Ranajit Guha and Subaltern Studies 2016


Ranajit Guha and Subaltern



Broad movements/shifts in historical studies after WW2

• Intellectual currents: from Marxism to structuralism, post-structuralism

• Thematic shifts: from social history and ‘history from below’ to a broadly ‘cultural history

• The politics of knowledge: from Eurocentrism to

‘postcolonial’ perspectives and the critique of


SUBALTERN STUDIES: a major site where these shifts can be observed in a non-European historiographical context

Ranajit Guha and the emergence of the Subaltern Studies collective

• Ranajit Guha – politicized by left-wing, Communistdominated student milieu of Calcutta in the 1940s; involved heavily in Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1940s and


• 1959-80: based in England. University of Sussex in 1970s:

Guha, along with a group of like-minded colleagues and students, sets up Subaltern Studies – 12 volumes of essays published by Subaltern Studies collective between 1982 and 2005

• Other major scholars associated with the project: David

Hardiman, Shahid Amin, Gyanendra Pandey, David Arnold,

Sumit Sarkar, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee.

Processes influencing Guha and

Subaltern Studies

• Intellectual processes: a) History from below; b)

Antonio Gramsci: concept of ‘subaltern’ – enrichment and revision of traditional Marxist concepts of class struggle

• Political processes: churning and shifts on the radical left. Growing importance of peasant movements, guerrilla uprisings. India and elsewhere: emergence of a distinctly Maoist current in revolutionary politics. Naxalbari movement: key influence on Ranajit Guha in the


Guha: Elementary Aspects of Peasant

Insurgency in Colonial India (1983)

• Peasants, largely illiterate, leaving no direct traces about. How to ‘read’ them back into history:

• Guha: ‘reading against the grain’ – understanding the official codes through which colonial government addressed peasant uprisings. Colonial archive: an archive of ‘counter-insurgency’.

• Forms of peasant dissent and protest, Guha argued, could also be understood in terms of certain codes they followed. Modes of rural insurgency anatomized and itemized.

Early Subaltern Studies: early-mid


• Basic contention of early Subaltern Studies: relationship between 2 domains of politics – ‘elite’ and

‘subaltern’. Peasant protest in India seen to be driven by more than purely economic motives (in contrast to orthodox-Marxist understandings). Idioms of protest

(often religious) studied seriously.

• Problematizing dominant nationalist and Marxist accounts of anti-colonial nationalism.

• Outstanding examples: a) Shahid Amin – ‘Gandhi as

Mahatma’ – role of rumour in constructing Gandhi’s appeal; b) David Hardiman – tribal assertions against liquor dealers – interlacing with popular religion

Late 1980s: the ‘postcolonial shift’ in

Subaltern Studies

• Warm endorsement by Edward Said – helped establish

Subaltern Studies as a globally influential perspective from the ‘Third World’.

• Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’

Critiquing a) exaggeration of emancipatory potentials of peasant resistance; b) the politics of representation in

Subaltern Studies – on what grounds does the radical historian ‘speak for’ the subaltern?; c) lack of attention to gender.

• Late 1980s, 1990s: shift in Subaltern Studies from ‘history from below’ to deconstructions of ‘colonial discourse’, critiques of universalizing claims of Eurocentric history. Eg.

Dipesh Chakrabarty: Europe as the ‘unavoidable’ subjectobject of History: need to ‘provincialize’ Europe.