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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 Jerry preserved many historical documents by filming at the Nehru Library.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.  


June 8, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Lou Fenech (Cedar Falls, IA, U.S.A.), June 08, 2010, 8:05 AM.

Thank you, Professor Pashaura Singh, for a beautiful eulogy. I was not a close friend of Jerry Barrier's but I certainly admired the man who had done so much for the study of Sikh history in the United Sates. As we know, Jerry was truly the first scholar to take the Singh Sabha Movement seriously, producing a number of articles and an absolutely indispensable monograph on the subject, 'The Sikhs and Their Literature.' He was a pioneer in the field in so many ways. His loss will be felt not only by those of us as committed to Sikh Studies as he was (a commitment which he also helped foster) but it will also resound amongst all of us who teach South Asian material in the U.S. and Canada, as for the most part Jerry was our principal source of books. What I remember best about Jerry is his tenacity and his fondness for really good wine. Many people will chime in here but there is one incident I recall with much affection: the day I saw him walking in a Toronto snowstorm as he made his way from Columbia as the outside reader of my dissertation on December 1995. He could have easily remained in Columbia but chose to continue through the horrid weather to support both myself and my supervisor, Hew McLeod. For that he has my undying thanks. So long, Jerry, we'll miss you.

2: Doris Jakobsh (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), June 08, 2010, 12:11 PM.

Pashaura ji: Many thanks for the lovely eulogy for our friend and colleague, Jerry Barrier. Once again, so soon after the passing of Hew McLeod, those of us in the community of Sikh Studies are mourning the loss of a fine scholar, a man of extraordinary humilty, one who loved to laugh, a friend that one could turn to in times in trouble. I was always amazed at how quickly Jerry would respond to any questions I had - about an obscure passage or quote - his answers, not only expedient, were also precise, accurate. Jerry was a great collector of all things Sikh. He was delighted and enthused by his findings. Sikh Studies for Jerry was not simply about a 'job'; Sikh Studies was his passion, one of many. He will be sorely missed by many of us. To his family, his lovely spouse, Joanne, please know how much we appreciated Jerry. We are with you as you mourn your beloved.

3: Van Dusenbery (Northfield, MN, U.S.A.), June 08, 2010, 12:42 PM.

We have now lost, within less than a year, two pillars of Sikh studies - Hew McLeod and Jerry Barrier. Whatever one may have thought of their scholarship, no one can doubt that together they helped pave the way for the emergence of Sikh studies as a important area of interdisciplinary study in the western academy. But they will be missed for more than their roles in institution building. They will also be missed for their personal mentorship and support of younger scholars. In Jerry's case, this included his outreach through the many conferences he helped organize, the volumes he helped edit, and the books and book notices that he sent our way. From the beginning of my career in Sikh studies, I benefited from Jerry's generosity - in suggesting that I be included with him as one of three speakers at the very first Michigan Sikh studies conference, in co-organizing with me the subsequent Sikh diaspora conference at Michigan and co-editing the resulting conference volume, and in encouraging my subsequent research and writing endeavors in Sikh studies. Jerry was passionate and energetic and willing to speak his mind - with both his academic and his Sikh interlocutors. We will sorely miss his mid-western plain speaking and the books and refreshments that he could be counted on bringing to our collective gatherings.

4: Ranbir Singh Sandhu (Tracy, California, U.S.A.), June 08, 2010, 12:45 PM.

Jerry's passing - at so young an age - is a big loss to all who knew him and all scholars of Sikh history and religion. I first met Jerry in 1983 at a seminar organized by the Sikh Council of North America. I had known of him even earlier and had the privilege of suggesting to the SCNA (Late Dr. Harbans Singh Sidhu was president that year) to invite him as the keynote speaker. Jerry was not only a distinguished scholar but a thorough gentleman. We differed on many issues and even appeared/ deposed as expert witnesses from opposing sides in two gurdwara disputes. This did not at all affect our relationship as friends. We could always discuss various issues. So much so that in one gurdwara dispute where we were on opposing sides, he felt free to ask me for information on gurdwara management patterns before our depositions. He was the best promoter of my book on Sant Bhindranwale even though I am certain he did not agree with all of my analysis. He had a disarming sense of humor and ready wit. All our "encounters" were fun. Not only was he himself a scholar but through 'South Asia Books' and personal contacts, he provided many of us with invaluable access to sources on Sikh history and religion. Jerry was dear to and respected by so many. He leaves a void which will be extremely difficult to fill. His presence among us will be deeply missed.

5: Karen Leonard (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), June 08, 2010, 4:58 PM.

Thank you, Pashaura, for your words and the wonderful photos of Jerry too. He was one of our oldest friends and we, John Leonard and I, worked with him in India's National Archives in the 1960s and then met him as a friend and colleague many times over the years. As many have said, Jerry drew people into dialogue, into the field of Sikh and Punjab Studies, through his enthusiasm as well as his scholarship. He was such a great guy; he will be sorely missed.

6: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), June 09, 2010, 8:51 AM.

Mr. Barrier, you will be remembered and missed. You and your peers have paved the way for Sikh studies in the western hemisphere and inspired many scholars to take the work further. Thank you for your life-long contributions and your passion.

7: Puneet Singh Lamba (Boston, MA, U.S.A.), June 10, 2010, 3:48 AM.

I am shocked to learn of Jerry Barrier's demise. I suspected something was wrong because he wasn't responding to correspondence. His immense contributions to Sikh Studies are sure to stand the test of time. He had a big hand in encouraging my own informal foray into Sikh Studies. Jerry had a knack for tracking and documenting the undercurrent within Sikh affairs (e.g., the activities in local gurdwaras and on the Internet forums). I will greatly miss his always forthright and insightful comments on forums and in e-mails. And I'll miss the excellent service provided by him via 'South Asia Books'.

8: Eleanor Nesbitt (Coventry, United KIngdom), June 10, 2010, 4:16 AM.

Thank you, Pashaura, for your evocative tribute to Jerry. For me, throughout the past three decades, Jerry has been an inspiration - both through the books that he edited and as an example of commitment and energy in strengthening scholarship in Sikh Studies.

9: Mark Juergensmeyer (Santa Barbara, California, U.S.A.), June 10, 2010, 6:06 PM.

I think that my friend and collaborator, Jerry Barrier, will be remembered for two major contributions to academic life. One was his critical role in helping to create the field of Sikh Studies in the United States. Through his own research, his collaborative efforts and his academic networking, he helped to make Sikh studies into a reputable intellectual enterprise. It is true that the work of our mutual friend, Hew McLeod, put Sikh studies on the academic map in the West. But if Hew planted the seeds, Jerry was the one who nourished the soil and nurtured the field, who made the contacts and met with the graduate students and made Sikh studies happen. His other signal contribution was in making accessible the scholarly literature of South Asia to American scholars. Through the South Asia book service that he ran out of his Missouri barn, Jerry reminded us that scholarship on South Asia was being done in South Asia, thank you, and not just by scholars abroad. Though now the internet and other distribution networks make the product of South Asian scholarly work more easily available to us, Jerry was a pioneer in globalizing the field of South Asian scholarship. We give thanks to Jerry for these achievements, and for much more. The effects of them, like the memories of his friendship, will long live on.

10: G.B. Singh (Nashville, TN, U.S.A.), June 14, 2010, 10:10 AM.

I am saddened to hear this news. I met Jerry in his office in 1992, at a time when I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Since then, we would discuss various issues in an open, free and critical fashion. I always viewed Jerry's opinions with respect and took every opportunity to learn from his vast knowledge. Jerry's untimely death is my loss as well a loss for all those whom he touched. My condolences to his family.

11: Bruce La Brack (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), June 14, 2010, 12:17 PM.

Other friends and colleagues have already spoken eloquently of his scholarship, his academic leadership, his initiating and sustaining role in the establishment of Sikh Studies and his joyful pursuit of publishing and selling South Asian books. But for me, it was Jerry the mensch, whose passionate involvement and intellectual curiosity was boundless, for whom I am feeling the keenest loss. His selfless mentoring and sometimes blunt common sense advising of younger scholars was something he did naturally, enthusiastically and to great effect. I always looked forward to any conference or event that Jerry would also be attending because whatever wisdom and insight he would provide publicly, it was the after-hours discussions that often lasted long into the night that are among my fondest and most vivid memories. In a field sometimes burdened with divisions and acrimony, Jerry always maintained a sense of fairness, honesty and a reasonable approach when discussing difficult, complex and divisive topics. He will be missed as much for who he was, as much as for what he accomplished, and that is as it should be.

12: Veena Das (Baltimore, U.S.A.), June 15, 2010, 6:58 AM.

I remember Jerry Barrier with gratitude for not only his own formidable scholarship on Sikhism but also for his generosity in giving so much time and effort to recognize and acknowledge others whose work he made available to the world.

13: Jugdep Singh Chima (Berkeley, California, U.S.A.), July 14, 2010, 5:57 PM.

I was saddened to hear about Professor N. Gerald Barrier's passing in early-June. The field of Sikh and Punjab studies lost a first-rate academic pioneer; I lost an academic and intellectual mentor, and his friends and family lost a person of unquestionable humanistic values. As many of his long-time colleagues have remarked, Professor Barrier was a transformative figure in the field of Sikh and Punjab studies largely because of his commitment to archival and tract literature research that helped the academic community (and Sikhs themselves) better understand the construction and evolution of Sikh ethnic identity and political community during the late-19th and early-20th centuries - a formative period in the ethno-political life of the Sikh community in India. I first came to know Professor Barrier when I came to the University of Missouri-Columbia as a doctoral student in the mid-1990s. In addition to my major advisor, Professor Paul Wallace in political science, the presence of Professor Barrier in the history department was a determining factor for me choosing the University of Missouri over other doctoral institutions. While Professor Barrier and I disagreed on many substantive aspects of late-20th century Sikh politics, his mentorship helped define the analytical lens through which I researched the post-1984 Sikh separatist movement including the emphasis on political elites, competing constructions of identity, and the role of communication networks. Most importantly, he emphasized the centrality of human agency in explaining social phenomenon and political change instead of the abstract variable we political scientists are often trained to focus on. In this way, my doctoral dissertation (more recently published as a book) reflects the methodological orientations provided to me by Professor Barrier as an academic advisor. Finally, Professor Barrier was a warm-hearted and conscientious person who, through his words and personal example, endowed those around him with a respect for others and for humanity in general. Professor Barrier will be sorely missed but never forgotten by the field, his friends and colleagues, and his students like myself whom he helped define in such important and meaningful ways. Professor Barrier, thank you.

14: Dick Snyder (Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.), December 27, 2011, 2:34 PM.

For some strange reason I was thinking about him, googled him and found this article. He taught a class I took at MU in 1967. How's that for recall! I thought of the sparkle in his eye and his keen sense of humor, a beacon in an otherwise bleak landscape in the middle of Mid-America.

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