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date: 21 January 2019

Summary and Keywords

Ranajit Guha is one of the best-known and most innovative historians of modern India. The bulk of his best-known work was published between 1981 and 2002. The main historiographical issues that appear in his work include (a) the colonial appropriation of the Indian past and its representation as a “highly interesting portion of British history,” which together with the force of colonial conquest added up in Guha’s terminology to a colonial expropriation of Indian history; (b) the complicity of all branches of colonialist knowledge in the fact or force of conquest; (c) British rule in India as a “dominance without hegemony,” in which the moment of coercion outweighed the moment of persuasion by contrast with western Europe; (d) an Indian historiography of India that attempts to redress the expropriation of Indian history and make “the Indian people, constituted as a nation, the subject of their own history”; (e) a subaltern historiography that identifies the limitations of the mainstream Indian historiography of India and the need to pay attention to the “neglected dimension of subaltern autonomy in action, consciousness and culture,” the “contribution made by the people on their own”; and (f) a historiography that goes beyond “statism” to the everyday being-in-the-world of ordinary people, countering the pretensions of the “prose of world-history” with the “prose of the world.” These issues recur in various forms and combinations in Guha’s books and essays, notably the ones he contributed to Subaltern Studies, an edited series that he launched in 1982.

The theoretical influences on Guha’s work are not limited to Marxism and its many offshoots. Guha used the concept of “subaltern” to signify anyone in India who did not belong to the “elite” and therefore included peasants, workers, impoverished landlords, and others whose behavior exhibited a combination of defiance and deference to the elite. It has many points of contact with Gramsci’s work. Guha drew freely on the philosophy of Hegel and Heidegger, Bengali literature, notably the works of Rabindranath Tagore, not to mention semiotics, linguistics, structuralism, and poststructuralism, the objective being not theoretical monism or purity but the mobilization of a wide range of references to shed light on history’s dark corners.

The eclectic richness, if not elusiveness, of the concept of “subaltern” and Guha’s deployment of it in various forms to speak to caste, class, and gender issues has perhaps inspired its wider diffusion for rethinking the history of popular consciousness and mobilization in fields as far apart as Asian, African, and Latin American history.

Keywords: subaltern studies, Indian historiography, postcolonialism, Marxism, British Raj, Tagore, Hegel, Heidegger, communication and critical studies, rural insurgency

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