Ranajit Guha (1923 - 2023)
by Amit Bandyopadhyay Souvik GhoshaL Akash Bhattacharya

The College and the Street

When the peasant rebellions at Srikakulam and other areas were at their peak, ‘Frontier’ - edited by Samar Sen - published an article in January1971 titled ‘On Torture and Culture’. Republished later as ‘Nipiran O Sanskriti’ in ‘Simanta’ - the Bengali version of ‘Frontier’ - the article contained an exhaustive analysis of state repression on the Naxalites and on the common people.

While the article stood out for its combination of passion, incisive analysis and scholarly depth, its author, a certain Ranajit Guha, was unknown to most readers. Many thought that it was pseudonym of some prominent Naxalite leader. In those days, Guha was not a well-known figure even in academic circles. He was associated with communist politics since his student days. After completing the Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in History, he chose to work as a full-time cadre of the undivided Communist Party. As he roamed from village to village, Guha grasped the character of land relations defined by the zamindari system, the range and depth of peasant resistance to zamindari exploitation, and the Communist Party’s efforts to organize the peasantry. He visited Europe after the Second World War for party work and lived there between 1947 to 1953, witnessing the post-war socialist upsurge first hand. He also had the opportunity to see post-revolutionary China in 1949.

After returning to India, he taught at Vidyasagar College, Chandannagar College and the newly established Jadavpur University till 1959. He continued to write regularly for the mouthpiece of the Communist Party ‘Swadhinata’ [Freedom]. However, when Soviet Russia invaded Hungary in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, Guha was one of the many intellectuals who withdrew from the communist parties in their respective countries. In 1959, he left for the University of Sussex.

In the Wake of Naxalbari

Guha’s doctoral thesis on the agrarian system that the peasants were up against, was published in England in 1963. Titled ‘A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of the Permanent Settlement’, the monograph explained an apparent paradox. While Europe had moved towards capitalism, British colonial rule had created feudalism in Bengal.

Turning to the Permanent Settlement of Bengal (1793), Guha rightly observed that while the Physiocratic doctrine became a major economic instrument for the dismantling of the feudal system in Europe, it ended up producing the neo-feudal monstrosity called the zamindari system in Bengal. Guha explained how this was a necessary consequence of the very historical logic of British colonial rule over a semi-feudal society.

The Naxalite movement further refined Guha’s understanding of feudalism and colonialism in the Indian context. Guha returned to India in 1972, on a two-year Visiting Professorship at the University of Delhi. The ambience of peasant rebellion pervaded the university spaces in those days. By his own admission, interaction with Naxalites and young students influenced Guha greatly. Guha is known to have had a close relationship with the CPI (ML) in its early days, in part due to his association with Suniti Kumar Ghosh since his time at Vidyasagar College. Ghosh was a Central Committee member of CPI (ML) and editor of ‘Liberation’ at that point of time.  Witnessing the armed peasant rebellions against the very property relations that he had so meticulously studied in his doctoral thesis moved him. On the ideological plane, the CPI (ML) had successfully connected the peasant rebellions with the political project of capture of state power and the overthrow of India’s semi-feudal, semi-colonial culture. It was a veritable second freedom struggle. It faced political and military defeat but left a powerful ideological and cultural imprint on the country.

Guha wrote in his piece ‘Gramsci in India: Homage to a Teacher’:

The revolt of the 1970s amounted to youth calling age to account. The summon served, served in a manner conspicuous for its excess rather than its wisdom – as in the beheading of a statue of the great nineteenth century scholar and reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, in a Calcutta park – won the rebels no friends. Yet the very wildness of such gestures drove the point home, albeit scandalously, that tradition would not pass unchallenged. The tradition in question ranged all the way from intellectual culture, such as that associated with the so-called Bengal renaissance, to the highly valorized ideals of Indian nationalism during its encounter with the colonial regime.

Guha’s article on the emergency period titled ‘Indian Democracy : long Dead, Now Buried’ was published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia in January1976. He doubled down on ‘a historical myth invented by international liberalism – the myth that all had been well with Indian democracy until an authoritarian personality subverted it on 26 June 1975. The truth is that nothing has been well with Indian democracy ever since its inception and that the present Emergency is merely a climactic act in a process going back to the very circumstances of the birth of the Indian republic. ... That she [Indira Gandhi – editor] had to do it only shows the lightening grip of a crisis which makes it difficult for the ruling classes to maintain even the facade of a rule of law. That she could do it establishes beyond doubt the truth of Charu Mazumdar’s description of the Indian parliament as an abject instrument of class domination.”

Subaltern Studies

The Naxalbari movement helped give the final shape to Guha’s thoughts on the historiography of India’s freedom struggle. He felt that the history of colonial India and that of the freedom struggle had so far mainly been written from the perspective of the upper classes. It was necessary to write the history from the point of view of the lower classes. Based on this thought, he and his colleauges gave birth to a new genre of historical and anthropological scholarship called the ‘Subaltern Studies.’  

The term ‘subaltern’ was borrowed from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Struggling against the fascist state of Mussolini, Gramsci had turned his attention to groups and persons of ‘low rank’ whose voices and actions were silenced by the domination of ruling groups. Guha borrowed this term to make two central points.

The first was that the history of modern India had been written from the viewpoint of elitist historiography. By elite, Guha indicated both colonial historians as well as nationalist ones, all of whom concentrated on the actions of leaders, political organization and high-level negotiations and manipulations that were said to make our past. By contrast,  he called for research on what the peasants, adivasis and workers (later expanded to women, lower castes, and other groups) did and thought.

The second important point he made was that the nation was not unitary but composed of multiple social constituencies with uneven access to power. Nationalist historians had concentrated on British colonial oppression alone. The task of subaltern historians was to also show the way landlords, moneylenders, capitalists and those with patriarchal values collaborated with colonial power to oppress the poor and marginal - while highlighting the independent agency of the latter in shaping popular movements. Many of these elements were amplified in Guha’s seminal monograph ‘Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India’ (1983) and related essays.

Guha made a breakthrough in the reading of the archives. The problem: how could one unearth the voices of the subaltern if these were already silenced? Guha outlined a method of reading the adjectives of colonial administrators when they recorded the actions and speeches of subaltern classes in periods of protests and movements. Guha’s method was to reverse the valuations of colonial descriptions. When administrators described the action of peasants as ‘fanatical’, the historian had to re-code this deed as motivation through religious beliefs. Subaltern Studies was thus a historical, historiographical and methodological intervention at one and the same time.

Enduring Legacies, Unfulfilled Potential

Staring from 1980-81, the Subaltern Studies collective held regular workshops, released 12 volumes (of which the first eight were edited by Guha himself) and produced a wide repertoire of scholars from disciplines such as literary and cultural theory, anthropological and legal theory and so on. It provoked debates which enriched multiple disciplines.

The debates ranged from initial objections made in the journal ’Social Scientist’ about the status of the subaltern-elite distinction, to Gayatri Spivak’s intervention about the epistemic status of the Subaltern in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, and finally to Sumit Sarkar’s critique of the later turn of Subaltern Studies towards postcolonial discourse analysis.
Within a span of two decades, Subaltern Studies transformed Indian history and had an unprecedented global impact. Subaltern Studies of Latin America, a path-breaking intervention in its own right, was inspired by Guha’s work. By transforming the fundamental paradigms of the discipline, Subaltern Studies remains a testament to the vitality of Indian historical traditions and Guha’s immense contribution to its life.

In the later phase of his career, Guha moved towards more conceptual studies of history. ‘Dominance Without Hegemony’ (1998) reflected on the categories of domination and resistance. In ‘History at the Limits of World History’ (2002), he critiqued modern historiography’s genesis in Western colonial reason. In this period he also wrote extensively in Bengali language. He went beyond history into the fields of literature and philosophy. For example, he wrote on influential Bengali intellectuals and poets like Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, Samar Sen, Sankha Ghosh, Sunil Gangopadhyaya and others.

We will remember Ranajit Guha as an outstanding scholar, a great thinker, a committed intellectual and above all, as a historian of peoples’ democratic traditions. His work thrust these traditions into the mainstream of academic historiography. It is these traditions that the Hindutva forces today wish to annihilate in the garb of correcting Congress-inspired histories. In the face of the fascist assault on Indian history and society, these traditions need energetic and consistent retelling today to lead Indian people's anti-fascist resistance to victory. This can be the greatest possible tribute to Guha’s work at this critical juncture of India's history.

Ranajit Guha (1923 - 2023)