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Provided by: J.S. Tiwana

S. Khushwant Singh : Our Grand Old Man
An Interview:
by Jagpal S Tiwana

“ A scholar must keep his mind  open”


Meeting S. Khushwant Singh was not easy to accomplish. Perhaps my reviews of his couple of books in the Sikh Review helped . Whatever the reason, after a couple of telephone calls, he agreed to see me on Feb.15, 2003 at 11 am at his residence.

He lives in Sujan Singh Park in a posh area, opposite the Ambassador hotel, in New Delhi, . From outside it is a majestic looking complex of apartment buildings, but not so well maintained from inside. I made to his door at 10.55 am. The door, walls and the hallway wearing an old look were in need of paint. There were cobwebs in the corners.  I did not have to wait too long. I was allowed in by a servant by the side door opening into the backyard. The eighty eight year young man was sprawling on a long easy chair like a  sphinx.. I was expecting a well groomed lawn decorated with flowery shrubs in British style, but like Sardar Sahib, everything looked aged and somewhat unkempt. In old crumpled clothes, worn out shoes and socks, K Singh looked a little like a neglected widower. But as the conversation started I realized that the old warrior was still young at heart, as jovial as ever. He exuded warmth and affection and made me  feel right at home. There was a healthy glow on his face and he looked much more handsome than on television. He was not the cranky old man , impatient,  irritable or snobbish as I had imagined him to be in my mind, but very amiable and easy to get along with. 

JST :  Jagpal Singh Tiwana           KS : Khushwant Singh

JST: You were a leftist in your early years at Lahore as you mention in your autobiography “Truth, Love and a Little Malice”. You don’t tell us who inspired you in this direction.

KS : When I was in England as a student, Socialism was much talked about among us. We read and discussed Bertrand Russel and attended lectures of Harold J Laski. I have not retained all the socialistic ideas, but I am still an agnostic.

JST: You are a non-believer, yet you spent a night at Bangla Sahib Gurdwara to seek Guru’s support as you were deeply shaken when your wife threatened to leave you.

KS:  This is one of those things … a contradiction. It was an emotional issue for me. I was born and raised in a Sikh family. I still keep my beard and turban and identify myself with the Sikh community.

JST: Some Sikhs say we are discriminated against in India. What do you think?

KS: No, not at all. They are making progress all over the country. They are in the mainstream of Indian life. They are now found in almost all political parties, even in RSS.

JST: No Sikh general has been appointed Chief of Army staff. Harbakhash’s name was recommended by outgoing Army Chief Kumarmanglam and approved by the Defence Committee, but Indira Gandhi ignored the recommendations and appointed Manekshaw.

KS: They can’t trust a non-Hindu to be the army chief, the most powerful wing of the defense forces, though Arjan Singh and Dilbagh Singh had gone to the top in the Air Force. May be someone was in Navy too, I’m not sure.

JST: Kapur Singh wrote in “Sachi Sakhi” that what incensed him most was a circular letter, issued by the State Governor, Chandu Lal Trivedi, warning district authorities in the Punjab against  the criminal tendencies of the Sikh people.

KS: Wrong. No such a document exists. Chandu Lal Trivedi was in a responsible position. How could he give such instructions in writing? It is all a figment of Kapur Singh’s imagination. He was bitter because he was dismissed from a government job in a corruption case.

JST: What do you think of RSS Chief Sudershan’s statements which Sikhs find highly offensive?

KS: RSS is a communal organization and dangerous to the country’s secular fabric. Look what they did to Muslims in Gujrat. For Sikhs, however, they have different approach. During the 1984 Sikh pogrom, they did save many Sikh lives. The RSS volunteers participated during the tercentenary celebrations of the Khalsa in 1999. They think Khalsa, a military wing of Hinduism, is their savior.

JST: What about the statement that Sikhs are Keshadhari Hindus. You also wrote in  “ Mistaken Identity” in the Wall Street Journal of  October 12, 2001 that Sikhism is a branch of Hinduism.  We had a very heated discussion on this in our Sikh Diaspora forum on Internet.

KS: That is correct. Sikhs are Keshadhari Hindus. Their religious source is Hinduism. Sikhism is a tradition developed within Hinduism. Guru Granth Sahib reflects the Vedantic philosophy and Japji sahib is based on Upnishads.

JST: These are quite loaded statements. You could be accused of blasphemy, and summoned to Akal Takhat.

KS: They don’t have the guts to summon me. They only go after the weak and the timid. Why don’t they summon Ranjit Singh who claims he is the real Jathedar of Akal Takhat? Pashaura Singh talked to me after appearing before Akal Takhat Jathedar. I told him “what is the point now? You should have contacted me earlier.” No scholar should be summoned to Akal Takhat. Is it a religious place or a Kotwali (police station)?

JST: How do you view the controversy on Dasam Granth?

KS: This area needs more research. No hasty conclusion should be drawn. I must say that I am not as familiar with it as I should be.

JST:   Some say that Singh Sabha scholars distorted Sikh history and tried to cut all links with Hinduism.

KS: Partly true. They did not distort Sikh history; they only emphasized, sometimes too far, the differences between the new reform movement, ie. Sikhism and the old traditional degenerated Hinduism. What they portray as unique to Sikhism, like unity of God,  castless society, etc. were also preached by other Vaishnava Bhaktas of the time.

JST:  Should a mona (non turbaned) or a Sehajdhari Sikh have the right to vote in the SGPC elections?

KS:  Why not? As long as someone declares he or she is a Sikh, that person is a Sikh. He or she should have a right to vote. Sehajdharis have been part of the Panth (community) since the very beginning. Now they say only Amritdhari men can do seva at Harmandir Sahib, but not women even if they are Amritdharis. This does not make sense against Guru’s teaching “ Manush ki Zaat Sabe Eko Pehchanbo”. Every Sikh should be allowed to do seva, whether Amritdhari or non Amritdhari 

JST:  In your earlier works, you said that Sikhism is a blend of Hinduism and Sufism, and then later when Hew McLeod’s works started appearing, you wrote in “Encyclopedia Britannica” that it is a tradition developed within Hinduism or an extension of the Bhakti movement.

KS:  Yes, McLeod’s works did change my ideas on this issue. A scholar must keep his mind open. I, however, do not like his new book, “ Sikhs of the Khalsa.” He has listed Rahits by many insignificant people. Who was this Chaupa Singh to give Rahit  to Sikhs?  His Rahitnama says ridiculous things, “ how to urinate, where  to deficate, never trust a woman” etc.  Every Nathu Kahira (ordinary Joe) cannot write Rahit for Sikhs. It is just like a Maulvi of that Masjid (pointed to the Eastern direction) writing instructions in name of Muhammad.

JST:  What do you think of McLeod’s research? Sometimes he is called an agent of GOI or RSS or a Christian missionary out to damage Sikhism.

KS:  That is nonsense. He is a scholar in search of original documents on Sikh history. He has raised many questions. The onus is on us to supply him with the facts. No, he is honest, a skeptic historian.

JST: Some people discern a pro-Jat bias in your works. A gentleman in our Sikh Diaspora forum on Internet quoted you as saying, “ Sikhs were nothing before Jats became Sikhs”. This started into the Jat - Bhapa controversy.

KS:  I base my opinion on historical evidence. After Guru Gobind Singh’s death, Sikh peasantry rose in arms under Banda Bahadur. Then Jats in the Sikh misls fought all through the 18th century to establish Khalsa Raj.  Out of the 12 Sikh Misls, 9 were headed by Jat chiefs. In this struggle, they made tremendous sacrifices.  If one generation was wiped out, next generation took up arms. Finally, they emerged victorious at the end of the century.

Are Tiwanas Jats? Any relation with that Punjabi woman writer?

JST: Dilip Kaur Tiwana? No relation with her, or with the Punjabi film director Harpal Tiwana. We were contemporaries at Mahendra College, Patiala. Yes, Tiwanas are Jats. Gurcharan Singh Tohra, former SGPC Chief  is also a Tiwana

KS: We had Muslim Tiwanas, Khizar Hayat and Ummar Hayat, big landlords as our neighbors in Western Punjab.

JST: What is your view on Nanak Shahi calendar?

KS: I have no view on this issue. (after a pause he added) What is wrong with the Christian Calendar which is prevalent all over the world now?

JST:  Which one of your books brought you the highest royalty - your most kumaoo put( highest earning son).

KS: Highest royalty came from  my autobiography, “Truth, Love and a Little Malice” . It earned Rs. 26.5 lakhs in the first six months. It is a very big figure for India, probably the biggest in Indian publishing. There after the sales dropped as the pirated editions appeared in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Last year it got me only Rs. One lakh.

The next very best royalty earned  was from  , “The Company of Women”. Both the autobiography and this novel remained on the top of the best sellers list for over six months.

JST: Here is a book for you, “The Maritime Sikh Society : Origin and Growth” from the Maritime Sikh Society, Halifax, Canada. It may not be of any use to you, but it has a couple of valuable features. It not only gives the addresses and accounts of all Sikhs settled there, but also the year of their migration to the region and places of their origin in India or abroad. It covers the story of 174 Sikh refugees who were dropped ashore in Charlesville, Nova Scotia by, Amelie, a Swedish ship, , one fine morning in July 1987. They were illegal immigrants; police took them into custody. The notorious terrorist, Talvinder Singh Parmar, brought the famous immigration lawyer, Mendel Green, from Toronto . The Maritime Sikh Society took their case to the court and got them free.  Now when the history of Sikh settlement in Canada is written, a reference to their entry is given along with that of the Komagata Maru incident of 1914.

KS:  I know it . The Canadian High Commissioner had consulted me. He wanted an unbiased opinion. He said the government of India wanted them back and assured him of a fair treatment. I pleaded with him, “ For heaven’s sake, do not hand over the boys to the GOI. They would be locked up in jails for all their lives without any trial. They want to settle in Canada . They have sold their lands in order to buy this passage to Canada. They could be very productive citizens. Give them a chance. They are not terrorists, but they will become terrorists if not accepted by Canada.”

JST: Thank you, you were so right. They all are now happily settled in Canada and occasionally visit or  call us to thank for the help we gave them. One of them has settled in Halifax.

JST: You had a very fulfilling life. Any regrets about things you could not do or achieve?

KS :  I have no regrets with life. I long to remain in buoyant spirits( charhdi kala) till my time to go comes.

JST: Would you like to be remembered as a historian, or journalist, or fiction writer?

KS : Why not all three?  I have worked hard on each. [he said it with pride and an endearing smile]

JST : To me as a Sikh historian, your two volume classic, “ A History of the Sikhs”, is a monumental work. No other Sikh historian comes closer to that, but as a journalist and fiction writer, you have several competitors.

JST : Any message for Sikhs abroad?

KS: Chardi Kala. Keep your spirits high. And don’t fight in Gurdwaras.   

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