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W.H. McLeod: A Pioneer in Sikh Studies

Khushwant Singh fails to appreciate that the true measure of the Singh Sabha movement's success at distilling the Sikh rahit tradition will continue to escape us unless we gain access to tools that allow us to contrast the current rahit with its flawed predecessors. McLeod's book Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit is one such essential tool. It is critical that the blemishes present in the current edition of the Sikh Rahit Maryada be viewed not in isolation but in context with earlier textual versions of the rahit. However, the intellectual lethargy Khushwant displays here is not new. Other notable instances include blatant support (until much after it's conclusion) for Indira Gandhi's fascist Emergency rule (1975-1977) and the failure to denounce (again, until well after its conclusion; Jun. 20, 2003) state-sponsored terrorism in the Punjab (1984-1995).

The Tribune, Sep. 27, 2003

As often happens, foreign scholars do more thorough research on Indian themes than Indians themselves. When it comes to the Sikhs, Cunningham followed by [Ernest] Trumpp and [Max A.] Macauliffe were the pioneers. And the latest is the New Zealander W.H. McLeod, emeritus professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Since he is seriously ill, I wish to record the gratitude of my community for what he has done for it.

After getting a doctorate from The School of Oriental [and African] Studies [S.O.A.S.] in London, McLeod came to Batala to teach English. He was there nine long years. The choice was to do research on the Arya Samaj or the Sikhs. He chose the latter. He learnt Gurmukhi, studied the Sikh scriptures, janam-sakhis (life stories) of Guru Nanak and whatever else was available on the subject. His first book Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (Oxford University Press) was published in 1968. It shook Sikh scholars out of their complacency as he cast doubts about the authenticity of Guru Nanak's travels to Basra, Baghdad, Mecca and Medina as well as to distant parts of India and Sri Lanka. His second book The Evolution of the Sikh Community (O.U.P.) was published in 1976. He gave a lucid account of how from modest beginnings as a Bhakti cult, Sikhism spread to the Jat peasantry to become a formidable force.

Eight other books followed. I did not go along with McLeod on his later works particularly the one on rahit maryadas (traditional rituals) in which he highlighted the writings of nondescript granthis [Sikh preachers] of little repute or consequence pronouncing fatwas [edicts] as some maulvis [Muslim preachers] do. Nevertheless, my respect and affection for the man remained. It was too much to expect emotional involvement in the fortunes of a community to which he did not belong.

I am told he has recently published his autobiography [Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian]. I have not yet been able to lay my hands on it. It should be worth reading for, besides writings on the Sikhs, he nurtured a number of Sikh scholars, two of whom were arraigned before Akal Takht [the supreme Sikh authority] to atone for their sins.