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Diaspora Down the Centuries


Pralay Kanungo

COLONIALISM AND DIASPORA: SIKH CULTURAL FORMATIONS IN AN IMPERIAL WORLD
By Tony Ballantyne
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 229, Rs. 495.00

SIKHS, SWAMIS, STUDENTS, AND SPIES: THE INDIA LOBBY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1900-1946
By Harold A. Gould
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 460, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 8 August 2007

Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular, are a great mobile community being widely dispersed over the globe. In his book Tony Ballantyne interrogates the encounters of Sikhs and Sikhism with two formidable agents of modernity: imperialism and migration. Taking cognizance of both Sikhism’s global presence as well as its unique rootedness in Punjab, he attempts to reconstruct the Sikh history by focusing on Sikh cultural formations, especially their diasporic dimensions.   The embryo of a Sikh identity might have germinated during the Mughal period, but colonialism and modernity nurtured and shaped its distinct contours. Colonialism intensified and accelerated migration of Sikhs within the region and beyond to more distant lands, which continued unabated all through the postcolonial period. Contesting a monolithic vision of Sikhism, Ballantyne unfolds more complex and competing visions of Sikh identity which have been produced and articulated from a range of diverse locations and contexts: the Gurudwaras of Punjab, the daftars of colonial administrators, the battlefield of Asia and Europe, the streets of Singapore and Southhall, and the night clubs of New Delhi and Newcastle. Thus, Ballantyne observes, layers of migrant experience and cross-cultural encounters created ‘Sikh mentalities’ and defined Sikh identities over the last two centuries.   The first chapter makes a critical survey of the existing Sikh historiography as history has always remained at the forefront of the debates on Sikh identity and politics. By mapping the Sikh past the author identifies five divergent approaches: first, the ‘internalist’ with four distinct versions, such as normative (Tat Khalsa, Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha, Bhai Vir Singh, Ganda Singh and Harbans Singh), textualist (McLeod), political (N.G. Barrier) and cultural (Harjot Oberoi); second, the ‘Khalsacentric’ (Jasbir Singh Mann, Surinder Singh Sodhi, and Gurbakhsh Singh Gill); third, the ‘regional’ (Indu Banga, J.S. Grewal, Kenneth Jones); fourth, the ‘externalist’ (Richard Fox, Bernard Cohn); and fifth, the ‘diasporic’ (Arthur Helweg, Verne Dusenbery, Darshan Singh Tatla, Brian Keith Axel). Taking into account the contributions as well as the major epistemological and methodological difficulties of each of these approaches Ballantyne sketches an alternative approach to Sikh history which integrates the pre-colonial past, colonialism and the diaspora in a common analytical field. This approach, however, stresses on the centrality of imperial structures—the ‘webs of empire’—which produced a range of Sikh identities and led to the emergence of the early Sikh diaspora.   The second chapter analyses the ‘webs of empire’ (which was ...


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