A scholar suffers collateral damage

The recent row over the textbooks has a political agenda. And a respected scholar, Dr Kirpal Singh, who is known for a lifetime of work on Sikh history, is the collateral damage in this case. The scholar, who was rightly feted and honoured by the SGPC, has been editing Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, the magnum opus of Bhai Santokh Singh, at SGPC’s request since 2001.

Roopinder Singh

Academics who venture into the religious territory have long had to face uncertainties that are bound to arise when the empirical clashes with belief. The clergy, transcending various religious denominations, has a certain view, often constrained by tradition, and it reacts mightily against all challengers. We accept this. Thus, those who work in this area are rightly advised about it. Few know it better than historians who negotiate their research with a perception of the past.

Complicating the equation is the role of the politicians, more so in this age of demagogues and revivalist movements. Has religion ever been divorced from politics? It would be hard to argue that it has. Most modern secular states try to maintain a safe distance between the church and the State, but the political influence of the religious institutions is widely recognised — as was evident in the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the Sikh context, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has long served as the premier Sikh religious body. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which predates the SGPC, and had, in fact, led the movement that resulted in the creation of the SGPC, has a symbiotic relationship with the body that officially deals with the management of historical gurdwaras, but has evolved into much, much more.

There was a tradition of the SGPC and the SAD maintaining their distinct identities even as they worked together. This, however, has eroded in the past few decades, with the boundaries thinning, and eventually vanishing. This is unfortunate since the body that acts as the religious arbitrator for the Sikhs should provide leadership to the political class, and not the other way around.

The recent row over history textbooks in Punjab has a political agenda. And a respected scholar, Dr Kirpal Singh, who is known for a lifetime of work on Sikh history, is the collateral damage in this case. The scholar, who was rightly feted and honoured by the SGPC, has been editing Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, the magnum opus of Bhai Santokh Singh, at the request of the SGPC since 2001. Till now, 21 volumes have been published and two are in print. But the work is far from over as the period of Guru Gobind Singh is yet to be covered.

The historian was honoured with the title of National Professor of Sikhism by the Akal Takht in 2014. But instead of getting an appreciation for undertaking such an arduous task at an advanced age, he stands sacked as the director of the project. Not only this, but the stellar work done by him has also been put under the scanner as it would be “examined”.

Academic researchers dig for fresh facts, present new interpretations, and thus, contribute to enlarging our knowledge base. In such cases, variations in history texts are to be expected. Sometimes such differences are sharp enough to attract the charge of ‘distortion’. This often comes when an opinion of an expert clashes with that of believers, who adhere to a particular point of view and are not ready to consider any other possibility.

Textbooks, in India, however, are seldom subjected to the kind of rigorous scrutiny that they ought to face. Indeed, mistakes and distortions in textbooks are pointed out from time to time, testifying a cavalier attitude of those who publish and prescribe these books meant to shape young minds. Besides shoddy scholarship, there are production issues with books, typographical errors, etc.

The first committee to examine the problems in textbooks was set up during the tenure of the Akali government, and a decision to make changes in the syllabi was made in January 2014. However, the work that was eventually done for the 2018-19 session on the basis of this syllabus had several problems of conceptual as well as factual nature, especially in the Punjabi and Hindi versions. This led to the withdrawal of books and a request to the oversight committee to write afresh and give it chapter-wise. In such a scenario, a mature response would have been to continue working in the joint committee comprising historians, SGPC representatives and government officials, and sort out issues for the future of the students.

The SAD’s proclivity of falling back on the Panthic agenda when it is not in power is well known. It is leading the protest against the ‘distortions’ in history textbooks, and politicising the issue. It is not clear why it did not show its commitment to improving the quality of textbooks during the early phase of its 10-year tenure in the state when it could have accomplished much.

It is true that certain discrepancies regarding Sikh gurus have been found in the textbooks. The joint committee, set up by representatives of the SGPC and top Punjab historians, should have been given the time and support it needed and allowed to finish its work. That would, however, not have suited the political agenda of the SAD. The unholy haste shown by the Congress government in asking the committee to wrap up its findings has also been detrimental to quality control.

The SAD has sought to whip up popular sentiment by igniting this controversy, and thus, seeking to divert attention from other troubles that it is facing. Without digressing into details, it suffices to say that this is a time-tested manoeuvre that has cost the state dear in the past. Now, too, it is difficult to see what gain will be made from such a move.

The loss, however, is clear. The SGPC showed undue haste in acting at the behest of the SAD. What should have been discussed, debated and resolved by the committee of scholars is now in the public domain. The SGPC should have allowed the committee to finish its work before attacking it. A respected historian and scholar has been censured, thereby sending a chilling message.  Others on the committee will now hesitate to be involved with an endeavour that could turn political. The losers will be the students in whose name the whole exercise was started in the first place.

Political expediency has won, again. A pity.

The article was published on the OpEd page of The Tribune on November 12, 2018


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