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The Subaltern in South Asian History and Society

Report of a Conference

In November 1982, the Australian National University hosted a conference in Canberra on the subaltern in South Asian History and Society. This conference, organised by Ranajit Guha, came a few months after the publication of the first volume of Subaltern Studies. EPW brings you this report from the conference that saw many of the discussions that were going to be reproduced in Subaltern Studies volumes. 

In November 1982, the Australian National University hosted a conference in Canberra on the subaltern in South Asian History and Society. It was organised by Ranajit Guha, who is a Senior Research Fellow there. Readers of this journal may be familiar with the first volume of "Subaltern Studies: Writings in South Asian History and Society" (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1982), which is edited by Rana-jit Guha. Volume Two is expected any time now. The conference was held to discuss the essays which will form the basis for Volume Three in this series. About sixty Asian specialists from various Australian universities as well as scholars from India, Britain and the United States attended the conference.
The following papers were presented at the conference:
David Hardiman: Adivasi Assertion in South Gujarat: The Devi Movement of 1922-23.
Dipesh Chakravarty: Trade Union is is a Semi- feudal Culture: The Paradox of Jute Workers' Organisation, 1920-50.'
David Arnold: Peasant Reactions to the Madras Famine of 1876-78.
Shahid Amin; Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP. 1921-22.
Partha Chatterjee: Gandhism and the Political Appropriation of the Peasantry.
Bruce Kapferer: Colonial Orders, Class Struggle and Cultural and Religious Transformation in Sri Lanka.
Cyan Paucley: Religion and "Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Mubarakpur.
Imran Ali: Malign Growth: The Impact of Agricultural Colonisation on Economy and Society in the Punjab.
Sumit Sarkar: From Swadeshi to Non-co-operation; Subaltern Groups and the Politics of Nationalism in Bengal.
Bernard Cohn; Discourse as Coercion : Nineteenth-century British 'Scholarship and Indian Society.
Subaltern Studies as a project aims to, put the 'subaltern' — that is, sub-ordinate classes — at the centre of the stage of historical enquiry. The project has arisen from a belief that previous writings on South Asian History and Society have tended to be elitist in nature; the people are seen either as passive and malleable objects of elite initiative and manipulation, or as an unpredictable primordial force which occasionally releases itself in ill-directed and futile acts of violence.
The first major question to arise in the conference concerned the meaning and usefulness of the term 'subaltern'. S N Mukherjee wanted to know why it was to be preferred to class categories, such as 'working class', 'rich, middle and poor peasants' and so on. This question was dealt with in Sumit Sarkar's paper, in which he began with a brief discussion of the use of the Gramscian concept of 'the subaltern classes' in writing on modern Indian history. He felt that the term had the advantage of not having within it the assumption that there is a developed class consciousness amongst the sub-ordinate classes of South Asia. In a special morning session devoted to a discussion of subaltern movements in Asia as a whole, a tendency was observed for speakers to merely substitute the word subaltern* for terms such as 'peasantry', 'masses' and so on. This was often done in a rather uncritical manner. Partha Chatterjee pointed out that the concept should not be used in this way, for it was meant to make us rethink our approach to the study of the subordinate classes. The concept is a dialectical one which imolies a relationship of domination. Subaltern Studies seeks to analyse the interplay of this relationship in a manner which puts the subaltern classes at the centre of the stage. There was then some debate about whether or not this was an essentially populist exercise. In reply to this, it was argued that popu-lism treats the people as an undifferen-tiated mass, whereas the subaltern studies project sought to disaggregate this mass and bring out all the com-plexities of relationships which existed among the people. In this respect it was not at all a populist exercise. Dipesh Chakrabarty commented that the concept of subalternaity did not seek to be all-embracing. Other con-cepts — such as exploitation — have to be used. Also, it is no substitute for class analysis. But the concept is needed to describe a master/servant re-lationship in which there is an interplay of power and a definite consciousness of subalterneity, The relationship is not thus a general rich/poor one, but the specific relationship of dominator to dominated. Ranjit Guha went on a argue that the subaltern classes were never entirety dominated; Cramsei has stated that the power of the stale does not quite reach the people in its enti-rety, and that there was an element of autonomy in subaltern action,
Sumit Sarkar also argued in his paper that the essays in "Subaltern Studies", Volume One, tended to concentrate on moments of conflict between elite and subaltern classes "to the relative exclusion of much longer time-spans of subordination or collaboration - a trend, it may be argued, which really goes against Gramsci's own emphasis on the control exercised over such strata by more or less hegemonic dominant classes". This criticism was accepted as having value. In defence, it was argued that the emphasis on conflict was necessary initially, for the tendency in the past has been to over-emphasise the passivity of the Indian masses. Ranajit Guha stated that sub-altern consciousness consisted of an interplay between resistance and colla-boration. In Volume One the emphasis was on resistance, and the element of collaboration was neglected. This was something which needed to be correc-ted. In fact, most of the papers at the conference proved to have already anti-cipated this critique. Somewhat ironi-cally, Sumit Sarkar's own paper con-centrated largely on moments of con-flict, and in this it was something of an exception,
Christine Dobbin also raised a ques-tion about the subject matter of the papers, nothing that there was a ten-dency to concentrate on a single event. These events — be they uprisings, popular movements or disasters — occurred when the elites were forced to modify their actions as a result or subaltern initiatives. The papers had not thus escaped from elitist: history. She argued that the real subject of subaltern studies should be writings about everyday life, rather than overt protest and action. It was argued against this that the study of subaltern cons-ciousness had, of necessity, to be under-taken through the writings of the elites, as the subaltern classes have left almost no written records of their own. It is during moments of crisis that the elites are forced to take notice of the lower classes, and thus the documenta-tion is at its richest during such periods. The event is taken as a starting point from which relationships of domination and subordination can be analysed. It is however vital to place the event in a long term perspective. Shahid Amin added that Christine Dobbin appeared to be asking far social history as defined In Trevelyan; thai is, history with the politics left out. They were, however, examining the relationship between the subordinate and dominant classes, which was above all a political relation-ship. Politics were thus central to their history.
The next problem concerned the sources used by those writing for Subaltern Studies. Some based their analysis on conventional sources — such as archival material, collections of documents and newspaper reports — but used these sources in unconven-tional ways in order to try to under-stand subaltern actions and patterns of thought. The papers presented by David Arnold, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Sumit Sarkar fell broadly into this category. David Arnold used colonial records on the Madras famine of 1876-78 to exa-mine the response of the peasants who, he argued, were not merely helpless victims but actors with their own sense of justice and expectations of relief from the upper classes in times of crisis, Sumit Sarkar stated that he had re-read many of the sources which he had used in his earlier writings while preparing his paper. He also, however, made use of literary sources, such as Satinath Bhaduri's "Dhorai Gharitma-n;is". In the discussion, Dipesh Chakra-bnvty praised his use of this source, but added that such usage called for some additional tools from linguistic and textual criticism. Was the character of Dhorai articulating the actual dis-course of a subaltern or was the novel in fact an elitist depiction of what was thought to be subaltern discourse? The papers by Shahid Amin, David Hardiman and Gyan Pandey sought to escape this difficulty by using more obviously subaltern sources. Gyan Pandey made use of a local history written in the 1880s in Urdu by a Muslim of Mubarakpur, in eastern UP* This Muslim was, however, a local zamindar, so that even this could hardly be considered a truly subaltern text, It did, however, give us a very different perspective of the history of Mubarakpur to that portrayed in the British colonial records. David Hardiman, in a study of a tribal movement in South Gujarat, made use of oral sources collected in interviews in numerous tribal villages. In the past, oral sources of this type have been considered the preserve of anthropolo-gists, and interestingly enough anthro-pologists who attended the conference such as Roger Keesing and Bruce Kap-ferer were much to the fore in the discussion of this paper, Peter Reeves commented that it was good to s that such studies were now being undertaken by historians. Shahid Amin, in his paper on the perception of Gandhi by the peasants of Gorakhpur District in 1921-22, made extensive use of Gandhi-rumours collected from a local newspaper, Swadesh. Many of these related the misfortunes suffered by those who failed to follow what was perceived by the peasants as the Gandhian programme. These stories revealed that the widespread popularity of Gandhi in this area was rooted in popular Hindu beliefs and practices and in the material culture of the pea-santry. In the discussion of this paper, an objection was raised that once a rumour was printed in a newspaper it ceased to be a rumour, Shahid Amin replied that the rumours were sent in to the newspaper by villagers, and that the newspaper printed them verbatim, so that they could be considered re-presentative of local patterns of thought.
There was also some debate about how such sources should be treated. Shahid Amin, for instance, was critici-sed for not carrying out a full struc-tural analysis of his collection of Gandhi-rumours. There was a feeling that historians needed to take lessons from studies of linguistics and semio-tics. Of the papers presented to this conference, Dinesh Chakravarty's went furthest in this direction.
Doubts were expressed as to whether some of the papers fitted into the category of subaltern studies. Gyan Pandey's paper, which dealt with the history of a small town, was questioned on this score. There was some feeling that subaltern studies should be about workers and peasants. Gyan Pandey replied that he was examining a culture that was shared by different groups, both elites and subaltern, that he was trying to see how these groups related to this shared culture and how this culture produced particular patterns of dominance and subordination. Partha Chatterjee was also criticised on this score for in his paper he merely examined the political philosophy of Gandhi, and did not show how this system of thought related to the sub-altern classes in practice. Chatterjee accepted this point, but argued that he was merely trying to lay out the theo-retical conditions which laid the basis for Gandhi's popularity amongst the subaltern classes. The question as to how this operated in practice would have to be tackled later. Bernard Cohn's paper also stood out in this respect. This extremely interesting paper was concerned with the process eby which the British in eighteenth and nineteenth century India constructed a whole system of knowledge which allowed them to participate in the political system and eventually to define and control the social and political order of India. Thus, although he was discussing authority, and the way a language of authority was created, he was nor here adopting a subaltern per-spective. The most controversial paper of all was that presented by Dinesh Chakra-varty, and it is worth summarising it briefly here. It was concerned with the problem of why the often highly mili-tant jute workers of Calcutta failed to develop any lasting trade union orga-nisations in the period 1920-50. Orga-nisation tended to be an ad hoc affair appearing during crises, disappear-ing during lulls. The union leaders were invariably from the babu class. The babus felt that such leadership was inevitable so long as the workers lacked education. This however sidestepped the deeper problem of the culture of the worker — a culture which seemed actively to discourage regular union organisation. Chakravarty argued that this was because unions revolved around admired individuals, and that these leaders tended to treat their unions as their own personal zamin-dari. A leader could build a strong position very rapidly, and he could equally rapidly decline. Thus, rather than there being an absence of trade union discipline of the western type, there was instead an alternative system of power and authority. Chakravarty characterised the bond between the babu-leader and the worker as being essentially feudal. Even the communist leaders of the 1930s and 1940s who selflessly dedicated their lives to the service of the working classes conform-ed to this pattern of leadership. They too continued unconsciously to act the zamindar. "Their education, their ap-pearance, the language they spoke, the work they did, could all act as indica-tors of their authority and superiority over the coolies".
The paper stimulated a strong debate. Sumit Sarkar argued that there was no necessary contradiction between work-ing class militancy and lack of stable trade union organisation. He felt that Chakravarty should have accorded the workers more autonomy, and noted that there was a tendency in the paper to argue that the workers could be saved only through the internal reform of babu culture. Gyan Pandey argued that the industrial situation was not com-parable to the zamindari situation. The equivalent to the zamindar was surely the factory owner. The trade union leader was a mediator. Partha Chatterjee expanded on this latter point by asking Chakravarty what, in his view, would constitute change. Was not the worker-trade union leader relationship an essentially new one? The trade union leader had, in fact, a bourgeois understanding of his role as a political representative of the people. Dinesh Chakravarty replied that although there were obvious empirical differ-ences between rural zamindur-doimnated society and urban industrial society, re-lationships of power and authority con-tinued to be similar. He accepted that his analysis was pessimistic, but in India there were few grounds for optimism. It was one thing to believe in the possibility of a change for the better, another to argue that it was coming in the near future. He accepted the possi-bility of change, but: not the immediate likelihood, and this essay was an attempt to understand why this was so. He felt that Marxists who analysed all problems in terms of structure and superstructure tended to be blind to the critical problem of culture, and he argued that there is a great need for a theory of culture in Marxist writing.
In conclusion, we may say that the papers presented at this conference showed a greater awareness of the need to analyse the relationship of collaboration between subaltern and elite classes as well as that of conflict. Other elements which came out in the whole discussion were the need to combat narrow economistic explanations for subaltern actions, the need to focus strongly on political relationships, the relative autonomy which exists between the thought and actions of elite and subaltern classes, and the need to understand better the nature of the tenacious hold of culture within the Indian social formation. The study of subaltern consciousness and culture, it was brought out, was central to the whole project. In this, the authors of these papers accepted the need to approach popular beliefs and under-standings through a more sophisticated analysis of texts. This is, perhaps, one of the directions in which we may ex-pect the subaltern studies project to move in the future.
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