Practice Question: Give an account of Ranajit Guha’s approach in studying ‘subaltern class’. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2019)

Approach: Introduction; Explain about ‘subaltern class’, Elaborate on Ranajit Guha’s method and work with respect to subaltern class, Criticism; Conclusion.



The word ‘subaltern’ as given in the Oxford Dictionary stands for the general attribute of subordination, which is expressed in terms of a caste, class, age, gender, office or any other way. It includes the characteristics of defiance and submission. Thus, in literal sense, it conveys ‘view from below’, i.e., a view or understanding from the bottom of society or the flow of knowledge from below.

Italian Neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci initiated the concept of subaltern in his Prison Notebooks to signify marginalised people. In general, subaltern implies people who are of inferior ranks, but, Gramsci uses the term in much broader sense than its general meaning. By subaltern, he meant all kinds of non-hegemonic those who did not occupy powerful and upper class status groups in a class divided society. As such, subaltern implies group or individuals who are outside the power structure. They are made subaltern or subordinated by the dominant hegemonic power structures and they suffer under dominant power relations.



Subaltern Studies emerged around 1982 as a series of journal articles published by Oxford University Press in India.  A group of Indian scholars trained in the west wanted to reclaim their history.  Its main goal was to retake history for the underclasses, for the voices that had not been heard previous.  Scholars of the subaltern hoped to break away from histories of the elites and the Eurocentric bias of current imperial history.  In the main, the wrote against the “Cambridge School” which seemed to uphold the colonial legacy—i.e. it was elite-centered.  Instead, they focused on subaltern in terms of class, caste, gender, race, language and culture.  They espoused the idea that there may have been political dominance, but that this was not hegemonic.  The primary leader was Ranajit Guha who had written works on peasant uprisings in India.  Another of the leading scholars of subaltern studies is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  She draws on a number of theoretical positions in her analysis of Indian history: deconstruction, marxism, feminism.



According to Guha, the subaltern historiography focuses on the peasants and tribal movements during colonial period in India as it has been overlooked by the dominant mainstream elitist historiography. Such historiography emphasises the role of the individual leaders or of organisations and institutions as the major force during the freedom struggle.  Guha in his article entitled “Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” argues that the historiography of the Indian nationalism was dominated by these elitists who were the colonial and bourgeois nationalist. This type of historical writing gives the impression that the Indian nation and the consciousness of nationalism was an achievement of only the elites. The contributions made by the people in this regard has no relevance. Although they have made their contribution during the freedom struggle ‘independent of the elite in making and development of the Indian nationalism. On the other hand, the elitist perspective of history writing portrays their articulation and uprising as the law and order problem. The one sided perspective considers Indian nationalism as the response of the charisma of certain elite leaders.



Subaltern approach in studying the peasants and tribal movements in India is an important milestone because it examines the politics of the people and in opposition to the politics of the elites. Dhanagare (1988) argues for and constructed a twofold division between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’. Both are viewed as two domains of the nationalist movement. He constructs structural dichotomy or the divisions in the structure of society. The politics of the people did not come from the politics of the dominant groups. They are the indigenous
people, marginalised groups and classes of the laboring population and the intermediate strata in town and country.



David Hardiman is also one of the core members of the subaltern historiography movement in India. He focused mainly on the history of South Asia during the colonial period. In his works, he emphasises on the impact of colonial rule on the rural society and their assertions. His analysis of Indian nationalism and independence movement has given new insights in
understanding the local power structure and nationalism. He examined the role of local peasants’ activities and Adivasi (tribal) assertions during the colonial time especially in western India. He has used ethnographic and archival sources to analyze movements of western India to promote the subaltern studies in India. He has studied the Devi movement which took place in Gujarat during 1922-23.

During the mainstream anti-colonial movement, Gandhiji incorporated Adivasis in his movement because of their tendency of assertion and their political voice, observed Hardiman. In South Gujarat, the Adivasis were considered as the passive object of colonial policy. The Gandhian nationalists of Gujarat brought them into the nationalist movement. in alliance with the middle-class. With the help of the local narratives, memories, songs as well as the archival materials, Hardiman examined the role of Adivasis not only in their assertion against the
money lenders, liquor barons and the anti-liquor movement. But also in the nationalist movement and social reformation.



B.R. Ambedkar was one of the most dominant political thinkers of India who critically looked at the caste system in India and its rigidity. He took up the issues of Dalits and Adivasi subalterns. He studied the impact of caste system upon the lower caste people and was best analyzed by him. The subaltern group of Dalits is one of the most oppressed and discriminated group of people in Indian society. According to B R Ambedkar, the subaltern communities are those which are discriminated by the dominant castes. 



One of the group’s early contributors, Sumit Sarkar, later began to critique it. He entitled one of his essays “Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies”, criticizing the turn to Foucauldian studies of power-knowledge that left behind many of the empiricist and Marxist efforts of the first two volumes of Subaltern Studies. He writes that the socialist inspiration behind the early volumes led to a greater impact in India itself, while the later volumes’ focus on western discourse reified the subaltern-colonizer divide and then rose in prominence mainly in western academia. Even Gayatri Spivak, one of the most prominent names associated with the movement, has called herself a critic of “metropolitan post-colonialism”.  Indian sociologist Vivek Chibber has criticized the premise of Subaltern Studies for its obfuscation of class struggle and class formation in its analysis, and accused it of excising class exploitation from the story of the oppression of the subaltern.



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