Sikh Historiography and Dr. Kirpal Singh

It could  perhaps be rightly said about the Sikhs that they are more makers of history than writers of it. The negative implication of the statement would not be accepted by the knowledgeable except with substantial scholastic qualification. The Sikhs have voluminous body of indigenous historical writing, starting with the Adi Granth (the Sikhs Scripture) itself which is interspersed with references to and, sometimes, accounts of crucial events. Guru Nanak Dev’s Babar Vani hymns, Guru Ram Das’s references to Guru Amar Das’s visits to places of pilgrimage, Guru Arjan Dev’s oblique allusions to certain events of his life, Var Satta-Balwand and Ramkali Sadd are just a few notable instances. Guru Gobind Singh’s Bachittar Natak narrates numerous events of his life. Bhai Gurdas has left remarkable accounts of the Gurus in his Vars or epic odes.

Amid a plethora of minor writing in the post-Guru period, Shahid Rattan Singh Bhangu’s Prachin Panth Prakash (early 19th Century) looms like a colossus. While his work was inspired by a desire to protect the history of the Sikhs from distortion by hostile historiographers, it perhaps, unintentionally, fills a vital gap in Sikh history and provides inspiring accounts of the Sikh martyrs. Irrespective of its attainments as a work of history, Bhai Santokh Singh’s Gurpartap Suraj Granth, a monumental account in verse of the Gurus’ lives and times laced with frequent expositions of the Sikh doctrine, has been the most influential work of the history of the Guru period, rightly adopted as the foundational work for historical narration in the Gurdwara as part of religious service. Gyani Gyan Singh, building on Rattan Singh Bhangu, gave a complete history of the Sikhs upto Ranjit Singh, in chaste Punjabi verse and Urdu prose. The qualitative difference that separates Bhai Karam Singh, a historian of the recent past, from the earlier Sikh writers is wider than the chronological divide would suggest. For whereas the earlier Sikh historians were mere narrators, Karam Singh imported into his historiography the modern methodology of critical analysis.

The random catalogue of Sikh historiographers above would be incomplete without the celebrated names of Bhai Vir Singh and Baba Prem Singh Hoti. While the Gurus’ personae come alive in Bhai Vir Singh’s well-researched biographies, the Sikh struggle in the post-Guru period is equally vivid in his historical novels - Sundari, Satwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh. Also Baba Prem Singh Hoti’s biographies of the builders of the Sikh sovereignty in northern India, based on living traditions in his native N.W.F.P. and the books and manuscripts in his employer, Nawab of Hoti’s library, are a unique contribution.

Bhai Karam Singh, inspite of his epoch-making achievement did not enter the portals of academia. That privilege was reserved for Dr. Ganda Singh, who through long teaching and research, earned for himself the appellation, the doyen of Sikh historical studies. Dr. Ganda Singh’s historical research is as voluminous as it is thrilling. Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, Ahmed Shah Durrani, Private Correspondence Relating to Anglo-Sikh Wars, to mention only three of his books, not only testify to patient academic research, they also provide absorbing reading. Dr. Fauja Singh, another historian of the genre commands attention, even though he got caught in a web of controversy over the biography of Guru Tegh Bahadur. He nevertheless ably steered Punjabi University’s Journal Punjab : Past and Present, after taking charge of it from Dr. Ganda Singh.

Dr. Kirpal Singh then is, chronologically the most notable name in the current domain of Punjab Historical Studies. It is his contribution to the historical studies that the present issue of The Sikh Review seeks to celebrate, for he has carved for himself a lofty niche in the hall of fame ohistorical research, with no fewer than 24 books and over one hundred research papers to his credit.

In the course of a distinguished career in school and college, Kirpal Singh had caught the eye of such celebrities as Baba Harkishan Singh, Principal of Khalsa College, Gujranwala, from where he graduated, and Prof. Kirpal Singh Narang, Professor of history who later rose to be the Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University. Migrating to Delhi on Partition, Kirpal Singh first acquired the degree of Bachelor of Training (B.T.) and then passed M.A. in history. When a position in the Sikh History Research Section in Khalsa College, Amritsar was advertised and he was selected, he did not know he had come to fill a position vacated by the legendary Dr. Ganda Singh. It was Bawa Harkishan Singh’s and Prof. Narang’s reassurance that made him settle down. Once that happened, Kirpal Singh swam freely as in native waters. Nothing now inhibited his latent aptitudes.

In the realms of history, he has at least three “firsts" to his credit. He established a Sikh History Gallery in Khalsa College, a continuing attraction for visitors to this premier institution of the Punjab. He undertook visits to England for documents and oral affirmations by the principal perpetrators of Partition. He charted Guru Nanak Dev’s route down south to Sri Lanka gathering valuable information as to Gurdwaras evidencing the Guru’s visit and discovering inscriptions pertaining to the Guru’s visit, for his monumental project Janam Sakhi Parampara (Punjabi). Another “first" to Dr. Kirpal Singh’s credit is the establishment of “oral history cell" in Punjabi University where he became the head of the Department of Historical Studies. Dr. Kirpal Singh’s work includes preparation of descriptive catalogues of rare books and manuscripts in the Khalsa College Library and the discovery of a 17th Century manuscript of Bhai Bale di Janam Sakhi. His most notable research work relates to (1) the Partition of Punjab, 1947 and (2) a reconstruction of the story of Guru Nanak Dev’s life by a critical study of all known Janam Sakhi accounts supplemented by visits to places reputed to have been hallowed by the Guru, and by exploring local traditions. These labours culminated in the massive 792-page Select Documents on Partition of Punjab, a comparatively shorter account of that cataclysm of Indian sub-continent’s history, The Partition of Punjab, Punjab da Batwara (Punjabi), and the 602-page Janam Sakhi Parampara (Punjabi). The Select Documents and the Parampara volumes are, in bulk, the reproduction for the first time of documents often  culled from inaccessible archival collections and,  in the latter case, of carefully sifted extant Janam Sakhis. These two books are nonetheless a fascinating reading even for a layman. This quality of readability derives not only from the fascinating and authentic nature and contents of the documents, but also from the illuminating introduction to the book on Partition. The Parampara similarly provides a 166-page story of Guru Nanak Dev’s life meticulously re-constructed from Janam Sakhis as the primary  source, confirmed with reference to the Gazetteers.

Dr. Kirpal Singh’s works put him in the front rank of the historians of Punjab and the Sikhs. A quiet, unassuming scholar, he may not have acquired the glamour that surrounded Dr. Ganda Singh, but his work is none-the-less enduring because he has been deeply affected by the temper of history as it transpired. He does not sit in judgement.  Dr. Kirpal Singh lhas been living in an age that is racked with occasional controversy triggered by W.H. Mcleod and some others. While a number of scholars, led by the redoubtable (late) Dr. Trilochan Singh, became involved in these, Dr. Kirpal Singh has chosen to remain aloof, but not insensitive to the issues. His lucid Janam Sakhi Parampara was perhaps his way of reacting to the doubts being cast on the essentials of the Janamsakhi narration, without assuming a confrontationist stance. That perhaps is the hallmark of a great historian.

KULRAJ SINGH (Guest Editor)