Sunday, November 23, 2003

Originating from a controversy
Surjit Hans

Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian
by W .H. McLeod. Permanent Black, Delhi.
Rs 550. Pages 245.

Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a HistorianScots are poor, hardworking and devout. Not being the top dogs in Britain, some of them identify with the oppressed. Hew McLeod’s grandfather, William McLeod, emigrated to New Zealand. He rose to be a chief ploughman. His father, Bruce McLeod, enlisted in the army during World War I, rose to be a Major and won Military Cross as well. He was nominated to the Upper House of the New Zealand parliament to vote for its abolition.

Hew has married once, does not smoke, and cannot swear. He and his two brothers were never ever physically struck by their parents. He won scholarship to go to high school, where he was the head boy. A boarder at Rutherford House; the world-class English physicist in the beginning of the 20th century was a local boy.

Hew was a keen member of the Student Christian Movement. Money did not enter in his calculations. After his MA in history, he entered Knox Theological College. Life is built on small things to be hugely important later. His wife, Margaret, says that she married him because he possessed a motorbike. In his final examination, his answer to a question on Missionary-Maori relations was not one found in books. His background in the Christian doctrine helped him systematise teachings of Guru Nanak.

In the 1950s, New Zealand was the fourth richest country of the world. Overseas Mission Committee of the country hoped to help the less fortunate brethren with education, medicine and Christianity. Hew McLeod joined Christian Boys Higher School at Kharar in 1957.

To find his moorings, he was recommended a number of books. His reactions are interesting. Advanced History of India, incredibly dull; Zachner’s Hinduism, positively misleading; Discovery of India, partially so. “A short History of the Sikhs by Teja Singh and Ganda Singh or Malcom Darling’s The Punjabi Peasant in Prosperity and Debt would have been of much greater use.” Funnily, his pupils at Kharar found his English more difficult to understand than that of the other teachers.

Hew’s Ph.D supervisor was Prof Basham. He joined Baring Christian Union College, Batala, in 1965. His Lambretta scooter sometimes carried not three persons (the usual sight on our roads), but four.

Dr Ganda Singh was friendly towards Hew McLeod in a “ridiculous” way. “His only fault was that if one lent him a book that referred to the Punjab in any way, the chances of it being returned were absolutely nil. I lost two books in this manner.”

In 1966, Hew lost his faith in Christianity. A few persons in New Zealand concluded that he had been converted to Sikhism.

At first, the Clarendon Press rejected the publication of his book on Guru Nanak on the grounds that the work was “too scholarly”. On being reminded that this was what they were supposed to do, they relented. They took 10 years to publish Early Sikh Tradition. The campaign against Hew was started in 1969 in a seminar in honour of the quin-centenary of Guru Nanak’s birth at Punjabi University, Patiala, by Sirdar Kapur Singh.

Hew spent a year (1969-70) in Cambridge. He was not sure if E.M. Forster was senile or too courteously off-putting. Zaehner at All Souls was alcoholic. However he found firm friends in Raymond Allchin and Stewart McGregor, an expert on Tulsidas.

From 1971 till his retirement in 1977, Hew has been at Otago University. Sikh History was introduced in graduate course in the university. The Way of the Sikh was published for children in the age group of 10-12. MA history has a paper on Sikh history.

In 1975, Hew started working on Punjabis in New Zealand, which turned out to be a major work on oral history in New Zealand and regional history of Doaba. Rahitnama Champa Singh was copied in 1978. The original no longer exists, having been burnt in the Sikh Reference Library in 1984. It was published by Otago University despite the fact that there would be few buyers of the book in New Zealand.

The happiest result of Hew’s interest in Sikhism is that Sikh studies would continue in New Zealand. His student, Tony Ballantyne, did his Ph.D from Cambridge University. The thesis is Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire. He is now working on Entangled Past: Sikhism, Colonialism and Diaspora.

Originally, there was popular resentment against McLeod, as if he had robbed Guru Nanak of his miracles. This is not true. Before the modern times, belief in miracles was the result of mode of perception. The mode changed in the modern times.

Decades before the Sikhs started taking critical interest in the janamsakhis, Max Mueller in his foreword to the translation of the Jatakas, the janamsakhi of Buddha, wrote that the ancient Buddhists were not fools to believe that the Jatakas were history.

Miraculous Nanak is a kind of help in following the way of the world. Baba Nanak, without miracles, is formidably demanding.

It is not academic reaction, but psychological abreaction to McLeod’s work that damaged the cause of Sikh studies more than his reputation. I am sorry for unfairness to Hew, but I am even more sorry for the Sikh intellectual loss.

Academic reaction deepens knowledge; abreaction stops enquiry. Take his doubts about the five Ks. Originally, there were only three Ks. Look up “trai-mudra” in the Mahan Kosh; try to find out what the Gurbilases have to say. The work oneself on the basis of unawareness of related evidence is not only irresponsibly unbecoming to the critic, but also injurious to the intellectual development of the community. Sir Bartle Frere, collector of Malabar, part of the Madras Presidency in the 18th century, finished its settlement in record time to become Governor of the Bombay Presidency. His singular devotion to work helped him be Governor General of South Africa. A hopeful biographer found him involved with neither women nor money to make the discovery that a life solely of work is not amenable to biographical treatment.

I am sure, but for the controversy, there would have been no Autobiography of a Historian. Hew is lucky; he has not been damned with faint praise. It is also tragic. Hew’s greatest achievement is a cause of regret as well.