The Subalternists and Indian Historiography: arguments and counter-arguments
If one were to isolate a singular historical event that could be viewed as a euphemism for the new ascendant Indian historiography, it would be in 1976, when Marxist historian E.P. Thompson visited India.
His approach, described as "history from below" and as evidenced in his histories of working class formations in his native England, concretized an age-old imperative - one developed throughout the century - of writing history inclusive of those voices traditionally marginalized or ignored. For these new Indian historians, many Marxist in origin, the marginalized voices were in a position of subalterneity, of inferior position within society and the state and actively oppressed.
The term Subaltern is taken from Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci's formulation which originally focused on the Proletariat almost singularly but which under its new usage is representative of all the groups within a society that are denied an ability to share in the power and therefore hopelessly oppressed.
In more concrete terms, what we now term as the Subaltern school within historiography started in 1982, when Indian historian Ranajit Guha and others formed a collective under the name the Subaltern Studies Group and which began publishing a series of studies of Indian history under "Subaltern Studies". For Guha, the major individual impetus behind the project, the new collective was long overdue and represented a maturation of a set of vague ideas and interests that had developed earlier in his career in University - "many of the ideas...were tried out at tutorials and seminars." The focus for Guha had always been the Subaltern - the peasant, the worker etc - and their place within the larger historiography of Indian nationalism. Specifically, Guha abhorred the homogenizing tendency of previous Nationalist and Marxist historians in India that ignored the contributions of local peasant rebellions and nationalist agitations in favor of a discourse that placed elite Indian nationalist movements such as the Indian National Congress, at the head of the Independence movements of India.
In other words, the genuine political contributions emanating from the local villages all over India were being written out from history in favor of a single narrative of a few western-educated elites like Gandhi and others who battled for independence. In Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Guha attempts to rescue the subaltern from his emaciated role in traditional history by arguing that he was in fact a highly politicized and determined figure, one that had agency and was actively engaged in his own freedom struggle. He does this in part by arguing that there existed a Subaltern consciousness independent of the Congress elites that actively engaged in its own project for political liberation, and further, that this consciousness can be best visualized by examining the almost continuous record of insurgencies and revolts throughout Indian history (here Guha looks specifically at the years 1783 to 1900) under British colonial domination. For Guha, all of the previous histories have failed in this respect and in the introduction to his Elementary Aspects, he lays the groundwork for a fundamental critical revision of the entire Indian historiography up to then:
Even when a writer was apparently under no obligation to think like a bureaucrat affected by the trauma of a recent jacquerie, he was conditioned to write the history of a peasant revolt as if it were some other history - that of the Raj, or of Indian nationalism, or of socialism...the result, for which the responsibility must be shared equally by all schools and tendencies, has been to exclude the insurgent as the subject of his own history. The three areas of critique for the new collective were the Cambridge, Nationalist and Marxist schools of traditional Indian historical study.
For Dipesh Chakrabarty, a founding member of the Subaltern collective, the Cambridge school of historians made up of Indian scholars like Anil Seal and their British cohorts presented a narrow and cynical approach to the study of the role of the natives in ending British Imperialism. Accordingly, historians who adhere to this school of thought not only completely disregard (and did not even acknowledge) the complex political manoeuverings of the local subaltern classes in their own nationalist struggles, but talk of the achievements of the elite Indian nationalists only as being located firmly within the lineage of British institutional reform and the colonial experience.
Therefore, as Chakrabarty argues, these historians saw a political "scramble" in India occurring whereby "indigenous elites...jockeyed for power and privilege within the limited opportunities provided by self-rule provided by the British." Consequently, according to these scholars, one should not be deluded as to the nature of the national Independence movement: it was not an idealistic drive for freedom from oppression but rather the result of a group of western-educated Indian elites vying for power within a strictly defined system.
The nationalist argument traditionally has been one that elevated, as mentioned earlier, the accomplishments of elite political organizations such as the Indian National Congress and was seen as the sinews of the larger National Independence movement of India. As Guha describes it, these historians represented Indian nationalism as "the sum of the activities and ideas by which the Indian elite responded to the institutions, opportunities...generated by Colonialism."10 And as such, the INC not only spoke for India with one voice but was the only legitimate organization politically aware enough to do so.
The most virulent critique by the Subaltern historians has been of Marxist interpretations of Indian history. Guha, as a Marxist acknowledging a debt to scholars like Hobsbawm, feels nonetheless compelled to criticize the laters' portrayal of the pre-political Indian peasant, a notion that has dominated since its introduction in 1959. Guha makes a forceful argument that the characterizations of Indian peasant rebellions as being pre-political in reality effectively barred their inclusion in later historical accounts of the Indian Nationalist struggle.
Another more prominent attack on the previous Marxist accounts is deftly summarized by Rosalind O'Hanlon in reference to Subalternist Partha Chaterjee. According to O'Hanlon, Chaterjee argues that Marxist historical writing has acted to "empty Subaltern movements of their specific types of consciousness and practice [seeing] only the linear development of class consciousness." As a result, O'Hanlon continues, all of Indian history is read in a totalizing fashion with the dichotomous relationship between Feudal and Bourgeois forces as the dominant Narrative. Either way, no sense of agency was attributed to the masses of the peasantry.