Today, May 23, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the historian Ranajit Guha, founder of Subaltern Studies. To mark the occasion, I am reprinting here a lightly edited version of a review I wrote a decade ago of Ranajit Guha’s collected essays, which was originally published in the Economic and Political Weekly. The book itself was published by Permanent Black under the title The Small Voice of History, and remains in print. Ranajit Guha himself died on April 28, a mere three weeks short of his 100th birthday.

When the first volume of Subaltern Studies was published in 1982, I was studying for a doctorate in sociology at the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata. My teacher, the late Anjan Ghosh, wrote an early review of the book in the weekly journal, Frontier. The review was positive; as I recall, it ended with a sentence expressing the hope that Subaltern Studies would stir up the “arid waters of Indian historiography”.

Anjan Ghosh’s enthusiasm for this new project stemmed from multiple sources. He was a heterodox Marxist interested in culture. He was a sociologist interested in history; this, likewise, a rare commodity. As a former student of literature he had a taste for good prose. These multiple interests were all satisfied to varying degrees by the appearance of Subaltern Studies. My teacher could not but contrast this invigorating approach to the history of Indian nationalism with what he had witnessed as a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. The JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies was dominated by a group of mechanical Marxists who had no interest in sociology and anthropology, who used a narrow range of sources, and who wrote a kind of wooden, ungrammatical, babu English which took the life out of even the most exciting historical events and processes.

Not long after the appearance of Subaltern Studies, Volume I, its editor came to Kolkata. I made the trek across town from the Indian Institute of Management to the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, where he was due to speak. The hall was packed, for a considerable reputation preceded him. In the 1940s, Ranajit Guha had been an important leader of the Communist Party of India’s student union.

After the Second World War ended he spent some years as an activist in Paris; after returning to Calcutta, he left the party in 1956 in protest at its support of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He then went away again abroad, living as a radical and itinerant scholar in France, Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Although he had published just one book and a handful of articles, even before the appearance of Subaltern Studies there was a certain mystique about him in left-wing circles in Kolkata.

On that day, Ranajit Guha spoke on how to write the history of peasant protest. He advised Marxist historians – the only kind present in the audience – to pay more attention to culture, and explore the mentalities of peasant insurgents rather than merely judge whether, in some teleological sense, their actions represented class conflict or class collaboration. In this endeavour they could learn from what he termed the “more sophisticated social sciences”, namely, linguistics and anthropology.

At the conclusion of the talk, the first question was asked by an exact contemporary of the speaker, a Marxist economist historian who had stayed loyal to the party through Hungary, the 20th Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the revelations of the Gulag, etc. The old Stalinist felt betrayed at this call to deviate from the catechism. The only way for a Marxist to assess the actions of an individual or a group, he said, was to determine whether they objectively represented class conflict or class collaboration. Ranajit Guha heard him out with an increasing impatience, and, when he ended, counterposed with a question of his own: “When Shivaji hugged Afzal Khan, with a pair of concealed tiger claws, did this represent conflict or collaboration?” The younger men in the hall – there were few, if any, women present – roared with approval.

The next year, Ranajit Guha published Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, a dazzlingly original study that eschewed the conventional chronological approach of the historian by assessing, in six thematic chapters, what he called the “modalities” of subaltern protest in 19th century India. The insights of anthropology and sociology were married to those of history. The linguistic registers of the oppressors, as manifest in the written sources of the Raj, and of the oppressed, as manifest in the oral transmissions of the peasantry, were analysed with subtlety and care. The work was not without its deficiencies – thus, while Guha stressed what he called the “total and integrated violence of rebellion”, in fact in many cases tribal and peasant rebels had used violence with discrimination, and, quite often, as a last resort. On the whole, however, Elementary Aspects was a triumph, a rich and evocative reconstruction of the world of the rebel that set new standards for the historian of the subaltern classes. The book’s appeal was enhanced by its aesthetic values – for it had been produced by one of the world’s greatest typesetters, PK Ghosh of Eastend Printers in Kolkata.

Through the first half of the 1980s, volumes of Subaltern Studies appeared every other year. Each volume contained half-a-dozen essays of high quality, dealing with different aspects of subaltern culture and politics. While an exceptionally gifted soloist, Ranajit Guha was a very accomplished conductor as well. He exercised an active editorial hand, identifying a range of individual talents and then shepherding them through this collective exercise. After the sixth volume of Subaltern Studies was published, he relinquished the editorship of the series, but by then the job was done. The waters of Indian historiography had been stirred up as never before – or since.

The Small Voice of History brings together the collected essays, published over a period of six decades, of the originator and orchestrator of India’s most influential school of historical research. As such, it is a vital complement to the volumes of Subaltern Studies, and to the published books of Ranajit Guha himself. The collection begins with a set of essays on agrarian history, that anticipate or amplify the themes and arguments of A Rule of Property for Bengal, his study of the intellectual origins of the Permanent Settlement. These show a precocious awareness of the biases of historical sources, Guha writing of a work by a bhadralok gentleman that it was “unfortunately too much influenced by a certain caste outlook to merit recognition as sound history”. They also provide early examples of his sharp, sardonic, style, as when he writes of colonial officials that they were “mediocrities who knew no magic”, or, when speaking of the administration in general, he remarks that “the government’s ignorance of agrarian conditions increased in direct proportion to its distrust of its local officers”.

Credit: Permanent Black and Duke University Press.

Part II, the heart of the book, contains some quite brilliant essays on social history. It begins with an extended analysis of Dinabandhu Mitra’s 1860 play, Neel Darpan. Guha provides a crisp “reception history” of the play before exploring the ambiguities and hesitancies of the author’s worldview. Mitra’s “aversion to the planters”, he writes, “is equalled by his reverence for the Raj. One is a measure of the other. The blacker the planters, the whiter the regime”.

This essay, and the volume as a whole, show Guha to be a sort of anarcho-Marxism, whose attitude to the state is a mixture of dislike, distaste, and outright hostility. In his world, there are no good or even ambivalent colonialists. Law, considered neutral and even progressive by other liberal and left-wing historians, is through his prism seen merely as an instrument of coercion. At one stage, mocking the pretensions of his own caste, and class, he writes that the opportunistic Bengali, exploiting the openings available to him under colonialism, made “law into the most lucrative of the liberal professions”.

A second superb essay in Part II is “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency”, which shows how colonial records can be read against the grain to reveal the values and motivations of peasant rebels. Guha excoriates the use of naturalistic metaphors by colonial historians, and deftly lays bare the biases and prejudices in their language. At the same time, he criticises left-nationalist historians for writing of the “abstraction called Worker-and-Peasant”, rather than of the “real historical personality of the insurgent”. For Guha, “religosity is the central modality of peasant consciousness in colonial India”; the orthodox or narrow-minded Marxist, on the other hand, cannot “conceptualise insurgent consciousness except in terms of an unadulterated secularism”.

Guha’s command of sources, and his ability to blend different disciplines, are brought together to stunning effect in “Chandra’s Death”, a story of an illicit affair, an unwanted pregnancy, and an abortion that goes horribly wrong, resulting in the death of the woman concerned. Penetrating beyond the “stentorian voice of the state”, Guha recovers for us the long suppressed voice of the peasant woman, even if we see her speaking only “in sobs and whispers”. Drawing on perspectives from anthropology, history, geography, and the law, this essay brilliantly illuminates the oppressive codes and taboos of the patriarchal society of rural Bengal.

Part II ends with a series of reflections on the trajectory of Subaltern Studies that, as such exercises tend to be, is somewhat self-congratulatory. At one point, Guha writes that the project he directed was the handiwork of “an assortment of marginalised academics”. In fact, the founding collective included two Oxford-trained Rhodes Scholars who had taken their first degree at that bastion of desi privilege, St Stephen’s College in Delhi; two members of the Calcutta bhadralok who had gone to the United States and Australia respectively for higher studies; and two middle-class whites with Ph D’s from a respectable British university. All were male, and all held tenured positions in the academy.

This is not, however, to discount the quality of their work, which was considerable, and which (to quote Guha himself) successfully “opened up the Indian past to admit women, dalits, peasants, and the rest of the subaltern populations as actors and protagonists in our history on a level with the elite”. Until the early 1990s – when they unfortunately succumbed to the seductions of postmodernism and postcolonial theory – the young men mentored by Guha wrote sensitive and insightful histories of the oppressed and the marginalised. However, it is somewhat fantastic to see them as being oppressed and marginalised themselves.

Parts III and IV of the book contain shorter reviews and essays on different aspects of empire and nationalism respectively. These are not based on archival research, but contain some astute judgements nonetheless. Guha suggestively argues that the dominant experience of the coloniser was suffused with fear and anxiety; despite the power and apparatus of rule, the official and proconsul was never at home, indeed never at ease, in a strange and forever foreign land. A review of a volume on the Rowlatt Act published in the early 1970s anticipates the key themes of Subaltern Studies, noting that the Act “was merely a peg on which it was found convenient to hang a multitude of local grievances”, and discerning a “healthy swing” in motion, “from the study of Indian political history in purely institutional terms to its study in sociological terms”.

The section on nationalism has an essay on Subhas Chandra Bose that sits oddly with the image and reputation of the author as a sceptic and anti-statist. Based on a lecture given at the Netaji Research Bureau in Kolkata, on the occasion of Bose’s 105th birth anniversary, this is an reverential “homage” to a “restless soul” whose “illustrious life” made “dignity and self-respect the very condition of Indian nationalism”. It is curious, odd, even bizarre, how a scholar so relentlessly critical of elite nationalism can write so admiringly of an elite nationalist, how an activist generally so suspicious of the will to power can overlook Subhas Bose’s own fascination for a strong state with a stronger man at its head. Whether its origins lie in Bengali parochialism or in old-fashioned courtesy to his hosts, this essay should have remained uncollected. Whether the work of author, editor, or publisher, its inclusion here is a serious lapse of judgement.

Part V of The Small Voice of History explores the darker underside of Indian democracy. Guha writes here of the treatment of child labour, the use of torture, the condition of our prisons, the arbitrariness of the law, and the degeneration of the formal party system. The book ends with a few short meditations on the conditions of exile.

This collection of Ranajit Guha’s essays showcases his various and considerable skills. On display is his linguistic dexterity, his fluency in Sanskrit, Bengali, English, and French. He is rare among Indian historians in his sharply sceptical attitude towards his sources; in his knowledge of the work of sociologists and anthropologists; and in that his external influences tend to be sophisticated Continental theorists rather than humdrum British empiricists.

At several points in the book, Guha attacks the teleology of the standard nationalist narratives, whereby “all the popular struggles in rural India during the first 125 years of British rule [are seen] as the spiritual harbinger of the Indian National Congress”. Gandhian nationalists tend to view these earlier protests as largely or even exclusively non-violent. At the same time, there is a teleology lurking at the edges of Ranajit Guha’s own work — apparent in this volume and perhaps more so in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency — whereby the Santhal hool or the revolt of 1857 is seen as anticipating, in some vague but necessary fashion, the Maoist-revolution-of-the-future which the author seems to think is India’s manifest destiny.

A more serious weakness is Ranajit Guha‘s Bengal-centred-ness. Guha often refers to himself as “Indian”, but it appears that the one province of India he has any real interest in is his own. Bengali ideas and individuals are often compared and contrasted to ideas and individuals in the West. However, the name of [BR] Ambedkar does not, so far as I can tell, appear in the book (there is no index), nor that of [anti-caste icon Jyotirao] Phule or EV Ramaswami [also known as Periyar] either. Surely they (and other thinkers) would have made an interesting counterpoint to the likes of Bankim and Rabindranath.

Other parts of India mean nothing to Guha, nor more surprisingly, do other parts of Asia. In this he is representative of the radical Bengali intelligentsia in general. (Notably, no member of Subaltern Studies seems to be aware of the pioneering work of the Indonesian historian Sartono Kartodirdjo, who, a decade before them, had fused sociology with history in exploring the modalities of peasant resistance to European colonial rule.)

However, despite the occasional political posturing, and the perhaps excessively self-reflexive nature of the later essays, this is an immensely valuable volume. It displays what Guha calls a “robust hedonism of the mind”, the ability to draw widely but never indiscriminately on a range of authors and materials. Which other historian could combine a deep knowledge of classical Sanskrit with a serious interest in peasant proverbs? Or provide alert and convincing readings of Bengali plays as well as of the works of German philosophers?

Reading Ranajit Guha reminds me of what a JNU professor once told some students about a work he was recommending to them — “Do not get confused by how well it is written. It is still saying important things.” Admittedly, in India, as elsewhere, theoretical sophistication and literary quality have usually been at odds. The work of Ranajit Guha is a sterling exception. Consider, finally, these aphoristic statements from the book under review:

‘Reason is born spastic in a colony.’
‘…[T]he colonialist mind managed to serve Clio and counter-insurgency at the same time….’
‘Religion is the oldest of archives in our subcontinent..’
‘Discontent is, in essence, a condition of life.’
‘The historical discourse is the world’s oldest thriller.’

The Small Voice of History is a work that occasionally provokes and irritates, but mostly moves and inspires. The Bose essay excepted, one always knows while reading this book that one is in the presence of an altogether superior mind.

Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Rebels Against the Raj, is now in stores. His email address is