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ORAL EVIDENCE AND SIKH HISTORY

Dr Kirpal Singh

[Editorial in Jan 2003 issue of Abstracts of Sikh Studies]

The Sikhs have been known as makers of history. They could not write their history because they had to struggle hard for their very existence. Mostly the history of Sikhs is based on tradition which has been recognized as a valid source of information. Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru has said :

ਬਾਬਾਣੀਆ ਕਹਾਣੀਆ ਪੁਤ ਸਪੂਤ ਕਰੇਨਿ

The accounts of their great elders their worthy scions recount.

(Guru Granth Sahib, p. 951)

At times tradition has to be verified with other sources of information. There is scarcity of Sikh source material. Consequently there are a number of distortions in Sikh history as it is based mostly on the information provided by the opponents. The problem of sources of information has become acute under the impact of science and technology. Telephone has become a common mode of communication. People in general including Sikhs have been abandoning the habit of diary keeping or letter writing. Thus the future historians are being deprived of two important sources of information. This loss as well as paucity of source material referred to above can be set right with the help of Oral History.

One of our contemporary Punjabi papers of Canada quoting from the Oral History statement published in the Abstracts of Sikh Studies, “disagreed with the Editor. There is a system of recording Oral statement. Wherever the Oral History cell is established whether in a University in USA or in Nehru Memorial Museum, New Delhi – The primary thing is to select knowledgeable persons whose reminiscences are to be tape-recorded in connection with particular topic. The statements published in Abstracts of Sikh Studies have been recorded after a lot of efforts by the Editor who was founder project officer, Oral History Cell in Punjabi University, Patiala. The Oral History Cell first studies the biographical details of the person concerned along with the events in which he /she has taken part. Then the questionnaire is prepared in such a way as to draw maximum information from the person concerned. That questionnaire is sent to the interviewee. Arrangements are made to tape record the statement according to the questionnaire. Then the tape-recorded statement is converted to a script, which is sent to the person concerned for final approval. How Oral evidence is helpful in writing of Sikh history can be illustrated by one example. Operation Blue Star 1984 is watershed in the modern history of the Sikhs. After hundred years or so its official records and tainted media papers (tainted because they are pro-government and not independent due to censor restrictions) will be available for writing its history. Practically no Sikh source material will be available for the event so intimately connected with the Sikhs. It is, therefore, high time that interviews by skilled persons with highly placed knowledgeable individuals should be tape-recorded. And their scripts preserved for the future historians. It is advisable that Oral History Cells may be established at Guru Nanak Dev University, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar and Punjabi University Patiala Oral History Cell be revived. These centres may have advisory panel of experienced and knowledgeable persons to guide and help them in selection of suitable persons whose reminiscences are to be tape-recorded. In this way necessary source material will be made available to the future historians to arrive almost right conclusions.

At times responsible persons in Government service or even after retirement hesitate to part with the information. In that case Oral History Cell has to convince the interviewee that complete secrecy would be kept about the statement uptill the specified time. In some cases written undertakings may be made to convince the deponent of the secrecy of the statement. One example will not be out of place here. When I went to England in 1964 late Master Tara Singh, the Akali Leader, gave me introductory letter to Maj. J. M. Short who was considered expert in Sikh affairs and had been re-employed to pacify the Sikhs in 1947. He arrived in India in the last week of July 1947. I requested him to give statement on some specific points. He gave his consent on the condition that his statement should be published immediately to which I readily agreed. In his statement he used the word “trim a little” for Sikhs which most probably he meant tehsil Zira, Firozepur, which were subsequently given to India. In the previous communication to Sir Evan Jenkins, Governor Punjab, these tehsils had been given to Pakistan. In 1964 it was highly controversial whether Punjab Boundary Award had been modified or not. I honoured my words. His statement was published in 1972 in my book Partition of Punjab three years after his death in 1969.

In case the Sikhs want to avoid distortion and to present their history in the correct perspective, they must adopt the technique of Oral History for collection of material. Otherwise the Sikh perspective is likely to be lost in the flood of information released by science and technology.

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