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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

The Sikhs of the Punjab
JS Grewal

(Revised Edition) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
277pp. Index. Bibl. Pb.: 15.95/$24.95; ISBN 0-521-63764-3.

This, a revised edition of The Sikhs of the Punjab, is an important book. It constitutes an authoritative history of the development of the religion and culture of the Sikh community and of the competing traditions of which it is composed. It is a fine example of a descriptive historiography. While perhaps not the intent, the work also provides a crisp and measured history of northern India from the perspective of the Sikh historical experience.

The work commences with a vivid description of the social context of Guru Nanak's life and ministry, continues through the complex issues and relationships surrounding leadership succession through Guru Govind Singh, provides a delineation of the development of the empire of Ranjit Singh and the accommodation with the British successors to the Mughal Empire at the demise of the empire of the Sikhs and the impending demise of the Mughals. While conceived in broad strokes, the descriptions and analysis nevertheless move close to the content of cultural imbeddedness to facilitate contextual meaning and understanding. The book includes a rather substantial glossary, an equally detailed and useful three-century calendar of events as well as a rich and authoritative bibliographical essay.

While strong on descriptive political history, the work is less rich with respect to the social history of the Sikh community. The work would be enriched, for example, by an examination of the means of attraction and encompassment of new recruits and the means of communication among various local congregations spread across much of the Mughal Empire as it would by an investigation of the sinews of coherence within a community of devotees that included ritually exclusive social segments with roots in Hindu social structure. The volume provides a delineation of regional consciousness and competition for political advantage within the Sikh community, but no real explanation for Sikh exclusivism and centripetal political inclination. There is, in short, no theory of the Sikh movement of the late 20th Century. Such a theory is important not only for understanding and engaging current discontents in the Punjab, but also for informing our understanding of the genesis and forms of religious conflict more generally.

This said, however, it must also be said that this book has legs; it is must reading for anyone interested in the Sikh community and the Punjab; it will no doubt be a classic reference for years to come.

Richard Sisson,
Ohio State University

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