Professor J. S. Grewal: An Eminent Historian Remembered


By Devinder Pal Singh and Harbans Lal | OPINION |

Professor J. S. Grewal, an eminent historian, had a pioneering interest in the historiography of medieval India. He brought the rich history of Punjab and Sikhs from the margins to the mainstream. His outstanding research works took Amritsar’s name to national and international levels. Grewal, a retired national fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research, used to say: “To understand the present, it’s important to understand the past.” 

Born in 1927, he was the youngest of five children in his family. As a child, he studied Persian and Urdu in school at Lyallpur (now in Pakistan). He was inspired by his father, who was well-read in traditional literature. He was studying math and physics at Forman Christian College, Lahore, when the Partition of India took place. After Partition, his family settled at Dhandra village in Raikot where his father had been reallotted land. 

Due to changed circumstances, his father could only afford to send him to a government college in Ludhiana. Therein, he did postgraduation in English and geography. During his college days, he participated in debates and loved football. His teachers inspired him to take a shot at the civil services, which he did. He was successful in his attempt and was selected for the audit and accounts training in Nagpur, but he soon realized that his heart lay in history, not accounts. 
After quitting the audit service in 1954, he joined Government College, Hoshiarpur, to study history. He was much influenced by Partition and wanted to know more about the cultural interchange between Hindus and Muslims. So, he focused on the social and cultural history of the medieval period.

As advised by his teachers, he went to the University of Durham in the U.K. to research how European scholars had treated Sufism in India. In 1963, his research culminated in his doing a Ph.D. on the British historical writing on medieval India. Oxford University Press published his work in 1970 as “Muslim Rule in India: The assessments of British historians.” 

In the U.K. in 1964, his meeting with A.C. Joshi, the Vice-Chancellor of Panjab University (P.U.), culminated in his joining the history department of the University as a lecturer. He served P.U. for the next seven years. In 1971, he joined Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), Amritsar and became the founder Head of its History Department. During his tenure as the Head of the Department of History, he got every aspect of Punjab deeply researched. His research interests included such diverse elements of Punjab as social, cultural, political, social classes, peasantry, the business community, the economy, and the history of various city areas. Under his stewardship, the History Department was so dynamic that it became one of the top departments in the Punjab state and the entire country.

In addition to his academic duties, he shouldered the responsibilities of the University’s first and longest-serving Academic Affairs Dean. He became the third Vice-Chancellor of GNDU in 1981, following Dr. Bishan Singh Samundri and Dr. Karam Singh Gill. Due to his contribution to historiography, he was elected President of the Indian History Congress in 1984. He retired from GNDU in 1987. Soon after, he joined the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla as a fellow. Therein, he rose to the position of Director and Chairman of the same institute.

Professor Grewal has been a member of the Religious Advisory Council of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the head of the Institute of Punjab Studies, Chandigarh. He published numerous articles and books on Sikh history. Some of his notable works include Guru Nanak in History (1969), The Sikhs of Punjab (1990),  Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition (1998), Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Polity, Economy and Society (2001), Social and Cultural History of Punjab (2004), Sikh Ideology, Polity and Social Order(2004), Kinship and State Formation (2007), The Sikhs: Ideology, Institutions, and Identity (2009), and Historical Writings on the Sikhs: 1784–2011 (2012). In addition, his research has been subjected to studies on academic levels. His contributions to establishing the importance of regional history in the larger perspective of national and international historiography are outstanding. In 2005 he was honoured with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award, by the Indian Government for his outstanding contributions to Indian literature. 

Prof. Grewal was an institution builder, a good administrator, and a good man. Historian of international fame, he gave a new meaning and identity to the history of Punjab and the Sikhs. He had a unique contribution to establishing the importance of regional history in the broader perspective of national and international historiography. 

Dr. J. S. Grewal passed away at the age of ninety-five in Chandigarh on August 11, 2022. However, Dr. Grewal’s legacy lives on in his scholarly writings, the many initiatives he gifted to academia, and the various academic institutions he served.

Dr. D. P. Singh, M.Sc., Ph.D. is Director, Center for Understanding Sikhism, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. He is a physicist by training, a teacher by profession and a writer by choice. He specializes in writing on Science, Religion and Environmental topics. Currently, he is working as Director, CanBridge Learning & Educational Consultant to various educational institutions in Canada. Email:

Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons) is the Professor Emeritus & Chairman at the Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center. He is also the Professor Emeritus at the Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University as well as President of the Academy of Guru Granth Studies. He can be reached at


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