Passionate impasse: subaltern studies

Issue: 116

Barry Pavier

David Hardiman, Histories for the Subordinated (Seagull, 2007), £18.99

This is a selection of David Hardiman’s key writings, published between 1984 and 1996. They were all informed by his association with the influential and controversial Subaltern Studies project, which produced a series of 12 volumes of essays between 1982 and 2002. The project was founded on the idea that the history of colonial India was defined by a contest between elite and subaltern (inferior) political domains. Group members saw the struggles of the “subalterns” as being rooted in specific aspects of community and religiosity, and that these were inherently political.

It was a progressive reaction to the then influential “Cambridge” school of historians, which looked at Indian resistance to colonial rule in terms of bourgeois elites. It was also a conscious reaction against revisionist versions of Marxist history, which locked India into mechanical interpretations of the “stages theory”.

In doing this they identified Marxism as a whole with the version associated with the USSR under Joseph Stalin and his successors. This rejection came from the group’s inspiration and mentor, the Indian historian Ranajit Guha.

Guha, who at the time of the project’s genesis was teaching at the University of Sussex, had begun as a student activist in the Communist Party of India during the Second World War, and continued to work within the Communist Party tradition as he became a leading academic historian in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By the late 1960s he had become disillusioned with the theoretical bankruptcy and parliamentary compromising of the main Indian Communist parties. Although he was sympathetic to the radical Maoist groups that split from the two large Indian Communist parties, he saw their tendency to declare themselves as the revolutionary party simply because they possessed the true uncorrupted programme as a clear sign that they still adhered to what he considered to be the bankrupt methodology of orthodox Marxism.

This led Guha to reject Marxist history entirely and to retreat into the “subaltern studies” position. Between 1972 and 1975, when the project was forming in his mind, he was my PhD supervisor, and it seemed clear that he had never read any of Leon Trotsky’s works, or seriously considered his critique of the Stalinist counter_revolution in the USSR. In this respect Guha never escaped from his initial political experiences in the Communist Party of India, and it was this experience which he transmitted to the young historians he engaged with in the Subaltern Studies project.

David Hardiman was one of the original group of young historians who joined Guha in the project. This book is an authentic expression of their work.

It is a series of investigations into specific, localised and frequently isolated popular movements. They all concern Gujarat, the area of west India in which Hardiman has done his research since the 1970s. Under the British it was part of the Bombay Presidency, and since 1960 it has been a separate state of the Indian Union. It was the home region of Mahatma Gandhi, becoming his most secure power base.

It is one of the most prosperous areas of India, with advanced agricultural, industrial and financial sectors. It is also one of the areas of greatest support for extreme Hindu communalist organisations, and has been governed for many years by the ultra_right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2002 there was a widespread anti-Muslim pogrom which left hundreds dead, and which was encouraged by the BJP ministry.

In other words, it is a part of India where all the principal tensions—class, caste, and communal—are played out. For the most part Hardiman skirts around these fundamental features. He writes almost exclusively about a series of rural contexts (with one exception discussed later), about movements and issues that do not directly relate to the conflicts that tore South Asia apart in the 20th century. Now these are not inconsequential issues. His essays on alcohol and its regulation under British rule, and the politics of irrigation, are wonderful illuminations of crucial aspects of social life and conflict in both British and independent India. The book as a whole is sympathetic to the people described and illuminates fundamental and complex aspects of Indian society, of the nature of British rule and of struggles against it.

Yet, with one single exception, you do not get any idea of why British rule in India ended, and why the result was a religious communal partition. The exception is the essay on the Quit India movement in Gujarat (west India) in 1942-3. Here Hardiman draws out the communal and class tensions that were exposed during the campaign. He points out that there was less unity in the nationalist movement then than in previous mass campaigns in 1920_2 and 1930-1. Yet this insight, crucial for an understanding of why the endgame of British rule took such a catastrophic course in 1945-7, is buried within a series of unprioritised comments.

Hardiman writes with great commitment and sensitivity about the movements that are the subjects of his investigations. The essays contain much that is of great value. But the book leaves you with a feeling of despondency, because there is no sense of how these people could ever possibly win. In the introduction he himself describes the internal conflicts within the group when some members tried to impose a more overtly postmodern methodology, specifically relating to linguistic deconstruction. Although Hardiman himself does not embrace this approach, the episode demonstrates the weakness of the entire project. In rejecting Marxism it left itself open to assault from those who denied that it was possible to engage in any substantive historical investigation.

So at the end of the day Subaltern Studies is a dead end. Rejecting Marxism meant abandoning the idea that there can be a general narrative capable of encompassing any historical experience. All we are left with is a series of isolated investigations, which lead the reader nowhere.