11 September 2020
By Edward Simpson
Gurharpal Singh joined SOAS in 2011 as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. He overcame a tough field at the presentation and interview stage to take up a challenging role. His period in office saw the creation of the flourishing School of Arts, a major donation from the Alphawood Foundation, and the formation of the SOAS South Asia Institute.
Gurharpal, along with other senior managers in SOAS at that time, had the vision to see how regional Institutes could play significant roles in promoting SOAS in the UK and overseas. He saw that universities are about education, but crucially also mediums for diplomacy and international collaboration. He personally oversaw the process that led to the appointment of Mike Hutt as the first Director. There was enthusiasm and energy around the inauguration of the Institute which attracted a great deal of attention and generated ‘buzz’. Gurharpal continued to have an active interest in the Institute when he stepped down as Dean in 2017 to join the School of History, Religions and Philosophies as Professor of Sikh and Punjab Studies.
As Dean, Gurharpal ran the Arts and Humanities faculty on a tight budget, encouraging entrepreneurial activity, and nurturing a future generation of university leaders. He was not afraid of conflict. Looking back, he made some tough calls – perhaps controversial at the time – but generally astute with hindsight.
Before his move to a senior managerial role at SOAS, Gurharpal held named chairs at the universities of Birmingham and Hull. Earlier he taught at De Montford and Birkbeck. In 1976, he was awarded the prestigious Harold Laski scholarship for an undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He carried on studies in the same institution and was awarded a PhD in 1987 on communism in Punjab.
Gurharpal contributed significantly and generously to the development and consolidation of Punjab Studies in the UK. In the 1980s, he was a founding member of the Punjab Research Group and later founding editor of the journals The International Journal of Punjab Studies (1994) and Sikh Formations (2005). His many papers and books display a deep and sincere interest in Punjab, Sikhism and identity and electoral politics. He collaborated widely with colleagues in politics and religious studies, reflected in the many jointly-authored publications.
Gurharpal’s research took him into difficult fields. Ethnic and religious violence are sensitive and deeply politicised topics in South Asia and related diasporas. Events in India during his career inflamed lines between religious communities. Iconic moments included: Operation Bluestar, which saw the Indian army storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984 and the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu nationalists in Ayodhya in 1992. These nation-defining moments raised profound questions about identity politics, secularism and citizenship. At the same time, Gurharpal was also fascinated by the proliferation of separatist, regionalist and religious movements, whose higher aims were to resist nationalist narratives and hegemony. Taken as a whole, Gurharpal’s research explores the tensions and contradictions between these national and local political processes.
Gurharpal’s line through contentious terrain has been both pointed and measured. Personally, he was deeply interested in regional studies and loyal to some forms of Punjabi and Sikh exceptionalism. At the same time, he has argued that Hinduism is a form of meta-identity in India which has coalesced around right-wing nationalist politics. His argument, although intended as a critical explanation of the plight of religious minorities, would also be recognised as valid by those he was out to criticise. The skill to employ such deft positioning enhanced by a life studying the way political argument and claims have been made others.
Throughout his career, Gurharpal held numerous visiting fellowships and served professional associations and national peer review panels. In 2018, he was was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust to work on a monograph that brought his enduring interests in Sikhism and nationalism into a single frame. I greatly look forward to reading that book, a culmination of research, experience and thinking over many decades.
Being an imported Dean of Faculty is a tough and highly visible way into an Institution. Gurharpal has however also been a scholar and mentor. Even though Faculties at SOAS are momentarily no more, his scholarship and intellectual contributions to knowledge and institutions will endure.
The South Asia Institute wishes you well in retirement and thanks you for the work and connections you have brought to SOAS.