Subaltern Studies Research Paper

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Subaltern Studies is an Indian school of historiography whose inspiration lay in the Maoist movement of the 1970s, and whose raison d’etre has been the critique of the perceived elitist bias of Indian nationalist discourse in history writing. Since 1983, when the first volume appeared, Subaltern Studies has produced 10 volumes of collected research articles, which comprise the main corpus. After the appearance of the sixth volume, a collective has managed editorial work. Individual members of the collective have also written texts that exemplify the ‘subaltern’ viewpoint.

1. The Origins

The school was founded by Ranajit Guha, a Marxist intellectual from Bengal. Once a member of the Communist Party of India, Guha was influenced by the radicalism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s to align himself with Indian Maoism, which characterized independent India as a semifeudal and semicolonial state. Arguably, the project’s impetus derived from an effort to establish the truth of this proposition: ‘the price of blindness about the structure of the colonial regime as a dominance without hegemony has been, for us, a total want of insight into the character of the successor regime too as a dominance without hegemony’ (Guha 1989, p. 307). However, Subaltern Studies has changed a great deal since then. Ranajit Guha is acknowledged by the collective to be its intellectual driving force and edited the first six volumes. He is also the author of Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Guha 1983), recognized as a seminal work in the genre of radical Indian historiography.

Subaltern Studies began with an attempt to apply the approach known as ‘history from below’ in the Indian context. The term subaltern was inspired by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and is used to indicate powerlessness in a society wherein class differentiation, urbanization, and industrialization had proceeded very slowly. Gramsci is the source of the subalternist respect for ‘culture’ and the ‘fragment’ in history writing. Subaltern Studies was also influenced by the critical Marxism of the English historian E. P. Thompson, who attempted to move beyond economistic definitions of class interest, as well as by Foucauldian critiques of power knowledge systems. Its (earlier) Maoist orientation and polemical concern with the nationalism of Indian colonial elites made for a slant toward the investigation of peasant rebellion under colonial rule as well as peasant recalcitrance visa-vis Gandhian nationalism and the Indian National Congress.

2. The Significance Of ‘Culture’

Initially overtly political in its stance, Subaltern Studies was popular among young Indian historians and scholars of modern India abroad as a radical alternative to an uncritical academic celebration of Independence. The Indian national movement was seen as a failed hegemonic project (Sen 1987, pp. 203–35, Guha 1983, 1989, pp. 210–309). Following Guha’s investigation of elementary forms of insurgent peasant consciousness, the school attracted the hostility of the Indian Marxist establishment for being ‘idealist’ (see Chakrabarty 1986, p. 364)—a sign that it had departed from economic reductionism. In a society where cultural symbols play an important role in everyday life as well as in political mobilization, this was a fruitful departure, necessary for comprehending phenomena such as charismatic leadership and communal conflict (see, e.g., Amin 1984, pp. 1–55, 1995, Pandey 1982, pp. 143–97, 1983, pp. 60–129, 1984, pp. 231–70, 1990, Hardiman 1982, pp. 198–231, 1984, pp.196–230, 1987). It has since expanded ‘beyond the discipline of history’ to engage ‘with more contemporary problems and theoretical formations’ (Subaltern Studies 1998, Vol. 9, Preface). These include the politics of identity and literary deconstruction. The shift in the 1990s was marked by the interest shown in the project by literature scholars and critics such as Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The analysis of discourse has since become a major preoccupation for subalternist research.

It would be wrong to adduce a uniformity of vision in the output of Subaltern Studies over the years. The explicit, if unorthodox Marxian bent of its ‘history from below’ phase has been superseded by a recent preoccupation with community, rural innocence, and cultural authenticity. The epistemological approval of the Leninist ‘outsider’ as the bearer of ‘higher’ revolutionary consciousness (Chaudhury 1987, pp. 236–51) sits in unresolved tension with the oftexpressed critique of elitism and statism in historiography (Pandey 1994, pp. 188–221), and the belief in the immanence of culturally mediated forms of universal community (Chatterjee 1989, pp. 169–209). A thematic that persists, however, is the opposition of two ‘domains’—that of the elite, meaning the colonial state and its allies, and their forms of politics, knowledge, and power, vs. the subaltern. The latter has been variously interpreted as the peasantry, community, locality, and traditional domesticity and distinguished by its resistance to colonization. The difficulty caused by the problem of mass complicity has been dealt with by valorizing the recalcitrance of ‘fragments.’

The subalternist stance of giving voice to the repressed elements of South Asian history has engendered valuable research. A prominent example is Shahid Amin’s meticulous and thought-provoking investigation of the prolonged aftermath of the (in)famous Chauri Chaura riot of 1922, which resulted in the death of 22 policemen, the suspension of the first noncooperation movement, and the subsequent punishment by hanging of 19 accused rioters (Amin 1987, pp. 166–202, 1995). This unravelling of ‘an event which all Indians, when commemorating the nation, are obliged to remember—only in order to forget,’ (Amin 1995, p. 1) relentlessly juxtaposes event to nationalist metaphor and existential reality to ideological representation. It will remain an outstanding text in the subalternist corpus.

Pandey’s intricate account of cow-protection movements in eastern India in the late nineteenth century exposes the interplay of symbolism, class interest, and public space. This path-breaking essay in the prehistory of communal politics (Pandey 1983, pp. 60–129), along with his writings on the ‘construction’ of communalism in colonial India (Pandey 1989, pp. 132–68, 1990) has contributed significantly to a raging historical debate. Guha’s (1987, pp. 135–65) ‘Chandra’s Death’ skilfully uses a legal narrative from mid-nineteenth century Bengal to analyze the workings of patriarchal culture and indigenous justice with great sensitivity to the existential predicament of ‘low-caste’ women. In a brilliant passage, Guha qualifies a description of conventional systems of asylum thus:

this other dominance did not rely on the ideology of Brahmanical Hinduism or the caste system for its articulation. It knew how to bend the relatively liberal ideas of Vaishnavism and its loose institutional structure for its own ends, demonstrating thereby that for each element in a religion which responds to the sigh of the oppressed there is another to act as an opiate. (Guha 1987, p. 159)

3. Theoretical Tensions

Subaltern Studies’ concern with issues of ideological hegemony elicits a questioning of the school’s own theoretical tensions. The juxtaposition of statist versus subalternist history; or the tyrannical march of Western-inspired universals versus the resistance occlusion of heroic subalterns expresses a view of a society divided into discrete social zones—with a concomitant oversight regarding the osmosis between these ‘domains.’ The idea that contemporary history encompasses a grand struggle between the narratives of Capital and Community, that the latter is the truly subversive element in modern society (‘community, which ideally should have been banished from the kingdom of capital, continues to lead a subterranean, potentially subversive life within it because it refuses to go away’—P. Chatterjee 1997, p. 236), raises the question of why ‘class’ has been demoted from the estate of subalternity, even though it too refuses to go away. In an era wherein the assertion of community is rapidly transiting from the realm of peasant insurgency to that of mass-produced identity, might not ‘community’ actually function as the necessary metaphysic of Capital rather than its unassimilable Other?

The tensions extend beyond theory to that of discursive choice and indeed, silence. The political success of the movement for Pakistan, for example, the transformation in this case, of ‘communalism’ into ‘nationalism,’ has not been investigated despite Guha’s pointers 1989, pp. 210–309, Guha 1992, pp. 69–120), and despite the urgent need for reflection on the Indian communists’ transitory but significant support in the 1940s for the two-nation theory and Partition. Nor has the subsequent history of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh been addressed—a rich field for those interested in the ever-shifting paradigms of nationhood and identity in South Asia. Has subalternist thinking confined itself ideologically within the fragmentary remainder of 1947? Similarly, the category of labor and the history of the working class is absent from the main corpus of research after Chakrabarty’s (1983, pp. 259–310, 1984, pp. 116–52, 1989) publications on the jute-mill workers of Calcutta.

Nor would it appear from this fleeting passage of workers through the subalternist corpus, that the national movement and nationalism had any impact on them. Despite insightful commentaries by P. Chatterjee (1984, pp. 153–95, 1986) on Gandhian ideology and Amin’s work on Chauri Chaura, the widespread popular appeal of Gandhi and his ahimsa remains an underexamined theme. The scholar who tires of negativity and is looking for answers on the role of charisma might find emotional sustenance as well as food for thought in an essay by Dennis Dalton (1970). Dalton is neither a historian nor a subalternist.

This lacuna coexists with a reluctance to tackle the history of the communist movement, within India or internationally. Given its founder’s abiding interest in the failure of radical historiography to produce a ‘principled and comprehensive (as against eclectic and fragmentary) critique of the indigenous bourgeoisie’s universalist pretensions’ (Guha 1989, p 307), it would have been intellectually appropriate for him to address the history and historiographical practice of the movement to which he owed theoretical inspiration. The subalternist antipathy towards what is perceived as the representational pretension of the Gandhian Congress, its habit of translating a constricted, bourgeois aspiration into a nationalist universal (see Guha 1992, pp. 69–120), elicits a query about the political practice of the ‘true representatives’ of the workers and peasants.

Guha can hardly be faulted for polemical shyness— and this makes Subaltern Studies’ sustained avoidance of ‘principled and comprehensive’ research on the fractious and tragic meanderings of Indian communism quite remarkable. The observations on Guha’s own political trajectory (Amin and Bhadra 1994, pp. 222–5) which refer to his disillusionment with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and to his association with Maoist students in Delhi University in 1970–1, throw no light on the nature and content of his theoretical transformation. These are not mere matters of biographical detail. They are linked to vital historical questions on Bolshevism and its impact on anticolonial struggles in the twentieth century, and not just in India. The fact that Subaltern Studies has carried the occasional essay on non-Indian societies, implies that the project of exposing elitist bias and ideological camouflage has been (notionally at least) thrown open to cross-national debate. Yet its sole addressal of Leninism in 17 years takes the form of a theoretical apology (Chaudhury 1987, pp. 236–51) without raising the matter of political hegemonism and subalternity in the USSR, initiatives ‘from below’ in the Russian Revolution, or the impact of Stalinism on the international communist movement.

4. A Radical Historiography?

As a discursive field Subaltern Studies has produced provocative research on the history of colonial India and, of late, into more recent developments. It has been a forum for fresh scholarship on a variety of themes, ranging from ‘low’ caste and ‘tribal’ peasant insurgency, middle-class ideologies of nationalism, prison life, and disciplinary structures under colonialism, to the politics of liquor, the significance of myth, and interpretations of ‘bondage.’ It has also contributed important theoretical reflections on questions of nationalism, colonial science, caste, gender, and identity. This includes an evaluation of the historiographical antecedents of Hindutt a or majoritarian nationalism (Chatterjee 1994, pp. 1–49), a critique of colonial penology (Arnold 1994, pp. 148–87), a commentary on recent developments in Indian feminism (Tharu and Niranjana 1996, pp. 232–60), research on concubinage and female domestic slavery (Chatterjee 1999, pp. 49–97) and an epistemological analysis of colonial ethnography (Ghosh 1999, pp. 8–48).

The inquisitive scholar will also find it worthwhile to read a critique of the school written by an erstwhile member of the collective. Sarkar’s (1998) essay on ‘The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies’ challenges what he considers to be its valorization of the indigenous, its ‘enshrinement of sentimentality’, and the shift in its polemical target from capitalist and colonial exploitation to Enlightenment rationality. A caveat might also be entered on the status of any scholarly claim to ‘represent’ the voice, interest or agency of a preferred subject—the historian’s discipline may indeed never be free of bias, but surely it must be as committed to the ideal of truth-as-thewhole, and balance, as to polemic. Be that as it may, Subaltern Studies has raised the level of debate in Indian historiography—the corpus may be critiqued, but certainly not ignored. It has had an impact on the orientation of many scholars, within and outside the discipline of history, and beyond the frontiers of India. Whether it will retain its original radical impetus by engaging boldly with questions posed by its own practice and the rapidly changing social and political environment in the post-Soviet global order remains to be seen.


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