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Sakoon Singh talks to Priya Atwal about her book 'Royals & Rebels: The Rise & Fall of the Sikh Empire,' published jointly by Hurst, Oxford University Press and HarperCollins India.

Talking Books

Vital to understand layers of 19 th C Punjab History situated at the cusp of colonialism

Sakoon Singh, on behalf of The Wise Owl, talks to Priya Atwal about her book 'Royals & Rebels' 

SS: Priya, let me begin by asking you: what led you in the direction of Sikh history? You do talk about it in the preface of your book but for our readers, if you could elaborate: Was it your heritage, in the sense of becoming sensitised to a part of one’s own intimate history or was it a natural progression of the academic line you were following?

PA: As a teenager, I was interested more broadly in gender history and the history of the Indian independence struggle – my focus on Sikh history came later. My interest in gender and feminist histories was piqued when I studied Virginia Woolf’s works for the first time in high school. They fascinated me in the way that they challenged traditional notions of what it meant to be a woman, and to write ‘his’ versus ‘her-story’. This intrigued me so much and I wanted to explore what it could mean for writing the history of women in my own community. I never had any opportunity to study South Asian history at school though, as I grew up in a very white area of the south-east of England. My first proper lessons came at university, where I embarked on a History degree, and from the conversations and events that I participated in at the University Sikh Society at Oxford.

A book talk I attended on Patwant Singh and Jyoti Rai’s Empire of the Sikhs, organised by SikhSoc, ultimately shaped the course of my career. At that event, I learnt for the first time about the existence of the former kingdom of Ranjit Singh and the tragic reign of Maharani Jind Kaur, and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was sad I had no clue about this history before, despite being a Sikh, and was desperate to learn more. That experience planted the seed for my eventual book!

SS: It is so interesting you bring in the Virginia Woolf and how that modified your view of perceiving history, its writing and the ubiquitous gender slant. And I think this erasure of certain details and a collective amnesia vis a vis this important period Punjab history is quite pervasive. Coming to the Ranjit Singh’s empire, what is fascinating is the cosmopolitan thought processes behind its institutions wherein the foundational ideas of race/ religion/ nationality/ education, were not based on a narrow definition of national, or for that matter, Sikh identity. I think, in this, Ranjit Singh is exceptional and not just successful . What do you think?

PA: This is an aspect of nineteenth-century Punjabi history that I also find very impressive. The nature of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s rulership and government is really quite interesting in the way that it attempted to balance carefully (and with considerable success) all sorts of tensions and divergences in the social fabric of the country. I think there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that the Maharajah was not exactly a saint – he was a heavy drinker, often pretty ruthless in his politics, and at times, also quite unpleasant to members of his own close family. Yet he was also strikingly human and humble, particularly accepting the idea that he ultimately could never stand above or apart from the Khalsa panth and the Guru Granth Sahib. He accepted their direction and ruled in their name only, and clearly endeavoured to tread a very careful path in building his own dynasty’s supremacy whilst following the path of Sikhi in his own way. Similarly, he acknowledged and accounted for the reality that Sikhs were a minority community in the Punjab, and that his government need to equally work for his more numerous subjects who were Hindus, Muslims or from other religious backgrounds. Unlike past rulers, he refrained from dogma and celebrated the varied faiths in the region on largely equal terms – even marrying women from these different backgrounds and appointing men from all communities to serve in his army and administration. The kingdom he fashioned in the nineteenth century was really a big experiment in the way that it established Sikh rulership on such a grand scale, but it was certainly a success in the level of peace and prosperity that it brought to a wide range of Punjabi people.

SS: It is very clear that you have adopted a divergent look at the Sikh Empire. From the more common Ranjit Singh centric approach, you have instead looked at personalities/ Sikh ideological influences /his several wives and relationships, and even the more cosmopolitan contact with foreign powers of that time, British and the others as important in order to understand the structures in the Sikh Empire. One can see this perspective shift from the cover of your book itself, where you choose not to portray the man but his youngest wife Jind Kaur and Duleep Singh. So the shift from strengths to the vulnerabilities is evident. What line of thought prompted this?

PA: I don’t actually see this as a shift from ‘strengths’ to ‘vulnerabilities’! What I learnt through my research, and wanted to demonstrate in my book, is that the ‘strength’ that built this empire actually came from many different quarters: including the women and children of Ranjit Singh’s family (and other key figures in his kingdom), rather than solely from the Maharajah himself. We have for too long been absorbed by the myth of Ranjit Singh as some kind of super-hero, without whom the entire fabric of the empire crumbled post-1839. This is actually a projection of many British colonial accounts of the period, which ironically championed Ranjit Singh as the Sher-e-Punjab more than even Punjabi historians did! But this was all so that they could simultaneously cast smears against his heirs and successors, and cut down their legitimacy to rule. When I started delving into the reign of Maharani Jind Kaur, and then wider primary sources documenting the experiences of other women and young princes in the family, I was amazed to find a much more complex and interesting picture of their activities, which clearly highlighted that they while they were all messy, imperfect humans; they all had made important contributions to the diplomacy, governance, military expansion and cultural life of the kingdom. It’s high time we recognise this and explore further what it means for our understanding of this key period of Sikh and Punjabi history.

SS: Jind Kaur’s is a fascinating case. There are drastically different opinions about her that have been ‘showcased.’ While a clearly manufactured strain popularised by British historians, diplomats, bureaucrats of her time proceeded to dub her “Messalina of Punjab”, more than implying her dubious moral standards (especially from a rigid Victorian standpoint), her promiscuity and later her propensity towards seditious behaviour. This was obviously done to create a justification for her subsequent deportation and mistreatment at their hands. Duleep Singh was convinced at some level of being moved to surrogacy under the Logins as a fallout of the mother’s “lunacy”. A critical look at the writings of the British officialdom lays bare the fact that the propaganda mills were in full swing. One side was this. The other side had the Khalsa Army proclaiming her as “Mai Jindan” or Mother of Khalsa, a title that is steeped in reverence. Numerous dhadhi jathas have celebrated her courage (and continue to do so in an unbroken tradition), highlighting her difficult journey, escape from Chunar etc. In one strain of popular Punjabi imagination she is the stuff of legend. Even though in modern history writing, Indian historians generally took the line of British historiography or alternately condemned her to a footnote. So obviously a dominant undercurrent of your work is critique of mainstream history writing, similar to what one finds in writings of litterateurs Navtej Sarna and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Any findings about her that you were startled by?

PA: Yes, I definitely delve into a critique of history-writing in my book. I really tried to peel back the layers of different historical accounts that have been written about the Maharanis and the Punjab for this period, and to explore the various nuggets of information that we can glean from them – in all their contradiction and clarity. You’re absolutely right that many British accounts of that time were extremely negative and nasty about Maharani Jind Kaur. However, what intrigued me most was how sometimes even those most negative of sources often contained within them a really interesting fact about her activity as a ruler, which almost seemed to have slipped into the narrative despite the best efforts of the colonial writer to disparage her! One example was learning about her endeavours to establish a new trading town, called Duleepgarh, in the mid-1840s. The Maharani apparently doubled down in her efforts to build up this town (which was apparently established mid-way between Amritsar and Lahore) in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, to boost trade and tax revenue, which she needed to pay off the heavy war fines that she was treaty-bound to pay to the East India Company. Mentions of her conscientious efforts to work with bankers and traders from Amritsar to boost the settlement were scattered alongside much more frequently-reported and highly spurious bazaar gossip about her supposed affairs with members of the durbar, in the political reports being sent back by British officials to the Company headquarters. It struck me as so fascinating that, despite their best endeavours to cast aspersions on her character, these news-writers also couldn’t help but acknowledge and admire her town-building activity. Acknowledging this today helps us see the contradictions in these representations of her career, and better appreciate the realities of the very active leadership role that she took as Queen-Regent in the very difficult context of post-war Punjab.

SS: I feel that somewhere in the minds of Punjabis, Ranjit Singh’s Empire continues to be that Utopia, which is both remembered as that lost kingdom as well as a blue print of what an ideal Punjabi state ought to be like. To that extent it continues to have an undeniable pull. What do you think and what characteristics of the Khalsa Empire for you are personally worth highlighting?

PA: It certainly is an iconic era that is easy to look back on with a great deal of romance and nostalgia, particularly for Sikhs; not least in the wake of the painful ruptures caused by British colonialism, Partition and the Khalistan struggle. For me, however, a key takeaway is the relative pan-Punjabi cultural unity and richness that seemed to be a marked feature of that period in history. I wouldn’t advocate for another monarchy or empire to be established in order to achieve this – I’d certainly prefer to live in a democratic country! And it’s definitely clear that subjects on the border regions of the empire, including Kashmiris, Pathans and Afghans, really didn’t like being under Sikh imperial rule and regard it as a period of oppression; so empires, no matter who they are ruled by, are never a good way to run a country. However, I think the nobility of cultural life from that period is worth emulating:  we had much more investment in education during Ranjit Singh’s reign, and much greater support for intellectuals, artists and architects, which overall gave so much more pride and empowerment to ordinary Punjabis and their cultural world. Equally, there was much more cohesion and interfaith solidarity/harmony, which added to the confidence and stability of Punjabi society at the time. I think we could stand to benefit from all this so much today, especially if all these opportunities were provided equally to men and women.

SS: I want to ask you this, which in a way will bring our conversation full circle: One of the things you are doing as a historian is cultivating historical sense in the community at large. Especially for British Sikhs, the story of Jind Kaur and Duleep has a special resonance. I want to mention here the work of the likes of Peter Bance, Davinder Toor, Gurinder Mann, UKPHA, Ramblings of a Sikh, A Little History of Sikhs, Anglo- Sikh Heritage Trail, etc that, inter alia, manage community activities like book readings, walking tours, material collections, building museums, blogging etc that have created new channels of popular conversations about heritage with the community at large. You were recently entrusted with the job at Tower of London, of providing detailed museum labels on the crown jewels (including the Koh-i-Noor) and their sources in colonial exploits. You and others participated in the recent ceremony where Sophia Duleep Singh’s house has been granted a blue plaque, thus according long overdue recognition to a Sikh icon. These events definitely auger well and indicate an undeniable interest in this part of Sikh as well as Imperial History. How do you perceive the future of these endeavours?

PA: I am so excited about all of this! It makes me so happy that we have such a diverse range of activity taking place, which is educating not only the Sikh/Punjabi community, but equally reaching wider mainstream audiences. It’s so important that we do both, and it’s incredibly exciting that we are today able to be so creative and open in sharing our histories, with so many different people getting involved and doing excellent work. It can be lonely and hard pursuing a career as historian at times – funding can be difficult to obtain, and you often work long hours in libraries/archives, or at a desk writing alone on complex subjects. So to have an increasingly wide range of allies and well-wishers championing research and public education on Sikh history is such a boon. It gives me a real inspirational boost to keep going, and also makes me really happy and proud to see that diverse communities and younger generations will have much greater opportunities to learn about our history than I ever did growing up! 

SS: Thanks for that wonderful conversation Priya.

PA: Thanks so much for your interest in my work, and for helping to shine a light in the exciting developments in the field of Sikh/Punjabi history. I greatly look forward to reading your novel on Jind Kaur and Duleep Singh too!

About Priya Atwal
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Dr Priya Atwal is a historian and author focusing on empire, monarchy, and cultural politics. She is the University of Oxford’s Community History Fellow, where she obtained her doctorate and teaches.

In 2020, Priya’s Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire was jointly published by Hurst, Oxford University Press and HarperCollins India. The book chronicled the history of the men and women who forged the far-reaching Sikh Empire in a dramatic global era of fading dynasties and ambitious newcomers. In the same year, Priya presented a 5-part series for BBC Radio 4 called Lies My Teacher Told Me; a series which interrogating the teaching of history in itself, highlighting the ways through which it is embellished, manipulated, and sometimes fabricated to fit political agendas, nationalistic narratives, and contemporary identity politics. Since then, Priya has appeared on various programmes and podcasts, including BBC Radio 4’s Princess and Sky History’s The Royal Mob.

Discovering her passion for history through a love of Bollywood cinema and trips to National Trust homes, Priya has acted as a historical consultant for organisations including the Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Most recently, she was the historical consultant on the second series of Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton; a series which broke streaming records in logging 700 million hours of viewing in its first 28 days. While working both on and off-screen, Priya continues to deliver keynotes and panel discussions for audiences ranging from companies such as BMW and EY to government offices such as the MET Office and the Department for Education.

About Sakoon Singh
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Sakoon Singh studied English Literature at the JNU, New Delhi and Panjab University, Chandigarh. She has been a recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship and currently teaches Indian literature and cultural studies in Chandigarh. She has published her academic writings extensively, including contribution to Cultural Studies in India ( Routledge 2015), Literature and Theory (Routledge 2021) and Reading India in a Transnational Era (Routledge 2021). She has served on the editorial team of Dialog and edited a special South Asia section for E3W Review of Books (University of Texas, Austin). She has done a stint as an Associate fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. She was a member of the selection process of Bal Puruskar, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. 2021.

“In the Land of the Lovers” (Rupa; April, 2020)- Short listed for PFC-VoW Book awards 2021 is her debut novel. She is currently working on her second, which is a historical novel that revolves around the end of the Sikh Empire and the beginnings of colonial intervention in Punjab, particularly highlighting the story of Jind Kaur and Duleep Singh.

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