Understanding Subaltern Studies as a Historiographic Project


Talk by Neha Chatterji, 28th July 2021- Mardomnameh Subaltern Studies Series Event


Subaltern Studies took birth as an intellectual project at a time when independent India was a little more than three decades old. This historiographic intervention has to be understood by placing it against the political-intellectual climate of the 1970s. It was a period of great turbulence—of expressions (along the coordinates of class, caste, religious community, etc.) of disillusionment with the promise of freedom by various groups in Indian society. To use the words of Ranajit Guha, the 1970s revealed more than ever the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie (read the Indian ruling classes) to speak for the nation.[1]


In its programmatic statements of the early 1980s, the Subaltern Studies Collective stated that the project’s distinctive orientation was to understand the nature of this failed hegemony. It stated that there were vast arenas of popular subaltern life unassimilated to both the Raj and the nationalist kingdom-come. It thus spoke of a structural split in the domain of politics in colonial India—a split between two interacting yet autonomous domains, the elite and the subaltern.


The Subaltern Studies Collective was also engaging with the Cambridge school formulations of colonial Indian history in the 1970s. The former used the epithet ‘neo-colonialist’ to describe the latter. The Cambridge school propounded the thesis of collaboration (between the colonizer and colonized) and competition (between the colonized themselves, over the new opportunities opened up by colonialism).


This thesis appeared to all strands of nationalist as well as Marxist historians of India as ‘neo-colonialist’ because it seemed to emphasize a non-antagonistic relation between the colonizer and the colonized. As if, the colonized gave their consent to their own colonization. Guha characterised the colonial state instead as a dominance without hegemony, ‘for no authority can claim voluntary collaboration (except as a Nazi euphemism) from its subordinates without allowing the latter a choice not to collaborate, and such a choice was, of course, incompatible with the autocracy that was the very essence of that rulership’.[2]


What Guha added—and this was where he marked the distinctive orientation of the Subaltern Studies—was that there was a spurious claim to hegemony in the Indian nationalist (official) version as well. Guha wrote that it was only a deceitful historiography that made out the entire political history of the high colonial and late colonial period to be unitary and undifferentiated. Guha and his younger contemporaries described such discourses as ‘elitist’ for it was only the elites who were privileged by dominant discourse ‘to deal with the rulers on behalf of all the colonized’.[3]


Vast areas of Indian life, they argued, remained outside and unassimilated to the Raj as well as the idioms, values, discourses and institutions of the nationalist elite. It was not that these arenas did not participate in nationalism; instead, it was this sturdy popular nationalism and subaltern militancy, rather than official nationalism, which perhaps produced the pressures from below that directed the course of democratic struggle and anti-imperialist mobilization in the subcontinent.


What these small voices contested from time to time were elite (Guha frequently uses the word ‘bourgeois’, making his Marxist lineages clear) claims to hegemony.  Guha and his Collective further argued that theories of non-antagonism between the colonizer and the colonized required one to ‘regard politics merely as the sum of all transactions between the masters themselves’.[4]


Yet the articulations of the mass of subaltern participants hardly became historic. The Subaltern Studies collective shed light on what became historic and what did not. It is here that Guha indicated the complicity between imperialism and our received academic tradition. The modern discipline of history placed emphasis on the ‘archive’ as a source of objective knowledge of the past. But institutional archives recorded only those articulations of politics that pertained to areas and phenomena accessible to the apparatus of the Raj. Only that which was related to state power (or state power in anticipation) or challenged it effectively got to become historic.


‘Statism’, Guha wrote, was in-built in the modern discipline of history. Statism in Indian historiography was a gift of colonial education. But, could a truly Indian historiography of India be simply a history of the state and of insurgencies directly against the state? It could not be so because the story of the (colonial and the post-colonial) state and its discourses of science, reason, medicine, hygiene, planning, development would not even begin to tell the myriad stories that were of the people.


These many voices and myriad stories have the potential to make a mess of the plot—the plot that binds a historical narrative. It spells disorder for the very narratological method. It is this disorderliness that the Subaltern Studies have championed so as to overthrow the univocity of statist discourse. And in this domain which is outside the sphere of the ‘colonial rulers and their eleves (pupils)’,[5] there thrives ‘accents, idioms and imageries…foreign to the lexicon of post-Enlightenment reason that provided historiography and nationalism with much of its distinctive vocabulary’.[6]


It is a post-colonial temper that can study these other temporalities that defy generic incorporation into the time of capital or normative modernity. These are, to use Guha’s words, ‘witness to the historic threshold that the so-called universalism of a Eurocentric reason and its engine of global expansion—capital—failed to cross in the age of colonialism’.[7]


[1] Ranajit Guha, ‘Introduction to the Subaltern Studies Reader’, The Small Voice of History (ed. Partha Chatterjee), New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002, p. 325.

[2] Ibid. p. 329.

[3] Ibid. p. 327.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, The Small Voice of History, p. 190.

[6] Guha, ‘The Authority of Vernacular Pasts’, The Small Voice of History, p. 478.

[7] Guha, ‘Introduction to the Subaltern Studies Reader’, The Small Voice of History, p. 331.