by Dipesh Chakrabarty
Let me say at the outset where I am headed in this paper. I want to extract from the history of Subaltern Studies, the Indian series started in 1982, a methodological point that may allow us to see this series, for all its faults (and there were many), as part of a possible genealogy of the “masses” as political actors in Indian democracy. Democracy in India has some strongly populist aspects to it. Events such as riots and violent street demonstrations are an everyday feature of the political process in India. How do we write the histories of the “masses” as a form of collective agency? I will go on to argue that the resources made available to us by the English “history from below” tradition are not adequate in this respect mainly because this historiography, even when it originates from the Left, derives from political thought predicated on “the fear of the masses”.
Under the influence of such thought, much European historiography of crowd-action tends to treat the crowd, a collectivity, as the coming together of so many individuals. How would historians think of the collective itself as an agent? A review of the failures and achievements of Subaltern Studies, and in particular of its foundational text – Ranajit Guha’s The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983) – may give us a handle on the question of how to think of the agency involved in popular political actions. Given the elusive nature of the agency of “the masses”, attempts to write histories of such agency necessarily run into certain formal issues pertaining to the formal aspect of the historian’s craft. How do you catch that which comes into being at the moment of a riot, say, and then dissolves into so many individuals during interrogation by the police and the court? What kind of evidence does a “crowd” leave of its own existence as a collectivity, and not simply as a collection of culpable individuals? To pursue these questions, however, I will begin by discussing certain related theoretical problems raised in the works of Hayden White, for he, more than others perhaps in our times, has discussed issues of form and content as they bear on the writing of history. I shall then return to the domain of subaltern history in the Indian subcontinent.
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