From Newsletter,
London Socialist Historians Group,
No. 4 Autumn 1998, p. 2-3.

Subaltern Studies
by Neil Rogall

In India, as in Britain, 'History from Below' had a tremendous impact in the 1970s. In particular, the visit of E. P. Thompson to the sub-continent in 1976-77 left a widespread desire amongst radical historians to emulate his work in an Indian context.

This response reflected a number of factors. Just as elsewhere in the world the late sixties saw a tremendous radicalisation, against a backdrop of economic and political crisis. This had its echoes in the new and expanding universities of India. But the specific attraction of 'History from Below' was its challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy. An admixture of Stalinism and Nationalism dominated historical study, particularly of the colonial period. Nationalists viewed the anti-colonial struggle in terms of a 'unitary movement' under the leadership of the Gandhian Congress. Communist historians, such as Bipan Chandra, widened the parameters of 'acceptable nationalism' to include the 'revolutionary terrorists' and the left. Nevertheless both nationalists and communists shared the assumption that the mass of Indians were woken to political life by Gandhi and the rest of the Congress High Command.

However the impact of 'History from Below' collided in the Indian academy with another import from the west - post-structuralism and post-modernism. This collision produced a new and specifically Indian synthesis - the Subaltern Studies group. A journal of that name first appeared in 1982, edited by Ranajit Guha. The term Subaltern was taken from Gramsci's euphemism for the proletariat in his Prison Notebooks. However the Subaltern Studies collective used it as a catch-all term for all groups they viewed as oppressed - the proletariat, the peasantry, women, tribal people.

As with Thompson et al they saw their aim as being to recover the struggles of the poor and the outcast from the 'condescension of posterity' and the grip of 'official' left intellectuals. The collective focussed on peasant and tribal struggles, little work being done on urban movements with the exception of Dipesh Chakrabarty's 'Rethinking Working Class History' on the jute mill workers of Calcutta. But what was distinctive about their approach was the argument that these struggles, far from being creations of what they termed 'elite nationalism', were independent of it and much more radical. Gyan Pandy, for example, in the first issue of the journal demonstrated convincingly, in a study of the 1921-22 peasant struggle in Awadh, how Congress, far from initiating the struggle, had attempted to undermine it because the peasants were targeting Indian landlords who Congress wished to incorporate in their pan-Indian alliance against the British.

However the Subalterns weren't simply interested in illustrating the 'bourgeois' nature of India nationalism. They argued that movements from below had been hijacked by elite nationalism and subordinated to the nationalist project. When they wrote of combating 'grand narratives, it was the 'grand narrative' of anti-colonial nationalism they were targeting. Undoubtedly there was a very important core to their argument - essentially the 'nationalist leadership' had attempted to use 'highly controlled' struggles of the Indian masses in order to confront and then replace the colonial masters. But the collective's project had an even more ambitious aim: they wished to reconstruct peasant consciousness itself, and to demonstrate its autonomy from elite nationalist thought. In order to do so, they sought out both new sources and attempted to reread the traditional archives 'against the grain', all with the aim of recreating the mental world of the peasant insurgent.

Over time however, the Subalterns began to shift their ground. The influence of post-modernism and its offspring 'post-colonial studies' began to take its toll. Now the central theme of the group's work became not the hijacking of popular struggles in the interests of an aspiring Indian bourgeoisie nor the reconstruction of subaltern consciousness, but the argument that the whole 'nationalist' project was fundamentally flawed. In the name of 'progress' and 'modernity', the nationalists, [++Page 3] after 1947, had imposed an oppressive centralising state on the 'fragments' that comprise Indian society. So Partha Chatterjee, a key figure in the group, argues in 'The Nation and its Fragments' that secularism and enlightenment rationalism are simply weapons in the armoury of the post-colonial state. Similarly Dipesh Chakrabarty insists that the very notion of a good society or of universal progress are 'monomanias' that need to be junked in the name of the 'episodic' and the 'fragment'. It is in this context that 'community' began to replace 'subaltern' as the focus of the collective's work. 'Community' was now privileged as the key source of resistance to the new hegemonic power. This has led to a celebration of local traditions for their own sake. But of course, in reality communities are not simply centres of resistance to an intrusive and oppressive state, but also sources of oppression themselves - of class, gender and caste.

Such a perspective treads very dangerous ground. The current BJP-led coalition government trumpets an exclusivist 'Hindu' nationalism and targets all liberal, democratic and socialist thought as alien imports. Clearly the members of 'the collective' loathe this new majoritarianism, and many of them have spoken out and campaigned against the Hindu right. Nonetheless their own championing of indigenous discourse, irrelevant of its content, and their attacks on Enlightenment thought as fundamentally oppressive, plays into the hands of those bigots that now govern India and who wish to create an authoritarian state based on 'authentic Indian tradition'.

Neil Rogall

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