Beyond the Subalterns

Issue: 110

Talat Ahmed

A review of Tithi Bhattacharya, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2005).

This is an important book that takes up one of the most significant developments in early modern Indian history—the rise of an indigenous intelligentsia in the mid to late 19th century in colonial Bengal. This period is connected with the Bengali Renaissance, which saw immense artistic endeavour and the flourishing of
indigenous arts and culture not seen under colonial rule until that point.

The social layer associated with this creative activity is referred to as the bhadralok. The term bhadra originates from Sanskrit, and traditionally described men of property who were assumed to possess refined qualities in taste, manners and habits. By the middle of the 19th century the bhadralok emerged as a social category, and became synonymous with the landed middle classes, administrators and educationalists. The rise of the bhadralok is considered to be the most significant intellectual trend in Bengal and for India in general, as both nationalists and
traditional Indian Marxists believe it gave shape to and defined Indian nationalism in the decades after the defeat of the mutiny in 1857. In these interpretations the bhadralok is seen as heralding the first fully formed nationalist opposition to the British and as virtually the precursor of the Indian National Congress.

More recently the emergence of the bhadralok and its impact on Indian history have been theorised in the pages of Subaltern Studies. This journal represents a highly influential trend within Indian historiography of the last two decades. The Subaltern project began in the early 1980s among mainly Indian historians
who were dissatisfied with the dominant framework through which Indian history was interpreted. They argued this was limiting in scope and incomplete as it focused only on the national bourgeoisie, and therefore was not national but elitist—the voices of those outside this elite were at best marginalised or simply
ignored. The appeal of the Subaltern project is clear when we consider the key concerns of the collective were peasants, tribal groups, workers, cultural and religious questions, untouchables and women. The collective sought to use new concepts and ways of thinking to analyse these subaltern histories.

In their analysis of the bhadralok, scholars influenced by the Subaltern Studies school have defined this social category as
possessing inherent cultural characteristics. In this academics such as Partha Chatterji and Ranajit Guha have broken with any
interpretation of this group in terms of social class or economic position, choosing instead to define it purely by its intellectual properties. The group are seen as self-sacrificing and working for the social uplifting of their fellow Indians. As such this layer is held responsible for the development of Bengali language, the
expansion of education to Indians not only in English but also the vernacular, and leading the transformation in print media and therefore literacy. This new analysis believes the bhadralok to be the gatekeeper of Indian culture because it developed independently of colonial rule and occupied an essential indigenous space that the British could not penetrate.1

Tithi Bhattacharya challenges this scholarship by locating the rise of the Bengali intellectual within the economic and political structures of the colonial state. She shows how eminent families of
Calcutta made their fortunes and names as office clerks, book-keepers, secretaries and interpreters to the East India Company. So the name of Rabindranath Tagore is associated with Bengali
intellectual life but his father, Dwarkanath Tagore, was a ‘zamindar, a major financier, the dewan of the Salt Department, and an investor in indigo, steam-boats, coal, and several other
commercial ventures’ (p42). These Indians formed the banias, merchants or businessmen in the pay of the company and other agency houses. According to Tithi this social layer was indispensable to British investors and speculators of the early 18th century onwards who were largely ignorant about India, and so relied heavily on the knowledge and sources of supply and finance of this group. In return banias occupied a central position
within the colonial economy, and by the mid-19th century some had become leading figures in agency houses. Four Indians were directors of Union Bank by 1838 (pp42-44).

It has been assumed that the bhadralok was a homogenous, fully formed group that emerged almost by its own willpower. By using census surveys, government reports, journals, newspapers, and literary and biographical accounts of Indians of the period, the author demonstrates that a variety of social groups coalesced over a period of 100 years to form the bhadralok. As some of these older groups, who were privileged under the British, disappeared, they were displaced by new groups which emerged and were able to obtain salaried positions by the mid-19th century. Tithi sees them as a new middle class for whom both a salaried job within the colonial administration and upward social mobility were linked to education.

These salaried positions were in the expanding service sector which grew in Calcutta, as this was the heart of colonial
administration and the commercial capital of the empire. So by 1901, 18,950 people were employed in government services, and the number of professionals stood at 22,530 (p55).

Even this salaried class was not a homogenous group. As Tithi explains, the lower rungs were occupied by the kerani (clerks), and the top layers were occupied by those taking positions as
deputy collector and deputy magistrate when the British opened these up to Indians in the 1830s and 1840s. For both groups an English education was seen as essential for upward mobility, but access to this was differentiated by class. So the top layers were able to access this through their higher incomes and connections to individuals within the state bureaucracy and academic professions. This top layer of Indians were able to assert their
position, but in the process sought to exclude other Indians. So in the Hindu College, which later became Presidency College, fees of 10 rupees per month were charged to Hindu students, the
Calcutta Madrassa required a certificate of ‘respectable parentage’ from a well known person and a countersignature of a
Madrassa committee member, and the Sanskrit College, heavily dominated by Brahmins, excluded low and mixed castes as they ‘are wanting in respectability and stand lower in the scale of social consideration’ (p179).

Here Tithi’s work not only challenges the myth of homogeneity but also illustrates how the upper echelons of the bhadralok were successfully asserting their interests with the British at the expense of those below them, who were seen as uncouth, undeserving and ignorant. This applied equally when education in the vernacular languages expanded. So though sections of the bhadralok took the initiative in promoting the Bengali language, they did so by insisting on a heavily Sanskritised version of it for education, thus marking themselves off from the coarse, vulgar
Bengali of the streets. In this way they were able to protect a niche they had come to occupy as a petty bourgeoisie. In her analysis Tithi demonstrates how this group was a social class that emerged under the impact of colonial rule and was structured within these confines. Their links to education and culture were
clearly demarcated along the contours of the colonial economy and not independent of it.

The author is reiterating the importance of class and Marxism as framework in which to explain the emergence of intellectuals within a colonial economy. This point is pertinent, as the orthodoxy
that has developed around the Subaltern Studies group is that a class-based analysis has no place in Indian history. So classical
Marxism is viewed either as a Eurocentric imposition which is not useful to the Indian context or as being too crude and limiting as a theoretical framework.

This is understandable given that the Indian left tradition has been dominated by Stalinism and various Maoist ideologies. This tended to produce a history that was dogmatic in its interpretations and dismissive of non-economic spheres. Some
academics associated with the Subaltern project had been schooled in this left tradition. They were drawn to an apparent ‘new’ history in part as a consequence of the hierarchical reductionism of their earlier phase. In breaking with Stalinist orthodoxy the Subalterns began life with much promise. They raised some valid criticism of the triumphant nationalism of
the post-war years that presented itself as one homogenous movement, and they focused on subjects that had been ignored
by traditional Indian historiography as irrelevant.

However, the break with Stalinism did not result in a turn towards revolutionary Marxism or even an attempt to rediscover the classical Marxist tradition. Instead Subaltern scholars turned towards theoretical formulations based upon a distorted reading of Gramsci, where phrases such as ‘hegemony without dominance’ and ‘autonomous spheres’ substituted for an overall analysis. As such there is a tendency to see each social group as a self-contained entity only explicable in its own terms. Consequently, the Subalterns have emphasised the politics of difference, identity and autonomy as opposed to socio-historical
factors of colonial or capitalist experience.

This orientation has allowed conservative forces to use the label of Subaltern and difference to express reactionary ideas as part of the mainstream. So the politics of Hindutva can be validated by the BJP as an expression of authentic Hindu cultural identity. In this respect the trajectory of the Subaltern project has regrettably
mirrored the development of identity politics and postmodernism in Europe. The result has been that a tradition that began by making perfectly legitimate points ends up presenting a fragmented picture that at best explains very little and at worst has inadvertently provided an opening for the indulgence of reactionary ideas. By rejecting any class-based analysis the Subalterns are left with no academic or analytic tools with which to fully challenge right wing populism masquerading as the Subaltern.

This tradition has been heavily criticised by some Indian scholars such as Sumit Sarkar, but far too many Indian Marxists either ignored or simply dismissed them as postmodernists. The merit of this book is that it presents a less mechanical interpretation of Marxism. In this Tithi rejects the crude formulations of economic determinism that refused to engage with questions of culture. But her work also goes beyond the fragmented and idealised analysis of the bhadralok to provide an understanding based on the totality of the society that gave rise to this group. Consequently, it opens up a debate on culture, society and class that had been
monopolised by the Subaltern Studies school. As such it is both a valuable study on an important phenomenon in Indian history and a vindication of the Marxist analysis of that history.

1: See P Chatterji, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (OUP, 1993).