Relocating Gender in Sikh History:Research-coverage of Blesphemy
by Prof. Kashmir Singh
[Department of Law, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar City]
The stance, tone and tenor of Doris R. Jakobsch in her book Relocating Gender in Sikh History lacks academic neutrality. Unwittingly or by design it seems to negate or denigrate the khalsa traditions by “picking and choosing” her sources. She gleefully highlights the schismatic and anti-Sikh viewpoints in great detail while summarily brushing aside the Sikh viewpoint.
She does not seem to like the consolidation of Sikh customs and rites and dubs it as an attempt to establish separate identity of Sikhism — as if this consolidation was a bad thing. Her remarks about the Anand Marriage Bill as “novel Sikh identity marker and ritual” are illustrative of this slant in her work under review. It is inspite of her quoting Petrie that ‘there is no community that is not fired with the idea of consolidating and improving itself to the utmost of power”.
She discusses the Anand Marriage Bill in Chapter Six of the book which is entitled as ‘Extending Male Control’. It is, however, difficult to understand or even imagine how Anand Marriage Act extended the male control. She comments that Anand Marriages were mainly associated with Namdhari and Nirankari Sikhs and both were well outside of the Tat Khalsa realms. It is submitted that no doubt Namdharis and Nirankaris had taken the lead to popularize the Anand Marriages during the post-Maharaja Ranjit Singh period but these marriages were a part of general Sikh tradition right from the beginning and were not peculiar to these sects alone.
In fact Guru Amar Dass, a great social reformer, had simplified the Sikh marriage by dispensing with the vedic rituals. He ordained his successor Guru Ram Dass to preside over some marriage ceremonies when Brahmins had refused to conduct the same. [It stands to logic that when the Gurus taught their followers to refuse to accept Brahmin’s self-proclaimed pre-eminent position in society and not to honour the bounds of caste-system, the Brahmins condemned the Sikhs as outcastes.] The Sixth and Tenth Gurus had also popularized the Anand marriages. This customary rite seems to have fallen into some disuse when Maharaja Ranjit Singh chose the opulence and trappings of a Maharaja over the simplicity of the Sikh worldview.
Doris gleefully quotes anti-Sikh elements to call offsprings of Anand Marriages as bastards, haramzadas and illegitimates in the same breath. No doubt that the basic reason to get this Act passed was to shut up the Brahmins who were propagating that Anand marriages were not valid marriages and their offsprings were illegitimate. In fact their earnings from solemnization of marriages were being adversely affected due to the popularity of Anand Marriages. So those Brahmins along with other Sikh-baiters started a campaign against Anand Marriages. The Sikhs lobbied for the passage of the Act so that nobody could question validity of a marriage solemnized through Anand ceremony and legitimacy of children of such marriages. The Sikhs certainly wanted to demonstrate the independent and separate status of Sikhism by getting Anand Marriage Act, meant exclusively for the Sikhs, passed.
Doris says that the “proponents initially found support for the Bill among the populace; the acclamation, however, quickly dissipated as the actual wording came to be analysed (p. 180).
The claim of dissipating the support of the Bill is incorrect. Actually resolutions came in thousands from various Sikh organisations, village Panchayats and Sikhs in India and abroad supporting the Bill after it was published in the Gazette of India and the local official gazettes. There was widespread support for the Bill from all sections of the Sikh society. The author herself quotes Lt. Governor of Punjab’s speech, though to draw a totally different conclusion, wherein he noted, “the Tikka Sahib’s Bill has behind it the popular support of the vast majority of the Sikh Community”. She herself notes the zeal and mobilization for the Bill as petitions poured from all over the world.
Doris quotes anti-Sikh sources to present frivolous arguments that Anand Marriage Act will be used by the wealthy Sikhs to marry Muslim and Christian ladies and their non-Sikh children will ultimately take over all the landed properties and jagirs etc. She seems completely oblivious that marriages of Sikh males with non-Sikhs were judicially upheld by the Punjab Chief Court in Dhalip Kanwar v. Fatti 1913 PR 99; Sodlic v. Sher Singh 1895 PR 50). This is a strong indicator of the lack of depth of her research.
She states that some Tat Khalsa members were taken aback by the “charges of marriage with foreigner ladies”, and they “distanced from the mover of the Bill”; and Singh Sabha leader “came to know about the Bill” only after its introduction in the Council. These statements are totally incorrect and are not supported by facts.
Doris is critical of the Act that it did nothing to improve the precarious position of women in Sikh society. She refers to criticism by others for non-inclusion of provisions as to age limit, divorce, monogamy, registration of marriages etc. Further, she comments that Act was clearly problematic to large number of Sikhs and Hindus and it widened the rifts amongst the Sikhs also.
She fails to note that the preamble mentions that the Act was passed only to remove doubts as to the validity of the Anand Marriage ceremony. So it was meant only to confirm the marriages solemnized through Anand ceremony. The Act was not meant to codify the whole law relating to Sikh marriages. It is clearly mentioned in the speech of S. Sunder Singh which she herself has quoted. Section 3(a) lays down: “Nohing in this Act shall apply to marriages between persons not professing the Sikh religion.” Thus, it is not clear how and what problem the Act created for Hindus who were supposed to have no concern, especially when the Sikhs were happy and satisfied on the passing of the Act.
Doris wrongly assumes collusion between the British and the Sikhs in passing this Act. She also alleges that it deepened communal rivalry between Arya Samaj and Singh Sabha. She seems to be arguing that the Sikhs should have sacrificed their interests at the imaginery altar of “communal harmony” – a post 1947 construct.
She also does not seem to relish the separate Sikh identity in the Indian Army and goes on to make a self-contradictory claim that the Government acquiesced to the passing of the Bill for the fear that Tat Khalsa may mobilise against it. Political stability is cited as the reason to pass the Act and not the merit of the Sikh cause.
She tries to highlight the supposed failures of the Bill after 20 years of its working without noting its continued successful working even after a full century of its passing. She wrongly argue that the act was at fault for not prescribing the exact mode of actual form of Anand Ceremony in the Act. She seems to ignore the fact that there was only one way to solemnize Anand Marriage and there was no ambiguity in this regard amongst the Sikhs thus there was no necessity for the same.
She also claims that women’s cause was deemed insignificant in the whole process. She ignores the fact that the Act was specifically meant to serve the women’s cause by silencing those who were calling women married through Anand ceremonies as “keeps and concubines”. She wrongly dubs the whole process concerning the Act as an effort to promote Singh Sabha political designs without substantiating her claims.
On the whole Doris’s attempt and mission seems to criticize and denigrate the Sikhs and their institutions. Too much space is devoted to quoting some nasty comments having no relevance to the issue she is discussing. However, those comments and the general tenor of her work seems to aim to further consolidate the distorted picture of Sikhi that Dr Hew McLeod and his students like Dr Harjot Oberoi, Pashaura Singh, Gurinder Mann, etc sought to create and failed.
The concluding chapter of every book is usually meant to consolidate the results and findings in the preceding chapters. Hardly any new topic is touched upon in the last chapter. But Doris refers to an entirely new thing in the last chapter entitled as “conclusions” in the last two pages of the book.
Quite insensitive to the emotions of the Sikhs she quotes an insignificant and perfidious booklet depicting Mata Ganga asking Baba Budha for “niyoga”. She seems to mention this insinuating falsehood to defame Sikhism and the Sikh Gurus and also to show that the Sikhs are part of Hindu community as they “followed” their (Hindus’) customary rules. She mentions it under the lame excuse that Sikh women had vehemently opposed these remarks. Then she goes on to explain how Swami Dayanand defined and explained niyoga and wasted almost a full page of the book on this ignoring that it is totally out of context of her research.
Following niyoga by the Sikhs is unimaginable and in Sikh Gurus’ families, beyond imagination. Recognition of niyoga even by Hindus is ironical and astounding as the principles of morality and chastity are sacrificed for fulfilling the desire to have a son. Even a little bit of research would have revealed that Niyoga custom is to be found only in Hindu myth and it was rejected even by the lay Hindus themselves. It has never been prevalent among them, rather it is obsolete since long (see Mayne’s Hindu Law, 13th ed., p.104).
To allege such practices in the families of Sikh Gurus who were condemning all unholy and immoral practices prevalent amongst Hindus, is quite ridiculous, especially as their are no research basis for such a claim.
Again and again the author reveals her unfamiliarity with South Asian traditions. She may not be knowing that people approach religious places and personalities to seek reassurance for a progeny. The system seems to work on the same principle as a placebo curing an illness. Various historians have mentioned that Mata Ganga got the blessings of Baba Budha ji, a highly pious and respected authority, before the birth of Guru Hargobind. Aspersion like niyoga on Guru’s spouse and a pious personality like Baba Budha ji seem directed at defaming Sikhism and enflaming the Sikhs. The pamphlet she is referring to, was written in those days when Swami Dayanand had started a campaign against Sikhism and he publicly cut the hair of a number of Sikhs to perform “Shudhi” (lit. purification)) and included blatantly insulting remarks against Guru Nanak in his book Satyarth Prakash. As Dayanand withdrew those remarks later on, it is logical to conclude that the remarks in the said pamphlet were also withdrawn.
A historian should keep in focus the context and the bias of each remark that they may be using to arrive at a conclusion. Historical conclusions cannot be arrived at by taking a remark at face-value while ignoring the bias of the one making a remark and the other material that contradicts a remark. Doris’ methodology is not academic and fails to cross the level of tabloid journalism which thrive on quoting a single source usually unnamed, selling their paper and later publishing a retraction. The only “concession” she makes to her status as a researcher is to quote this blatantly untrue material under the garb that Sikh women had become quite vocal in opposing such writings.
The author seems to have been keen to include this unacademic reference in the book as an afterthought, which further puts a serious question mark on the quality of her research.
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