Remembering Ranajit Guha, pioneer of subaltern studies who revolutionised history writing

To Ranajit Guha, who passed away on April 28, all of history is an interpretation, and the downtrodden should reclaim it for their own good

Ranajit Guha
Ranajit Guha (1923-2023)

Ranajit Guha (1923-2023), the pioneer of the subaltern studies, has passed away, some days shy of turning 100. He leaves behind a trailblazing body of work that is decidedly anti-elitist, and has the span and command of many allied fields of work put together.

Guha not only spearheaded a new direction of scholarly work in Indian historiography, but also helped train a generation of scholars of the calibre of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (81) and Partha Chatterjee (75), all of whom have gone on to expand the contours of philosophy and civic thought surrounding India’s downtrodden.

An innately radical movement

Guha’s school of thought has sometimes been accused by critics for being too extreme in its opposition to the existing structures of history-writing, steadfastly opposed to the established constructs of theorizing, on mere suspicion of elitist sensibilities. Yet, it is the innate radicality of his movement, this incorruptible refusal to submit to a subjectivity, which is the hallmark of the message the movement supports with unfaltering conviction.

Guha’s essays, as rigorous in their argument as they are in their craftsmanship, often blended theory with speculative history. At a time when even liberal, leftist thinkers found themselves shackled to continental Europe through Marxian sensibilities and demonstrated a fundamental failure to think beyond European strictures of thought, Guha forged ahead with a worm’s eye view of things, situating the vantage point in the unrecorded annals of the subaltern or the downtrodden in society.

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In his book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1993), he caught lightning in a bottle, casually upturning decades if not centuries of thought on the political imagination of the Indian population, which until now had been seen through a largely simplistic interest-group based lens.

Thus, instead of generalizing the Indian populace into classes based on capitalists and the subjects, Guha racked focus on the subjects, and located their history in the existing archives. For example, when the criminal records of a certain time in Indian colonial history showed a steep rise in violence, Guha compared that to other parallel events and suggested that these were political movements among the downtrodden, and were being framed as a law and order issue by the government in order to curtail any illusions as to the political functioning of the Indian subaltern.

One of the significant ways Guha achieved this is through his study of the quotidian or the everyday mundanities of Indian life. From the crevices of Indian written history at the time, composed from insular ivory towers, Guha unpicked a lived reality that had been carefully brushed aside — a delicate act of rug-pulling. It is this celebration of the unarchived that is so relevant to the spectacle of present-day politics. In a bias for the “big” events, history ignores the “small” ones, where the many indignities of the downtrodden occur.

The restaging of a murder

In Chandra’s Death, an essay by Guha, he reenacts a grisly murder. In one tight corner of Bengal, he picks up a colonial record of a crime: a pregnant woman, called Chandra, dying after being made to ingest contraceptive herbs. The colonial, legal record of this “crime”, as it is dubbed by the authorities, insinuates her family in her murder, casting a guilty shadow on this close-knit and troubled unit in the oppressed and impoverished Bagdi community. For all reasons, this statement as fact is indubitable. Chandra has been impregnated by a close family member. Her family disclaimed her. She is murdered when she is compelled to eat dubious medicine. All the signs of a murder are there. And not.

Guha’s reclamation of Chandra’s death, which is an event captured in archival form, illuminates the quotidian that is often ignored in the documentation of history. He engages in critical historiography, making claims about the violence of sexual/gender control, societal alliances that lie in the background of this alleged crime. His gripe is that historiography always has a bias and ignores the smaller events that led up to them or are active in the background.

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His rewriting evokes the imposing power of discourse, which, in Chandra’s death would be how the discourse of the law has subsumed the discourse of the oppression of females’ bodies, which is considered to be a part of the quotidian and carefully ignored away. There is a subjectivity in what is chosen for archiving and what is rejected. Guha is mainly concerned with the latter, and the consequences of such a rejection.

Patriarchal origins of terror

Guha reframes the context from one of filicide to one of solidarity and fear. He recontextualizes the affair from one of honour killing to one where the terror associated with such licentious relationships throws their precarious social standing into a tizzy.

Here, the discourse of the law is also associated with the Victorian-era understanding of abortion as a crime. Further, the ignoring of the quotidian social realities is made possible as history-writing claims to be “objective”, noting only facts, excluding the sensory realities of the social reality of the family.

Guha argues that, to the law, who gave the drug that caused the death is of importance, whereas it should actually be concerned with the quotidian, as that is where the actual violence lies. The law is not concerned with the social phenomenon of pregnancy and what it means to be pregnant, or to be in a relationship in certain shunned, illicit contexts. Hence, it doesn’t concern itself with the man who got Chandra pregnant in the first place, incriminates the sister and the mother who only give Chandra the drug so as to save her prestige as well as the family’s.

The archive must instead be concerned with the violence done to the female body by the patriarchal violent socialization in the everyday. The background knowledge about how such news imperils social reception from people in higher communities and castes nuances the horror of Chandra’s family members, who are at their wits’ end, and do what anyone may: induce abortion.

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All of this background, not present in the archives, would give a much-changed view of the “crime”, which traditionally requires a motive. What motive would the law ascribe to the “accused”? Trying to protect their social standing? Regularizing violence on female bodies? Guha is successful in invoking these insights.

The quotidian of the modern era

Well into the 21st century, the battle between the “small” and the “big”, the David and Goliath of historical events, continues. The post-truth era has demonstrated a fascinating divorce from objective realities, where an appeal to emotions is sufficient to convince people of various abstractions of realities. Further, this is a period of careful recordkeeping, every fact noted and stored with academic rigour, always ready to be brandished in support of other statements of fact. Yet, it is this diligent archiving that seems to blind us to what exactly is being recorded as history, and what is being ignored.

It is exemplified in multiple ways. The focus on the alleged masterminds behind the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence, who have since been imprisoned, ignores the much larger reality of other plausible causes leading to the outbreak, such as the communitarian strife between the Marathas and Mahars on other historical grounds. The law of sedition, introduced and strengthened during the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime, gives force to such accusations, as it is easier to name a person and let them argue their way out of it than implicate entire communities. This enables the archivist to safely ignore the quotidian there.

In other areas, consider the recent Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage. The arguments against it are laughable and inane, conjuring the predictable image of a bogeyman where such sexual relations would manipulate younger people into adopting a somewhat deviant lifestyle. This is an appeal to general ideas of morality, and is quite an attractive plea in a society of very protective parents. And yet, it ignores the everyday cruelties that the LGBTQ+ community faces, from subtle lack of acknowledgment, inhibited employment opportunities, looks of grimace, and blatant prejudice. Such an argument refuses to engage with the community on a humanist level, and sees same-sex marriage not as a way for them to realize an emancipatory potential of their lives, but as an exercise in frivolity and bodily pleasure.

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Take the Sikh protests in the aftermath of the Operation Blue Star, where the violent repression of their rebellion was portrayed as a law and order issue, rather than the context of a community expressing their political views on desecration of a religious establishment, particularly given their minoritized status in Indian society.

More recently, the question of the hijab has resurfaced as an issue affecting secularism and uniformity in schools. Such a reframing carefully abandons the reality where the hijab might be a societal or religious accompaniment crucial to mobility within the society, or simply an artefact with sacred value in interplay with the functioning of particular communities. In some places, the very act of recordkeeping has fallen into disrepute, with a spokesperson stating that no data exists on the plight of the migrant labourers during the COVID-19-induced exodus two years ago. It is, therefore, very vital that we adopt a critical lens when viewing a historical record or polemic based on apparently sound reason: there might be more than what meets the eye.

Guha’s sweeping movement, thus, turns the objective nature of history on its head, revealing the essential political nature of archiving, and using the same as a weapon to protest against its continued relevance as an absolute truth. All of history is an interpretation, he says, and the subaltern — the downtrodden, the oppressed, the vanquished — can and should reclaim it for their own good.