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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

Ranajit Guha (1923-2023) and his Legacy | Karli Srinivasulu

Saturday 20 May 2023, by Karli Srinivasulu


The publication of the first volume of Subaltern Studies [1] in 1982 under the editorship of Ranajit Guha has been viewed as a major ‘turn’ in the modern Indian historiography. The publication of Guha’s The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency [2] the next year added theoretical gravity to this thus making him a formidable historian of ‘lower orders’ in colonial India. The fact that Subaltern Studies series with a new volume every year came to be earnestly looked forward to by scholars across disciplines was a testimony to the collective’s popularity and success.

The passing away of Ranajit Guha on April 28, 2023 in Vienna at the age of 99 marks the end of a remarkable intellectual journey that was known for scripting a significant theoretical-methodological and discursive shift in modern Indian historical scholarship with radical political implications for social transformation in India.

The term ‘subaltern’ is identified with the thought of Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci whose reflections on various problems of Marxist theory, history and practice composed in the fascist prison and subsequently published as Prison Notebooks have brought the centrality of the subalternity to dialectical historical analysis of state, hegemony, and revolution. In a longish informal discussion with us, a group of young academics in Hyderabad in the 1990s, Guha revealed that the source of inspiration for him to choose the term subaltern for the collective of historians that he organised and their work was actually inspired by a poem composed by Mao Zedong during the Long March. Undoubtedly, it is the Gramscian oeuvre that is the source of the conceptual and methodological repertoire of this school of history writing. The influence of the British ‘History from below’ [3] on it was no less important.

The elite-subaltern dialectic, needless to state, is found to be analytically critical in capturing the relations of domination-subordination in complex societies like India that present melange of social relations informed by inter-sectionality of caste, class, community of course along with gender and regional historical specificities and therefore defy any neat class characterisation and linearity of transition. The Subaltern Studies historiography sought to break out of the grand historical narrative of the mode of production in the dominant Marxist theorisation that privileged capitalism as the logical destination of social transition; it also sought to replace the category of class predominantly defined in economic terms by a nuanced and internally differentiated notion elite-subaltern.

Historiographical Shift 

Guha’s ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ [4] meant to be a statement on the Subaltern project emphasised the elitist orientation of the dominant paradigms, i.e., a) Colonialist and neo-colonialist (or the Cambridge) school and b) Nationalist and neo-nationalist in the historiography of colonial India and tried to highlight the promise of the Subaltern Studies school to correct it by focussing on subaltern as the subject of history.

In the case of the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiography elitism has been quite conspicuous. It has predominantly occupied itself with the relationship between colonialism and nationalism seen through the behavioural prism of Stimulus — Response: colonialism (the institutions, resources, and opportunities created by it) is seen as the stimulus and nationalism as the response. According to this view, it is the colonial rule which has given rise to the modern middle-class intellectuals who in turn created and shaped the nationalist movement. Upon this point of view, Indian nationalism becomes a “sort of ‘learning process’ through which the native elite became involved in politics by trying to negotiate the maze of institutions and the corresponding cultural complex introduced by the colonial authorities in order to govern the country.” [5]

Contrarily, subaltern peasant and adivasi movements that could not fit into the Stimulus-Response frame are treated as problems of ‘law and order’ kind and dealt with by the colonial authorities through coercive means. What is of historiographical interest is the resultant production of counter-insurgent discourse by the colonial state being seen as a resource for the construction of subaltern subjectivity.

The nationalist and neo-nationalist historiography, on the contrary, viewed Indian nationalism primarily as “an idealist venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom.” [6] The contradictions within an iniquitous society that India has been, in and tensions in the pluralistic nationalist movement are underplayed or rather ignored in an attempt to project a picture of a singular or unilinear development of Indian nationalism viewed as “a sort of spiritual biography of the Indian elite.” [7]

Though the Marxist historiography of the nationalist movement differed in a quite substantial sense from the above perspectives, it has nevertheless come to accept certain assumptions of them albeit tacitly. Despite the fact that the Marxist scholarship brought the significance of peasantry and peasant movements quite explicitly to the fore, in the opinion of subaltern collective it is not beyond criticism for it ironically sharing the dominant historiographical premises, has considered the agrarian struggles that have predated the nationalist and more specifically the communist movement in India as ‘pre-political’ in the same vein as the colonialist historiography considered the real beginnings of secular political history of India traceable to colonial intervention and the nationalist view has brushed aside the pre-nationalist political articulation of the lower order as ‘pre-political’; though it must be pointed out that it has systematically absorbed and integrated the latter against the colonial state into the nationalist discourse. The emphasis on ideology, leadership, and organisation in the elitist perspectives is the basis of their denial of historical significance and even political character to the spontaneous lowly structured activity of the subaltern classes. [8]

The dominant Marxist approach thus is seen to be no exception to the elitist tendency as the subaltern classes, especially the peasantry (largely reminiscing Marx’s characterisation of them as ‘sack of potatoes’ in his Eighteenth Brumaire), are treated as incapable of autonomous initiative and action. [9] The politics of subaltern insurgency and rebel consciousness in Guha’s view demand a perspectival and methodological shift.

Corresponding to the lack of sufficient attention to the subaltern classes and their social and cultural world is the predominantly economistic nature of Marxist historical and social analysis. On the epistemological plane, it is the primacy of the economic instance, which is collectively believed to be the criterion to differentiate Marxist paradigm from other theoretical traditions that has led to ‘economism’ in the Marxist understanding. [10] Thus, more often, it is the economic structure of the society that is explored primarily and analysed substantially in the Marxist analyses and inferences are drawn for the other instances of social totality. The relative underdevelopment of social history and much more significantly that of cultural history is a result of this.

As a consequence of the denial of ‘history of their own’ to the subaltern classes in the dominant historiographical paradigms on colonial India, the problematic of peasant consciousness and peasant rebellion on the one hand, and subaltern resistance and nationalist movement on the other, have not received the historical attention they deserved let alone any consistent exposition. The significance of the Subaltern Studies lies in bringing the historiographical focus onto the spontaneous, apparently episodic unstructured grassroot subaltern actions.

Another major outcome of this perspective could be seen in the shift from the dominant historical-theoretical position of taking the conceptual category of ‘mode of production’ as the point of departure for (social) history writing. What informs the subaltern project is the necessity of problematizing the ‘grand narrative of history’ told in terms of transition from one mode of production to another. [11] Following this mode, the dominant Marxist history has characterised colonialism as catalyzing the transition to capitalism. The subaltern school, by problematising the privileged theoretical position of the concept of mode of production in the Marxist history writing, has posited the concept of ‘domination-subordination’ with the analytical explanatory potentiality. It is from this displacement, the other methodological and conceptual aspects follow.

Subaltern Autonomy 

The major challenge facing the subaltern history, as Gramsci notes, is the “necessarily fragmented and episodic” [12] character of the subordinate or oppressed classes which renders the task of historian at capturing their initiatives, actions and consciousness to build a substantive narrative enormously difficult. The apparent dominance of the elite or superordinate classes in terms of ideas, actions and prominence renders the subaltern secondary and dependent. The possibility of subaltern history is premised on the ontological possibility of autonomy and spontaneity of the subordinate groups. The specificity of subaltern resistance, that makes it distinct from the elite actions, is that while the latter is informed by the idea of rights that is a result of exposure to liberal thought the subaltern actions are justified by the notions of dharma/adharma and nyaya /anyaya (apart from the materiality) that are part of everyday commonsense religiosity of the popular classes. Due to the externality and instrumental rationality of alien colonial rule to the logic of subaltern religious cosmology there could be seen an overwhelming reliance by the colonial power on coercion rather than consent which Guha characterises as ‘dominance without hegemony’ [13].

The intellectual dominance of the elite thus renders subaltern autonomy and worldview inconspicuous and taints it with elitist markers which are further complicated by the actions of the state which is a concentrated expression of specific historical conflicts.

Treating the subaltern and elite as opposed and contradictory domains, Guha both in his essay, ‘Prose of Counter-Insurgency’ [14] and also in his Elementary Aspects emphasizes ‘negation’ as the methodological device for decoding of colonial sources on peasant and tribal rebellions: the problem of recovering the subaltern rebel consciousness can be addressed by inverting or negating the official discourse of colonial state. In view of the subalterns being pre-literate oral communities and in the absence of written sources recording the subaltern agency’s side of the (his)story it becomes imperative to rely on the ‘official’ sources comprising of the police records, officials’ diaries, memoirs, accounts that are not only elitist but also opposed or counter to the interests, aspirations and motives of the rebellious subalterns and their outlook dominated by religious worldview. What immediately strikes one about this strategy of decoding the official discourse is the problematic of the ‘moment’ when the subaltern turns rebellious and thus gets intensely focused by the state; in ‘normal’ times the consciousness of the subaltern gets expressed in common sense that is influenced/ dominated by and synchronous with the dominant or hegemonic ideology.

Questions have been raised on the ground that the ‘prose of counter-insurgency’ cannot be construed merely as antithetical to subaltern insurgency but in fact has to be seen as informed by the concerns, anxieties values and biases of dominant classes and state. Further such a negation would by predicating rebel consciousness on the official discourse of counter-insurgent moment would not only compromise on the autonomy of the subaltern but also the internal complexity of everyday subaltern common sense informed by contradictions, compromises and influences of the dominant culture. In the face of such complexity negation or inversion would appear problematic.

Even in the context of relatively ‘recent’ peasant movement that this writer happened to research on the capturing of the peasant common sense, sensibility, motivations and extent of conscious choices and participation is found to be problematic. In the course of my research on the Telangana peasant movement (1945-1951) undertaken during the 1980s, theoretically stimulated by the Subaltern Studies perspective, I have faced difficulties in the course of field study in terms of factual verification and perceptual authenticity in the analysis of the nature of initiative, motivation, decisions, participation of the subaltern caste-class groups, relation between spontaneity and organisation. Though there were a fairly large number of the participants at the grassroots level still around and in sound health as well there were noticeable variations and inconsistencies in terms of recall and interpretative emphasis in the subaltern accounts of their actions. If this was on account of the time lag and perceptual distance impacting on the memory and capacity to recall then the influence of the later differences in political positions of the respondents following the split and ‘splits within splits’ in the Left on both the factual account, causal association, and interpretation cannot be undermined. [15] Past as a matter of saying was no longer a ‘given’ but could be seen being in active dialogue with the present.

Decline of the Subaltern ? 

After the appearance of six volumes of Subaltern Studies in 1989 under the editorship of Guha there was the passing of editorial responsibility on to other members of the collective. The last volume that is the 12th in the series came out in 2005 [16].

During the two-decade journey of conceptual innovation and thematic expansion the Subaltern Studies collective had come under criticism both internally and from outside as well. Though not in chronological sense but quite substantially a shift, though the traces of which could be found in the earlier volumes and in the individual writings of the contributors, was noticed that is characterised not merely as a move away from the subaltern but as contributing to the ‘decline’ of the subaltern.

One of the prominent members of the collective Sumit Sarkar in his essay "Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies" [17] critiqued the group for deviating from the initial promise and effort at restoring the subalterns of their history and taking a Foucauldian turn to focus on power-knowledge. The disenchantment with the Enlightenment project and the resultant critique of rationalist scientific approaches crystalised the shift of focus from dominance-subordination, elite-subaltern dialectic to textual discursive analysis. The move away from ‘grant narrative’ has its own not-so-desirable consequences for the larger meaning, significance and purposiveness of history writing as an intellectual practice. There has also been a charge on the series of becoming repetitive and serving little historiographical advance.
The critique from outside from the beginning has been on account of the neglect of class and undermining of class struggle as the motor of historical change. In a larger theoretical sense as scholars like Chibber argued the explanatory failure of Subaltern Studies framework is related to the misrepresentation of ‘the relationship between capitalism and modernity.’ [18] There have been variations on this and assumed closer attention and bolder assertion due to the later shift.


Though the subaltern scholarship took myriad forms with departures and deviations from the initial thrust, the impact of Guha and the subaltern perspective he was instrumental in shaping continues to be seen not just in South Asian historiography but far and wide in various disciplines of social science scholarship.

The legacy of Ranajit Guha has to be appreciated in the context that the questions raised, the problematics shaped, the methodological and conceptual insights and innovations brought into focus in the field of historiography by Guha individually and as part of the collective continue to resonate not only in the historiography of colonial and post-colonial India but across the globe as evident in the scholarly flourish of for instance Latin American Subaltern Studies collective. [19]

The intellectual journey that started with The Rule of Property [20] on Permanent Settlement and saw the creation of classics like Elementary Aspects, Dominance without Hegemony [21] and his last work in English being History at the Limit of World History [22] is a treasure of leads and insights that would continue to inspire intellectual imagination and influence scholarly production.

Though the nature of political economic exploitation, ideological/cultural domination, forms of power, and subalternity have changed in neo-liberal and Hindutva India in terms of the context, mode and modality the logic of inquiry pursued by Guha continues to be insightful enough to guide us to examine, understand and act in our own context.

One of the important lessons to be drawn from Guha’s life is the fact that the theory and practice of history has to be a collective effort and it is realizable too. The importance of associational collaborative effort is the need of the times when history has become a battleground of intense political contestations with decisive consequences for the future of a nation and its people.

(Author: Karli Srinivasulu, Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi; Professor (Retd), Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad)

[1Ranajit Guha (Ed) (1982), Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society, OUP, Delhi

[2Ranajit Guha (1983), The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, OUP, Delhi.

[3The most prominent among them being EP Thompson and EJ Hobsbawm.

[4Guha (1982), ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ in Guha (Ed), Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society, OUP, Delhi, pp. 1-8.

[5ibid, P. 2.

[6ibid, P. 2.

[7ibid, P. 2.

[8The persistence of this view can be seen conspicuously in one of the well-known historians of modern India. See, Bipan Chandra, ‘Peasantry and National Integration in Contemporary India’ in his Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India, Orient Longman, Delhi, 1979, p.345.

[9Marxist historiography, as Sumit Sarkar a member of the Subaltern Studies collective in the early phase states in his survey, has been elitist for it “focused on party or the programmes and organisation” and ignored the spontaneous movements of the subalterns. Sarkar (1983), Popular Movements in late colonial India: Problems and Perspectives of “a history from below” A.K. Bagchi, Calcutta, p.1.

[10The economistic approach has its greater impact on the explanation of social transition. Working with instrumental rationality and placing emphasis on the quantitative criteria, it ascribes privileged position to technology, instruments of production and market and views their development to be determining the social change. In the process, the unity between forces and relations of production is seen as externally determined.

For a critique of this approach, Robert Brenner, ‘Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism’, New Left Review, July-August 1977

[11Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1985), "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography," Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, OUP, Delhi.

[12Antonio Gramsci, Selection from Prison Note books, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971, pp. 54-55.

[13Guha (1989), ’Dominance without Hegemony arid Its Historiography’ in Guha (Ed), Subaltern Studies VI: Writings on South Asian History and Society, OUP, Delhi.

[14Guha (1983), ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’ in Subaltern Studies II: Writings on South Asian History and Society, OUP, Delhi, Pp. 1-42.

[15K. Srinivasulu (1988), ‘Telangana Peasant Movement, and Change in Agrarian Structure: A Study of Nalgonda District’, Unpublished Ph D thesis, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[16Shail Mayaram, M. S. S. Pandian, and Ajay Skaria (2005), Muslims, Dalits, and the Fabrications of History, Permanent Black, Delhi.

[17See, Sumit Sarkar (1998), Writing Social History, OUP, Delhi

[18Vivek Chibber (2013), Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Verso, London, P. 24.

[19For instance, Ileana Rodriguez (Ed) (2001), The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader, Duke University Press, Durham.

[20Ranajit Guha (1982), A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement, Orient Longman, Hyderabad.

[21Ranajit Guha (1997), Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[22Ranajit Guha (1997), Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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