Monday, 12 September 2011
Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India
This classic work in subaltern studies explores the common elements present in rebel consciousness during the Indian colonial period. Ranajit Guha—intellectual founder of the groundbreaking and influential Subaltern Studies Group—describes from the peasants’ viewpoint the relations of dominance and subordination in rural India from 1783 to 1900.
Challenging the idea that peasants were powerless agents who rebelled blindly against British imperialist oppression and local landlord exploitation, Guha emphasizes their awareness and will to effect political change. He suggests that the rebellions represented the birth of a theoretical consciousness and asserts that India’s long subaltern tradition lent power to the landmark insurgence led by Mahatma Gandhi. Yet as long as landlord authority remains dominant in a ruling culture, Guha claims, all mass struggles will tend to model themselves after the unfinished projects documented in this book.
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Ranajit Guha: Explanations and Reviews
Ranajit Guha's Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India was published in 1983 and along with the Subaltern Studies series, brought together an alternative set of tools for transcribing the historical record. Guha's thesis is that the Indian peasantry are not only makers in their own insurgency but had a keen political consciousness independent of the dominant British hegemony.
According to Guha, six core elements have historically constituted peasant insurgent movements in India and they are reflective of the ways that the peasants struggled against their subordination. One chapter is devoted to each of these themes as follows: 1) Negation, where the peasantry rejected the identity of subalterneity that was imposed upon him by other classes, castes or official standing; 2) Ambiguity, whereby a peasant ambivalently engaged in criminal behaviour which serves an "inversive function," a way of turning the tables on society, as a common form of insurgency; 3) Modality, where the peasant selectively chooses confrontation with his target, usually a dominant superior; 4) Solidarity, or "corporate behaviour" that finds strength in a unified approach against a common enemy17; 5) Transmission, where the spread of peasant violence was, in a pre-literate society, communicated through signs and symbolism; and finally, 6) Territoriality, where the peasantry sought to defend their sense of territory - a construction of "the local" - a sense of belonging to a common lineage and habitat that gave them a sense of advantage.
Reviews of Guha
The literature has generally received Guha's book as a welcome addition to the reformulation of Indian historiography. For example, Walter Hauser, writing in the Journal of Asian Studies, argues that Guha's work shows that the Indian peasantry, via Insurgency, needs to be examined on its own turf and not as a subset of another History, whether Nationalist or Socialist and further that the idea that the Indian peasantry was inert and passive must be put to rest.
Writing some six years later, Hauser similarly praised Guha for his welcome use of vernacular texts, which underlied the projects' professed goals of History from below by critically re-engaging the peasant who has been excised from previous scholarship. And finally, Rosalind O'Hanlon gives Guha and the entire group of Subaltern scholars credit for there lucid explanations of how the peasantry took the elite principles of Gandhi and others and funneled them through their own belief systems and values creating a unique peasant consciousness ultimately reflected in the many rebellions.
But the greatest contribution that Guha's work has had is best summarized by Dipesh Chakrabarty. In many ways a refutation of many of the criticisms of Guha's work in wake of recent post-colonial and post-modern scholarship, Chakrabarty clearly outlines the lasting contributions that the Subaltern scholarship have had on Indian and general historiography. The Subalternists have successfully taken traditional Marxist critique of the domination of classes of people and combined it with recent post-Orientalist and Postmodern scholarship engaging in a powerful review of western scholarship, one that Marxists themselves never did, given their basic acceptance of a "hyperreal" Europe constituting the master narrative to which all else was subsumed.
For example, the Subalternists critically engaged with many of Foucault's ideas concerning the relationship between power and knowledge - "hence of the archive itself and of History as a form of knowledge" - bringing about a new postcoloniality. This is most evidenced in the works of Shahid Amin. He has often argued, in the words of anthropologist Emma Tarlo, of the "impossibility of surmounting the high levels of discrepancy, distortion, and fragmentation which exist between official records and different personal narrations of an event." This can be compared with Foucault's insistence on the multiplicity of discourse.
Gayan Prakesh, writing in the American Historical Review, also cites this new synthesis of Foucaudian post-structuralist analysis with more traditional methods of inquiry. Most evident in Chakrabarty's writings, Prakash argues that given the availability of few sources whereby the Subalterns left their own voices, Guha and others were forced to rely on post-structuralists like Foucault and their ideas of textual readings to discover the true Subaltern consciousness. For Charkabarty then, it becomes clear that this reality clearly implies that a colonial subalterneity is in most fundamental ways differentiated from any generalized state of subalterneity.