ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Subaltern Studies

Turning around the Perspective

While in Gramsci the term "subaltern" was never detached from the perspective of a struggle for social transformation, the Subaltern school of India gained a reputation for its determined endeavour to rescue history from the Marxist framework. Marxist orthodoxy in India had many limitations and it could straitjacket complex historical phenomena, but the Subaltern school abandoned Marxist premises instead of trying to enrich and expand its scope.

In an erudite and rich essay, “After Subaltern Studies” (EPW, 1 September 2012), Partha Chatterjee offers us a comprehensive view of the rise, development and eventual dissolution of the Subaltern school of history over a time span of three decades. The present discussion has been prompted not so much by an urge for theoretical polemics as by the irrepressible query: what has been the implication of “the fight within the academy”, on which Ranajit Guha, pioneer and leader of the school had insisted in his correspondence with other members, for the larger social struggle outside? It might be said, of course, that there is no struggle as such, only a multitude of struggles which may not be theorised by a general ­approach. Ironically, in the face of subaltern reservations about narrativising history, Chatterjee, himself a prominent exponent, provides a narrative that connects causal analysis, motivation, growth and expansion, and loss of momentum with elegant mastery of the material. This enables and encourages the reader to examine the contribution of the school more critically than Chatterjee in his candid reappraisal with the benefit of hindsight does.

To begin with, the account obscures the primordial ties of the movement with Marxism, which it later shrugged off. Ranajit Guha, a leader of the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India, had not disowned his links with Marxism when he authored the penetrating discursive study of the “Permanent Settlement” of land tenure imposed by the colonial autho­rities in the light of their notion of property, sanctioning two centuries of ruthless exploitation of the Indian peasantry. At that time, while communism was a powerful political ideology, and with Kosambi’s Marxism it had begun to provide fruitful intellectual stimulus to the social sciences, it was hardly a force in the academy. There is hardly any doubt that the original impulse behind the school was a passionate identification with the oppressed masses (see “Chandra’s Death” in A Subaltern Studies Reader, edited by Ranajit Guha, Macmillan India, Calcutta, 1997) from a leftist point of view, anchored in a general project of human liberation.

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