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The Singh-Kaur debate in Sikh history – 03

October 8, 2008

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:

  1. The British valued manliness in the males.
  2. The British perceived Sikhs in India as more manly than other Indians.
  3. Hence British looked at Sikhs more favorably than they looked at others.
  4. 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).

Here’s Part-1

Here’s Part-2

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2009 12:40 am

    Mr. Singh,

    Why don’t you disclose your true identity? Moreover, if you find flaws or weakness in my review of Jakobsh’s work, why don’t you post it on the SikhSpectrum so that readres could benefit from your insights. I think that is the proper way for a schplar to do. I was not aware that you are discussing my work in devious manner, which is the domain of propagandists and intellectually dishonest people.
    Come on show your real face!.

    Baldev Singh

    • Mr. Singh permalink*
      January 2, 2009 12:03 pm

      Dr. Baldev Singh,

      There are a couple of issues you have raised in your comment. One is about disclosing my true identity. Second is about posting my comments in Sikh Spectrum. Third is about discussing your work. I will briefly address them here.

      1) Why don’t I disclose my true identity? Well, for the simple reason that my identity does not matter for the purposes for which I have started this blog. The focus is not on me but on the issue that I am fighting against – female feticide in my Sikh community. Neither do I have a name recognition that will help the cause nor do I want to be recognized for this work.

      I approach this task by appealing to people’s rationale and emotions wherever possible. So I post links to songs and videos that touch on our emotions on the issue of female feticide. And where possible, I appeal to their ability to reflect on long-held notions of gender-inequality that are at the root of female-feticide.

      Long story short, in the grand scheme of things, my identity does not matter. And for all the respect I may have for your work, Dr. Baldev Singhji, this blog is not about you, or about Dr. Jakobsh, or about me. It is about fighting female feticide, a cause that I believe Dr. Jakobsh and you will stand together. The cause is greater than Dr. Jakobsh or you or me.

      2) You are right. I ought to consider submitting articles to Sikh Spectrum. However, from my understanding of Sikh Spectrum, it is an outlet for scholarly articles. And once I have an article that I can deem worthy of being considered as scholarly, I will submit it to Sikh Spectrum. Meanwhile, for thinking aloud and having a conversation with people on this issue, I will keep writing on my blog. I am sure you will appreciate my restraint from submitting half-baked ideas to Sikh Spectrum. On this blog, I welcome your comments; will post them and try to respond to all of them. I think you have important things to say and I seek to enrich my understanding by having a conversation with you.

      3) My problem with your work, Dr. Baldev Singh, from what I have read of it so far, is that it suffers from the serious fallacy of ad hominem. “An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: “argument to the man”, “argument against the man”) consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the source making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim. The process of proving or disproving the claim is thereby subverted, and the argumentum ad hominem works to change the subject.” (source: wikipedia).

      You did that with Dr. Jakobsh and now you are doing it with me. You attack me by calling me a propagandist. What matters more is not whether I am a devout Sikh or a VHP/RSS guy (which, btw, I am not); but whether the argument I am making is invalid. And if so, on what grounds?

      If you read the above post to which you have commented, you will note that where you attacked Dr. Jakobsh’s argument (for example, regarding Cunningham and Princep) and I found your argument was valid, I pointed that out. But where you attack her a la Freudian style (when you venture off into the realms of adrenal glands and titillation and begin making inferences of her syndromes), I have expressed my problems with that.

      On some other forums (e.g., Langar Hall) I have acknowledged that I might be on the same page as you regarding Dr. Jakobsh’s problematic interpretation of the Gurbani. But I haven’t yet formulated my position on this matter as I am still reading the book as well as your critique of it. I will endeavor to not let my understanding be afflicted by the ad hominem fallacy, and more importantly, maintain the civility in discourse.

  2. January 7, 2009 7:07 pm

    My review is over 220 pages consisting of 15 chapteres.

    In the first chapter and later on I made it clear that one female feticide is too many for me. I am the father of two daughters and I have four granddaughters. In my writings I denounce patriarchal hegemony and urge educated women to stand up and speak out against misteratment of women within the Sikh community. The other day from a gurdwara stage I urged women not carry out Langar service in Gurdwaras where women are not treated equally.

    I suggeat that you read my whole review chapter by chapter and point out where I criticised Dr. Jakobsh unfairly. She compared Guru Nanak’s exaltion of women not very different from what is found in in Brhaspatismiriti. There is not a single verse that she did not misinterpret.

    Read what she wrote about Waris Shah.

    I still urge you to disclose your identity. I am a trained scientist and anonymity of authorship is unheard in science. One can not spread the message of truth or stand for goodness by being anonymous. You may contact me on e-mail.


    Baldev Singh

    • Mr. Singh permalink*
      January 7, 2009 10:25 pm

      Baldev Singh,
      I have read your views on female feticide and commend you for that. I think more people in the Sikh community should follow your example, and speak up & take action against female feticide. It is also likely that after having read Dr. Jakobsh’s book, I might agree with you on her misinterpretation of Gurbani. However, I still find your language against her not in very good taste. I will reply with those particular sections in my private email to you as I find it embarrassing to discuss those remarks about Dr. Jakobsh in the public sphere. (And just for records, I am not defending Dr. Jakobsh here coz she does not need my or anyone’s help.)

      And please, Sir, understand that there are different platforms for different purposes. Journals have a different purpose and a different audience than that of a blog. Standards of journals do not apply to blogs. We blog owners do not masquerade as outlets for scientific research though being a researcher myself, I must admit that many blogs on the internet have higher standards and functionality than many ‘scientific’ journals. I do not claim to be doing any kind of science on my blog, and as a blog owner, I have no need to make my identity public. What I post on my blog are my opinions and that is that.

      I will continue our conversation on email.


  1. The Singh-Kaur debate in Sikh history (02) « KUDIMAARI

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