A report from a roundtable discussion on the scope and impact of Subaltern Studies on the discipline of history.

For those interested in Indian history, one of the most significant developments in the past four decades has been the rise and efflorescence of a school of historiography known as Subaltern Studies. Deeply influenced by Marx, as refracted through the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, Ranajit Guha (b. 1923) and his associates moved away from both colonial and nationalist history- writing, and began to look at the vast underclass that constituted the flip side of the rulers and elites of the British Empire in India, between 1757 and 1947.

To mark 30 years of Guha’s seminal book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), on February 15 and 16, 2013 the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi hosted a two-day workshop and a roundtable discussing the scope and impact of Subaltern Studies on the discipline of history in India and elsewhere. The 89-year old Guha himself was too frail to travel to Delhi from Vienna. But leading Subaltern intellectuals Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Shahid Amin, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gyan Prakash, Susie Tharu, David Hardiman, Shail Mayaram and Gyanendra Pandey were invited to reflect upon their relationship with Guha, their work as a group over the years, as well as future directions, if not for the Subaltern Studies school (which has more or less wound up its organised activities), then for historiography in and about India as such. Intense deliberations about Guha’s foundational text, his method and language, his philosophical assumptions, and his personality as a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend to an entire generation of historians took up a good portion of the time.

The most promising papers, however, came from cultural anthropologists and not historians; at least three of whom suggested new ways in which to move forward with Guha’s ideas, after Subaltern Studies. For these scholars, Guha’s categories of thought and analysis — located in and developed specifically for the historical context of colonialism — served as starting points for thinking about Indian society as it unfolds in our own time. While many of the methods suggested by Guha for constituting and reading colonial archives were never really meant to be extended either into the pre-colonial past or into the postcolonial present, certain fundamental themes of domination, resistance, power, mobilisation, state, collectivity and identity persist in different time periods and invite attention, deployment and reinvention, no matter which phase of history one might be interested in. Even if Guha’s original formulations of conceptual categories break down when taken out of their proper setting, the promise of unexpected findings in research are nevertheless attractive for a subsequent generation of post-Subaltern scholars.

In the spirit of thinking along with Guha while moving away from his strictly defined framework, Nandini Sundar, professor of Sociology at Delhi University and a recent Infosys Prize awardee, presented some of her ongoing work on the Maoist insurgency in central India. At stake, for her, is the term “insurgent”, and how we are to conceptualise the insurgent when the state in question is no longer a foreign colonial one but an indigenous, national state; when the power-structure in place is not imperialist but democratic; and when the protest is coming not from subaltern colonial subjects but from underprivileged but nonetheless theoretically equal citizens. What is the source of the radical energy and the moral claims of insurgencies in a free country? How is opposition to authority experienced and expressed now, long after the dissolution of the British Raj, in relation to representative self-government? How does the developmental state reconfigure itself to articulate its dominance through a new — and terrifying — idiom, a contemporary “prose of counter-insurgency” (to borrow the title of another of Guha’s celebrated writings)? Sundar’s intervention — delivered with a quiet fury that comes from the years she has spent documenting the absolutely hair-raising effects of insurgency and counter-insurgency in the tribal heartland of Bastar — made it clear that the conflict between the state and the people, between elites and subalterns, and the struggle for justice in the face of the state’s overwhelming violence, does not end with decolonisation and democratisation.

Shankar Ramaswami, an anthropologist trained at the University of Chicago and currently visiting CSDS, shared some findings of his ethnographic fieldwork conducted for well over a decade among Bihari metal-workers at a factory in Delhi, where highly designed and expensive metal objects are manufactured for export to the United States. Ramaswami spent years getting to know a small group of workers and observing their life on the factory-floor, in their migrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Delhi and back in their villages in Bihar. He also participated in their political activities, as they organised themselves into labour unions to agitate, sometimes successfully, for better wages and work-conditions and to protest arbitrary lay-offs and factory downsizing. Like “peasant”, “insurgent”, “tribal” and “subaltern”, “worker” too, appears at first to be a trans-temporal category that persists from the very inception of industrialisation — and, for India, colonialism — right into the present. But of course the condition and agency of the worker under globalised consumer capitalism are distinct from anything Guha was writing about, as the torque forces of the market and the media, apart from other traditional vectors of power originating in the state and the society, create a kind of pincer-action perhaps not seen before in the lives of the poor.

With remarkable empathy and insight, Ramaswami delves deep into the moral imagination of his subjects (both Hindus and Muslims), teasing out the theories of good and evil, the architecture of faith, and the practices of everyday religiosity, solidarity and ethical judgment that make it possible to survive with dignity in even the most relentlessly exploitative economic circumstances.

Finally, Badri Narayan of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad spoke about Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, describing the growing distance between privileged groups within the Dalit fold and the vast majority of those who continue to be marginalised and oppressed by both other castes and their own. The caste system too is a complex of socio-cultural phenomena that we can recognise in some minimal sense as existing for centuries, but a vocabulary of Ambedkarite Buddhism, never before heard in UP, seems to be creating new possibilities of self-knowledge and self-transformation for long suffering communities. Scholarship like that of Sundar, Ramaswami and Narayan is no longer “Subaltern Studies” conventionally understood, but if it is any indication, then Ranajit Guha’s example and influence will continue to flourish in the Indian academy for as many decades ahead as have already passed before.