Ranajit Guha, the unconventional historian

Context: Ranajit Guha, a distinguished historian who left an indelible mark on the field of Indian history, sadly passed away in April 2023. He was renowned for his significant contributions and was particularly influential within the Subaltern Studies group.

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About Ranajit Guha

  • Famous works: A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement, (Today, it is recognized as a classic in modern Indian history); History at the Limit of World-History; An Indian Historiography of India: A Nineteenth Century Agenda & Its Implications; Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India; Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. 
  • During the 1980s, he initiated a transformative approach to studying South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. He observed that the prevailing mainstream historical studies were inadequate for comprehending the complexities of the region’s past
  • This led to a shift away from the predominantly elitist approach to studying the history of the region. The new methodology, known as Subaltern Studies, emerged as an influential post-colonial and post-Marxist school of history. 
  • Guha defined the term ‘subaltern’ as the demographic distinction between the overall Indian population and those identified as the elite. 
  • As part of the project, he examined the landmark legislation of 1793 known as the Permanent Settlement of Bengal. He posed a previously unasked question: How did the application of the 18th-century French economic doctrine of Physiocracy, aimed at creating entrepreneurial farmers in Bengal, result in the creation of the neo-feudal zamindari system?

Subaltern Studies 

  • The term ‘subaltern’ draws inspiration from the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). Initially, the term referred to peasants excluded from the industrial capitalist system. 
  • The Subaltern historians departed from Gramsci’s interpretation, arguing that the history of subaltern groups was autonomous from that of the dominant classes while acknowledging their subordinated status.
  • The Subaltern Studies examines non-elites and subalterns as agents of political and social change. They demonstrate a particular interest in studying the discourses and rhetoric of emerging political and social movements, rather than solely focusing on highly visible actions such as demonstrations and uprisings.
  • In Indian context: Explores the dynamics of dominance and subordination within colonial systems, notably in India. Dissatisfied with the prevailing conventions of Indian history writing, a group of writers joined the collective and made significant contributions to its volumes. 

Unveiling the Phases of Subaltern Studies

The Subaltern Studies project, renowned for its innovative approach to historical analysis, can be divided into two distinct phases. 

Phase I of the Subaltern Studies:

  • Represented a radical departure from conventional Indian historiography, characterized by the confrontation between the elite and the subaltern. 
  • The project aimed to break free from the economic determinism found in various Marxist theories and challenge the elitism of bourgeois-nationalist and colonial interpretations. 
  • The project highlighted the distinctions between the politics of the people and elite politics, as elite mobilizations were vertical in nature and people’s mobilizations took a horizontal form.
  • The elite mobilization tended to be legalistic and peaceful, whereas subaltern mobilization often exhibited a more spontaneous and confrontational nature.
  • Phase II, embracing discourse analysis in Subaltern Studies:
  • The second phase saw a significant change in its approach, influenced by postmodernist and post-colonialist ideologies that reshaped its trajectory. 
  • The impact of postcolonial perspectives became evident, particularly in the works of Partha Chatterjee. 
  • Chatterjee’s influential book, ‘Nationalist Thought and Colonial World’ (1986), applied a postcolonial framework, which portrayed colonial power-knowledge as dominant and irresistible.
  • Over time, many other writers associated with Subaltern Studies moved away from Marxist ideology, leading to intellectual divergences within the group.

Critiques of the Subaltern Studies Project

Despite influential contributions to historiography, it has faced extensive criticism from various quarters. Critiques have emerged from Marxist, Nationalist as well as Cambridge School historians.

  • Scholars like, Javeed Alam argued that the autonomy of subaltern politics is based on the perpetuity of rebellious action, irrespective of whether the consequences are positive or negative.
  • This perspective neglects the historical trajectory of militancy and overlooks the implications of such theoretical constructs. 
  • In the review essay by Sangeeta Singh, a critical picture is presented of Guha’s understanding of the spontaneity of peasant rebellion. It was seen as a reflexive action, which is problematic, as it equated spontaneity with action based on traditional consciousness.
  • Guha’s assertion about the centrality of religion in rebels’ consciousness was viewed as supporting the British official view that downplayed the disruptive role of colonialism in rural and tribal structures.
  • Ranjit Das Gupta, argued that the project tended to focus on moments of conflict and protest while downplaying the dialectics of collaboration among subaltern groups.
  • David Ludden, pointed out its rigid theoretical division between ‘elite’ and ‘subaltern’ and its confinement of subaltern politics to the lower strata, thereby alienating subalternity from political histories of popular movements.

Despite the controversies, the project has undeniably made significant contributions to historical scholarship, reshaping our understanding of marginalized voices and challenging dominant narratives.

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