There was a time we would just define history merely as happenings in the past and it got subsumed into our public consciousness. The sources of historical knowledge would simply be classified into archival, documented and some other historic-ethno practices. This brand of historiography was mostly prominent in South Asia and was prevalent in West as well.
The world war second was ensuing, famine had gripped Bengal and communal violence was at its peak. These events on the other side were leading to new wave in Historiography mostly in South Asia and its ripples would later spread throughout the world.
The main face behind this brand of 'new history' was Ranajit Guha. He bid adieu to this world on 28th April while celebrating his centenary year in previous year.
Born in West Bengal, Ranajit was faced with immediate political and historical events which needed reinterpretation and reimagining on the lines of axiomatic sense rather through the prism of imperial markers. The raft of evidence points to the history being written from the perspective of 'dominant' while the formidable and primary agency is being divorced out from the reality.
Ranajit initially influenced by Marxist historians in India attempted to engage with Gramsci and Hegel in building the historical consciousness that represented the common masses.
Later on, he would delve into the study of 'structures' based on time-space and voices of the subaltern by infusing the methods derived from Foucualt, Geertz, Levi Strauss etc.
This new and intersectional brand of history was termed as subaltern historiography. The prevalent ‘elitist historiography’ had divided the historical subjects into the two different set of ideas while having 'ideology of the peasant and ideology of dominant' basis. The time was to debunk and dismantle the drawbacks and define different methods in historical knowledge and writing. The subaltern interchangeably would mean 'history from below'. The main events that made subaltern studies more prominent in India were the Chauri Chaura incident study by Shahid Amin and peasant rebellion.
Ranajit gave emphasis on rejecting the individuation practice of atomising historical facts while giving stress on collective agency in crowd and riot study.
This insurgent consciousness was one of the fascinating concepts that took departure from the regular code of history-writing and stressed on the collective consciousness while giving voice to every person involved in demanding their rights and reclaiming their voice.
The Subaltern group then became more wide which had some brilliant faces or interlopers as they would call themselves including Partha Chatterje, Shahid Amin, Gyan Prakash, Gyatri Spavik, Dipesh Chakraborty etc.
The writings in the form of ‘Volumes of Subaltern Studies’ became the main document of writing the events while acknowledging the agency and deconstructing the structures as well. The dexterity of Ranajit can be gauged from the fact his conversation would start from Manu to investigating torture studies in the same breath.
Ranajit was distinct and had the unique knack of being creative and original historian of his times that made him different from rest of the pack. The result was chiselled and well crafted historical prose that still is relevant and leaves one in awe. His works from Rule of Property in Bengal, History at the Limits of World History, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Dominance Without Hegemony to The Small Voice of History underlined the times and space in locating the multifarious and layered dimensions of historical writing and investigation.
The works of Gyan Prakash from Emergency during Indira's era and Global South History project and Shahid Amin’s ‘Chauri Chaura Incident’ to Partha Chatterjee’s Postcolonial theorisation stand out and carry forward the legacy of subaltern movement in understanding of events and phenomenon across the realms of knowledge. Spivak also came in with momentous text of ‘Can Subaltern Speak’ by interpreting and discussing the subaltern in every shade of historic-literary methods. Today, universities across the world are eager to introduce Ranajit Guha’s scholarship, but at the start ,he had to face considerable academic marginalisation.
In later years, his attention turned towards questions in historiography asking, in essence, what it might entail to recover a past appropriated by colonialism. The history as a subject is being weaponised across the world by appropriating and positioning it in line with their political ideology. The onslaught from deletions and insertions in the history are being used to purport the alternate historical facts by taking the voice of subaltern from it. The subaltern movement can act as a genealogy into the political disorder and downgrading of democratic imitations across the world.
Author has done PhD from Departmemt of Geography,University of Kashmir.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.