodisation itself. When you start with the early writers, early British writers or even earlier than that in the eighteenth century, a work called Universal History was published, more than 30 volumes. It divided world history into two parts—ancient and modern. But before the end of the eighteenth century you come upon a tripartite division, there is ancient history and there is modern history and in between there are the middle ages. When the tripartite periodisation of European history became more popular and acceptable, partly because of the Romantics insisting on the term medieval, the middle ages, these terms were simply applied to Indian history. What was ancient became Hindu, what was Muslim became medieval and what was British became modern. So you have ancient, medieval, modern, superimposed upon the earlier labels, Hindu, Muslim and British. The stereotype is still alive in many of the historians today.
IB: In this same period that we are talking about at Chandigarh, you also worked on a set of legal documents in Persian, 150 legal documents which you happened to chance upon. So we would like to of course know, how did you chance upon these first? And then, how did the study of these documents add to our understanding of medieval India as well as Punjab?
JSG: This is a fascinating story in fact. Unbelievable. There was a seminar at Batala . . . Baring Christian College, Batala. McLeod was there, Webster was there and Prof. Nurul Hasan was there, I remember. And then someone suggested that there is a small building close by which is visited by a large number of people still. Earlier they were Muslims but now they are Hindu people who come and sort of pay it a visit as a sacred holy place. And on the walls of that structure something is written by visitors.
This is a mausoleum, locally called hajira. Hajira is from Persian hazira . . . for mausoleum. This was the tomb of the founder of Batala, Shamsher Khan. He came to be regarded as a pious person later on and a legend grew around him. And this tomb was built then. And it began to be visited by people. So we also visited that. We visited that place and we looked at that and went around. At some stage I mumbled, ‘Someone could write an article on it’, and Prof. Nurul Hasan said, ‘Why don’t you write?’ and McLeod said, ‘I will send you the photographs.’ So I was trapped. But I wrote an article and presented it at a seminar in Aligarh. It was of interest to them because those graffiti were in Persian and verse mostly, prose occasionally but mostly in Persian verse. So very interesting. I presented it there and it was enjoyed. It didn’t appear to be very important but everyone enjoyed that poetry. But that was important in the sense that these villagers, they gave their names, sometimes their parentage, sometimes their place, where they came from, the date when they visited. So it was interesting in its own way.
Actually this was what led me to think of knowing something of the town. That this hajira is there in the Batala town, and was there any relation between these two, and if so what kind of relation? So I started looking for evidence on Batala, doing some fieldwork. In that process, at the Punjab Archives at Patiala, there was one collection known as [the] Bhandari Collection and this had come from a person from Batala—Bhandaris of Batala were well known. And this material, books and other material had come from the Bhandari family. When I looked through that room where this material was there, I found one bundle lying in the corner full of dust. So I asked the director, ‘What are those?’ He said, ‘No, nothing, they are tamasaks lying useless.’
IB: What is a tamasak?
JSG: Tamasak is a legal document. So I said, ‘Why not have a look at those?’ Then we opened that and looked at the documents it contained. These turned out to be the documents executed in the court of the qazi of Batala. So I felt that this was important. So I requested one of my research students to photograph those if he could. So he did that. All those documents were photographed. His photographs were very good, very clear. So I studied them at home. And I discovered that these were very important documents for various reasons. For one thing, they did tell us about Batala, about its people, their transactions, their relations, their location—things of that kind combined with fieldwork, it amounted to quite something. If one were to write the modern history of Batala, they would be extremely useful. So this was one aspect.
Another aspect which I noticed was that the court of the qazi continued in the time of the Sikh rule. So this was something new. We never thought of associating the qazi’s court with the time of Sikh rule. But this was there.
Then there were other dimensions of these documents. There was a belief till recently—it was another stereotype we were talking about—that there were no proprietary rights in land during the medieval or ancient period in India. These documents relate to property, landed property. And furthermore, they relate to property owned by the lower-class people also. And they also have evidence, present evidence, of women having property, having the same rights as men in certain situations. So these dimensions were very important from the perspective of Indian history as understood at that time.
So I decided to publish those. And the Indian Institute of Advanced Study was prepared to publish that. So I completed that study, it took some time. It was started at Chandigarh but finished at Amritsar. I think it was published in 1974. (IB: 1975 probably.) 1975 maybe. So that was the story and I made the mistake of giving it the title, In the By-lanes of History. And someone said to me, ‘Who goes into the by-lanes?’ But then I found it gratifying that some unknown person to me, a scholar from Pakistan living in UK, he wrote to me a letter asking for a copy of the book.
IB: Actually if I remember clearly, in some documents there are maybe over a score of attestations, as witnesses or in different capacities, people with their marks or different kinds of signs or even seals. And the study of these attestations gave you some idea of interaction or social relations across creeds and classes, Muslim attesting for a Hindu, a sunar attesting for a cobbler and so on and so forth.
JSG: That is right, yes. I remember that. And what is important in this connection is that legally a Muslim was not supposed to sign to be a witness to a transaction between two Hindus. But in these documents there are, which is a reflection on the social relations of the members of the two communities. There are documents between Hindu and a Hindu but witnessed by Muslims, which according to Aurangzeb would be illegal, and this is being done in the reign of Aurangzeb.
IB: Well, on the ground things are quite different. So this is how your interest in urban history developed, partly at least one would say, one thing leading to the other.
JSG: This also is true. From the Hajira to Batala as a town, these documents have an introduction. I didn’t think much of this introduction in terms of contribution to the study of urban history but some other scholar wrote, J.F. Richards, I think, in his volume on Mughal India…. He in fact asserts that this is not only the best article but in fact the only article on medieval India which talks of these in these terms. So the reason for this is not that I can do wonders but these documents of the kind have been studied for the first time and so far no one else has come up with another study. And therefore, you have this article on medieval India, on medieval Batala, which has a kind of information which you don’t find in the case of any other town, medieval town.
But then there is another step further before we go to urban history. This interest in Batala suggested to me when I was at Amritsar that a project should be proposed to the UGC, at that time UGC was—ICHR was not there and we generally applied to the UGC for help and support. So this project was sent to the UGC on the urban centres in a limited area, Upper Bari Doab, on behalf of the department. So this project was approved and we started work on that and then in connection with that work we organised a seminar. The first seminar on urban history of India.
IB: It was in 1978.
JSG: So this seminar was held. Prof. Nurul Hasan took an interest in that and Narayani took an interest in that I remember.
IB: Prof. Narayani Gupta of Jamia Millia.
JSG: Prof. Narayani Gupta, yes. And it came to us as a wonderful surprise that she had many ideas to contribute in connection with the study of urban history and eventually we concluded that we should form an association. So the Urban History Association of India was formed.