Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): Historian of the ‘small voices’ that make a people’s history


A scholar who tirelessly documented the voices of the labouring and toiling women, men, and children.

Ranajit Guha (1923-2023) was a scholar of much more than “Subaltern Studies”, the project with which his name is most widely associated in academic circles and beyond through many countries, though Subaltern Studies brought together many of his fundamental concerns. This initiative—like feminism, borderland studies, and other critical “minority” histories in the postcolonial world—differed from earlier attempts at writing history from below, or from the margins, in its refusal to be seen as supplement to an already known course of history.

None of these interventions aimed simply to fill a gap or add to history those people and elements that had been left out, ignored, or suppressed. They were not providing new bits of evidence to confirm the general findings of the Hegelian world view that established the rules of the discipline of History. Rather, they proposed a radically new idea of the domain of history, of historical agents, the archive, what counted as knowledge (and politics and reason).

It was a conception of history that challenged the unilinear, homogenising, universalist narratives of ascendant capitalism and the modern state, which saw the entire world in their own image, assigning all peoples and histories their place on a ladder of advancement from backwardness and archaism to “enlightened” modernity.

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The viewpoint of “small voices”, of feminism, of borderland peoples, subaltern studies, and other critical histories in the postcolonial world, focussed this question of the meaning of history, politics, and self-representation through their investigations of the variations in the contexts, the course, and paradoxes of progress and development.

Ranajit Guha articulated the position concisely in a 1996 essay entitled “The Small Voice of History”. Citing widely available and neglected evidence of relations between peasants and priests in 19th century Bengal—thus, Panchanan Manna, “his body racked by anal cancer”, appealing for forgiveness and absolution: “I am very poor; I shall submit myself to purificatory rites of course; please prescribe something suitable for a pauper”—Guha asked: “Are we to allow these plaintive voices to be drowned in the din of statist historiography [concerned with religion only to the extent that it affected what the state defines as politics and economics]? What kind of history of our people would that make, were it to turn a deaf ear to these histories which constituted… the density of power relations in a civil society where the coloniser’s authority was still far from established?”

The point was not only that these voices had been erased, but rather that attending to them told us what a specific history was, and what historical writing needed to be—even when writing the Big Histories, say, of Colonialism, Power, and the very idea of History. It was a point Guha had made at every stage of his critique and development as a historian. We can identify these stages through a series of radical departures, of which I will mention four.

Guha’s radical departures

One is evident in his earliest academic book, A Rule of Property for Bengal: The Idea of Permanent Settlement, published in different recensions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Long before other scholars concerned with the material base and consequences of modern imperialism saw the link in this way, Guha stressed how ideas, prejudices, the world understood only in the language of the rulers, constituted the heart of colonialism, working in tandem with the fact of military or political conquest and economic plunder to give it its specific form and texture.

A second significant departure came in his publications of the early 1980s. In Subaltern Studies and in his classic Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Guha made a startling argument about the split in the domain of politics in colonial and postcolonial India.

He posited something that may now appear as commonsensical but was hardly accepted at the time: that the domain of politics was not limited to the realm of the state and its ideas and institutions; rather, the sum of the political lay in different kinds of elite and subaltern politics that ran in separate courses, even as they overlapped, ran together, pulled apart, and constituted one another. Central to the proposition was a recognition of the peasant (the figure that represented the vast majority of the Indian population) as both political and modern: not a relic of history, of a pre-capitalist past, but the very core of the colonial and postcolonial modern.

“Central to the Subaltern Studies proposition is a recognition of the peasant as both political and modern: not a relic of a pre-capitalist past, but the very core of the
colonial and postcolonial modern.”

Guha’s writings of the late 1980s and early 1990s involved a theorisation of power in colonial and postcolonial India that opened up many new questions about politics, economic and social relations, and the writing of history. Dominance without Hegemony (1989) pointed to the weaknesses of the greatest colonial power in the world, not only in terms of the accommodations it had to make with local rulers, landlords, and other structures of power, to maintain its own authority, but in its inability—perhaps the impossibility, given the contradictions of colonial thinking and practices—of establishing its hegemony in the colonised lands of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Domination, unable to persuade the subordinated populations of the beneficence of their rule, was “condemned to rule over the colonized without their consent”. Given that failure, colonialism turned in two different directions to reinforce its power.

All too evidently, the proportion of force far exceeded that of the persuasion in colonial governance: the regime established and maintained its power—in colonial as well as postcolonial times—as much through force (danda), exercised at multiple levels, by multiple actors, in multiple ways, as through any enlightened, liberal, democratic idea of persuasion that attends a ruling-class hegemony.

Secondly, the colonial regime sought to achieve in the realm of ideas, through the attempted appropriation of all of history to the career of the colonial state, what it could not achieve politically on the ground. James Mill’s classic History of British India established the ground by seeking to assimilate the entire history of ancient, medieval, and early-modern India as “a highly interesting portion of the British history”. It was in the challenge to this subterfuge of History that the importance of the Subaltern Studies moment inhered.

  • Ranajit Guha (1923-2023) was a scholar of much more than “Subaltern Studies”, the project with which his name is most widely associated.
  • He proposed a radically new idea of history, written from below, or from the margins, that challenged the universalist narratives of capitalism and the modern state.
  • Guha’s later writings opened up many new questions about politics, economic and social relations, and the writing of history.

Boundaries of the historical

Guha carried the challenge and radical aspiration further in his last major work in English, History at the Limit of World History (2003). Describing a “historicality” that extended far beyond the domain of a Hegelian World History, he urged contemporary historians to rescue history from “its containment in World-history”. The boundaries of the historical are established in the latter by the presence of the state, writing, reason, and its symbol, the Hegelian Spirit, which is most fully realised in the 19th century Prussian (read, modern capitalist) state. “The life lived in civil society,” Guha writes—the life of the people in their ‘everyday contentment and misery’ (Rabindranath Tagore’s phrase), the fuller history of a society—“was never fully annexed” to the statist narratives of World History and its South Asian variants.

According to Tagore, literature seeks to make up for the failure of historiography in this respect through a creative engagement with pratyahik sukhduhkha, everyday joys and sorrows. The compound phrase sukhduhkha, Guha points out, exceeds the sum of its separate parts, sukh (contentment) and duhkha (misery), to embrace “the entire range of lived experience…, the concern[s] that characterize the solidarities of a shared world.”

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He goes on to cite Henri Lefebvre and Marc Bloch’s work on French agrarian history to underscore the importance of the everyday, and how the monotony of the familiar deceives by its very repetitiveness. Lefebvre noted how the diversity of field-patterns in the countryside, which scholars casually strolled through but never attended to, enabled Bloch to decipher the “hidden secrets” of the “main types of agrarian civilisation” in France. (We may note that D.D. Kosambi did the same for early India through his investigation of surviving landscapes in western India.) “All we need to do is simply to open our eyes,” wrote Lefebvre. “One had hoped,” Guha concludes, “that historiography would pay heed, get rid of its statist blinkers, and emulate literature to look afresh at life in order to recuperate the historicality of what is humble and habitual.”

I have stressed Ranajit Guha’s abiding concern to document the depth of history/historicality, embodied and reflected in the life of labouring, toiling women, men, and children—the “small voices” of history in all ages and cultures. I have also indicated the many remarkable departures he made over the decades as he wrestled to come to grips with this greater, more open, layered, contradictory, and contested past. (I do not have the linguistic facility to follow other new moves he may have made in his later work, which was done mainly in Bengali.)

What is clear is that he challenged his own presuppositions, theories, frames, and terms of investigation, his questions and propositions and conclusions, at every stage. This was perhaps why he often refused to rush to judgement, and always deliberated long and debated vigorously. He was driven by insatiable intellectual curiosity and political concerns, as his life partner of the last half-century and more, Mechthild Guha, née Jungwirth, underscores in a delightful memoir of their life together.

Ranajit Guha’s life was marked by a series of continuous experiments in the search for intellectual and political truths adequate to our time. An ongoing and always necessarily incomplete project—worthwhile in the search itself. Ranajit da often commended younger scholars for their willingness to learn, and quickness of learning. That was the essence of his own scholarship, his research, and his thinking—and perhaps his greatest gift to later generations of historians.

Gyanendra Pandey is a historian and a founding member of the Subaltern Studies project.

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