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Meaning of the word ‘sublatern’:

Literally, Lower in position or rank; secondary. Chiefly British. Literally meaning

"subordinate", The term subaltern is used in the British military to describe commissioned
officers below the rank of captain and generally comprises the various grades of lieutenant.

Philosophically, In historiography The term subaltern is used in postcolonial theory to refer to

marginalized groups and the lower classes; this sense of the word was coined by Antonio

In his 1996 essay "Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism" Homi Bhabha

emphasizes the importance of social power relations in his working definition of 'subaltern'
groups as oppressed, minority groups whose presence was crucial to the self-definition of the
majority group: subaltern social groups were also in a position to subvert the authority of those
who had hegemonic power.

Ranjit Guha in the Preface to the Subaltern Studeis: Writings on South Asian History and Society
Vol 1 uses the word subaltern as given in the concise Oxford Dictionaryt is of ‘inferior rank’.
The word is used in the Subaltern Studies ‘as a name for the general attribute of subordination in
South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms class, caste, age, gender, and office or in
any other way.’

First use of the the term ‘subaltern’: The ‘subaltern' was largely a term employed in place
of 'proletariat' by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian socialist, political theorist,
and activist.He used it with the express purpose of evading prison censors. He did not use
consciously the term of class as a methodological conceptWorks: Prison Notebooks related to
Subaltern groups

REF IN Subaltern Studies:Hegemony and Speech By Tabish Khair.

The Origin of the Subaltern Studies Group

The Subaltern Studies group was founded in India in 1982 by Ranjit Guha, an Indian
historian, who now lives in Australia (Australia seems to be a place of residence and postdoctoral
research center for many other members of the school). Guha edited the first six volumes of the
series of publications bearing the group's name. A biographical sketch shows that during
1979-1980, Guha and a number of younger historians, then living in England, held a series of
intensive discussions on Indian colonial history; this led to the formation of their group in 1982.
The group published its first volume in 1983. In 1971, during a visit to India, Guha had become

involved with the Maoist students movement in Delhi; some of these students subsequently went
to study in England. Perhaps it is no coincidence that most of the founding members of the
Subaltern Studies group had connections with the Maoist groups in Delhi and Calcutta. Today
most of them have close connections with the academic communities of England and Australia
and now in the United States as well.

What is Subaltern Historiography?.

Protest Against Elitist Historigraphy: Subaltern Studies is a school that originated in India in
1982. The founding members of the group, Ranjit Guha protested that historiography of Indian
nationalism is biased with elitism (The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes
or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social
status, or financial resources thus leading to the control, rule, or domination by such a group or
class) of two kinds which maintain that the development of Indian national consciousness and
the making of Indian nation were the elite achievements. The two kinds of elitist historiography
against which the subalternists wrote were:

1)Colonialist elitism or Colonial or British imperialist historiography

2) Bourgeois nationalist elitism.

Both of these elitist historiographical trends were the product of of British rule in India and have
survived the transfer of power. Now they are used to maintain the neo-colonial and neo-
nationalist hold over the people and resources of the vast majority of Indian lower classes.

In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiography the British colonialist rulers, administrators,
policies, parliamentary institutions and colonial political culture are credited with starting the
process in which Indian national consciousness developed and culminated. It describes Indian
nationalism as a function of stimulus and response, the one which we see in behaviouristic

The bourgeois nationalist elitist historiography represents the growth and victory of Indian
nationalist as sum of the activities and ideas by which leaders of Indian elite class response to
the institutions, opportunities, resources which the Colonial master elite created or introduced. It
represents Indian nationalism as an Idealist venture in which Indigenous elite led people to
freedom from chains of the colonial British elite.

Ranji Guha “ Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India” p 1-2

Guha does not totoally disregard the uses of elities historiography but he asserts that elitist
historiography of this kind fails to explain to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contributions
made by the people on their own, that is independently of the elite thus making them dependent
both mentally and economically on the elite in one way or the other. It sees the movement of the
people as the result of the charisma or ideals of a certain leader. In Gandhi and the Critique of

Civil Society, (Subaltern studies III p 153), Partha Chatterjee expose the myth of charisma of
Mahatama Gandhi .

The elitist historiography is inadequate to present the whole picture of politics because of its
commitment to its class outlook.

Ibid., 3

The ‘un-historical historiography’ leaves out the politics of the people and overlooks ‘another
domain of Indian politics in which the principal actors were not the dominant elite groups
,whether colonial or indigenous, but the subaltern classes and groups constituting the mass of
laboring population and the intermediate strata in town and country--- that is, the people.’

Ibid., 4.

Guha sums up his essay by calling elities historiography ‘an oppressive fact’. Ibid., 7

By authoring a parallel historiography of the people, the subalternists responded to a genuine

need for a new methodology, epistemology, and paradigm, a need felt not only in India but
worldwide. Borrowing from Gramsci the concept of "subaltern" and drawing on the prevailing
Western ideas about the historiography of mass culture, Subaltern Studies tried to provide new
interpretations and methodologies for writing Indian working-class history. Subalternists
maintained that colonialist, nationalist, and Marxist interpretations of Indian history had denied
the role of the common people and their agency. To rectify this situation, Subaltern Studies
announced that its new approach would restore history to the subordinated. In addition, the
group theorized that the elite in India played a dominant part during the colonial period and not
merely a hegemonic role. With the logic of this new interpretation, the Subalternists were able to
show that subordinated people (i.e., subalterns) were autonomous historical persons who acted
on their own because they were not led by any elite group.

Subaltern Studies also claims that it can find Indian subalterns' voices, despite problems
with sources: Indian peasants and workers have not kept diaries, as British workers have done.
This absence of "workers' authentic voices" led to a shift in the methodology of the Subaltern

Using methodology, Subaltern Studies now concentrates on how the knowledge of

history was produced and how its construction can be "decolonized." In raising these "new"
questions, the Indian Subalternists realized that they could write history only from a position of
subalternity because India, as a British colony, itself (as a sub-continent and its people, but
irrespective of class structure) was a subaltern.

Vinayak Chaturvedi in his introduction to Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial notes,
"At the end of the 1970s, Ranajit Guha - the founding editor of Subaltern Studies -- and a group
of young historians based in Britain embarked on a series of discussions about the contemporary
state of South Asian historiography. From the onset, the underlying principle which united the
group -- Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman and Gyanendra Pandey
-- was a general dissatisfaction with the historical interpretations of the 'Freedom Movement' in
India which celebrated elite contributions in the making of the Indian nation while denying 'the
politics of the people'. At one level, the idea of Subaltern Studies was conceived as a
historiographical 'negation' of both a rigidly formulaic 'orthodox' Marxism and the 'Namierism'
of the Cambridge School in Britian, both of which failed to account for the dynamic and
improvisational mode of peasant political agency

Aims of subaltern studies.

1) Rejection of elitist historiography

The preface states, a purpose and an agenda that "speak for a new orientation within which
many different styles, interests and discursive modes may find it possible to unite in their
rejection of academic elitism and in their acknowledgement of the subaltern as the maker of
his own history and the architect of his own destiny" (p. vii). The opening essay, "The Prose
of Counter-Insurgency," by Ranajit Guha, sets the tenor for the volume as it issues valuable
instructions regarding the decoding of the records of the Raj. Since these "hostile" sources
form a major fount of information for historians especially, the reconstruction of the
experiences of the ruled and the colonized cannot proceed without first clearing the rubble of
distortions created by the official language of counterinsurgency.

2) Narratives of the lower and subordinate classes

Dipesh Chakrabarty, one of the historians associated with group of writers of subaltern
studies says:

The explicit aimof subaltern studies founded in the early 1980s, was to write the subaltern
classes into the history of nationalism and the nation and to combat all elitist biases in the writing
of history. These original intellectual ambitions were political; but they did not necessarily come
from the lives of the subaltern classes themselves. Looking back, however, I see the problem of
"subaltern pasts" dogging the enterprise of Subaltern Studies from the very outset: indeed it is
arguable that what differentiates the Subaltern Studies project from the older tradition of "history
from below" is the self-critical awareness of this problem in the writings of the historians
associated with this group.

3) New Research and Re-examination of subalternist histories

Amin and Dipesh Chakrabarty further explain in their preface of volume (IX),, the aim of the
Editorial Collective is to publish "new and original research on aspects of subalternity in colonial

and contemporary South Asia"; the politics of publishing and marketing demands, of course, that
we accept that the new and original research comes, most often, from old and established names
in the field of historical and socio-cultural scholarship. And so we encounter, once again, erudite
essays from Ranajit Guha, Gyan Prakash, Susie Tharu and Tejaswini Niranjana and David
Lloyd, amongst others. The subjects under scrutiny range from a re-examination of the place of
subalternist histories/stories in critical studies, to explorations of writing/orality/ power in two
forest communities of western India, nationalist ideology and historiography, and subalternity
and science, the partition, politics, gender, labour and Irish "new histories". There is something
in it for almost everyone with an interest in subalternist perspectives.

As with Thompson et al they saw their aim as being to recover the struggles of the poor and the
outcast from the 'condescension of posterity' and the grip of 'official' left intellectuals. The
collective focussed on peasant and tribal struggles, little work being done on urban movements
with the exception of Dipesh Chakrabarty's 'Rethinking Working Class History' on the jute mill
workers of Calcutta. But what was distinctive about their approach was the argument that these
struggles, far from being creations of what they termed 'elite nationalism', were independent of it
and much more radical. Gyan Pandy, for example, in the first issue of the journal demonstrated
convincingly, in a study of the 1921-22 peasant struggle in Awadh, how Congress, far from
initiating the struggle, had attempted to undermine it because the peasants were targeting Indian
landlords who Congress wished to incorporate in their pan-Indian alliance against the British.

However the Subalterns weren't simply interested in illustrating the 'bourgeois' nature of India
nationalism. They argued that movements from below had been hijacked by elite nationalism and
subordinated to the nationalist project. When they wrote of combating 'grand narratives, it was
the 'grand narrative' of anti-colonial nationalism they were targeting. Undoubtedly there was a
very important core to their argument - essentially the 'nationalist leadership' had attempted to
use 'highly controlled' struggles of the Indian masses in order to confront and then replace the
colonial masters. But the collective's project had an even more ambitious aim: they wished to
reconstruct peasant consciousness itself, and to demonstrate its autonomy from elite nationalist
thought. In order to do so, they sought out both new sources and attempted to reread the
traditional archives 'against the grain', all with the aim of recreating the mental world of the
peasant insurgent.

The issue of working-class "emancipation" because this was an important project for
progressive-minded scholars and for most of the Subalternists. The general concern about
subalterns implied a commitment to the notion of social justice for oppressed and
subordinated people.The subaltern historiography helps us understand people's lives, their
actions, and their histories more meaningfully in terms of developing strategies for future
action. In order to develop strategies, the Subaltern Studies develop a historiography which
help to create an emancipatory politics for the subalterns or the lower and subordinated

Main Historians of subaltern School of and their works


Subaltern Studies series has appeeared in 10 volumes: It includes scholarly essays by the
subalternists as Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, David Arnold and Gyan Pandey, but also some
interesting critiques by, among others, C. A. Bayly and Sumit Sarkar. Both the essays and
critiques expose the Subaltern project as an important, diverse and intellectually enabling one.
Among other things, the collection helps trace the trajectory of recent Subaltern Studies texts
moving further away from Marxism, with Subalternists arguing both for and against the

The profound generality--that nothing is safe from the subaltern-effect--has the power of a
slogan, of a mobilising rationale, a rallying spirit which can pull together such different modes
and themes of history-writing as the essays of Subaltern Studies . Individually, each contributor
asserts a distinct mood. It is this which gives the volume its strength as a whole--the fact that
multiple moods of history-writing could pervade a single and common slogan.

'The Small Voice of History' by Ranjit Guha is an evaluation of where, and how, the "small"
voices could assume mythic proportions of authority, given a hearing. He names the ideology of
nominating authority to certain events (as "historic") statism that which authorizes the dominant
values of the state to determine the criteria of the historic and then examines the inadequacy of
this ideology for a truly Indian historiography, given that it was introduced in India by the British
in the nineteenth century, and suffers from, a predilection to speak "to us in the commanding
voice of the state which by presuming to nominate the historic for us leaves us with no choice
about our own relation to the past". Guha instructs us on how to be a discerning student of
history by making the extra effort to hear, and interact with, the small voices that are otherwise
drowned in the cacophony of statist commands.

The Main Contributions to the Subaltern Studies have been made by:

Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory (Oxford and Princeton)

Dipesh Chakrabarty, ed., Subaltern Studies, Vol. VIII

Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought & the Colonial World (Minnesota)

Partha Chatterjee & G. Pandey, eds., Subaltern Studies, Vol. VII (Oxford)

Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (Oxford)

Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies, Vol. V (Oxford)

Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies, Vol. VI (Oxford)

Ranajit Guha and G. Spivak, eds., Selected Subaltern Studies (N.Y.: Oxford)

Eugene Irschik, Dialogue and History (Berkeley: Univ. of California)

Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy (Oxford)

Stree Shakti Sangathana,We Were Making History (Zed Books)

Veena Das, "Subaltern as Perspective", in Subaltern Studies VI, pp. 310-314.

Gayatri C. Spivak, "Deconstructing Subaltern Historiography", in Subaltern Studies IV (Delhi:

Oxford UP, 1986), or her introduction to Selected Subaltern Studies.

Rosalind O'Hanlon, "Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in
Colonial South Asia", Modern Asian Studies 22, 1 (1988):189-224. R

Gyan Prakash, "Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian
Historiography", CSSH 32, 2 (April 1990):383-408; also published in revised form as "Writing
Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Indian Historiography Is Good to Think", in
Colonialism and Culture, ed. Nicholas Dirks (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 353-
88. R [CSSH: Comparative Studies in Society and History]

Rosalind O'Hanlon and David Washbrook, "After Orientalism: Culture, Criticism, and Politics in
the Third World", CSSH 34, 1 (Jan. 1992):141-167. R

Gyan Prakash, "Can the 'Subaltern' Ride? A Reply to O'Hanlon and Washbrook", CSSH 34, 1
(Jan. 1992):168-85. R

Dipesh Chakrabarty, "History as Critique and Critique(s) of History." Economic and Political
Weekly 26, no. 37 (14 Sept. 1991):2162-66. R

Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian'
Pasts?" Representations, no. 37 (Winter 1992):1-26. R

Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Radical Histories and Question of Enlightenment Rationalism: Some

Recent Critiques of Subaltern Studies." Economic and PoliticalWeekly 30, no. 14 (8 April
1995):751-59. R

Sudesh Mishra's prose--almost in the 'stream of consciousness' mode, a mix of "history and
hyperbole" as he calls it. Written in an intensely personal mood, making itself opaque to easy
readings and yet resisting the impulse to become too easily poetic, Mishra's prose articulates with
history through the individual's recognition of the impossibility of dying in pure solitude and

Kaushik Ghosh's remarkable essay, on the other hand, is written in the ironic mood. He shows
that the "primitive", far from being a relic of past centuries, was actually born in colonial-
modernity as a highly profitable "waste" produced by plantation capitalism. Marx's note on
'primitive accumulation', Kaushik shows, can thus be made to denote, literally, the making of a
section of the world's population into "aborigines", into "primitive" labour, in fact much before
the "primitive" was discursively constructed by evolutionary anthropology in the 1860s.

Indrani Chatterjee's essay on colour, gender and slavery, on its part, exudes the tragic mood, as
she describes the creation of a genealogically suspended community of 'half-castes', rejected by
both the colonizer and the colonized, through slave-concubinage and the use of slave-women's
children as clerical and manual labour by the East India Company's military establishment. She
urges a rethinking of both the idea of family and the scope of slavery-studies, in view of this
dimension of early colonialism in India which created a coloured and labouring community
through the manipulation of "marriages" and "households".

Sundar Kaali, on his part, borrows the hopeful mood from what he calls the "not-for-a-moment
silent" subaltern politics. . In a beautiful essay that puts together early Indian textual traditions,
contemporary oral narratives and subtle political insights, he reckons with the politics of
spatialization in the context of south Indian villages, towns and temples.

Ishita Banerjee Dube discusses Mahima Dharma, a subaltern religious movement in Orissa, and
its mobilization and appropriation of the colonial legal apparatus in the construction of the idea
of an "authentic" religion.


Since 1983 the Subaltern Studies collective has produced 10 volumes and several
monographs (A scholarly piece of writing of essay or book length on a specific, often limited
subject). Ranjit Guha edited the first six volumes (1982), which had various themes including
critiques of elite historiography, uncovering peasant belief systems, peasant movements, peasant
revolts, Indian nationalism, sectarianism, the colonial construction of communalism, power
relations within the community, peasant insurgency, subaltern consciousness and politics, the
people's perception of Gandhi, Gandhi's politics, the mentalities of the people, the character of
the state, the ecological dimension of peasant protest, tribal protest, patterns of liquor
consumption, Western medicine and caste, critique of feminist writings, crime in the context of
the nationalist movement, and even a few critiques of Subaltern Studies. These volumes include
very few themes related to the working-class movement, or to work, or production. Most of the
studies concern protests by peasants and by tribal people, but have no connection with the
broader context in which they occur.

Beginning with Volume 7 (1993), the editorship of the series shifted from Ranjit Guha
to Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey. The themes in volume 7 and 8 are different from
those in the previous six volumes. They revolve mainly around the nation, the community, the
Bengali middle class, forest people, colonial prisons, India's partition and historiography, and
Indian religion and language. This difference in themes was noted by one reviewer for Volume
8, who commented that "the contents of this volume, like those of its immediate predecessor,
seem to confirm a marked shift of emphasis in the project of Subaltern Studies." He added
"Over the years, most members of its editorial collective have moved from documenting
subaltern dissent to dissecting elite discourse, from writing with (Socialist) passion to following
the (postmodernist) fashion. Intellectual history, reframed as 'discourse analysis' . . . is
emphatically not subaltern studies".

1) Critique of Colonial History and uncovering the internal history of the

Colonized People:

Postcolonia l history, then, has at its heart a critique of nationalism and the nation-state. It
seeks to uncovering the internal history of colonised peoples, especially of ‘subalterns’ - those
repressed within society, whose identity is imposed from outside by historians and other
commentators. This means asserting the validity of other cultures, and assessing the extent to
which European cultural models have determined identities and cultural norms in the non-
European world. The construction of knowledge - including science and the analysis of the
natural world - are of crucial importance.

2) Peasants and working class peoples

Dipesh Chakrabarty 'Rethinking working-class history: Bengal 1890-1940' Princeton, 2000,

pp245- Rethinking working class history - which takes as its starting point the Bengali peasantry
and their institutions and culture prior to the emergence of the colonial/capitalist social and
economic relationships and their formation and self-formation into a Bengali working class
under the rule of capital. The central point of Chakrabarty’s study is to understand the nature of
the specific relationship between pre-capitalist economic and social formations and capitalist
ones, particularly with regard to the culture, beliefs, traditions and so on of the oppressed.

3) Issues of Identity and cultural difference

Stressing issues of identity and cultural difference as the basis of political and social action has
caused some difficulties for some postcolonial historians as some nation-states outside Europe

begin to justify their existence in terms of indigenous cultures and norms. In particular, the
development of a Hindu-based state ideology in India, and the adherence to this by some
subaltern groups, have made it more difficult to attribute the evils of nation-states to the
following of western ideological models. This has also led to charges that some 'subaltern'
writings may be used to justify political ideologies of cultural dominance. Postcolonial histories
have always been subject to attack on the grounds of essentialism and ‘nativism’, and from those
who argue that consciousness and identity are not fixed entities determined by timeless cultures
but can change, especially in response to changes in material circumstances. The term
‘postcolonialism’ suggests that colonialism was the decisive episode of modern history that
established the dominance of western power and knowledge over all ‘others’, yet some historians
of eighteenth-century empire have argued that ‘colonial knowledge’ was not imposed from
outside, but was created by the interaction of indigenous informants and colonial rulers.
However, the central insights of postcolonial history remain valuable - especially in getting us to
think about the construction of ideas about society, about ‘progress’ and about the state, and the
ways in which the familiar analysis of the ‘rise of the West’ has been conditional on the
discourse of western scholarship.

4) Gender Bias:

Men embody rationality, thought, non-feeling, justice, critical judgment, objectivity, sternness,
individuality, and propensity for violence and acquisition. Women embody feeling, fickleness,
cunning, purity, subjectivity, spirituality, possessiveness, delicacy, virtue, dependence,
sensuousness, and unbrazened sexuality.The contradictory nature of these qualities reinforced the
unity and rationality of the male while at the same time proving the fickleness and fragmentation
of the female and hence her 'natural' unfitness for public life. For Aristotle, the citizens are the
"integral parts" of the polis while women, children, slaves, mechanics and laborers are the
"necessary conditions."

5) Race and Caste Issues

The subaltern studies group has been particularly important in restoring to historical and political
work the hitherto invisible working and peasant classes with shades of lower castes and races of
India - in fact the oppressed in all of their forms.

Merits, Strengths and Contribution of the subaltern historiography

The strengths and merits of the subaltern studies are obvious:

1) Consciousness-raising of the subalterns

Subaltern Studies have exercised a great influence on the younger generation of scholars, in
India and now abroad, some such challenge seems justified because intellectuals' writings do
affect the real lives of people, often as public policy. Subaltern studies have tried to remove the

elitist bias from history and to empower the people of the lower classes and castes in India and
raised their consciousness.

2) Developing new Methodology

a bid to fill in important methodological and historiographical gaps and to question the rigidities
of Marxism and dominant schools of academic historiography.

3) Exegesis and Interpretations of the Texts

Subaltern Studies has admirably discharged these self-imposed responsibilities, producing in the
process a series of excellent studies and leading to the exegesis of texts and times overlooked by
most (but by no means all) previous historians. In the process, Subaltern Studies has also
provided (or, rather, made more visible) productive ways of looking at larger issues: for
example, subaltern/peasant violence as an agential rather than an irrational act.

4) Expansion of critical and theoretical scope

This expansion of critical and theoretical scope has benefited the fast growing body of South
Asian sociocultural studies, providing it with the (predictable, but) dependable subalternist slant,
routed, usefully, through history

In the opener, Ranajit Guha (re)considers 'The Small Voice of History': which is an evaluation
of where, and how, the "small" voices could assume mythic proportions of authority, given a
hearing. The aim again is to rescue the history of the ‘repressed’, and to give it autonomy; as
Partha Chatterjee has argued, ‘to find, against the grand narrative of history itself, the cultural
resources to negotiate the terms through which people, living in different, contextually defined,
communities, can co-exist peacefully, productively and creatively within large political units’.
[Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (1993)
pp. 237-8]. This means contesting the right of either global capitalism or the nation-state to
appropriate community identity for itself, and to repress all others in the name of historical
inevitability. Chatterjee also considers the relationship between the nationalist movement and
gender roles in terms of the discourse of women's place in Bengali culture.

5) Exposing Myths of elities history replacing them with role of Subalterns

Postcolonial history, then, has at its heart a critique of nationalism and the nation-state. It seeks
to uncovering the internal history of colonised peoples, especially of ‘subalterns’ - those
repressed within society, whose identity is imposed from outside by historians and other
commentators. This means asserting the validity of other cultures, and assessing the extent to
which European cultural models have determined identities and cultural norms in the non-
European world. The construction of knowledge - including science and the analysis of the
natural world - are of crucial importance.

6) Exposing the exploitation and deceit of the ruling Classes

The economic-material exploitation on which the capitalist world runs tends to be left
unexposed. Subaltern Studies is the great enabling project that it is often considered to be or is it
a contingency and an index of the de-radicalisation of the Left not only in Europe but also in
privileged academic circles elsewhere. Nothing--not elite practices, state policies, academic
disciplines, literary texts, archival sources, language--was exempt from the subaltern

Difference between Subaltern Studies and Marxist historiography

1) Rejection of Marxian Concept of ‘Class’

It is also no coincidence that the Subaltern School rejects the concept of class struggle, as did the
Naxalites (during the 70s) in India, and that it promotes cultural particularism. As explained by
Tom Brass, a well-known English historian of peasant studies in south Asia, the "Naxalites not
only mobilized tribal support on the basis of cultural particularism, claiming that no difference
existed between present struggles and those of the 1855 tribal insurrection, but also organized
guerrilla activity on the basis of existing tribal and kin group authority at the village level.
Therefore, by the late 1980s the Communist Party of India (ML), [also called Naxalites], was
engaged not in a class but a caste struggle". Brass states further that this point is significant
because "this strategy both legitimizes and creates a space for communal discourse and practice,
which can then be reappropriated by the parties of the political right in order to undermine any
class solidarity that has been achieved".

2) De-politicization of History

Marxist historians such as E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, who also began to challenge old
categories, did not depoliticize the writing of history or class analysis; the Subaltern Studies
group, however, did do this. This fact is important, although obviously the Subaltern school
emerged as a voice for the oppressed in the concrete context of the Indian people's movements.
Before pursuing this theme, however, let us examine the Subalternists' themes more carefully.

3) Subalternist criticism of Marx on the issue of representation of the People of

colonized east

Spivak defends Marx's claim about the oppressed classes that Marx’s own idea that “the
peoples of the east and particularly the peoples of India could not represent themselves but only
be represented both historically and politically. While some of the subalternists have criticized
this comment for its elitism, Spivak cites the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (who
authored the concept of the subaltern) in defending it. According to Gramsci, subaltern social
groups are by definition disorganized, lacking in class consciousness, and entirely excluded from
the histories of dominant and hegemonic classes of civil society. Any attempt on their part to
become heard brings them into the domain of political and textual representation, which is to
say, into civil society. They are then able to speak for themselves in ways that (as I will elaborate
upon next) Spivak still finds partial. But there remain other groups who never move into the
realm of representation, and these groups remain subaltern. Spivak encourages but also criticizes
the efforts of the subaltern studies group, a project led by Ranajit Guha that has reappropriated
Gramsci's term "subaltern" (the economically dispossesed) in order to locate and re-establish a
"voice" or collective locus of agency in postcolonial India.

4) Disagreement with Marxian Analytical approach

The Subalternists don’t apply the Marxian dichotomy of infrastructure and superstructure in
which ruling religion, customs and tradition are seen as the tools of exploitation in the hands
of exploiting ruling classes. The subalternists give importance to local customs, religions and
cults of the people without looking into their class origin.

5) Leaving out Marxian Categories of Relatioin of production and forces of production

for analyzing History. Marxian historical materialistic approach is based on the these
concepts and categories which are seldom used by the subalterists.

Difference between Subaltern and Radical school of history


Howard Zinn, the author of A Peoples History of the United States, like subalternists attaches
importance to the role of the people in shaping both the past , present and future. For him, there
is nothing like pure fact and objectivity in history is impossible and undesireable. He considers
himself and his work as the part of the history and for him the historian’s job lies in becoming
the part of the history by taking sides of the downtrodden and the oppressed. The subalternists
share most of his ideas, yet there are obvious differences.

1) Subalternists disagreement with Universality of History of working classes

Dipesh Chakrabarty, a leading Subaltern Studies spokesman, recently expanded the

responsibility of Subaltern Studies to include "differences" as a tool for producing possibilities
for action. Since the Subalternist school's project is to challenge old universal categories,
Chakrabarty thinks that by emphasizing "difference" it will be possible to remove the "problem
of universality" in history. Yet Chakrabarty does not wish to give up either Marx (let us recall
that Subaltern Studies initially was critical of Marxist categories and kept a distance from
Marxism) or differences because he finds Marx's category of "real labor" useful in developing
the idea of differences. The goal of Subaltern Studies, in his view is not to achieve political
democracy nor to promote the equal distribution of wealth but to keep alive the philosophical
question of differences because according to him, egalitarian and universalist concepts are
insensitive to such matters. Therefore, Subalternist scholars are not writing to describe how
some group in Asia, Africa, or Latin America resisted the penetration of colonialism; instead, as
Chakrabarty claims, they are trying "to take history to its limits" in order to "make its unworking
2) Political Activism: The subalternists are not necessarily involved with the politics of the
leftists and some times are neutral in the political matters.

3) Rejection of Marxian Categories of Relatioin of production and forces of production

for analyzing History: Howard Zinn uses Marxian categories of proletariat and serfs
while the subalternists use subaltern to describe the oppressed classes.

Criticism of Subaltern Historiography


Sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, and those who combine the

methods of history and sociology have made commentaries on the Subaltern Studies collective
and on the monographs produced individually by some of its members.

Mukherjee criticism A well-known Indian sociologist and historian Ramkrishna

Mukherjee has chosen to criticize the writings of Ranjit Guha, the founder of Subaltern Studies,
because the unifying principles of the Subaltern School are found in Guha's Elementary Aspects
of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983) .

1) Use of categorization of peasants and large span of time

Mukherjee's critique hits at the two major flaws in the assumptions of the founder of the
Subaltern Studies: one, Guha's use of the concept of "peasant" not appropriate because it is
devoid of real life variations among peasants and their contemporaneous social base. Thus this
categorization is a historical and on astructural basis. Two, Guha draws parallels among
countries by the sweeping use of a large span of time (four hundred years) in history across the

2) Flawed Methodology:

Mukherjee also thinks that Guha's exclusive cultural analysis is based on Weberian
appraisal of reality and reminds one of similar efforts made by British imperialism "for a cultural
understanding of contacts among conflicting groups".

Mukherjee's concerns are echoed by others in several subsequent commentaries on the

Subaltern Studies volumes. For example, Rosalin O' Hanlon and David Washbrook wrote the
following in a critique of Gyan Prakash's discussion on "Writing Post- Orientalist Histories of
the Third World: perspectives from Indian Historiography". "What all this begins to look very
like, in fact, is a new form of that key and enduring feature of Western capitalist and imperialist
culture: the bad conscience of liberalism, still struggling with the continuing paradox between
an ideology of liberty at home and the reality of profoundly exploitative political relations
abroad, and now striving to salvage and re-equip itself in a postcolonial world with new
arguments and better camouflaged forms of moral authority".

3) Charge of promoting Fascism

Other scholars have accused the Subaltern School of implicitly promoting fascism. Sumit
Sarkar, a well-known Indian historian and the son of Sushobhan Sarkar, the mentor of Ranjit
Guha, wrote the following in an essay on the "Fascist" nature of the Hindu Right: "An uncritical
cult of the 'popular' or 'subaltern', particularly when combined with the rejection of
Enlightenment rationalism. . .can lead even radical historians down strange paths." It is from

this stance that Dipesh Chakrabarty drives his conclusion that Sarkar stopped just short of calling
him and Gautam Bhadra (a member of the Subaltern Studies editorial team) "fascist".

Similarly, Chakrabarty reports that Tom Brass, and K. Balagopal, an Indian activist, have
"expressed similar misgivings." For Brass, "The real importance of postmodernism lies in its
theoretical impact on political practice; it forbids socialism, encourages bourgeois democracy
and allows fascism." Balagopal wrote on the dangers of neo-Hinduism. As Chakrabarty
responds by claiming that Balagopal "blames 'postmodernists' ' and 'subalternists' ' alleged
rejection of the possibility of 'objective' analysis for the inadequacies of Left resistance to the
fascistic Hindutva push".

4) Deviation from Gramscian Ideas

The Subaltern School represents a significant divergence from the Gramscian idea of the
subaltern because, for Gramsci, subaltern groups by definition cannot possess autonomy.
Similarly, O' Hanlon writes that to portray "The figure of the subaltern as self-originating,
self-determining, in possession of a sovereign consciousness. . . .is [in effect] to readmit through
the back door the classic figure of Western humanism--the rational human subject." Mallon, a
Latin American historian, points out that "complicity, hierarchy and surveillance within subaltern
communities.. . . make clear that no subaltern identity can be pure and transparent, most
subalterns are both dominated and dominating subjects". In the words of Ortner, an American
scholar, this insight, that there is no pure and transparent subaltern identity, "offered repeatedly
by structural Marxism and feminist studies in their different ways, by and large elude[s]
Subaltern Studies".

5) Inconsistencies in Subaltern

Siva Ramakrishnan's critique is particularly trenchant in this regard. When Prakash

claims to reject traditional foundational categories, it is acceptable that he create new ones:
"Subalternists, particularly those dealing with peasant movements in adivasi (indigenous people)
areas, have mechanistically applied the categories of elite and subaltern to their material, without
attending to the actual power relations they were intended to signify or examining the historical
formation of important sociological categories like tribe and caste, shifting cultivator, pastoralist,
laborer, petty producer and so on".

Jene Lerche, a scholar in South Asian studies, points out other contradictions in Subaltern
Studies writings. She remarked that they concentrated mostly on the conflicts between tribal and
nontribal people and not on landless groups (which are work-related ): "It is mainly (but not
only) when struggles can be understood within contexts other than the work relation, such as
conflicts between tribal and non-tribal peoples, or questions of ethnicity and religion that they

have become foci for subaltern enquiries." Similarly, Ortner states "The lack of an adequate
sense of prior and ongoing politics among subalterns must inevitably contribute to an inadequate
analysis of resistance itself."

Darshan Persuk, however, goes beyond a comment on the important issue of the
Subalternists' contradictions. He writes, "What seems to have little or no place in this
[Subalternists'] historiography is the institutions and structures of power and economic
exploitation which, in their very real and bloody exchanges with passive or insurgent masses,
break bones and spirits equally effectively.. . .It is not enough for subaltern historians to prove,
by recounting 'peoples' revolts,' that the oppressed have never liked being oppressed, or to show
that, when they did not, their deviations from the rituals and symbols of the dominant culture
contained seeds of 'incipient' revolt. The primary question. . . is, to what extent did these revolts
and deviations pose a challenge to the ruling class?. . . The powerless cannot, just by virtue of
their indubitably heroic struggles, become subjects of uncritical admiration, nor can their cultural
achievements, because they are the achievements of the oppressed, be idealized without noting
their inadequacies." Quoting from the Genoveses, Persuk points out that "Marx viewed any
attempt to cover the blemishes or exaggerate the virtue of working masses not only as romantic
nonsense but as counter-revolutionary politics".

6) Emphasis on Non-material culture.

Subaltern Studies, by emphasizing only the subalternist non-material culture (values,

consciousness, and identity) has failed to consider aspects of the material culture such as clothes,
food, furniture, living and working conditions, housing, technology, the financial system,
political institutions, trade, and the impact of the features on people's lives. Furthermore, the
Subalternists do not examine how the human agency produces the material culture (physical
objects) while people interact socially with other people and with specific conditions.
Subalternists by avoiding the discussion of material culture and conditions of people are able to
avoid the question of emancipatory politics as it is closely linked with material life.
Chakarabarty, for example, in his studies of jute workers, found the workers' backward
primordial values to be a hindrance to the development of their class consciousness. He does not
explain why the nationalist ideas prevailing at the time and the project of modernity did not
affect these jute workers' "primordial values."

Without understanding the context in which resistance takes place, the Subalternists, despite their
attraction to the term postcolonial discourse, ignore the complexity of the role of colonialism in a

capitalist context. In their analysis, "colonialism [sometimes] appears as a force whose nature
and implications do not have to be unpacked". Subalternists' refusal to consider class as a
category in a colonial context frees the capitalist society from the stigma of "classness". In such
a "classless" society, people's resistance can never be directed against capitalist or imperialist
forces. In this way Subalternists can easily keep intact both the worlds, capitalism/ colonialism
and resistance--while at the same time remaining "committed" to "people's history."

7) Ambiguities

To begin with, Subaltern Studies used the term 'subaltern' to stand largely for the peasantry
without really making clear the relationship of the peasantry to the proletariat. In the process, the
proletarian seems often to disappear from Subaltern Studies texts,the positioning of the
Subalternists. Perhaps the main difference between the way Gramsci used 'subaltern' and the way
in which Subalternists often do can be understood in this context. For Gramsci, subaltern groups
were by definition always subject to the authority of ruling groups, even when they rose in
rebellion. However, for Ranajit Guha subaltern politics in colonial India constituted an
"autonomous domain" which did not originate in or depend on the domain of ruling groups. The
fact that Guha and most Subalternists are writing against the backdrop of colonisation helps
understand the compulsion behind this difference. This is a matter both subjective and objective.
Subjectively, it is easier for an Italian scholar to accept that Italian subalterns have always been
by definition comprehensively under the thumb of the Italian ruling classes. It is much more
difficult -- and problematic -- for an Indian scholar to accept that Indian subalterns have always
been under the thumb of their colonial (European) rulers. The later thesis is also objectively
problematic -- for, given the greater cultural differences and lack of cultural hegemony,
colonised Indians may often appear to form an 'autonomous domain' from, say, colonising
Englishmen. But are (were) these 'autonomous domains' subaltern or were they subaltern in the
British-colonial context but actually hegemonised by various Indian elites? If the latter was often
the case, one can begin to understand why many strands of Subalternist thought seem so close to
the discourse of the Hindu-nationalist BJP.

8) Ability of Indian Bourgeios to represent Nation


In his seminal essay, 'On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India' (included in the
book under review), Ranajit Guha speaks of "the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to speak for
the nation." Even a scholar like Guha, who is aware of this fact and more 'Marx-influenced' than
some other Subalternists, commits the mistake of assuming (in this essay) that the bourgeoisie
can speak for the 'nation'. The national bourgeoisie always fails to speak for the 'nation' (if the
'nation' is considered synonymous with the 'people') for it is always in the process of constituting
the people into a nation in its own image. The bourgeoisie speaks the nation -- yes, even today,
as one can see in the relationship supposedly 'free' American capital has to the US and vice
versa. It is only when Capitalist hegemony has enabled the bourgeoisie to speak a particular
nation that it starts appearing that the bourgeoisie of a particular country "speaks for" that
'nation'. In a place like India - where Capitalist hegemony is still not complete -- it will often
appear that the bourgeoisie does not speak for the nation. But if that is simply a failure then the
only success can be a complete Capitalist hegemony. For Gramsci, "ideologies are anything but
arbitrary; they are real historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of
domination exposed, not for reasons of morality and so on, but precisely for reasons of political
struggle so as to make the governed intellectually independent of the governors, in order to
destroy one hegemony and create another as a necessary moment of the overturning of praxis."
(EC, Q10, §41-XIIC, p.1319). the creation of an organic collaboration between intellectual ranks
and subaltern groups in the process of overcoming "subalternity" and the reorganization of the
relationship between "the state and civil society."

9) Spivak’s critique of Indian Subaltern school.

The Bengali Marxist-feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak " In her essay "Can the
Subaltern Speak? originally published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg's Marxism and
the Interpretation of Culture (1988), asserts that the subaltern cannot speak. She takes the case

of sati as an example of this dynamic. In response to colonial British criticism of this practice -
and the threat of "white men saving brown women from brown men" - nationalist patriarchs
argued variously that the widow actually wanted to die, that she attained a higher freedom (from
the cycle of rebirth) through sati, and that she should be admired for the courage of her choice.
The widow's own utterance on the matter was always interpreted according to the these two
dominant narratives; she was either a victim of barbaric "brown men," or she was anti-national.
She (as a subject in possession of her own agency) thus disappeared from public discourse. This
disappearance, Spivak argues, is "not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling
which is the displaced figuration of the 'third-world woman' caught between tradition and
modernization." ("Can the Subaltern Speak?")

One of Spivak's most ethical gestures in this regard is to constantly point out the silencing of
women's own narratives. In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" she writes about the 1926 suicide of a
young Bengali woman, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri. Bhaduri had been unable to carry out the
political assassination assigned to her by the pro-independence group she was secretly part of;
she hoped to demonstrate her political loyalty by killing herself instead. Unable to reveal her
political motives, and unwilling to let society interpret her death as proof of illicit love (for why
else would a young woman commit suicide), she waited till the onset of menstruation to hang
herself. Because of this decision, her death could fit neither into popular narratives about
women's love tragedies, nor into independence activists' hegemonic narratives about women as
Durga, and thus became insignificant. The subaltern woman is always forced into this kind of

Differnces between Gramsci and Guha:

The term “subaltern” which Guha introduced in his post-colonial theory of Indian history came
from Gramsci. , Gramsci mainly approached the subject of the peasantry not so much as an
observer, but from the vantage point of the struggle for change in Italy. “Subaltern” meant for
him a condition to be overcome, a condition requiring an alignment with the Southern peasantry,
the segment the state oppressed by using it as a source of cheap labor. Gramsci believed that to
do this effectively, one must immerse himself/herself in the peasantry, overcoming in the process
the problem of the abstractness of his/her coming from life in the class structure. Guha’s writing
in fact reminds one of that of the, Southern Intellectual. While many Indians write in English,
they do so for other Indians. Guha’s writings about the elementary forms of peasant insurgency
address a universal as well as a local audience.


Sabaltern Studies in 10 volumes, illuminates the experiences and mentalities of ordinary peoples
by drawing on an array of provocative and penetrating theoretical and conceptual frameworks.
The Subaltern school is not entirely original in its theory and methods; it is an eclectic fusion of
approaches and methodology derived from social history and social science along with a
theoretical framework informed by the ideas of Gramsci and Marx. More systematically and
imaginatively than almost anyone else in South Asian studies, the Subaltern school of writers has
pursued recovery of the pasts of peoples who made history but did not write about their own
experiences. However, in the course of their quest thus far, they have not defined precisely and
rigorously the pa- rameters of the concept of subaltern. Instead, the term has been applied loosely

anyone and everyone-for example, in the case of the British Raj-who was subor- dinated by the
Raj and its allies.

After emerging in the early 1980s, the 'Subaltern Studies school' has now gained a world-wide
reputation, and is beginning to make its influence felt in Latin American Studies, African
Studies, 'cultural studies', and other arenas. Where previously the history of modern India, and
particularly of the nationalist movement, was etched as a history of Indian 'elites', now this
history is being construed primarily as a history of 'subaltern groups'. 'Subaltern Studies', viewed
as a collective enterprise, represents the most significant achievement of South Asian 'cultural
studies'; it has effectively contested what were until recently the dominant interpretations of
Indian history, and more generally it has provided a framework within which to contest the
dominant modes of knowledge. Despite many of its inconsistencies, it has worked to empower
the downtrodden and exploited mass of Indian people.