SKETCH OF THE SIKHS, sub-titled "A Singular Nation who inhabit the Province of the Punjab situated between the Rivers Jumna and Indus," by Lt.-Col. John Malcolm, was originally published in the Asiatick Researches in 1810, and was published in book-form in 1812 and reprinted in 1981 by Vinay Publications, Chaṇḍīgaṛh.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section, covering almost the first half of the book, treats of the origin and history of the Sikhs from Gurū Nānak to Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur, with observations on their religious institutions, usages and manners. The second section deals with the nature and character of the Sikh government and the third with the religion of the Sikhs. However, this formal division could be discarded in favour of a more meaningful division ---the author's view of the Sikh past and his understanding of the contemporary situation.
Unlike his predecessors who had had no opportunities "of obtaining more than very general information regarding this extraordinary race," leading to works which served "more to excite than to gratify curiosity," Malcolm was able to get first hand information about the Sikhs when he accompanied, in 1805, Lord Lake's army in pursuit of Jasvant Rāo Holkar into the Sutlej-Yamunā Divide. He also managed to collect manuscript copies of various religious and historical works. In fact, he was the first British writer to think of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Dasam Granth, the Janam Sākhīs and the Vārāṅ by Bhāī Gurdās as the crucial sources of information regarding the Sikhs and prefer these Sikh writings to Muslim chronicles. John Leyden translated for him the Gurmukhī manuscripts into English and a Nirmalā Sikh in Calcutta is said to have helped in the interpretation of Scriptural texts. For the early eighteenth century, he had no Gurmukhī documents to rely upon and therefore he depended largely on Ghulām Husain Khān's Sīyar al-Mutākhirīn. Malcolm himself admits to his account being hasty and sketchy, and for this he seeks justification in its usefulness "at a moment when every information regarding the Sikhs is of importance."
However, this impressionistic and partially pejorative work, when studied with a sifting eye and combined with information from other sources, can be of good use in arriving at a realistic idea of the Sikh order.
Malcolm regards Sikhism, erroneously though, as a religious movement within Hinduism and its founder as a "reformer" rather than as a "subverter" of the Hindu religion. He appreciates Gurū Nānak’s insistence on monotheism from a deistic standpoint and, on a rationalistic criterion of tolerance, he admires Gurū Nānak’s attempt at conciliation between Hindus and Muslims. However, he has not been able to comprehend the principle of unity of spirit in the succeeding Gurūs, and his assessment of the career and contribution of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, the tenth and the last of them is depreciatory. He notes the contrast between Gurū Nānak and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh without taking into account the historical and logical evolution which took place in the intervening period. The spirit of independence and equality among the Sikhs is attributed to the measures taken by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. Another legacy of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, according to the author, was the implanting among Sikhs the belief that they enjoyed "the peculair care of God." The attachment to this principle led them "to consider the Khalsa (or Commonwealth) as a theocracy."
There are several inaccuracies in the book as regards Sikhs' character, manners and customs and their religious practices and concepts.
Malcolm's comments on contemporary Sikh situation, including the administration of justice which he found in "a very rude and imperfect state" as well as of revenue which seemed to him the most indulgent, are both interesting and valuable. He remarked how Sikh chiefs lacked unity among themselves. Their armies, including that of Raṇjīt Siṅgh, he held in poor estimate. His observations on the social life of the Punjab, especially of the Sikhs, have considerable historical and sociological significance.
J. S. Grewāl