Another approach to studying nationalism in India is through Subaltern Interpretations.

During the closing decades of the last century, the scholars associated with the journal Subaltern Studies shot into fame by vehemently criticising all other forms of Indian history-writing. They put forward their interpretation of modern Indian history as a whole, particularly of Indian nationalism.

Beginning in the early 1980s, with the publication of the first volume of Subaltern Studies (in 1982), this trend of interpretation of nationalism in India became quite influential among certain sections of Indian historians. It was declared to be a radical departure in modern Indian historiography, which claimed to dissociate from all earlier views on the Indian national movement.

In what can be called the manifesto of the project, Ranajit Guha, in the very first volume of Subaltern Studies, declared that

The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism—colonial elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism.

According to Guha, all types of elitist histories have one thing in common, and that is the absence of the politics of the people from their accounts.

Ranjit Guha criticised the three main trends in Indian historiography – 

  1. Colonialist: It saw the colonial rule as the fulfilment of a mission to enlighten the ignorant people;
  2. Nationalist: It visualised all the protest activities as part of the making of the nation-state; and
  3. Marxist: It subsumed the people’s struggles under the progression towards revolution and a socialist state.

According to him, no attempt is made in these works to comprehend and write about how subaltern groups perceive the world and conduct their politics. Earlier, historians were criticised for ignoring the popular initiative and accepting the official negative characterization of the rebel and the rebellion.

In his essay ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’, Ranajit Guha launched a scathing attack on the existing peasant and tribal histories in India for considering the peasant rebellions as’ purely spontaneous and unpremeditated affairs’ and for ignoring the consciousness of the rebels themselves.

He accused all the accounts of rebellions, starting with the immediate official reports to the histories written by the left radicals, of writing the texts of counter-insurgency which refused to recognise the agency of the people and “to acknowledge the insurgent as the subject of his own history.”

According to Guha, they all failed to acknowledge that there existed a parallel subaltern domain of politics that was not influenced by elite politics and which possessed an independent, self-generating dynamic. Its roots lie in pre-colonial popular social and political structures.

However, this domain was not archaic: ‘as modern as indigenous elite politics,
it was distinguished by its relatively greater depth in time as well as in structure’.

In his opinion, there was now an urgent need to correct the record by viewing history through the eyes of the oppressed classes.

The politics of the people was crucial because it constituted an autonomous domain which neither originated from elite politics nor did its existence depend on the latter.

Difference between People’s Politics and Elite Politics

The people’s politics differed from elite politics in several crucial aspects.

  • First, its roots lie in the traditional organisations of the people, such as caste and kinship networks, tribal solidarity, territoriality, etc.
  • Secondly, while elite mobilizations were vertical in nature, the general population’s or people’s mobilizations were horizontal.
  • Thirdly, whereas the elite mobilisation was legalistic and pacific, the subaltern mobilisation was relatively violent.
  • Fourthly, the elite mobilisation was more cautious and controlled, while the subaltern mobilisation was more spontaneous.

Subaltern historians, disenchanted with Congress nationalism and its embodiment in the Indian state, rejected the thesis that popular mobilisation was the result of either economic conditions or initiatives from the top. They claimed to have discovered a popular autonomous domain that was opposed to the elite domain of politics.

This subaltern domain was defined by constant resistance and rebellion against the elite. The subaltern historians also attributed a general unity to this domain, clubbing together with a variety of heterogeneous groups such as tribes, peasants, the proletariat, and, occasionally, the middle classes as well.

Moreover, this domain was said to be almost completely uninfluenced by elite politics and was claimed to possess an independent, self-generating dynamic.

The charismatic leadership was no longer viewed as the chief force behind the movement. Instead, it was the people’s interpretation of such charisma that acquired prominence in the analysis of a movement.

This idea is present in most of the early contributions to the series. Gyanendra
Pandey, in “Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism”, argues that the Awadh peasant movement arose before and independently of the non-cooperation movement.

According to him, peasants’ understanding of the local power structure and its alliance with colonial power was more advanced than that of the Congress leaders. In fact, peasant militancy was reduced wherever the Congress organisation was stronger.

In Stephen Henningham’s account of the “Quit India in Bihar and the Eastern United Provinces”, the elite and the subaltern domains were clearly distinguished from each other. He talks of two movements existing together but in parallel to each other—“an elite uprising” started by “the high-caste rich peasants and small landlords who dominated the Congress” and “a subaltern rebellion” powered by “the poor, low-caste people of the region’.

Shahid Amin, in his article ‘Gandhi as Mahatma’, studies the popular perception of Mahatma Gandhi. He shows that the popular perception and actions were completely at variance with the Congress leaders’ perception of Gandhi.

Although the Mahatma’s messages were spread widely through “rumors,” there was an entire philosophy of economics and politics behind them—the need to become a good human being, to give up drinking, gambling, and violence, to take up spinning, and to maintain communal harmony.

The stories that circulated also emphasised the magical powers of the Mahatma and his capacity to reward or punish those who obeyed or disobeyed him. On the other hand, the Mahatma’s name and his supposed magical powers were also used to reinforce as well as establish caste hierarchies, to make the debtors pay and to boost the cow-protection movement.

All these popular interpretations of the Mahatma’s messages reached their climax during the Chauri Chaura incidents of 1922, when his name was invoked to burn the police post, to kill the policemen, and to loot the market.

In his numerous articles, David Hardiman focused on subaltern themes and argued that whether it was the tribal assertion in South Gujarat or the Bhil movement in Eastern Gujarat or the radicalism of the agricultural workers during the Civil Disobedience Movement, there was an independent politics of the subaltern classes against the elites.

Similarly, Sumit Sarkar, in “The Conditions and Nature of Subaltern Militancy”, argues that the non-cooperation movement in Bengal revealed a picture of the masses outstripping leaders, and the popular initiative eventually alarmed leaders into calling for a halt.

Thus, the subaltern groups formed a relatively autonomous political domain with specific features and collective mentalities that needed to be explored, and that this was a world distinct from the domain of the elite politicians, who in early twentieth-century Bengal came overwhelmingly from high-caste educated professional groups connected with zamindari, or intermediate tenure-holding.

Thus, we see that in these and many other essays in the earlier volumes, an attempt was made to separate the elite and the subaltern domains and to establish the autonomy of subaltern consciousness and action. This phase was generally characterised by an emphasis on subaltern themes and autonomous subaltern consciousness.

Both colonial ideology and bourgeois nationalist ideology, according to subalternist historians, failed to establish hegemony over the subaltern domain. Moreover, the Indian bourgeoisie failed in its prime work of speaking for the nation, and Congress nationalism was bourgeois and elite, which restrained popular radicalism.

A few years after its inauguration as advocates of the people’s voice in history and proponents of an autonomous subaltern political domain, the project of Subaltern Studies underwent significant changes.

Many of its contributors began to question the organization’s previous emphasis on autonomous subaltern consciousness.

Gayatri Spivak, in particular, criticised the humanist view point adopted by the earlier trend within Subaltern Studies.

At another level, the idea of subalternity became much wider to include even the colonial elite, as they were considered subaltern vis-à-vis the imperialist rulers,
the phenomenon being termed by Partha Chatterjee as “subalternity of the elite.”

Chatterjee’s influential book, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986),
derived from the postcolonial framework of Edward Said, which considered the
colonial power-knowledge as overwhelming and irresistible. His later book, “The Nation and Its Fragments (1995)”, carries this analysis even further.

Subalternity as a concept was also redefined. Earlier, it stood for the oppressed classes in opposition to the dominant classes both inside and outside. Later, it was conceptualised in opposition to colonialism, modernity, and the Enlightenment.

The earlier emphasis on the “subaltern” now gave way to a focus on “community.”
Earlier, elite nationalism was stated to hijack the people’s initiatives for its own projects; now the entire project of nationalism was declared to be the only version of colonial discourse with its emphasis on centralization of movement and later of the state. The ideas of secularism and enlightened rationalism were attacked, and there began an emphasis on the “fragments” and “episodes”.

Thus, the subaltern historiography of Indian nationalism went through two phases.

[For further details on Subaltern Schools, see S.B. Upadhyay 2015].

Following the contributions of the Cambridge school, another group of historians dealing with the nationalist movement involved the subaltern field of history. With their focus on lower-class individuals in Indian society, this group of historians presented a direct challenge to the elite-driven model proposed by Cambridge scholars, arguing that there was a level of separation between the elites and the masses in India.

Because of this separation, historian Ranajit Guha proclaims that no sense of cohesion existed in the nationalist movement as subaltern classes maintained values and beliefs that diverged significantly from the elites and bourgeoisie of their society (Guha and Spivak, 41).

Guha argues that this difference “derived from the conditions of exploitation to which the subaltern classes were subjected” in the past (Guha and Spivak, 41).

This is important to consider, he argues, since “the experience of exploitation and labour endowed this politics [subaltern] with many idioms, norms, and values that put it in a category apart from elite politics (Guha and Spivak, 41).

Guha also points out that elite and subaltern mobilisation schemes were wholly different as well, with elites “more legalistic and constitutionalist” in their movements, while subalterns maintained a “more violent” and “spontaneous” stance in their reactions to political developments (Guha and Spivak, 40-41).

Regardless of these differences, however, Guha maintains that elites often tried to integrate the lower-classes of Indian society into their struggle against the British—a clear “trademark” of subaltern history and its “focus on the dialectic between political mobilisation by the leadership [of society] and autonomous popular initiatives” (Sarkar, 8).

Yet, Guha points out that “the braiding together of the two strands of elite and subaltern politics led invariably to explosive situations,” indicating that the masses mobilised by the elite to fight for their own objectives managed to break away from their control (Guha and Spivak, 42).

Guha clearly states that elites (politicians) attempted to direct the masses according to their own specific (selfish) desires, which reflects elements of the Cambridge School to some extent. Due to the absence of effective leadership or the ability to control the masses, however, Guha argues that the nationalist effort was “far too fragmented to form effectively into anything like a national liberation movement” (Guha and Spivak, 42-43).

Due to this inherent fragmentation, historians Peers and Gooptu posit that subaltern accounts of India – such as Guha’s analysis – often fail to “explore nationalism as a category” and, in turn, examine it as a series of “popular movements” (Sarkar, 9).

Historians who use this term take it from Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), an Italian Marxist Communist who was imprisoned for a long time by Mussolini‘s police (from 1926) until his death at age 46. In prison, he wrote notebooks on politics, history, and philosophy.

He declared that the subaltern was the subjected underclass in a society on whom the dominant power exerts its hegemonic influence.

“Traditional” histories frequently overlooked the ordinary, the average, every day because they were not the stuff of “big history.” Subalterns mean persons of inferior status or rank; subordinate; thus, of rank, power, authority, and action.

Historians have tended to use this term in a way that takes back the history—much the same way that the term queer has been brought into the language of queer theory, subaltern has been a way for historians (and theoreticians) to expand their language, to recognise the historically subordinate position of the lives of various groups of people, but in recognising their “subalternity,” giving them a voice and an agency.

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 rewrite history for the underclasses, for voices that had not been heard previously.

Scholars of the subaltern hoped to break away from the historical records of the elite and the Eurocentric bias of current imperial history. In the main, they wrote against the “Cambridge School,” which seemed to uphold the colonial legacy — i.e., it was elite-centered. Instead, they focused on the 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 books on peasant uprisings in India. Another one of the leading scholars of subaltern studies is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. She draws on several theoretical positions in her analysis of Indian history: deconstruction, Marxism, and feminism. She was highly critical of the current histories of India that were told from the vantage point of the colonisers and presented a story of the colony via the British administrators (Young, 159).

What she and other historians (including Ranajit Guha) wanted was to reclaim their history, to give voice to the subjected people. Any other history merely reconstructs imperialist hegemony and does not give voice to the people—those who resisted, those who supported, those who experienced colonial incursion.

According to the Subaltern Studies group (quoted in Young 160), this history is intended to be a contribution made by people on their own—that is, independently of the élite.

They did this by establishing a journal out of Oxford, Delhi, and Australia and calling it Subaltern Studies to write history against the grain and restore history to the subordinated. In other words, to give the common people back their agency.

In other words, proponents of subaltern studies suggest that we need to find alternate sources to locate the voice of the subaltern historically. Elite records, like those at the home office or foreign office, could still be used, but you had to read them with a different pair of lenses. So even though we might be subject to using these same sources, we can read them “against the grain”—this phrase comes from Walter Benjamin‘s theoretical work.

Many Subaltern Studies critics, like Dipesh Chakrabarty (“postcoloniality and the artifice of history” in representations), suggest that it is impossible to fully break from the western narrative.

Obviously, the introduction of subaltern studies, like all of the theories we’ve encountered this term, has tremendous political repercussions.

In a society like Great Britain that claims to operate as a “Commonwealth” yet sees racism around every corner as well as a desire to keep out the blacks who cause all the problems (refer to recent Prime Minister elections), the writing and mapping of a history of previously silent groups creates an undercurrent throughout society.

Thus, subaltern history will help to lay bare previously covered histories, previously ignored events, and previously purposefully hidden secrets of the past.

All of these people dealt head-on with the concept of the “other.” Otherness is part of modern nationalist rhetoric to define a nation and to have a nationalist spirit—patriotism, for example, is to suggest a certain level of inclusion.

If there is inclusion, a nation of the self, then how do you define it? The most obvious idea is to think in terms of binary oppositions, à self-other. So, “the other” was constructed outside the nation. When this kind of bipolarity is established, the opposite tends to be negated. Otherness, once negated, is subject to the power of the colonizer. It is this discourse that early post-colonial thinkers, like Said, hoped to displace. Like scholars of gender, Said argued that the bipolar reduced race to an “essentialist” category.

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