Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Norman Gerald Barrier: "He is Indispensable"

by Dr. Pashaura Singh

Norman Gerald (Jerry) Barrier - 1940-2010

Professor Emeritus Norman Gerald (Jerry) Barrier, an eminent historian of South Asia and Sikh Studies, passed away on Sunday, June 6, 2010, a day when Sikhs around the world were observing the 26th anniversary of the Indian army's assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984.

In fact, this major catastrophic event had provided Jerry with a new lens to re-interpret the legacy of the Sikh past in understanding modern Sikhism. His research continued to focus on recent Sikh history.

Jerry Barrier was born on August 22, 1940.

He received his Ph.D. from Duke University and taught for a year at Northern Illinois. Then he taught at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for 37 years. While at Missouri, Jerry headed South Asia Center for several years, chaired the History Department, and held two chairs, the Middlebush Chair in History and the Middlebush Chair in Social Sciences.

As part of his research, Jerry spent several years in India. He initially worked on politics and religion in Punjab, with a focus on agitation and communalism. In 1968, he began to study Sikh movements, worked extensively at the Sikh Kanya Mahavidyala, Ferozpur at the Bhai Takht Singh Library. He found a collection of virtually all tracts and papers from the Singh Sabha / Chief Khalsa Diwn period. Jerry preserved many historical documents by filming at the Nehru Library. He made them available, along with the Tribune, at the South Asia Microform Project, Center for Research Library.

His initial work, Sikhs and Their Literature was published in 1970. Since then he published several monographs, edited several volumes, and contributed over 30 articles and chapters, many of which relate to Sikhism.

Jerry had been expert witness for several legal proceedings including INS and Gurdwara disputes in the United States of America. In particular, his article on the Fairfax Gurdwara case where he served as a major expert witness provides insights into Sikh politics, authority, and congregational practice. He was in the initial discussions leading to the creation of the Sikh Studies Chair at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Recently, Jerry was working on the history of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, and developments in the diaspora-issues relating to organization, law, practice and politics.

Personally, I have known Jerry for over two decades and worked with him closely since 1994. We organized three major international conferences in Sikh Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1994, 1996, and 2001, respectively, and one research seminar at the University of California at Riverside in 2008.

Apart from being the keynote speaker in the conference on Sikh Identity in 1996, Professor Barrier presented his own paper on the "Akal Takht and Conflict Resolution in North American Sikh Gurdwaras" and moderated two panels. The highlight of that conference was the moment when Professor J.S. Grewal, who was to speak on "Conference Summation," had to leave earlier.

I turned to Jerry at the eleventh hour to sum up the conference, and he surprised everyone with his extended comments on all the panels. Professor Thomas Trautmann, who was moderating the final session, remarked: "Jerry is indeed indispensable!"

This sole event speaks volumes in favor of a person who could rise to the occasion and support his colleagues without any hesitation.

In addition, Jerry and I co-edited the proceedings of the three conferences: one was published as The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1996); the second was published as Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change from the same publishers in 1999; and the third as Sikhism and History from Oxford University Press in New Delhi in 2004.

As a result of these collaborative scholarly activities, my respect for Jerry's scholarship, humanity and dedication increased immensely. As a matter of fact, he was a major factor in my own career advancement in the academic world. I owe him a debt of gratitude for his unfailing love and support.

As the holder of the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies ,I organized an international research seminar in December 2008 on the theme of "Sikhism in a Global Context." The keynote speech, entitled "Sikhism in a Global Context: The Legacy of History and Contemporary Challenges," was delivered by Dr. N. Gerald Barrier, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri-Columbia.

At the end of his speech, he was presented with a 'Lifetime Achievement Award' in commemoration and appreciation of his significant scholarly contributions in the area of Sikh Studies. The award was presented to him jointly by Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, Chairman of The Sikh Foundation, Palo Alto, California, and Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, the two pioneers who promoted the field of Sikh Studies in academia during the last three decades.

The text on the plaque reads: "The Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies honors Norman Gerald Barrier with a lifetime achievement award for his distinguished contribution to the field of Sikh Studies."

As the Saini Chairholder, one of my aims is to acknowledge the contribution of pioneers who dedicated their lives to make space for Sikh Studies in academia. This is out simple way of saying, "Thank you, Jerry, for your contribution!.

The ensuing volume on "Sikhism in Global Context" will now become a commemorative volume in his honor.

Jerry was indeed the leading expert in the area of Sikh and Punjab Studies in North America. The most significant point was the tremendous impact of his scholarship on the coming generation of scholars. No scholar, working in the area of Punjab and Sikh studies, can afford to ignore his arguments. In fact, N.G. Barrier has always been a frequently cited name along with W.H. McLeod of New Zealand, both of whom made a seminal contribution in the area of Sikh and Punjab studies.

I should mention here the widely acclaimed single contribution, The Sikhs and Their Literature (Delhi: Manohar, 1970), in which Professor Barrier has provided us with a mine of sources on the Singh Sabha period (1873-1925). This book has become so influential that scholars frequently use it in their understanding of the impact of colonial rule on Punjabi society.

Jerry had an international reputation in the field of South Asian history. He enjoyed a particular place of honor within the Sikh community of North America. In fact, he would regularly contribute to Gurmat Learning Zone (GLZ) and Sikh-Diaspora (S-D) online forums. His insightful interventions on current issues were highly appreciated by one and all.

His death has created a vacuum in the scholarly world. He will be sorely missed. The best tribute that we can pay him at this tender moment of loss is to keep his memory alive by passing his legacy to the new generation of scholars in the growing field of Sikh Studies.

Posted on sikhchic website, June 8th 2010.

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