Singh Sabha Movement

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The Singh Sabha Movement was a Sikh movement that began in Punjab in the 1870s in reaction to the proselytising activities of Christians, Hindu reform movements (Brahmo Samajis, Arya Samaj) and Muslims (Aligarh movement and Ahmadiyah). The movement was founded in an era when the Sikh Empire had been dissolved and annexed by the British, the Khalsa had lost its prestige, and mainstream Sikhs were rapidly converting to other religions. The movement's aims were to "propagate the true Sikh religion and restore Sikhism to its pristine glory; to write and distribute historical and religious books of Sikhs; and to propagate Gurmukhi Punjabi through magazines and media." The movement sought to reform Sikhism and bring back into the Sikh fold the apostates who had converted to other religions; as well as to interest the influential British officials in furthering the Sikh community. At the time of its founding, the Singh Sabha policy was to avoid criticism of other religions and political matters.


  • The historiography of the Sikh experience in the nineteenth century is based on two principles, one of silence and the other of negation. The principle of silence is commonly found in most historiographies. For instance, official Soviet historiography has long drawn a curtain over state terror under Stalin. Similarly, elitist models of the Indian national movement contain no references to popular struggles for freedom, particularly when these grassroots movements differ in their socio-economic objectives from the aims of the pan-Indian Congress party. In the Sikh case, historical texts are virtually silent about religious diversity, sectarian conflicts, nature worship, witchcraft, sorcery, spirits, magical healing, omens, wizards, miracle saints, goddesses, ancestral spirits, festivals, exorcism, astrology, divination, and village deities. When, occasionally, some of these are mentioned in historical texts, they serve to dress up an argument about how Sikhism was rapidly relapsing into Hinduism in the nineteenth century, how its adherents deviated from the ‘true’ articles of faith and subscribed to ‘superstitious’ and ‘primitive’ beliefs. Ultimately, this argument in official Sikh historiography goes on to establish that Sikhs were delivered from the bondage of un-Sikh beliefs by the intervention of the late-nineteenth-century Singh Sabha movement. Scholars who favour such inter- pretation are backing what I call the principle of negation. They are of the view that Singh Sabha reformers werein line with traditional Sikh doctrines when they opposed a large terrain of Sikh beliefs and practices in the nineteenth century. One asks why these two concepts, absence and negation, have come to exercise such a powerful influence on Sikh historiography. There are, I think, two major reasons for this.First, European observers of the Sikhs in the nineteenth century were often far more concerned with what Sikhism ought to be like rather than whatit was. Men like Ernest Trumpp, John Gordon, and Max Macauliffe, following the conventions established by Orientalist scholarship on India, showed far greater interest in recording the ideals of the faith rather than the actual behaviour of its practitioners. This preoccupation with texts led them to essentialist formulations of tradition that generally ignored a vast array of forms and religious practices among the Sikhs.“ Occasionally, when compelled to take note of these practices in their accounts, they treated them with disdain, dismissing them as corrupt accretions resulting from the moral lassitude of the Khalsa, the decline in the political fortunes of the Sikhs, and the boa-like advances of Hinduism.
    • Harjot Oberoi - The Construction of Religious Boundaries_ Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (1994, University of Chicago Press)
  • The Sikh literati which emerged under the shadow of the Raj were powerfully influenced by the European discourse on their religion and in due course began to exhibit a similar intolerance towards many aspects of the Sikh tradition. Like the Europeans, this new class began a journey in search of ‘authentic’ texts, so that the ‘correct’ articles of the faith could be established. This quest for a rationalized Sikhism free of ‘spurious additions’, collectively underwritten by the new Sikh elites and the social forces generated by colonial rule, has come to exercise a very powerful influence on Sikh historiography. Much like European scholars, or like late-nineteenth-century Sikh reformers, contemporary scholarship either tends to ignore vast terrains of Sikh life in the nineteenth century or views it as a superfluous addition which has to be negated. There appears equally a failure to recognize the differences between the ideology of a period and a historical explanation. It was Sikh reformers in the nineteenth century who,for the first time, labelled many current practices and certain forms of Sikh identity as unacceptable. Historians are at fault when they simply reproduce these value judgements and employ categories invented by a section of the Sikh elites to discredit specific beliefs and rituals. What needs to be explained is why,at a particular juncture, certain forms of behaviour came to be viewed with suspicion andinvited censure. To suggest, as many have done, that this was because these beliefs were superstitious and without rational basis is to propose a tautological argument that ends up legitimizing the discourse of the modern Sikh intelligentsia. It is time to give up the ideological blinkers imposed by the complex changes in economy,society and politics under the Raj. A firm distinction ought to be made between the way certain beliefs and rituals came to be represented in the rhetoric of socio-religious movements like the Singh Sabha,and their actual place and function in the everyday life of people...
    In that sense Dhillon’s work is rooted within what I call the principle of negation in Sikh studies: it is not an isolated example... Sikh studies need to fully open up to the gaze of history.
    • Harjot Oberoi - The Construction of Religious Boundaries_ Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (1994, University of Chicago Press)

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