23 Nov 2010

In Memory of Ajeet Singh Matharu

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Earlier this year at our first Sikholars 2010: Sikh Graduate Student Conference, young researchers from across North America came to present their work on the Stanford University campus.  Each with their own work; each with their own perspective.  One of the most memorable was Ajeet Singh Matharu.  Ajeet Singh presented his paper “Punjab and Sikh Studies in Historiographical Moments”.  This past summer, he was taken from us far too soon.  At the upcoming Sikholars 2011 we seek to create a proper legacy tribute for Ajeet Singh.  Please feel free to send us suggestions.

Below you will find an ‘In Remembrance’ article about Ajeet Singh by a friend, colleague, and brother.

This remembrance is of a different sort.  For those of us that had the fortune to meet Ajeet Singh, we were overjoyed, inspired, and eager to see the germination of a budding young scholar.  On July 26, 2010, that opportunity was cut short after a tragic car accident, as Ajeet Singh was traveling to his morning Punjabi class as part of AIIS Institute in Chandigarh.

Ajeet Singh Matharu was born on February 7, 1983 in Reedley, California.  The precocious and gifted young boy left his Central Valley home to pursue high school at the prestigious Phillips Exeter academy.  Collegiate callings would see him return to his native California and begin his undergraduate career at USC.  Excelling in his studies, Ajeet Singh majored in History and Economics.

A strong passion for social justice led him to serve as part of the Teach for America corps.  A high school teacher of history, Ajeet Singh was devoted to his students.  He excelled in the classroom and was recognized by his Brooklyn public school for his ability to connect, inspire, and dramatically improve the test scores of his students.  Jeers, epithets, or even the defacing of his school picture never caused Ajeet to waiver in his commitments.  He, like the son of the 10th Guru, from whom he took his name, owed his allegiance to the Guru and was eager to always be a Sikh ambassador ready to greet, educate, and connect with those around him.  A humanitarian passion led him to new causes, including seeking to build bridges between various communities.  He was an advocate for dialogue between Palestinians and Sikhs, moved by his sense of moral justice and the desire to bring different people together.

While his sense of social justice could not be narrowly defined, Ajeet Singh had a special place for his own community.  Nurtured in one of the oldest Sikh settlements in North America, Ajeet Singh was vested into his community.  The post-9/11 violence was a spark that pushed his seva in a range of activities.  From the Jakara Movement to SALDEF, Sikh Research Institute, and the Sikh Coalition, Ajeet Singh placed causes above organizational loyalties and was a bond between all the major Sikh-American organizations.  Earlier this year, he submitted a written testimony to the Oregon State Legislature in support of the repeal of ORS 342.650, a 1920s era law passed under a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria, that outlawed religious attire and prevented keshadhari Sikhs, along with some Jews and Muslims, from being teachers in Oregon schools.  The law was repealed this year due to the efforts of Ajeet Singh and many others.

California Central Valley’s Sikh population provided a venue for him to grow his interests in the history of the Sikhs.  Weekly Punjabi school classes, as well as a father with a vast library on Sikh-related materials nurtured his early development.  His studies and travels in the Punjab with UCSB’s Punjab Summer program fostered what was going to be a life-long relationship with his parents’ homeland.  In fact this year, his studies at the AIIS Chandigarh institute were further tethering him to this world.

Entering a graduate program in history at Columbia University, Ajeet Singh excelled, accumulated recognition, and earned the respect of his faculty and peers.  Within his first year, the historiography of Sikh Studies became an overwhelming concern.  Always self-reflexive himself, he hoped to aid in the same critical awareness to the field.

The idea for a historiography paper came in response to a call for papers for the first annual Sikholars: Sikh Graduate Student Conference, later development was seen in the form of a piece he wrote for the Sikh Foundation’s web-series “Opportunities and Challenges for Sikh Academics”, and its final form manifested itself in a class paper submitted for Dr. Sudipta Kaviraj’s MDES G4601 course.  From these sparse cotyledons and numerous conversations where we challenged, provoked, pushed, and encouraged one another, I can provide some sense of how Ajeet Singh saw the field, new debates that he sought to encourage, and the voice he wanted to provide.

Seeing Sikh Studies as nine different categories: orientalist, biographical, historiographical, identititarian, diasporan, feminist, revisionist, scriptural, and theoretical, Ajeet Singh sought to explicate each.  He noted four major trends of the scholarship in the past four decades:

  1. The continued uncritical usage of categories by practitioners in the field of Sikh Studies (such as Barrier and Juergensmeyer’s ‘neo-Sikh’ and Oberoi’s ‘Tat Khalsa’) to refer to the Singh Sabha reformers.  These categories themselves were a product of administrative anthropology and a colonial discourse to determine which Sikh groups were loyal and which were not.  While post-structuralists assert a critique of relations of powers, in the Sikh context, they have been remarkably complementary in their categories with those of power.
  2. An unreflexive silent dialogue with some scholars of Sikh Studies and the project by many Sikh nationalists for Khalistan.  With various publications arising in the 1980s and 1990s under this ‘specter’, a general consensus formed within the field that religious identity was fluid and hybrid in the pre-modern period and the modern Sikh identity and religion was created by early 20th century colonial elites.  Most scholarship written during this period had a subtext in explaining the militancy, with results supporting a statist solution and deligitimization of the movement.  The congruence of this opinion with that of the Indian state in its violent suppression of the movement has been largely overlooked.
  3. The discrediting of both Sikh oral-tradition and Punjab-based, mostly Sikh, researchers in favor of Western-trained academics.  The result being that there is a ‘balkanization’ and gulf between the Punjab-based scholarship and those trained in Western universities, who hold the former in low esteem.  This process, starting in the 1970s, has born fruition with the hegemonic locus of Sikh Studies decisively shifted out of the Punjab.
  4. The turn to the self-labeled ‘critical theory’, institutionalized through the journal Sikh Formations, under the helm of Arvindpal Mandair.  Without giving an endorsement, Ajeet Singh acknowledged that this research project associated with the problem of translation of the concept of religion will continue to produce new scholarship in the upcoming years.

With a beginning preoccupation on understanding the field, Ajeet Singh saw himself in different mode.  He recognized that the most productive emerging scholarship in the field of Sikh studies requires multiple linguistic abilities, deep historiographical knowledge, beyond only that produced in Western universities, and access to private libraries, archives, and collections.  He was seeking nothing less than re-writing Sikh history in the modern period.  He was arguing for a shift of periodization from 1800 onwards, rather than 1850, which is usually the date taken up by those interested in the modern period.  His time in Punjab with AIIS was to gain requisite proficiency in Punjabi.  He was going to continue his study of Urdu and Hindi in the upcoming fall semester at Columbia.  His preliminary works are most laudatory towards those authors such as JS Grewal and Gurinder Mann with ‘deep’ understandings of multiple languages, including Persian, Urdu, Braj, and Punjabi in various scripts.

Engaging with theory, but ultimately seeing himself as an empirical historian, Ajeet Singh wanted to revisit and revise the subaltern project.  He was fascinated with peasants and artisans, but not in the turns that the subsequent Subaltern Studies project turned.   Economic and social studies, rather than only following cultural and intellectual trajectories were to be part of his future work.  He was excited and eager.  In his own words, he wrote about new possibilities in the field and new research agendas: “I am both optimistic for the time ahead and proud to be taking part in creating it.”  On July 26, 2010 his opportunity was taken away far too soon, though we hope his thoughts, reflections, and challenge to those in the field may live long after.  I lost a friend and brother; the Panth lost an activist and advocate; the scholarly community lost a diligent and curious student and budding young colleague.  Named after a prince, he, himself, was a prince.  Some say that in the Divine wisdom, those close to the Guru are called to return sooner.   May that which is permanent return to its Creator in Infinity.

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