- "Sicques, Tigers, or Thieves": Eyewitness Accounts of the Sikhs (1606-1809)
The editors of this attractive volume have done students of Sikhism and Sikh history the great service of collecting, in one place, European studies and translations that describe, analyze, and illuminate the early Sikh community. This fact alone makes the volume indispensable to college and university libraries that do not have access to the originals. The editors, perhaps unwittingly, have created a volume that maps out the process of the creation of colonial knowledge at its earliest stages: lack of confidence, reliance on local informants, the increasing European practice of translation, the proliferation of detail, the creation of fact through repeated iteration, and reference to older published work. However, the intent of Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh seems not simply to provide new and well-situated evidence for scholars interested in comparing or theorizing forms of colonial knowledge; instead, they seek to provide to a general audience evidence with which to construct historical narratives of the Sikh community and of the South Asians and Europeans who were their contemporaries.
A general audience, of course, would never find this book on the shelf of a local bookstore, and if such a reader did find it, references to unglossed non-English terms (for example, panth, prasad, and masand, in the introduction alone, not to mention in the "Glossary of Names") would quickly try the patience of most novice readers. So the real audience here is twofold: English-literate practicing Sikhs and professional historians of religion and society who have devoted a substantial part of their training and research to the Punjabi language and Sikh people. Curiously, the editors make little if any explicit discussion of the interpretive antagonism between the two groups that dominated scholarship and public debate on Sikhism and Sikh history in the 1990s. A glance at the bibliography shows that the editors chose to ignore both W. H. McLeod's foundational, if contestable, books from his long career and J. S. Grewal's contribution to the New Cambridge History of India, on the side of the academic professionals, and the more vituperative critiques, such as Fundamental Issues in Sikh Studies and Ernest Trumpp and W. H. McLeod as Scholars of Sikh History, Religion, and Culture.1 Perhaps Madra and Singh wish to put [End Page 151] these contests behind them, and their frequent use of the sources to challenge Sikh "tradition" on specific aspects of Sikh history suggests the possibility of constructing new and challenging old narratives without appearing to threaten communal or doctrinal cohesion. However, this volume is very much the product of several centuries of contest over the written representation of Sikhs and Sikh history, and the editors should have addressed this inheritance more directly and explicitly in their introduction.
This contest over representation may be explained as having four overlapping periods. First, the writings of members of the early Sikh community exhibited enough slippage on theological and historical points to permit later scholars to support arguments about the existence and antagonism of heretical groups. These discussions of theology and community continued throughout the eighteenth century. Second, from the beginning of the seventeenth century, imperial chroniclers and other authors serving political interests outside Punjab began producing first fragmentary accounts of the political impact of the Sikh community and then increasingly coherent narratives of the origins of Sikhism as a religious ideology. The European accounts included in "Sicques, Tigers, or Thieves" must be understood as falling in this period and as the inheritors of the earlier Mughal chronicles. They all attempted to do the same thing, namely, to create knowledge about a distinguishable body of people that could be used to maintain or establish political control over that group. This period, of course, would include the district gazetteers, army recruitment manuals, and other documents produced by British authors at the height of empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the early twentieth century, though, authors connected to or commissioned by Singh...