Ranajit Guha passes away: The Subaltern School and Guha’s contributions to South Asian Studies

Historian Ranajit Guha, on the cusp of turning 100 this May, passed away at his residence in Vienna Woods, Austria, Anandabazar Patrika reported. Guha ushered in a new way of studying South Asia, departing from the primacy of elitist concerns that had previously dominated scholarship.

He, alongside his collaborators (many of whom were his students), began the the Subaltern School, which remains one of the most influential post-colonial, post-Marxist schools in history.

Over time, the influence of this school has transcended South Asian history to shape scholarship from across the world and on various facets of life and society.

Ranajit Guha and the birth of the Subaltern School

Born in Siddhakati, Backerganj (present-day Bangladesh) on May 23, 1923, Guha migrated to the UK in 1959. There he was a reader in history at the University of Sussex.

While studying and teaching Indian history, Guha recognised that mainstream historical narratives in and about India were grossly inadequate to study the complexity of India’s past. Crucially, what traditional narratives missed was the voice of underclasses – the subaltern.

The term “subaltern” was first coined by Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci to refer to any class of people (for Gramsci, peasants and workers) subject to the hegemony of another, more powerful class. This term was picked up by Ranajit Guha and likeminded colleagues in the early 1980s in their attempt to “rectify the elitist bias characteristic of much of research and academic work” in the field of South Asian studies.

In the preface of the inaugural issue of the highly influential Subaltern Studies, Guha writes, “The word subaltern stands for … ‘of inferior rank’. It will be used in these pages as a general attribute of subordination in South Asian society … expressed in terms of caste, class, gender and office”. He continues, “subordination cannot be understood except as one of the constitutive terms in a binary relationship of which the other is dominance, for ‘subaltern groups are always subject to the activities of ruling groups, even when they rebel and rise up’.”

This is at the core of what Subaltern Studies is and why it was influential. Not only does Guha emphasise on subaltern concerns that have historically been missing from mainstream academia, he recognises the category of the subaltern as being constructed rather than essential, i.e. it is a product of the relationship of domination and subordination between elites and subalterns rather than some God-given, inevitable category.

This would lay foundations of a school of historical study that would problematise age old understandings in favour of a more nuanced reading of history and society.

The Subaltern School and the context in which it came to be

Mainstream scholarship on South Asia, prior to the Subaltern School, was either a product of colonial Eurocentrism or dominated by concerns of native elites, often heavily influenced by colonial frameworks and narratives themselves.

For instance, James Mills’ three part classification of Indian history into ancient (Hindu), mediaeval (Muslim) and modern (colonial and post-colonial) remains influential till date, having shaped generations of nationalist historians. However, not only is this an unthoughtful imposition of a prevalent framework used to study European history, this also misses out a diversity of experiences that should feature in historical study. Is history only the study of kings and rulers, defined in this framework by their religious identity? What about the histories of untouchables, women, and traditionally non-dominant communities? What about the peasants and workers?

Even left-wing academics who ostensibly were writing about the masses were unable to completely shed European frameworks and Marxist orthodoxy which privileged class as the overarching category of historical analysis. They were oblivious or dismissive of specific Indian modes of subalternity and hence were unable to truly appreciate Indian society in its complex richness and nuance. The Subaltern School came and changed this.

In his enduring classic, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), Ranajit Guha writes about peasant consciousness and different modes of expression of dissent by peasants in colonial India. While peasant resistance had been documented since the beginning of colonial rule, according to Guha, in colonial scholarship, “the sense of history (was) converted into an element of administrative concern”. Consequently, “the peasant was denied recognition as a subject of history in his own right even for a project that was all his own”.

Guha’s approach was fundamentally different. His work focussed on studying peasant insurgency from the perspective of the peasant. It provides insurgent peasants their own political agency rather than one supplied to them by native elites. Methodologically, even when Guha looks at commonly used historical sources such as colonial documents, his approach problematizes them, aware of the positionality of the creators and consequently, aware of possible biases in the sources themselves.

Some criticisms of the Subaltern School

While the Subaltern School has been extremely influential in guiding generations of scholarly work on South Asia and post colonial societies since the 1980s, it has not been without its critics.

One of the main criticisms of the Subaltern School is its focus on agency at the expense of structure. Critics such as Vivek Chibber argue that the Subaltern School tends to overlook the ways in which social and political structures constrain the agency of subaltern groups. As a result, the Subaltern School has been accused of presenting an overly romanticised view of subaltern agency and resistance.

Furthermore, Chibber argues that the Subaltern School’s approach to politics tends to be overly focused on identity-based movements and resistance. He contends that this approach overlooks the importance of class-based politics and the potential for subaltern groups to engage in transformative struggles that challenge the existing economic and political structures. This is especially true of more recent work from the School.

Lastly, in a bid to problematize the Eurocentrism of traditional Marxists, the Subaltern School, according to Chhibber, has taken a turn in the opposite extreme, rejecting any form of universal theorising as incapable of explaining particularities of South Asia. Chhibber rejects this, arguing that “taking cognizance of certain universal forces is no impediment to also explaining diversity.”


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