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Reviewed by:
  • Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World
  • Thomas R. Metcalf
Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World. By Tony Ballantyne. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. 230 pp. $74.95 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

This rich, diverse, and always compelling volume gives us a view into the changing nature of Sikh culture and the Sikh engagement with modernity, from the early colonial era up to the present. It is not a comprehensive account of Sikh history, even in the postcolonial [End Page 535] period—there is, for instance, no discussion of the 1980s Khalistan movement—but Ballantyne provides a stimulating set of essays that illuminate the ways Sikhism came to terms with, and took advantage of, the challenges posed jointly by empire and migration. In its wide-ranging analysis, the book adopts, as Ballantyne writes, "an explicitly global approach to Sikh history" (p. 168). Against much conventional historiography, especially that written by scholars of Sikhism, Ballantyne insists that Sikh history does not take place in the Punjab alone, even in the nineteenth century, and is not found only in texts. At the same time he argues, in opposition to postcolonial theorists who describe Sikhism as an invention of the British military, that Sikhism possessed enduring traditions of its own, what he calls a "precolonial knowledge," and yet one that over time took the shape of "innovative cultural formations" (pp. 36, 70).

Scholars interested in the larger issues of globalism and migration will find some portions of Ballantyne's book, especially its first chapter, a discussion of various schools of Sikh historiography, beside the point, for Ballantyne seeks to address "internalist" scholars of Sikhism as well as the readers of journals such as this. Still, this volume is full of penetrating and unexpected insights into the varied ways the "webs of empire" caught up Sikhs in "novel" identities and patterns of life (p. 68). Sikhs initially sought opportunities overseas in British imperial military and police forces, and as agriculturists from California to Australia. In the years after partition, they streamed into Britain itself. These global patterns of migration, as they opened up new opportunities, in their turn "destabilized," Ballantyne argues, accepted notions of Sikh authority both in the Punjab and overseas (p. 66). Most notably, in the days of the Raj, Sikhs overseas, in common with other migrants such as Gandhi, increasingly came to think of themselves as "Indians" and develop new kinds of relations with others. Most striking among these are, perhaps, the Sikhs who married Mexican women in California. It is not clear how far such cultural adaptations affected contemporaneous Sikh reform activities, directed to religious systematization and coherence, back in India. Ballantyne may overstate his case when he seeks not only to "juxtapose" these two styles of cultural transformation, but to see them as "entangled" with each other. He is surely correct, nevertheless, to insist that Sikhism was never simply a single "calcified" faith, but rather one "continually under construction" (pp.83, 85).

Ballantyne devotes an entire chapter to the little-known story of Maharaja Dalip Singh, the last ruler of the independent Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. After the province's annexation in 1849, the young [End Page 536] maharaja converted to Christianity and went into exile in England. There he was taken up by Queen Victoria and became the owner of a substantial estate in Suffolk. Patronized by the British but ultimately disowned by them, Dalip Singh's importance lies not so much, Ballantyne argues, in the tragic events of his life as in his place in the "historical consciousness" of Punjabis, above all in Britain itself (p. 90). Although the hapless Dalip never made it into the pantheon of Indian national heroes, as Sikhs began to settle in Britain they turned to an imagined Dalip Singh as the "founder" of their diasporic community. In consequence turbaned visitors began to seek out the small rural town where Dalip is buried. The local people, protecting their own vision of their town as "quintessentially 'English,'" sought to "expunge" from the community's memory any recollection of Dalip's residence among them (pp. 110, 115). Ironically, Dalip Singh...


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