Ranajit Guha has over his long career as the ‘founder and guiding spirit of Subaltern Studies’ (p. 1) and also for his own passionately committed writing, earned great significance worldwide among scholars and students of colonial and post-Independence Indian history and of the nature of historiography in general. The editor of the volume under review, Professor Partha Chatterjee, a charter member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, has devotedly collected forty-four of Guha’s published and unpublished essays, articles, and chapters in English. These works span well over half a century, ranging from Guha’s 1947 essay decrying the violence of teenage wage slavery published in a Communist Party magazine, The Student, to his November 2008 hitherto unpublished address to the Austrian Academy of Sciences on ‘Translating between Cultures’. Chatterjee also guides our reading of Guha’s life and thought through a brief introductory biography and through a thematic rather than chronological arrangement of Guha’s writings.
Throughout this volume, we can perceive Guha’s self-identification as marginalized by and hostile to the academic establishments of India as well as of the West, his developing vision of the political nature of history writing, and his largely consistent argumentation about the unrelentingly adversarial relations between the colonial and post-Independent states in India and its oppressed masses.
In his organization of this volume, Chatterjee chooses to highlight what he considers to be six of the major foci of Guha’s scholarly career. Within each of these six parts, Chatterjee largely—but not entirely—follows a chronological sequence. This thematic arrangement—rather than a straightforward temporal one—leads readers away from a biographical emphasis on Guha himself or on the development of his ideas overall and more towards an abstract and synthetic consideration of his thought about a series of topics. Inevitably, some of Guha’s works fit less well under these six rubrics than others.
Yet, both Guha and Chatterjee identify Guha’s own life and academic career with his ongoing intellectual and political commitments. Born in agricultural East Bengal in 1923, Guha recalls how he interacted sympathetically during his youth with the peasants living on and around his family’s ‘middle-sized talukdari’ landed estate (p. 5). Many of Guha’s writings would feature his efforts to recover rural voices. Not until after Guha went as a teenaged schoolboy to Calcutta, however, did he begin to awaken to the tumult of the final decades of the British Raj and to engage in radical politics. Chatterjee explains that ‘Guha’s political activities left him with little time or motivation to attend to the university curriculum’ at Presidency College (p. 8). He then spent six years traversing Europe to represent the Communist Party. This was followed by six years of teaching, as well as Party activism, in Calcutta.
Guha’s innovative analysis of the 1793 Permanent Settlement in Bengal as a problem of European intellectual history, however, met with the disapproval of Calcutta’s Indian academic establishment. Guha later explained that the dominant Indian historians of that day could, at best, offer only a ‘thimbleful of liberal sympathy and a thin crust of oversimplified class analysis’ (p. 344). These guardians of ‘the new orthodoxy of nationalist economic history’ (p. 10) denied Guha his doctoral degree. Alienated, Guha left India for Manchester and then Sussex, where he remained for over two decades.
In Part I of this volume, entitled ‘Rules of Property’, Chatterjee has collected three of Guha’s early articles and one hitherto unpublished paper that deal with the topic of state-agrarian relations in early colonial Bengal. These essays eventually led to his classic first book, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (first published by Mouton of Paris in 1963, subsequently republished by Orient Longman in 1982 and then Duke University Press in 1996). For the most part, this first phase of academic work by Guha drew upon official British records but was informed by his increasing hostility to the state, be it British colonial or independent Indian. Chatterjee also includes in Part I Guha’s other published works of his first dozen years of ‘exile’ in Britain—including two reviews which are particularly critical of books by Abdul Majeed Khan and Asiya Siddiqi.
As Chatterjee explains, during this ‘lean phase’ in Britain, ‘Guha chose not to circulate much in academic networks, avoiding conferences’ (p. 11). Indeed, Guha’s hostility to the academic establishments in India and Britain comes through clearly in some of his writings from this period. In a published book review from 1969, of a volume edited by S.N. Mukherjee, Guha dismisses the Indian History Congress for its ‘analytic naivete’, characterizes the Oxford University seminar on South Asian History as a ‘weekly belch’, and attacks the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for propagating ‘false notions about Indian history’ which misguided Indian doctoral students there to accept ‘without resentment, nurture . . . through years of unquestioning application, process the falsehood into dissertational form, and, having pocketed the coveted degrees, come home as carriers [and] . . . start spawning false ideas in their own turn’ (pp. 505, 508).
Not until the mid-1970s did Guha begin to publish on ‘Subaltern History’, gathering around himself what became the Subaltern Studies Collective. As Chatterjee recalls, Guha assembled ‘young Indian historians’ on weekends at his coastal home in Sussex ‘to talk about the state of South Asian history . . . It was an improbable collection of scholars for launching an ambitious project—a marginal figure in the academy on the verge of his retirement [Guha] . . . alongside a bunch of greenhorns twenty-five years younger and virtually unknown as historians’ (p. 12). Guha himself paints a similar picture of the origins of this collective: ‘An assortment of marginalized academics—graduate students . . . very young scholars . . . and an older man stuck at its lowest rung apparently for good . . . owing no loyalty to any department, faculty, school, or party’ (p. 323). Yet, with the support of Oxford University Press (Delhi), the highly influential series of a Subaltern Studies volumes emerged from 1982 onward, the twelfth of which came out in 2005 (published by Permanent Black). Included in Part 2 of the volume under review here, entitled ‘Subaltern Histories’, are Guha’s ‘manifesto’ which launched the Subaltern Studies series, three of his chapters from its volumes, and his Introduction to the Subaltern Studies Reader, among other writings on this topic. As this exciting project began to emerge in print, Guha left Sussex and moved as a Senior Research Fellow to Australian National University (1980–88).
Thereafter, he retired both from formal academics and also editorial responsibilities for the Subaltern Studies series. Yet, Guha and the series have remained active. In particular, Guha himself has continued to explore the theme of dominance without hegemony: how the colonial and post-Independent Indian states have failed to convince the people to accept their authority and therefore must use coercive force to hold subalterns down.
Among the most revealing of Guha’s hitherto unpublished essays are his addresses to the Latin American Subaltern Studies Collective in Texas (October 1996) and to the Gramsci Foundation in Rome (April 2007). In the former, Guha argues that the regional specificity of the Indian Subaltern Studies project means that direct comparison with other subalternist histories outside of India must fail or be of limited significance. Yet, Guha argues, the approaches of subaltern studies in India, as in Latin America, do share a global temporality that leads to their convergence in conceptualization and agenda. In the latter essay, Guha offers ‘Homage’ to Gramsci as ‘a Teacher’ but does not admit to direct adoption of Gramsci’s thought. Rather, Guha argues for a process of ‘organic development’ and ‘adaptation’ (p. 361) of Gramsci’s concepts by the Naxal-inspired Subaltern Studies project to specifically Indian conditions.
In the last four parts of this volume, Chatterjee divides Guha’s writings roughly into loosely defined sets of issues. Part 3, ‘The Two Histories of Empire’, contains Guha’s writings about aspects of British colonialism, especially in Bengal, its historiography, and its effects on people. Part 4, ‘The Promise of Nationhood’, largely considers and then critiques mainstream Indian nationalist movements as efforts by Indian elites to establish their own control over Indian society. But, in a rare departure from Guha’s otherwise remarkably consistent argumentation, in one of his most recent essays (his 2008 Foreword to Alex Cherniak’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita), he appears to concede the significance of Indian nationalism’s ‘three great leaders, Tilak, Aurobindo, and Gandhi who helped to transform it from its anemic beginnings . . . into a mighty anti-imperialist mass movement’ (p. 537).
Part 5, ‘Democracy Betrayed’, contains Guha’s essays that argue that little has changed following Indian Independence in the state’s exploitation of the masses. For instance, in 1971, Guha accused the West Bengal Government of torturing accused Naxilites in Lalbazar. The recent repetition of similar state-sponsored violence, now by the CP(M) Government, makes Guha’s assertions of thirty-eight years ago all the more salient. Guha goes on to critique Mohandas Gandhi for earlier having justified such police brutality by advocating ‘the generalized violence of the ruling class operating through the armed forces of the state’ (italics in original, p. 573). The final part of the volume under review here, ‘Exile’, considers the condition in which Guha spent most of his own life ‘an emigre in cold, alien land’ (p. 611).
Chatterjee has attempted to republish (or publish for the first time) virtually all of Guha’s work in English, excluding Guha’s own monographs. However, this volume does not, alas, contain translations of Guha’s Bengali language publications. For those seeking to understand Guha’s intellectual biography, these would have added key elements. Chatterjee’s diligence in republishing some of the less accessible works of Guha reveals the breadth of Guha’s insights. As only one illustration, Guha’s 1985 essay, ‘The Career of an Anti-God in Heaven and on Earth’, insightfully analyses six different redactions of ‘the myth of Rahu’, showing how they reveal cultural struggles between elites and subalterns; Guha masterfully embeds his analysis in Indian and European theories about the nature of religion and its role in social formations. However, Chatterjee has published some of the papers that Guha had presented but chosen not to publish, not all of which appear fully finished or thought through. For example, Guha’s 1991 seminar paper at the Australian National University on ‘The Authority of Vernacular Pasts’ characterizes pre-colonial indigenous historiography inaccurately, as demonstrated, for instance, in Professor Kumkum Chatterjee’s The Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianisation and Mughal Culture in Bengal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).
While much of Guha’s own career has been dedicated to recovering and representing ‘The Small Voice of History’, he himself has had a major voice influencing our understanding of colonial and postcolonial history. Whether convinced by all or even some of his assertions and insights, all scholars of Indian history are affected by them and the work of the Subaltern Studies Collective which he led. This valuable volume makes available the array of Guha’s essays and articles, at least those in English, over his long career.
Michael H. Fisher teaches in Oberlin College, USA.