The Singh-Kaur debate in Sikh history – 03
I finished reading “A Passage to India” by E.M. Forster a couple of days back and wrapped up the reading with a movie on that same novel. The theme of British occupation of India was still fresh in my mind when today I took up the 3rd chapter of the book “Relocating Gender …” by Doris Jakobsh. I was done by evening. Against my expectations, I found it to be an informative and interesting read.
To put it simply, the argument in the chapter 3 is as follows:
- The British valued manliness in the males.
- The British perceived Sikhs in India as more manly than other Indians.
- Hence British looked at Sikhs more favorably than they looked at others.
- Because of this (relatively) favorable stance towards the Sikhs, when the census figures led the British to believe that infanticide was occurring among the Jat Sikhs, the British seemed to exonerate the Sikhs.
The chapter is a detailed exposition of points 1 & 2.
To support her first point, Ms. Jakobsh looks at the developments in Britain in the 19th century – especially with regards to the construction of gender – arguing that the Evangelical revivalist movement in Britain sought to foster a notion of Christian masculinity or Christian muscularity that was in line with the notion of a militarized Christianity.
The chapter then moves on to elaborate point #2: why the British perceived Sikhs to be more masculine than other Indians. As per the author, the British – operating from Victorian ideals of masculinity – “made rigid distinctions between the so called martial races and non-martial Indian races. The former were correspondingly represented as ‘masculine’ and the non-martial races as ‘soft’ and effeminate’.” She points out a number of reasons why the British “found more elements of kinship with the Jat Sikhs than with any other group. The British saw in them a reflection of themselves in an earlier, less civilized age (Cunningham 1990:114).” Some of these kinship elements the British found were:
- The feudal system organized by Sikh Jats
- Admiration for Maharaja Ranjit Singh who had successfully kept the British at bay.
- The rising social stature of Jat Sikhs that the Jats attained by embracing the tenets of Sikhism and overturning rigid Brahminical codes of hierarchy
- The agricultural competence of Jats gaining them a status of peasants par excellence
- The Sikh scriptural vision of “the One” that compared well with the Christian image of God and contrasted with the baffling array of the Hindu pantheon
- The martial overtone of the Sikh religion corresponding well with “the militarized/masculinized enterprize of Protestant Christianity”
- Common affinity for games, horsemanship and sports
- The contribution of Sikh soldiers to the British efforts to stem the uprising of 1857 and thereby in maintaining the honor of British women
The author then applies a feminist perspective to study the construction of womanhood, specifically the role and place of women in the Sikh community/religion, as perceived by the British who noted that the Sikh Jats treated their women with more equality than other communities did; the custom of Sati was deplored in Sikhism; the women did not practice the complete purdah system; women worked alongside their men in the fields and the Sikh woman contributed more to the welfare of her people than her counterparts in other parts of India did; although child marriages were accepted, consummation was delayed till it would not harm the girl’s health; the practice of ‘karewa’ in Punjab as opposed to the plight of the Hindu widows.
However, the British interests and understanding of the issues were antithetical to Sikh women’s interests, for example, on the practice of karewa and female infanticide.
When the British carried out census in Punjab and their census figures showed a low female-to-male ratio in the Punjabi Sikh Society, they did not criticize the Sikh Jats for female infanticide. Rather, the British seemed to exonerate the latter by associating the practice of infanticide with a sense of ‘honor’, a highly prized Victorian value, and blaming the practice to the influence of Hinduism. Furthermore, the British interpreted the practice of karewa as beneficial to the Sikh widow even though the widow may have a contrary wish. (Karewa was the practice of the widow’s remarriage to the deceased husband’s kin thereby letting the deceased husband’s family retain control of the property). The British endorsed this local custom of karewa to protect their self-interests by appeasing to the wider rural Punjabi population.
I think Jakobsh presents an interesting argument and which, in my view, is consistent with the commonly held understanding of the British rule in India. Unlike Baldev Singh, I don’t read this argument as an attack on Sikhism but see how the British were using the Khalsa to serve their British interests. Endorsing karewa, overlooking the female infanticide, discouraging and denying women the role of rulers, were clearly in line with the British interests to divide and rule the larger India.
Ms. Jakobsh’s argument is most compelling when she describes and explains ‘British perceptions of Sikh masculinity’ and how these perceptions corresponded favorably with the British’s understanding of their own (Victorian) masculinity. But when Ms. Jakobsh makes an ontological switch to shift her argument from the ‘British perception of Sikh masculinity’ to an objective ‘Sikh masculinity’ is where her argument weakens and opens itself to criticism.
Also, Baldev Singh has a valid point when he draws attention to Ms. Jakobsh’s erroneous leap of associating one historian’s (Princep) observation to another (Cuningham) regarding the sexual activities observed in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Jakobsh’s interpretation, “Cunnigham was presumably refering to (Princep’s observation)… ” is not only flawed but also unnecessary for the bigger argument she is making in the chapter. However, I take strong exception to Baldev Singh’s Freudian analysis of Jakobsh’s motives for the contested interpretation(s).