Ranajit Guha revived the study of Indian history
Tit’s three a short inventory, written in rural Bengali in 1849, tells the story of a young woman named Chandra. She was pregnant as a result of an illegal affair, and in danger of being evicted from her village, she was poisoned one night by her mother and sister. After several hours she expelled a small bloody fetus, and then, just before dawn, she died. “I gave the medicine thinking it would end her pregnancy,” her sister told the city reporter who was dispatched by local law enforcement. “I didn’t realize he would kill her.”
The deposits were no longer than a few dozen lines. But the historian who found them saw much more there than the details of a young life cut tragically short. He explained what the wider context revealed about the Indian subcontinent: about its strict caste rules, its legal frameworks, its methods of controlling crime, the increasing influence of the village elders (almost all men always) and the unspoken loyalty among women that formed its basis. So much rural life in Bengal then.
His essay, “Chandra’s Death”, is still widely cited. It first appeared in 1987 in the fifth volume of “Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society”, a series that began with a soft-spoken, bald academic working in Manchester, Sussex and then Canberra rather than at colleges Oxbridge had long dominated the study of Indian history. “How does one retrieve this document for history?” he asked. That question was at the heart of the movement he launched with a group of young scholars, both Indian and British. Most of them were educated in the West, and they wanted to destroy the conservatism of other historians.
“Subaltern Studies” would become a manifesto for a new type of Indian history written outside the mainstream of both colonial and Jawaharlal Nehru leadership. These were stories of India from the bottom up, or as one academic likes to say: “insurgent history”. Through the six volumes of “Subaltern Studies” he edited between 1982 and 1989, he showed again and again how there had been no change in India, as many historians would have believed. believing, a case of elites working first, with the peasants always following. obediently behind. The poor and marginalized people had their own ideas about the change they wanted and were always ready to fight for it, whether it was the indigo revolt of 1859 or many movements Dalit in the mid-20th century. Edward Said, no slouch when it came to revisionist essays on colonial history, called Ranajit Guha’s writing “a brilliant example of a revolutionary historical method”.
He had discovered the term “Subaltern” in Antonio Gramsci’s prison diaries. Founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci wanted a word that was compatible with Marx’s proletariat, but was better for an agrarian society like Italy. Although the word had come to mean a junior British officer in India, it also means a lower rank. The double meaning appealed to Mr. Guha’s humor. Using unorthodox sources, including songs and plays, and writing from the perspective of India’s “underground” – slum dwellers, tribals and women of all classes, but especially poor rural women – the Indian historian repurposed Gramsci’s term for the post-colonial world. , giving it a whole new life.
The fact that he was almost 60 when the first “Subaltern Studies” came out did not bother him. He was not at all disturbed by his resignation when, eventually, he became a cult figure among historians, anthropologists and cultural theorists around the world. Disobedience was something he had been preparing for all his life. He was born the son of a middle-class land-owning family in what is now Bangladesh, but he found life as an upper-caste Hindu intolerable, even though his grandfather taught him Sanskrit and spent sometimes reading English literature in his father’s library.
A new essay by Partha Chatterjee, a renowned political theorist and close friend of Mr Guha, explains how his background influenced him. When the family’s tenants came to his grandfather’s house “they would never sit down and touch the feet of even the children of the master’s family”. Like many young Bengalis then, he joined the Communist Party and later went on to work for it full-time. The party offered new opportunities. He told Mr Chatterjee that he traveled to Paris, newly liberated from Nazi occupation, to Eastern Europe and across Russia by train in one of the first foreign groups to visit China after the war -out. But when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, he resigned from the party and found a home at the new Jadavpur University in what was then known as Calcutta.
There he converted to the feudal system of Bengal. As Mr. Chatterjee explains, Mr. Guha wanted to understand how laws introduced at the end of the 18th century to create enterprising farmers came to produce their grain. Cheers a system of extracting heavy rents from tenant farmers. Other historians were not convinced by his argument that it was what Mr. Chatterjee calls a “necessary effect” of British colonial rule. His doctoral thesis was rejected, although it was finally published in 1963 as “A Rule of Property for Bengal”. That book, which Mr. Chatterjee writes in his essay, is now a “classic of modern Indian history”.
He got a job teaching at the University of Sussex. He wrote about the brutality of Indira Gandhi’s government. And then he settled down during a year he spent in India crushing the Naxalite communist movement and its aftermath. Returning to England, he studied the long history of peasant revolts. The creation of “Underground Knowledge” was the next obvious step.
After years of fighting historical orthodoxy, he found a new perspective in his late 70s, says Mr Chatterjee: that the truth of human life was not to be found in history, but in literature and in the words of ordinary people – people like the young woman who was poisoned for being pregnant.■