Subaltern Studies and the Global Historiography of Oppressed Peoples

By Charlotte Kelsted

The Subaltern Studies movement originated among scholars of South Asia in the early 1980s. It set out to challenge existing neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist interpretations of the Indian freedom movement which, as Ranajit Guha explained in the inaugural edition of the Subaltern Studies journal in 1982, had failed to acknowledge “the contribution made by the people on their own, that is, independently of the elite.[1] This was to be achieved through an examination of colonial India’s subaltern classes and groups, defined as the “dominated and exploited groups” who had been marginalised in colonial India and hitherto absent from histories of the Indian freedom movement.[2]

The influence of Subaltern Studies on the historiography of oppressed peoples in colonial India has been threefold. Firstly, regardless of whether the subaltern is believed to reside “outside the elite discourse” or in its “folds” and “silences”, scholars now recognise the importance of including these individuals in their histories of the Indian freedom movement.[3] Secondly, as a branch of postcolonialism, Subaltern Studies has challenged the West’s “intellectual and academic hegemony” since the early 1980s through its rejection of Eurocentric discourses.[4] Thirdly, the South Asian Subaltern Studies group have problematised the concept of nationalism. They have brought into question the notion of an Indian ‘national’ movement, exposed nationalism as a Western-centric concept and shown that nationalism was a tool of limited value for solving the economic and social problems of the oppressed peoples of colonial India. Finally, Subaltern Studies has not only influenced the historiography of colonial India but of Latin America, Africa, Ireland and Palestine too. We have witnessed a globalisation of the group’s theoretical methods and ideas since the 1980s, an example of intellectual globalisation within the Global South described by Vinayak Chaturvedi as “spectacular”.[5]

The first notable impact of Subaltern Studies on the historiography of oppressed peoples in colonial India is that historians now recognise the importance of including the subaltern in their histories of the Indian freedom movement. In the first volume of the Subaltern Studies journal, published in 1982, Guha explained that prior to the Subaltern Studies movement, histories of colonial India had been dominated by “colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism”, both of which had portrayed “the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness – nationalism – which informed this process” as “exclusively or predominantly elite achievements”.[6] What these interpretations had failed to acknowledge, however, were occasions when “the subaltern classes and groups constituting the mass of the labouring population and the intermediate strata in town and country” had acted “in absence of elite leadership”.[7] The first four volumes of Subaltern Studies, published between 1982 and 1985, were concerned to restore the agency of these groups. In the inaugural edition of Subaltern Studies, Gyan Pandey portrayed the peasant rebel as an autonomous political subject in Awadh between 1919 and 1922, whilst David Arnold challenged the existing interpretations of the Gudem-Rampa Risings that took place between 1839 and 1924.[8] In Volume II, Stephen Henningham re-examined the Quit India Movement of 1942 in Bihar and the Eastern United Provinces and in a similar vein the 1984 edition of Subaltern Studies featured David Hardiman’s work on The Devi Movement of the early 1920s in South Gujarat.[9]

The ability of historians to restore subaltern agency was however soon brought into question, resulting in “a reformulation of the notion of the subaltern” in the mid-1980s.[10] In 1983, Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice’ used the British abolition of sati, the Hindu widow sacrifice, to argue that historians could never truly speak on behalf of the subaltern.[11] Not only did the presence of the subaltern in the colonial archive bring into question the subaltern’s status as a subaltern (because the subaltern was, by definition, “out of touch” with the colonial state), but Spivak also argued that the sources in the colonial archive that historians were using to recover the experiences of these individuals had been mediated by the non-subaltern, the British colonial state.[12] It was for this reason that Spivak argued that “no ‘pure’ form of subaltern consciousness” could ever be retrieved.[13] Benjamin Zachariah explains that this realisation in the mid-1980s that “the written archive was dominated by … colonial documents and ‘the prose of counter-insurgency’” led historians to doubt their ability “to speak for anyone other than themselves”.[14] From the mid-1980s onwards, rather than believing that the subaltern was located “outside the elite discourse as a separate domain, embodied in a figure endowed with a will that the dominant suppress and overpower but do not constitute”, Subaltern Studies historians instead saw the subaltern as “a figure or action without whom the dominant discourse cannot exist”, residing in “the folds of the discourse, in its silences and blindness and in its overdetermined pronouncements”.[15] This shift was marked by Bernard Cohn’s article ‘The Command of Language and the Language of Command’ in the fourth volume of Subaltern Studies and this phase of the Subaltern Studies movement is best understood through the work of Homi Bhabha.[16]

Bhabha had been intrigued by Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, one of whose arguments was that the Western world’s fabrication of the ‘Orient’ as the ‘Other’ was itself a form of power: not only did the West’s representation of the non-West shape Western understanding of the non-West, but this representation also served as justification for the West’s continued imperial domination.[17] Bhabha had however noted an ambivalence in Said’s argument, born out of a contradiction between Said’s emphasis on colonial discourse as totalising and monolithic, and his “downgrading of the role of individual agency”.[18] In 1983, Bhabha argued that this ambivalence provided a key entry point for critiquing the monolithic totalising nature of Orientalism’ and uncovering the “dissonance implicit in Western knowledge”.[19] In his 1984 article ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, he put forward the concept of ‘mimicry’.[20] This was the idea that the coloniser’s desire for the colonial subject to constitute a recognisable ‘Other’ also works to “subvert the identity” of the coloniser, causing the “relation of power… to vacillate”.[21] Although officials in colonial India encouraged their Indian subjects to speak English, wear a suit and work for the Indian Civil Service, this actually undermined the authority of the British because it exposed the artificiality of what constituted ‘Britishness’. Bhabha identified this as the ‘menace’ of mimicry: when Indians speak, dress and do the jobs of Englishmen, they expose the artificiality of British power: “the surveilling eye is suddenly confronted with a returning gaze of otherness and finds that its mastery, its sameness, is undone”.[22] In ‘Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817’ Bhabha developed the concept of ‘mimicry’ into that of ‘hybridity’, suggesting that ambivalence in colonial discourse could even “actively enable native resistance”.[23] The accepted importance of searching for subalternity within the folds of elite discourse is evident from Ann Laura Stoler’s recent publication Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense.[24] Published in 2009, Stoler argues that it is essential for historians to read both along and against the archival grain in order to uncover the contradictions and anxieties of the colonial state, thus restoring the agency of the subaltern.

Secondly, as a branch of postcolonialism, Subaltern Studies has challenged the West’s “intellectual and academic hegemony” since the early 1980s through its rejection of Eurocentric discourses, thereby contributing to the liberation of the Global South.[25] Postcolonialists argue that although the old imperial system disintegrated in the wake of the Second World War, the Western world continues to exert political, economic, social and cultural influence over the Global South (Asia, Africa and Latin America), one form of which is the West’s “intellectual and academic hegemony”.[26] Postcolonial scholars therefore deem it imperative for “cultures seeking to extricate themselves from the history of imperial dominance” to challenge this intellectual and academic hegemony of the West by “utilizing, strengthening and developing the resources of their own histories and intellectual traditions”.[27] And this is precisely what the South Asian Subaltern Studies group have done. Although Marxist and nationalist historians of colonial India had previously critiqued colonialism and its legacies, neither had managed to break free from “Eurocentric discourses”.[28] Nationalist historians had “staked a claim to the order of Reason and Progress instituted by colonialism” and Marxist historians’ interpretations of colonial India were “framed by a historicist scheme that universalized Europe’s historical experience”.[29] The South Asian Subaltern Studies Collective, however, was determined to examine the history of colonial India in its own terms and from its own point of view. The group recovered the experiences of those who had previously been marginalised, not only by the colonial state but by neo-colonial, neo-nationalist and Marxist historians too. By reconsidering the history of colonial India from the perspective of those who had “suffered its effects”, the group also hoped to grant agency to such individuals, providing inspiration for those facing comparable marginalisation in the Global South in the present.[30] Indeed, postcolonialists and Subaltern Studies historians share the conviction that an improved understanding of resistance to exploitation in the past will “enable successful resistance to, and transformation of, the degradation and material injustice to which disempower peoples and societies remain subjected”.[31]

Thirdly, the South Asian Subaltern Studies group have problematised the concept of nationalism. They have brought into question the notion of an Indian ‘national’ movement, exposed nationalism as a Western-centric concept and shown it to have been a tool of limited value for solving the economic and social problems of the oppressed peoples of colonial India. The notion of the Indian ‘national’ movement has been brought into question by the group because they have shown that subaltern groups who were unfamiliar with the concept of nationalism could still resist colonial rule. As Guha explained in his 1983 article, ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’, the British colonial state failed to differentiate between ‘anti-colonial’ and ‘nationalist’ feeling in India, a lack of differentiation that continued to shape histories of India long after independence.[32] It was not until the Subaltern Studies movement in the 1980s that historians began to differentiate between ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-colonial’ sentiment. In The Imaginary Institution of India: Politics and Ideas, published in 1991, Sudipta Kaviraj argued against the equation of patriotism and “Indianness”, showing that a political consciousness among the people of colonial India was not always “nationalism per se”.[33] Similarly, in Playing the Nation Game: The Ambiguities of Nationalism in India, recently published in 2011, Benjamin Zachariah has criticised what he calls the “jump” between “who we are against” (anti-colonialism) and “who we are” (nationalism).[34] The South Asian Subaltern Studies group have also exposed nationalism as a Western-centric concept. In 1986, Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse challenged the common misconception that colonialism was a product of the West and nationalism a product of the non-Western world, arguing that the concept of nationalism was in fact inspired by Western rationalism and thus a “derivative” of colonialism.[35] Nationalism was therefore a “wholly European export to the rest of the World”.[36] For this reason, Chatterjee believed that a national movement is “a revolution which at the same time, and in fundamental ways, is not a revolution”.[37] Chatterjee also showed that nationalism was a tool of limited value for solving the economic and social problems of the oppressed peoples of colonial India – a belief uniquely shared by Jawaharlal Nehru. Both Chatterjee and Kaviraj consider Nehru to be perhaps the only leader of the Indian freedom movement who realised that there were limits to nationalism as an ideology for colonial India.[38] Nehru grasped that nationalism alone could never solve India’s economic and social problems because the solving of these issues required the government to play a “central coordinating and directing role” – a role that the colonial state in India would never fulfil.[39] Therefore, although India’s economic and social issues could be used to mobilise support during the freedom movement, India’s economic and social issues could only be addressed once the movement had been successful.[40]

The Subaltern Studies movement has not only influenced the historiography of oppressed peoples in colonial India, however. There has been a globalisation of the movement’s theoretical methods and ideas since the 1980s with Subaltern Studies influencing the historiography of oppressed peoples in Latin America, Africa, Ireland and Palestine too. In 1992, shortly after the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, a group of Latin American scholars, including Ileana Rodríguez and John Beverley (who had a history of involvement with Central American solidarity groups) founded the Latin American Subaltern Studies group. Inspired by the South Asian Subaltern Studies group, Rodríguez, Beverley and others sought to continue the legacy of “politically committed scholarship” by exposing “the limits of elite historiography in relation to the subaltern” and granting historical agency to the poor, who had hitherto “not been recorded in a history of their own” in Latin America.[41] In 1998, Daniel Nugent edited a collection of essays entitled Rural Revolt in Mexico: US Intervention and the Domain of Subaltern Politics which offered new insights on peasant and Indian revolts by examining subaltern politics in the context of US intervention in Mexico from the 1940s to the present.[42] In 1999, Vincent Peloso published Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru, which paid greater attention than ever before to peasant resistance to exploitation by plantation owners in Pisco Valley in Peru and in 1999 John Beverley published Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory, which explored relationships of power in the arena of Latin American studies.[43] Another notable work on Latin America inspired by the Subaltern Studies group is Florencia Mallon’s Peasant and Nation: The Making of a Postcolonial Mexico and Peru, published in 1995.[44]

The historiography of oppressed peoples in Africa, Ireland and Palestine has also been influenced by Subaltern Studies. In Frederick Cooper’s 1994 article ‘Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History’ he spoke of “profiting from the insights of Subaltern Studies to re-examine work in African colonial history” and in 1993 Terence Ranger’s article on subalternity in Zimbabwe entitled ‘Power, Religion and Community: The Matobo Case’ featured in the Subaltern Studies journal.[45] In 1996 an article by David Lloyd entitled ‘Outside History: Irish New Histories and the ‘Subalternity Effect’’ also appeared in Subaltern Studies while Rosemary Sayigh’s article ‘Gendering the ‘Nationalist Subject’: Palestinian Camp Women’s Life Stories’ featured in the tenth volume of the journal in 1999.[46] This intellectual globalisation since the 1980s has been described by Vinayak Chaturvedi as “spectacular”.[47] Vinay Lal has likewise noted the “inescapable fact” that Subaltern Studies “has not only made a decisive contribution to the writing of Indian history, but also impacted, uniquely for a school of history emanating from the Third World, work in European, African and Latin American history”.[48]

In conclusion, Subaltern Studies has influenced the historiography of the oppressed peoples of colonial India in three ways. Firstly, scholars now recognise the importance of including the subaltern class and groups in their histories of the Indian freedom movement. Prior to the 1980s, these classes and groups had been absent from histories of colonial India, with neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist historians portraying “the making of the Indian nation” as “exclusively or predominantly elite achievements”.[49] Secondly, as a branch of postcolonialism, Subaltern Studies has challenged the “intellectual and academic hegemony” of the Western world by rejecting Eurocentric interpretations of the Indian freedom movement.[50] Thirdly, Subaltern Studies historians have problematised the notion of nationalism in histories of colonial India. They have brought to light examples of resistance to colonial rule in India that were not fuelled by nationalist sentiment, thereby calling into question the idea of an Indian ‘national’ movement. They have also shown nationalism to be a Western-centric concept, derived from Western rationalism. They have also argued that the concept of nationalism was a tool of limited use for addressing colonial India’s social and economic problems. Subaltern Studies has influenced the historiography of oppressed peoples in Latin America, Africa, Ireland and Palestine. This globalisation of the Subaltern Studies group’s theoretical methods and ideas since the late 1980s is a promising sign indeed for challenging the academic and intellectual hegemony of the Western world. As Ranajit Guha commented in 2001: “throughout the long period of colonial rule we were always represented by the colonizers, and it is through them… that the West had come to know about us… It was therefore with a degree of genuine surprise and delight that I came to learn of the interest taken in our work by scholars concerned with Latin American studies. It is gestures like these which, more than anything else, make it possible for us to break out of our containment in two hundred years of solitude”.[51]

[1] R. Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ Subaltern Studies 1 (1982), 1-3.

[2] R. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford, 2001), p. 353.

[3] G. Prakash, ‘Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism’ The American Historical Review 99 (1994), 1482-3.

[4] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 65.

[5] V. Chaturvedi (ed.), Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London, 2000), p. vii.

[6] Guha, ‘On Some Aspects’, 1.

[7] Ibid, 3-4.

[8] G. Pandey, ‘Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism: The Peasant Movement in Awadh, 1919-1922’ Subaltern Studies 1 (1982), 143-197; D. Arnold, ‘Rebellious Hillmen: the Gudem-Rampa Risings, 1839-1924’ Subaltern Studies 1 (1982), 88-142.

[9] S. Henningham, ‘Quit India in Bihar and the Eastern United Provinces: The Dual Revolt’ Subaltern Studies 2 (1983), 130-179; D. Hardiman, ‘Adivasi Assertion in South Gujarat: The Devi Movement of 1922-3’ Subaltern Studies 3 (1984), 196-230.

[10] Prakash, ‘Subaltern Studies’, 1482.

[11] G. Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice’ Wedge 7 (1985), 120-130.

[12] B. Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (London, 1997), p. 101.

[13] Ibid, p. 108.

[14] B. Zachariah, Playing the Nation Game: The Ambiguities of Nationalism in India (New Delhi, 2011), p. 3.

[15] Prakash, ‘Subaltern Studies’, 1482-3.

[16] B. Cohn, ‘The Command of Language and the Language of Command’ Subaltern Studies 4 (1985), 276-329.

[17] E. Said, Orientalism (London, 1978).

[18] R. Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London, 1990), p. 123.

[19] H. Bhabha, ‘Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism’ in F. Barker et al. (eds.), The Politics of Theory (Colchester, 1983), pp. 194-211; Young, White Mythologies, p. 181.

[20] H. Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’ October 28 (1984), 125-33.

[21] Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man’; Young, White Mythologies, p. 188.

[22] Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man’; Young, White Mythologies, p. 188.

[23] H. Bhabha, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817’ Critical Inquiry 12 (1985), 144-165; Young, White Mythologies, p. 181.

[24] A. Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, 2009).

[25] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 65.

[26] Ibid, p. 65.

[27] Ibid, pp. 65-66.

[28] Prakash, ‘Subaltern Studies’, 1475.

[29] Ibid, 1475.

[30] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 4.

[31] Ibid, p. 69.

[32] R. Guha, ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’ Subaltern Studies 2 (1983), 1-42.

[33] S. Kaviraj, The Imaginary Institution of India (New York, 1991), pp. 173-6.

[34] Zachariah, Playing the Nation Game, p. 3.

[35] P. Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse (London, 1993), p. 7.

[36] Ibid, p. 7.

[37] Ibid, p. vii.

[38] Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought, pp. 131-153; Kaviraj, The Imaginary Institution, p. 201.

[39] Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought, p. 133.

[40] Ibid, pp. 131-153.

[41] I. Rodríguez, ‘Reading the Subalterns Across Texts, Disciplines, and Theories: From Representation to Recognition’ in I. Rodríguez (ed.), The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader (Durham, 2001), pp. 1-3; Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, ‘Founding Statement’ Boundary 2 20 (1993), 112.

[42] D. Nugent (ed.), Rural Revolt in Mexico: US Intervention and the Domain of Subaltern Politics (Durham, 1998).

[43] V. Peloso, Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru (Durham, 1999); J. Beverley, Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (Durham, 1999).

[44] F. Mallon, Peasant and Nation: The Making of a Postcolonial Mexico and Peru (Berkeley, 1995).

[45] F. Cooper, ‘Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History’ The American Historical Review 99 (1994), 1518; T. Ranger, ‘Power, Religion and Community: The Matobo Case’ Subaltern Studies 7 (1993), 221-246.

[46] D. Lloyd, ‘Outside History: Irish New Histories and the ‘Subalternity Effect’’ Subaltern Studies 9 (1996), 261-380; R. Sayigh, ‘Gendering the ‘Nationalist Subject’: Palestinian Camp Women’s Life Stories’ Subaltern Studies 10 (1999), 234-254.

[47] Chaturvedi (ed.), Mapping Subaltern Studies, p. vii.

[48] V. Lal, The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (New Delhi, 2003), p. 6.

[49] Guha, ‘On Some Aspects’, 1.

[50] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 65.

[51] R. Guha, ‘Subaltern Studies: Projects for Our Time and Their Convergence’ in I. Rodríguez (ed.), The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader (Durham, 2001), pp. 35-46.

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