Subaltern History Research Paper

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1. Gramsci In India

In the form in which it is currently known, subaltern historiography is derived from the writings of a group of historians of modern South Asia whose work first appeared in 1982 in a series entitled Subaltern Studies (Amin and Chakrabarty 1996, Arnold and Hardiman 1994, Bhadra et al. 1999, Chatterjee and Jeganathan 2000, Chatterjee and Pandey 1992, Guha 1982–9). The term ‘subaltern’ was borrowed by these historians from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, whose writings in prison in the period 1929–35 had sketched a methodological outline for a ‘history of the subaltern classes’ (Gramsci 1971). In these writings, Gramsci used the word ‘subaltern’ (subalterno in the Italian) in at least two senses. In one, he used it as a code for the industrial proletariat. But against the thrust of or- thodox Marxist thinking, he emphasized that in its rise to power, the bourgeoisie did not simply impose a domination through the coercive apparatus of the state but transformed the cultural and ideological institutions of civil society to construct a hegemony over society as a whole, even eliciting in the process the acquiescence of the subaltern classes. In Gramsci’s analysis of capitalist society, the central place is occupied by questions such as the relation of state and civil society, the connections between the nation, the people, the bourgeoisie and other ruling classes, the role of intellectuals in creating the social hegemony of the bourgeoisie, strategies for building a counter- hegemonic alliance, etc.

In the second sense, Gramsci talked of the subaltern classes in precapitalist social formations. Here he was referring to the more general relationship of domination and subordination in class-divided societies. But specifically in the context of southern Italy, he wrote about the subordination of the peasantry. Gramsci was very critical of the negative and dis- missive attitude of European Marxists towards the culture, beliefs, practices and political potential of the peasantry. Positioning himself against this attitude, he wrote of the distinct characteristics of the religious beliefs and practices, the language and cultural products, the everyday lives and struggles of peasants, and of the need for revolutionary intellectuals to study and understand them. But he also highlighted the limits of peasant consciousness which, in comparison with the comprehensiveness, originality and active historical dynamism of the ruling classes, was fragmented, passive and dependent. Even at moments of resistance, peasant consciousness remained enveloped by the dominant ideologies of the ruling classes. These discussions by Gramsci were turned to productive use by South Asian historians writing in the 1980s.

2. Against Elitist Historiography

Ranajit Guha, who edited the first six volumes of Subaltern Studies, wrote in the introductory statement of the project: ‘The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism— colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism’ (Guha 1982). The objective of subaltern historiography was to oppose the two elitisms. The field of modern South Asian history was dominated in the 1970s by a debate between a group of historians principally located in Cambridge, UK, and another based mainly in Delhi, India. The former argued that Indian nationalism was a bid for power by a handful of Indian elites who used the traditional bonds of caste and communal ties to mobilize the masses against British rule. The latter spoke of how the material conditions of colonial exploitation created the ground for an alliance of the different classes in Indian society and how a nationalist leadership inspired and organized the masses to join the struggle for national freedom. Guha argued that both these views were elitist—the former representing a colonial elitism and the latter a nationalist elitism. Both assumed that nationalism was wholly a product of elite action. Neither history had any place for the independent political actions of the subaltern classes.

In setting their agenda against the two elitisms, the historians of Subaltern Studies focused on two main issues. One was the difference between the political objectives and methods of colonial and nationalist elites on the one hand and those of the subaltern classes on the other. The second was the autonomy of subaltern consciousness. Pursuing the first question, the historians of Subaltern Studies showed that the claim of colonialist historians that the Indian masses had been, so to speak, duped into joining the anticolonial movement by Indian elites using primordial ties of kinship and clientelism was false. They also showed that it was untrue to say, as nationalist historians did, that the political consciousness of the subaltern classes was only awakened by the ideals and inspiration provided by nationalist leaders. It was indeed a fact that the subaltern classes had often entered the arena of nationalist politics. But it was also a fact that in many instances they had refused to join,despite the efforts of nationalist leaders, or had withdrawn after they had joined. In every case, the goals, strategies and methods of subaltern politics were different from those of the elites. In other words, even within the domain of nationalist politics, the nationalism of the elites was different from the nationalism of the subaltern classes.

The second question followed from the first. If subaltern politics was indeed different from that of elite politics, what was the source of its autonomy? What were the principles of that politics? The answer that was suggested was that subaltern politics was shaped by the distinct structure of subaltern consciousness. That consciousness had evolved out of the experiences of subordination—out of the struggle, despite the daily routine of servitude, exploitation and deprivation, to preserve the collective identity of subaltern groups. Where was one to look for the evidence of this autonomous consciousness? It could not be found in the bulk of the archival material that historians conventionally use, because that material had been prepared and preserved by and for the dominant groups. For the most part, those documents only show the subaltern as subservient. It is only at moments of rebellion that the subaltern appears as the bearer of an independent personality. When the subaltern rebels, the masters realize that the servant too has a consciousness, has interests and objectives, methods and organization. If one had to look for evidence of an autonomous subaltern consciousness in the historical archives, then it would be found in the documents of revolt and counterinsurgency.

The first phase of the work of Subaltern Studies was dominated by the theme of peasant revolt. Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983) is the key text in this area. But most other scholars associated with the project wrote on the history of peasant revolt from different regions and periods of South Asian history. They were able to discover a few sources where the subaltern could be heard telling his or her own story. But it was always clear that there would be few such sources. What became far more productive were new strategies of reading the conventional documents on peasant revolts. The historians of subaltern politics produced several examples of ways in which reports of peasant rebellion prepared by official functionaries could be read from the opposite standpoint of the rebel peasant and thus used to shed light on the consciousness of the rebel. They also showed that when elite historians, even those with progressive views and sympathetic to the cause of the rebels, sought to ignore or rationally explain away what appeared as mythical, illusory, millenarian or utopian in rebel actions, they were actually missing the most powerful and significant elements of subaltern consciousness. The consequence, often unintended, of this historiographical practice was to somehow fit the unruly facts of subaltern politics into the rationalist grid of elite consciousness and to make them understandable in terms of the latter. The autonomous history of the subaltern classes, or to put it differently, the distinctive traces of subaltern action in history, were completely lost in this historiography.

3. The Imbrication Of Elite And Subaltern Politics

The analysis of peasant insurgency in colonial India and of subaltern participation in nationalist politics by the historians of Subaltern Studies amounted to a strong critique of bourgeois–nationalist politics and of the postcolonial state. Writing about peasant revolts in British India, Ranajit Guha (1983) and Gautam Bhadra (1994) showed how this powerful strand of anticolonial politics, launched independently of bourgeois-nationalist leaders, had been denied its place in established historiography. Gyanendra Pandey (1984, 1990), David Hardiman (1984), Sumit Sarkar (1984) and Shahid Amin (1995) wrote about the two domains of elite and subaltern politics as they came together in the nationalist movement led by the Congress. Dipesh Chakrabarty (1989) wrote about a similar split between elite and subaltern politics in the world of the urban working class. Partha Chatterjee (1986, 1993) traced the development of nationalist thought in India in terms of the separation of elite and subaltern politics and the attempts by the former to appropriate the latter. The postcolonial nation-state had, it was argued, included the subaltern classes within the imagined space of the nation but had distanced them from the actual political space of the state. Although the political emphasis was not the same in each writer, there was nevertheless a strong flavor in Subaltern Studies of the Maoist politics that had hit many parts of India in the 1970s. Many critics thought they could detect in it a romantic nostalgia for a peasant armed struggle that never quite took place. Others alleged that by denying the unifying force of the nationalist movement and stressing the autonomous role of the subaltern classes, the historians of Subaltern Studies were legitimizing a divisive and possibly subversive politics.

Another connection that was often made in the early phase of Subaltern Studies was with the ‘history from below’ approach popularized by British Marxist historians. Clearly, the work of Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm or the History Workshop writers was eagerly mined by subalternist historians for methodological clues for doing popular history. But there was a crucial difference because of which subaltern history could never be a ‘history from below.’ The forgotten histories of the people, pulled out from under the edifice of modern capitalist civilization in the West, had undoubtedly made the story of Western modernity more detailed and complete. But there did not seem to be any narrative of ‘history from below’ that could persuasively challenge the existence, stability or indeed the historical legitimacy of capitalist modernity itself. Not surprisingly, ‘history from below’ was invariably written as tragedy. But in countries such as India, ‘history from below’ could not be confined within any such given narrative limits. The subalternist historians refused to subscribe to the historicist orthodoxy that what had happened in the West, or in other parts of the world, had to be repeated in India. They rejected the framework of modernization as the necessary emplotment of history in the formerly colonial countries. They were skeptical about the established orthodoxies of both liberal– nationalist and Marxist historiographies. As a result, they resisted in their writings the tendency to construct the story of modernity in India as the actualization of modernity as imagined by the great theorists of the Western world. This resistance, apparent even in the early phase of Subaltern Studies, was to be expressed later in arguments about ‘other modernities.’

4. Reorientations

One line of argument of the early Subaltern Studies project that ran into serious problems concerned the existence of an autonomous subaltern consciousness. Much of the study of the insurgent peasant was a search for a characteristic structure of peasant consciousness, shaped by its experience of subordination but struggling ceaselessly to retain its autonomy. One problematic question that arose was about the historicity of this structure. If subaltern consciousness was formed within specific historical relations of domination and subordination, then could that consciousness change? If so, why could it not be said that the Indian peasantry was transformed, modernized, turned into citizens by its experience of nationalist politics? Why the resistance to a progressive narrative of history? Or was there another narrative of a changing subaltern consciousness? It was a classic structuralist impasse to which there was no easy historical answer.

A related problem was about the notion of the subaltern as an active historical agent. Research into subaltern history had shown that the subaltern was both outside and inside the domains of colonial governance and nationalist politics. To the extent that it was outside, it had retained its autonomy. But it had also entered those domains, participated in their processes and institutions and thereby transformed itself. Every bit of historical evidence was pointing to the fact that the subaltern was ‘a deviation from the ideal’. Why then the search for a ‘pure structure’ of subaltern consciousness? Moreover, argued Gayatri Spivak (1987, 1988) in two influential articles, subaltern history had successfully shown that the ‘man’ or ‘citizen’ who was the sovereign subject of bourgeois history writing was in truth only the elite. Why was it necessary now to clothe the subaltern in the costume of the sovereign subject and put him on stage as the maker of history? Subaltern historiography had in fact challenged the very idea that there had to be a sovereign subject of history possessing an integral consciousness. Why bring back the same idea into subaltern history? It was only a myth that the subaltern could directly speak through the writings of the historian. In fact, the historian was only representing the subaltern on the pages of history. The subaltern, announced Spivak, cannot speak.

The new turn in Subaltern Studies began more or less from the fifth and sixth volumes published in 1987–89. It was now acknowledged with much greater seriousness than before that subaltern histories were fragmentary, disconnected, incomplete, that subaltern consciousness was split within itself, that it was constituted by elements drawn from the experiences of both dominant and subordinate classes. Alongside the evidence of autonomy displayed by subalterns at moments of rebellion, the forms of subaltern consciousness undergoing the everyday experience of subordination now became the subject of inquiry. Once these questions entered the agenda, subaltern history could no longer be restricted to the study of peasant revolts. Now the question was not ‘What is the true form of the subaltern?’ The question had become ‘How is the subaltern represented?’ ‘Represent’ here meant both ‘present again’ and ‘stand in place of’. Both the subjects and the methods of research underwent a change.

One direction in which the new research proceeded was the critical analysis of texts. Once the question of the ‘representation of the subaltern’ came to the fore, the entire field of the spread of the modern knowledges in colonial India was opened up for subaltern history. Much studied subjects such as the expansion of colonial governance, English education, movements of religious and social reform, the rise of nationalism—all of these were opened to new lines of questioning by the historians of Subaltern Studies. The other direction of research concentrated on the modern state and public institutions through which modern ideas of rationality and science and the modern regime of power were disseminated in colonial and postcolonial India. In other words, institutions such as schools and universities, newspapers and publishing houses, hospitals, doctors, medical systems, censuses, registration bureaux, the industrial labor process, scientific institutions—all of these became subjects of subaltern history-writing.

5. Other Modernities

A major argument that has been developed in the more recent phase of writings in and around Subaltern Studies is that of alternative or hybrid modernities. The focus here is on the dissemination of the ideas, practices and institutions of Western modernity under colonial conditions. The framework of modernization theory invariably produces the history of modernity in non-Western colonial countries as a narrative of lag or catching up. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has put it, these societies seem to have been consigned for ever to ‘the waiting room of history’. The universality of Western modernity erases the fact that like all histories, it too is a product of its local conditions. When transported to other places and times, it cannot remain unaffected by other local conditions. What happens when the products of Western modernity are domesticated in other places? Do they take on new and different shapes— shapes that do not belong to the original? If they do, are we to treat the changes as corruptions? As deviations from an ideal? Or are they valid as examples of a different modernity?

To argue the latter is both to provincialize Europe and to assert the identity of other cultures even as they participate in the presumed universality of modernity. Chakrabarty (2000), Arnold (1993), Prakash (1999), Spivak (1999) and Chatterjee (1995), for example, have explored various aspects of this process of the ‘translation’ of modern knowledges, technologies and institutions. They have tried to show that the encounter between Western forms of modernity and colonized non-Western cultures was not a simple imposition of the one on the other, nor did it lead to corrupt or failed forms of modernity. Rather, it produced different forms of modernity whose marks of difference still remain subject to unresolved contestations of power. Here, the work of South Asian subalternist historians has often overlapped with and contributed to what has become known as postcolonial studies. The historical study of modern discourses and institutions of power in colonial India has fed into a growing literature on the production of hybrid cultural forms in many different regions of the formerly colonial world. More significantly, postcolonial studies has extended the argument about hybrid cultural forms to the understanding of contemporary cultures in the Western metropolitan countries themselves, instanced most immediately in the diasporic cultures of immigrants but also, less obviously, in the role of the colonial experience in the formation of Western modernity even in its purportedly ‘original’ form. Historical and social science disciplines have tended to merge here with the concerns and methods of the literary and cultural disciplines to break new, and still mostly uncharted, theoretical grounds.

6. Rethinking The Political

To return to the initial political questions raised by subaltern history writing: where have they led? The early emphasis on peasant rebellion and consciousness had widened, even in the first phase of the project, to include the resistance of other dominated and marginalized groups in colonial society. Once the idea of a paradigmatic structure of subaltern consciousness became less persuasive, the subject of resistance began to be approached from a variety of angles and without a fixed design either of the reproduction of a traditional structure or of the necessary transition to new structures. Recent subaltern historiography has vigorously participated in three sets of South Asian debates—over religious minorities, caste and gender. These debates have opened up the way to rethinking the political formation of the nation as well as the political process of democracy.

In India, the broader political debate over religious minorities has been carried out between two opposed groups—the Hindu chauvinists on the one hand and the secularists on the other. What the researches of subalternist historians have shown is that the debate between secularism and communalism is in no way a struggle between modernity and backwardness. Both the rival political positions are firmly planted in the soil of modern government and politics. Second, the two groups are pursuing two different strategies of consolidating the regime of the modern nation-state. Both strategies are elitist, but they involve two different modes of representation and appropriation of the subaltern. Third, faced with these rival elitist strategies, subaltern groups in India are devising, in their own ways, independent strategies of coping with communal as well as secularist politics. The recent experience of ethnic violence and authoritarian politics in Sri Lanka and Pakistan have raised even more fundamental questions about the adequacy of the nation-form as a field where subaltern politics might be negotiated (Chatterjee and Jeganathan 2000).

The second question on which there has been significant recent discussion is caste. There has been a transformation in the politics of caste in India following the agitations in 1990–1 over the Mandal Commission report. By looking at the politics of caste in its discursive aspect, it has become clear that the supposedly religious basis of caste divisions has now completely disappeared from public debate. The conflicts now are almost exclusively centered on the relative positions of different caste groups in relation to the state. Second, the debate over whether or not to recognize caste as a criterion for affirmative action by the state once again reflects two different elitist strategies of representing and appropriating the subaltern. And subaltern groups too, in their efforts to establish social justice and self-respect, are devising various strategies of both resisting the state as well as of using the opportunities offered by its electoral and developmental functions. Strategies of alliance between castes at the middle and bottom rungs of the ritual hierarchy with other oppressed groups such as tribals and religious minorities have produced significant electoral successes. But with the creation of new political elites out of subaltern groups, the questions of ‘who represents?’ and ‘to what end?’ are being asked with a new urgency.

The third debate concerns the social position of women. In one sense, all women living in patriarchal societies are subalterns. Yet, it is not true that women are not identified by class, race, caste, and community. Hence, just as it is valid to analyse the subordination of women in a society ruled by men, so also is it necessary to identify how the social construction of gender is made more complex by the intervention of class, caste, and communal identities. Recent discussions on this question have focused on the Indian social reform movements of the nineteenth century, especially the various legal reforms to protect the rights of women, in the context of the colonial state and nationalist politics. Subaltern feminist writings have raised questions about the adequacy of a modernizing agenda of legal reform from the top without facing up to the challenge of reforming the actual structures of patriarchal power within the local communities which continue to flourish outside the reach of the law.

The recent debates raise new questions about conceptualizing old modernist ideas such as nation, citizenship and democracy. By virtue of these implications, the recent subaltern history writings from South Asia have been productively used in writings on the history of modernity in other parts of the formerly colonized world, such as, for instance, on nationalism and gender in the Middle East or on the politics of peasant and indigenous groups in Latin America. Having traveled from Italy to India, the idea of subaltern history has now produced a generally available methodological and stylistic approach to modern historiography that could be used anywhere.


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