Wednesday, July 31, 2013

An Encyclopedist ‘Sardar Bahadur’ of Sikh Renaissance

This article appeared in the monthly magazine, Identity,  August 2013

Dictionary: The universe in alphabetical order. - Anatole France

Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha (Aug. 30, 1861-Nov. 23, 1938) has recently received the most deserved attention as a rare breed of a deeply disciplined scholar-aristocrat. According to the modern researchers, he was indeed the tallest figure of the Sikh resurgence with the focus on Punjabi in Gurmukhi script during the complex socio-cultural and religious fermentation in the colonial Punjab. The life of Bhai Kahn Singh need be examined as an inspiring saga of the monumental dedication and labor of love in interpreting the Sikh scriptures in proper perspectives in their relationship with the other relevant works of divinity and principles of Indian literary traditions. He could single handedly accomplish what would seem beyond the combined capacity of the many times well provided teams of scholars in our contemporary academic institutions. The small princely state of Nabha situated in the back waters of Malwa region, always under the shadow of the next door larger Patiala state with its colorful rulers, has surely earned a rank above all the other states of formerly PEPSU because of the name of Bhai Kahn Singh associated with it. It is here in this sleepy town that seekers of scholarship and learning come across the brightest example of the pen proving mightier than the sword and tons of wealth.

As someone luckier to be born in the family of saint-scholars who had been imparting for generations the traditional classical learning in my ancestral of village of Falaund, 7Km from Malerkotla, I had been an innocent child witness to the rapidly disappearing old world way of learning. The Ashram type education of the Dera was free of cost, with the provision of even food and shelter for those who needed it. I vividly recall the entire sublime process of composing the handwritten books and preparation of Ayurvedic medicines under the benign supervision of my great grandfather Baba Pramatma Nand Ji who passed away on Oct. 16, 1947. The names of the eminent Gurmat - scholars, learned commentators on the Sikh scriptures and the Kaviraj - poet physicians - like Giani Gyan Singh, Giani Ditt Singh, Pandit Kartar Singh Dakha, Kalyan Dass Udasi, Hakim Kehar Singh of Kurali, Granthi Chanda Singh, Sant Attar Singh, Raj Vaidya Ram Prasad of Patiala and, of course, Bhai Kahn Singh, could be heard in the conversations of the elders. It was, however, in Dec. 1949 that I had listened to my father discussing passionately a recent debate in Patiala about the Punjabi language and how Bhai Jodh Singh had physically waved around on the stage the big volumes of Mahan Kosh – the Great Dictionary – by Kahn Singh Nabha to prove the point that Punjabi was indeed rich enough and developed to be the official language of the state of PEPSU / Punjab!

Bhai Kahn Singh was again the focus of my attention in the DAV College, Jalandhar, in Aug. 1966 when I had just realized my dream to be a lecturer. The vague expectations and anxieties were surcharging the atmosphere in the truncated ‘new’ Punjab in the wake of the reorganization of the state and the re-emergence, after evaporation in 1956, of the region of PEPSU as a more powerful political player. It was Prof VP Malhotra, my teacher and then guide as a colleague, who mentioned to me the name of Bhai Kahn Singh and his book, ‘Ham Hindu Nahin - We are Not Hindus’ as one of the first treatises of separatism among the Sikhs. I was, however, acutely aware of the references, listened to as a child, in the conversations at home that Swami Dayanand had used some derogatory expressions for Guru Nanak Dev Ji and how Giani Ditt Singh, the sharp witted scholar-orator belonging to the so called low caste, had out witted the Swami Ji in an open debate held in Lahore - recorded later in a booklet - titled, ‘Mera te Sadhu Dayanand da Samvad’.

I had moved on to join the Indian Foreign Service after a four year spell of sustained studies while earning much needed livelihood as a lecturer in English. The issue of Hindu-Sikh communalism which had started plaguing the Punjab in the last decades of 19th century has continued to remain a subject of concern and enquiry for me. I recall an ominous song popular soon after the Partition, “Kaun Kahe Hindu-Sikh doven vakho vakh nen; Bharat maan di doven sajji Khbbi Akkh nen - Who says that Hindus and Sikhs are separate from each other; they are like the right and the left eyes of Mother India,” - I used to wonder if the Muslim were supposedly alluded as the mythological ‘third eye’ of Lord Shiva! My lifelong intellectual interaction with inspiring teacher-scholars like Prof Pritam Singh and Prof Harmandar Singh - not to forget my unique school teacher, Ashni Kumar (1916-1999) and poet-patriot A.J. Zaidi during my posting to Iran (1975-1978) - has indeed been a soulful blessing in my continued quest of an unbiased understanding of what drives many in their deadly agendas of dividing humanity in compartments on various pretexts and the root causes of cancerous growth of intolerance towards other faiths among even educated and gifted persons. It was in this background that I had requested, and received, the duly signed by Prof Pritam Singh - datelined Dec. 12, 2000 - copy of his book in Punjabi, ‘Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha: Background, Writings and Evaluation’, published by Guru Nanak Dev University in 1989.

Prof Pritam Singh’s book, like his other pioneering research works on Punjabi language and literature, proved a trend setter and an inspiration for several other researchers including the two highly gifted and scholarly ladies of Bhai Sahib’s family. I have immensely benefitted from my careful perusal of valuable books authored by Dr Devinder Singh Vidyarthi and Dr Jagmail Singh Bhathua in my understanding the totality of the vast variety of literary and lexicological works - listed to be 23 in Prof Pritam Singh’s book - by Bhai Sahib. I undertook a serious study of the ‘controversial’, ‘Ham Hindu Nahin’ - first published in 1897 - and was impressed by its overall contents which discount the orthodox rituals and practices of Brahamanical Hinduism. He emphasizes the elements of social equality and an honest living in Sikhism. Bhai Sahib underlines the total rejection by the Sikh Gurus of the disgusting caste distinctions. It needs to be understood that Sikhism had come under serious attacks from various quarters after the collapse of Ranjit Singh’s rule. The census of 1881 had indicated the figure of the Sikhs in colonial Punjab to be 1.8 million while at the peak of rule of Ranjit Singh’s rule, their number was estimated around 10 million. The long struggle waged by the community to reassert its identity and reclaim the control of the sacred Gurdwaras should be appreciated in the totality of the prevailing circumstances. Bhai Kahn was the precocious child of his time.

All of us have our interesting memories of the purchase and use of dictionaries. I am reminded of Principal RG Bajpai who was well in known in colleges of Punjab for his ‘battles’ about correct use of English. He would always keep the dictionary on his office table; the peon would carry it along when Mr. Bajpai would be on the move and he would say, ‘An English gentleman swears by GOD (of Bible) and COD (Concise Oxford Dictionary)’. My school teacher told me about his own famous teacher, Dr. Raghuvir who had said, “Don’t quote dictionary to me… dictionaries quote me!”  Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the compiler of the first dictionary of English, had also undergone such several difficulties as faced by Bhai Kahn Singh centuries later in a land so distant and different than the island of Britain. To quote from the foreword by Prof Teja Singh, dated 18th January, 1930,
 “Gurshabad Ratnakar, his Magnum Opus, is Dictionary and Encyclopedia combined of Sikh Literature, a magnificent fruit of the author’s fifteen years hard and incessant labour. It contains 64,263 words occurring in the original Sikh scriptures as well as in other allied books… when we look at the volume of the work undertaken and carried out single-handed by the author, it appears nothing short of a marvel…”
Mr. M.A. McAuliffe, the author of the celebrated ‘Sikh Religion’, had said,
“I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Sardar Kahn Singh of Nabha, one of the greatest scholars and most distinguished authors among the Sikhs.” 
It is interesting to note that Bhai Sahib was conferred the title of ‘Sardar Bahadur’ for his scholarship - not the usual service of the British Empire.

I am proud of possessing the copy of Bhai Sahib’s Mahan Kosh. This is the sixth Special edition, published in 1999 - dedicated to the Tercentenary of the Khalsa. I could procure it at a wind fall price of ₹250/- against the printed ₹319/- in 2006 from the Bhasha Vibhag Office cum stall - located in an obscure and dark corner of Punjab Bhawan, New Delhi - managed by a Gurkha peon! The eminent Punjabi writer with impeccable secular credentials, Shri Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, who incidentally belongs to Bhai Sahib’s native village, has narrated the tale of the compilation for about 28 years, the tortuous efforts to raise resources and the ultimate printing of ‘Mahan Kosh’ in Amritsar, from Oct. 26, 1927 to April 13, 1930. The popular Punjabi poet Dhani Ram Chatrik, in the words of Bhai Sahib, had ensured that ‘Mahan Kosh’ was printed with the utmost care. The printing was indeed a great challenge in view if the fact that relevant words of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and English were also been included for explanations. The cost of the first edition of 500 copies, financed by the State of Patiala, was about ₹51,000/- ; each copy was, therefore, priced ₹110. Bhai Sahib made it clear that the author has not charged any amount for himself - it was for him a labor of love for the language of the Punjabis.

I must mention that my good friend,  Ambassador Pripuran Singh Haer - great grand (maternal) son of Bhai Sahib - graciously proposed that I should pay a visit to the historic home of Bhai sahib in Nabha. It was an immense pleasure and privilege for me to stay, on 24th March, 2013, in ‘Vrijesh Bhawan’, the beautiful abode of Bhai Sahib in Nabha. I had an intimate exchange of views with Major Adarshpal Singh - the great grandson of Bhai Sahib - about the glorious chapters of scholarship penned in these premises. I felt a strange spiritual and intellectual bond with this extraordinary scholar of Punjab. S. Divan Singh Maftoon, a distinguished journalist of Urdu who edited ‘Riyast’ to expose the wrong doings of native rulers, had the highest admiration for Bhai as a gentleman scholar. He said, “Had Bhai Kahn Singh been born in in the USA, Americans would have elected him as their President!”

Bhai Sahib’s birth day - 30th August - is also the birth day of my father, with a difference of exactly 59 years; he too was a proud scholar and true seeker of knowledge till his last. The USA has designated 16th of October as the National Dictionary Day to commemorate the birth day of the great lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843). It would indeed be most appropriate to declare Bhai Sahib’s birth day as  Punjab’s Day of Dictionary and Language.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Rajiv Gandhi’s Discovery of Spain - 25 Years After

This article appeared in the monthly magazine, Identity, July 2013

In his speech, made at the Banquet hosted in his honour - on Friday, July 15, 1988 in Madrid - by his Spanish counterpart Felipe Gonzales, Prime Minister, Shri Rajiv Gandhi began by saying:

“My wife and I are delighted to be in Spain. It is the fulfillment of a long cherished desire.
We are honoured that when he set sail in the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus was looking for us. Unfortunately, he was stopped by a large continent that just happened to lie in the way. OTHERWISE, I MIGHT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO SPEAK TO YOU IN SPANISH…”

There was indeed a spontaneous applause and loud laughter among all the guests enjoying the long awaited India-Spain Summit Party in the beautiful garden in the Moncloa Palace -  perhaps, imagining and wondering over the mightiest ‘If’ of History - or should one say, of Geography!

I was, however, struck to think differently - introspecting, “why an overwhelmingly elected head of the government of the Republic of India has ‘impulsively’ said so; why it had to be either English or Spanish - or even Portuguese or French for that matter! Was it the inevitable destiny of India to be colonized by one of the emerging European country and the Indian mind to get entrapped forever under the spell of an alien tongue?

It is interesting to recall the background-and environment - of the visit. Ambassador Krishana D. Sharma, our man in Spain since July 1985 - on his ‘swan song’ posting in a long career, coming there after his assignment in PAKISTAN - had been making every conceivable move in the text book of the profession for an early ‘maiden’ visit by the PM to the rapidly resurging - the post Franco - democratic Spain led by the youthful socialist Felipe Gonzales. A date for the visit had indeed been officially conveyed in 1987 by the Indian side to the eager Spanish hosts and it had even been mutually agreed. However, it had to be embarrassingly regretted a few days later because everyone in the PM’s office simply failed to check the calendar - the PM of India could not afford to be out of the country on the day of Deepawali! The lame diplomatic explanation given to the Spanish side was that the PM would be personally preoccupied in the massive relief effort in the face of an unprecedented drought in the country! More interestingly, by intriguingly strange coincidences, a couple of Ministers / senior officials had lost their positions soon after their visits to Spain - Minsters Abdul Gafoor, ND Tiwari, Jagdish Tytler and the powerful Vice Chairman of the DDA Prem Kumar are the few names that I can recollect. There was, therefore, even a murmur among us embassy officials whether we should persist in risking at all a visit by PM!

Author meeting with (3rd from right) Spain PM Felipe Gonzales, PM Rajiv Gandhi, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, and Spain PM's spouse Ms. Carmen Romero (shaking hands)

The PM’s Banquet speech - about 1,150 compact words - next referred to an enduring literary relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and the Spanish Nobel laureate Juan Ramon Jimenez. It was a pity that the name of the Spanish poet was not pronounced according to the Spanish ’J’ - though it was expressly conveyed in the draft of the speech by the embassy. Rajiv had, perhaps, no time and inclination to learn languages from his linguistically so gifted mother. He was, perhaps, closer to his father in his early  - children suffer silently when relations between parents get strained.

The speech had two interesting paragraphs - a good example of diplomatic euphemism and understatement - to the Spanish Civil War and Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit - exactly fifty years ago - to Barcelona to express solidarity with the Republicans who had been overpowered by the Hitler backed fascist forces plunging Spain into dark dictatorship for more than four decades.

The rest of the speech touched upon the predictable points about the ‘the substantial progress by India in the four decades’; ‘our agricultural production has trebled’ and ‘growing scope for India and Spain to expand their economic relation’, etc. The Nuclear Disarmament was explained at quite some length in the context of ‘India’s time bound Action Plan at the Third Special Session of the General Assembly on Disarmament.’ It was underlined that the ‘abhorrent practice of apartheid can be destroyed through the imposition of comprehensive mandatory sanctions under the UN Charter.’ The relations with neighbors found mention in ‘a peaceful border with China’; ‘a clandestine nuclear programme being pursued in neighbourhood’ and ‘terrorism being actively assisted from across our borders.’

While the Draft of the speech for the Banquet was in the process of the finalization in the Ministry of External Affairs, the Embassy received persistent queries about the ‘shared’ connection of Islam between Spain and India. It was politely indicated that the silence would indeed be ‘golden’ on the topic - though the ‘Moorish Islamic Rule’ over Spain from Cordoba and Granada spanning more than five centuries was indeed the ‘golden’ period in the history of humanity - and Jawaharlal has indeed been eloquent about it.

The year 711 AD - we may call it the 7-Eleven - could be considered unique for the two countries - Jabel al Tariq, the Arab-Moorish general, crossed Gibraltar (origin: Jabel al Tariq - the mountain Tariq) to begin the successful invasion of the Iberian Peninsula while Muhammad bin Qasim al Taqafi (695-715 AD) had also conquered the Sindh and Punjab regions in the same year. The history of Spain has remained mostly unread by the Indians or read only through the ‘jaundiced eyes’ of the British.’ The two countries had been long rivals for the brand of Christianity and strong competitors in the building of their vast empires. The re-conquest of Spain by the Catholic Monarchs, the inquisition and large scale expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain evoke complex and varying feelings among the Indians - depending on individual outlook on the role of religion in the contemporary epoch.

The deeply analytical and detailed political commentary on the visit was published in the interview carried in the Sunday edition, 10th July, of the leading Spanish Daily El Pais (The Country - then circulation:800,000 copies). The interview had quite telling and frank opening remarks stating, “Although diplomatic relations were established in 1958, our country had till now got left on the side in its openings to the great Non-aligned democracy… After four years of mandate which came to him unsought… (when) his mother was assassinated by the Sikh terrorists… The Indian PM is not only returning the visit of their majesties to India in 1982, but wishes to make good a deficiency… the visit is taking place in a context in which many of the hopes raised by the election of a young man to the helm of the government, a great believer and promoter of technological development and full of promise of fight against corruption and underdevelopment, are being vehemently denounced by a vociferous opposition. The recent losses in various by-elections… the rise of attractive figure of VP Singh-the inability to contain Sikh terrorism, the hornet’s nest of Sri Lanka… the increasing threat of Pakistan nuclearisation and the charges of corruption against elements close to the seat of power and to the Gandhi family itself, paint a picture almost of decline for someone who in December 1984 assumed control, with a smile which was innocent and confident...” How prescient and boldly objective observations!

There is no doubt that Rajiv’s visit had been a path breaking event and proved an important voyage of ‘discovery’ for the two countries. Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, eminent MP and former esteemed colleague from the IFS who functioned as ‘shadow of Rajiv for six years’, has been gracious to confirm to me a few days back that it was he who had crafted the Banquet speech. I have accepted ’in the fullest measure’ his advice to me to calm down and appreciate the ‘Columbus joke’ in its appropriate light hearted spirit. Another distinguished colleague who had served in Spain in the sixties on his first posting shared a fundamentally different take on ‘if Columbus’ saying, “Then India would have emerged as the largest Christian nation in the world and there would have been no Partition of the country!” The ‘ifs’ game reminds me of the story attributed to the Armenian Radio ‘political’ commentary, “If Khrushchev had been assassinated instead of Kennedy… well, Onassis would NOT have married Mrs. Khrushchev!!!”

As for my own posting to Spain, from April 1986 to July 1989, it was indeed a life changing experience for me and my family. Spain has been a unique super power for centuries with her everlasting contribution to human civilization, particularly in arts and literature. During my sojourn in Spain, I was indeed privileged to be a party to the tons true tales about the ‘discovery’ of Spain by so many VIP’s and other Indians who would often say, “We had seen all the other countries of Europe… thought that we should visit Spain also… and see the Bull Fight!” I may conclude for now by recalling the visit to Spain of a childhood friend who had become a prosperous doctor in the UK. After travels in Southern Spain, he said to me, “Baal, I could not resist the temptation to make a deal for a farm land which had so many almond laden trees… India must learn more from Spain about cultivation of sun flower and saffron i.e. Kesar…”

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