In his recently published memoir Home in the World, Nobel prize-winning economist and political philosopher Amartya Sen recalls his first meeting with Ranajit Guha, the pathbreaking historian who died on April 28, 2023, less than a month shy of being a centenarian. The site of this contact, circa 1958, was Jadavpur University, then a fledgling institution in the southern suburbs of Calcutta. Jadavpur University grew out of the roots of the Swadeshi efforts of the National Council of Education to promote science and technology. This vision was poles apart from the orthodox pedagogical tradition of the behemoth Calcutta University.
Their employment situations, however, was quite different. Sen was recruited right out of Cambridge University, a scholar of exceptional promise, as the founding Head of the Department of Economics of the university. He was only 22. While Guha, more than a decade older than Sen, came back to India only in 1953, after a long sojourn in Europe as an active Communist worker. Guha did not really have a promising academic beginning as a student of history in the Presidency College, in fact, he lost his honours status in the BA examination. By then, he was a dedicated worker in the student wing of the Communist Party of India.
Subaltern studies and historical discourse
However, when Guha met Sen, the latter had already lost faith in the Stalinist vision of Communism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Sen describes Guha as a “revolutionary in a quiet and non-violent way working for the neglected underdogs of society”. He recounts in amusement how during Guha referring to the rumours of nepotism surrounding the former’s recruitment: “I have constantly been hearing about your severe shortcomings and about the mistake made by the University in appointing you. So let’s get together straightaway – in fact let’s have dinner tonight”. The two would later develop a warm relationship, having frequent meetings in Guha’s small Panditiya Road flat in South Calcutta, which would also host other young intellectuals like Tapan Raychaudhuri and Dharma Kumar.
In referring to Sen’s “shortcomings”, Guha might have been laughingly hinting at the prejudice against himself at that time. Today, even as the right wing hold on our public academic institutions is becoming ever more potent, some still begrudgingly refer to the Progressive-Marxist influence on the humanities-social science academia in the preceding decades. The accusation is not without merit. But we forget how a scholar with a tag of communist belief or work could have been persecuted in the in the early 1950s. Guha’s experience in the Bengal Educational Service was not very different. After his return from Europe, he started teaching at Vidyasagar College, was soon transferred to Chandannagore College, and then, finally, to Central Calcutta College (Now Maulana Azad College).
However, Guha’s transnational activism as a Communist worker was soon brought to the attention of the “competent authority”, and he was promptly suspended from the Bengal Education Service. In 1958, he found a place at Jadavpur University under the mentorship of his former teacher Susobhan Sarkar (1900-1982). For Guha, the loss of faith coincided with a period of being an intellectual fugitive. This is why the meeting of Sen’s and Guha’s ideas at Jadavpur was so significant. Sen noticed how Guha’s political conviction continued to influence his intellectual evolution even at that early and unstable stage of his career. The spirit of the organiser was still alive in the intellectual.
The obituaries have poured in after Guha’s death. The most moving tribute came from Umar Khalid, historian and political activist who is still unjustly incarcerated at Tihar Jail. In a brilliantly incisive piece, Khalid pointed out how Guha’s methodology of reading archival texts would benefit historians for years to come. For Khalid, Guha’s excellence lay in jettisoning the frame of neutrality in interpreting state records of Subaltern resistance in Colonial India. Guha understood, Khalid reminds us, that it is important to treat sources as “being contaminated by bias and even complicity”. The political awareness that underlay Guha’s method also expanded the idiom of what can be considered political in historical texts. Khalid writes, “In many ways, subaltern studies was as much the result of debates within academia as also of political movements and social churning over the previous two decades – student protests, peasant rebellions, environmentalist movements.”
Indeed, one can look at the counterintuitive methodologies of the Subaltern Studies Group stemming from Guha’s experience as a political activist and organiser. For Guha, more than two decades of academic exile, first in the United Kingdom and then in Australia, preceded the breakthrough of subaltern studies into the mainstream historical discourse. Yet, Guha’s late fame as the wise mentor to a group of brilliant scholars still somehow obscured his own, still strong, political convictions.
What was the milieu of his early political work? How did it continue to shape his thinking in his scholarly incarnations, as seen in his public writings, and correspondences with political activists? The answer to these questions reveals the centrality of political commitment in Guha’s historical and literary work. Beyond the ambit of mainstream electoral politics, the excitable yet alienating, collectivist yet constantly realigning conditions of Indian political activism continued to shape Guha’s life way beyond his early days as a Communist worker.
Ranajit Guha was born on May 23, 1923, in the village of Siddhakati in the Barisal district of undivided Bengal. His ancestors were prosperous Taluqdars, and his father Radhika Ranjan Guha was a lawyer who later shiftED his practice to Calcutta, ultimately becoming a judge of the Dhaka High Court after Indian Partition. The family was prosperous and also politically influential. Guha’s father was close to AK Fazlul Haque (1873-1962), who became the Prime Minister of undivided Bengal in 1937. Guha’s privileged yet insulated childhood was profoundly formative for his later intellectual development. Many of his playmates were Dalits or Muslims, and the subjects to generational oppression by Guha’s class. Later, Guha would later refer to his memories of the utterance of the word “praja” with the “stain of some primordial sin.”
Political scientist and historian Partha Chatterjee points out how Guha in his adolescence “began to notice that the parents of some of his playmates would come to the house to work, would refer to his elders of munib (master), never sit down in their presence, would touch the feet of even the youngest ‘master’, and stand in silence when scolded. Was this how he and his young friends were destined to behave towards one another when they grew up? A question began to take shape in his mind”.
Right when this awareness of his class and social status was taking hold in Guha, he was sent to Calcutta to complete his high school education at Mitra Institution. He joined Presidency College in 1938. One may assume that it is in Presidency that Guha’s political thinking took the sharpest turn, but his the contribution of his high school was not negligible either.
In what is probably his last long interview in 2018 with Partha Chatterjee (later published in the Autumn 2019 issue of the Bengali journal Anushtup) Guha amusingly recounted his interactions with a group of Trotskyites led by much more senior Saumyendranath Tagore (1901-1974). Tagore, who was the first Bengali translator of the Communist Manifesto, founded the Communist League as a breakaway faction of the then CPI. Later, the party would be known as the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI), gradually inclining towards parliamentary participation.
Many student Communist League members were Guha’s classmates, despite being much older (they considered the idea of the exam-based class promotion “bourgeois”). Guha referred to one of the young admirers of Tagore and Trotsky, Bishwanath “Bishu” Ghosh of Mechuabazar Street, as the person who first explained to him the concept of materialism. As Guha explains, Bishu Ghosh had a clear-cut metaphor for the material base of history: “As cars have engines, we humans also have engines inside us, so I am a materialist.”
Yet, it was in the profoundly vital and intellectually stimulating atmosphere of thePresidency College that Guha became an intensely political thinker. This awakening came at the cost of relegating his academic work to the background. Despite not taking his studies too seriously, Guha considered the legendary Susobhan Sarkar (1900-1982) his guru, and dedicated his first book to him. One of the many wonderful things about Sarkar, as attested by Guha and his contemporaries like Tapan Raychaudhuri, was that despite being a staunch Marxist himself, Sarkar kept his teaching free from any kind of ideological orthodoxy or dogma.
Communist politics consumed Guha’s years in college, and, later university. During that time he came in close contact with PC Joshi (1907-1980), the General Secretary of the CPI. Among his contemporaries, there was Santosh Bhattacharya (1924-2010) – later a staunch anti-communist who chronicled his harrowing experiences with West Bengal’s Left Front administration as Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University in the 1980s. Economist Amlan Datta (1924-2010) was part of Guha’s circle too, though he was much more inclined to Gandhian ideas.
Staying in a commune-like domestic arrangement in North Calcutta, Guha was incredibly active as a party worker, organising relief in the city during the devastating famine of 1943 and the riots of 1946. At the same time, he continued to write (exclusively in Bengali) for the Communist Party organ Swadhinata (which was established as a weekly in 1942, and became a daily in 1945). During his work for the party organ, Guha was mentored by veteran Communist leaders like Nripen Chakraborty (1905-2004), who later became the Chief Minister of Tripura, and the redoubtable Pramode Dasgupta (1910-1982).
The transnational phase
The next, and transnational, phase of Guha’s political career came in the fateful year of 1947, when Guha was selected as the Indian representative to join the Secretariat of the international anti-imperialist youth organisation World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) in Paris. The founder Secretary of WFDY was young Alexander Shelepin (1918-1994), who later became the Chairman of KGB. Another key member was Enrico Berlinguer (1922-1984), who later become one of the most beloved Communist leaders of Italy.
The Bolshevik and Italian influence was profound in WFDY, but Guha’s sojourn in Paris also opened his eyes to post-war left politics in France as well. Contrary to the stereotype of being an upper-class and upper-caste “Bilet ferot” (someone who has been to the UK to study and/or work) Bengali, Guha found London to be parochial and conservative during one of his visits. In contrast, Paris was exciting and enriching: a continent of entangled ideas was opening up to him. He travelled extensively throughout these six years, including in Hungary, Poland (where he got married for the first time), the Soviet Union, China, and even the Middle East.
However, when Guha returned to India with the prospect of an uncertain career, Khruschevian revisionism of the Communist ideals was already bothering him at a deeper political level. The Soviet Invasion of Hungary in 1956 was not necessarily the last straw (he was still actively involved in local and provincial organisations of the Communist Party in West Bengal), but it prompted a gradual retreat. Guha left his part-time job for Swadhinata, though his early scholarly writings would continue in left-leaning contemporary journals like Parichay.
Guha’s experience and gradual disillusionment with the Stalinist turn in world communism also became a seeding ground for Guha’s first book The Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (1963), Guha’s first major published work. The book is not just merely a historical investigation of the political economy of Bengal shaped by the agreement of “Permanent Settlement” instituted in 1793. Rather, it goes on to incisively study how the idea of the physiocratic development, taking its cues from European Enlightenment philosophy, gets deformed and destabilised in the colonial spheres of knowledge production.
Guha’s reading is radical for two reasons. First, this deformation, which Guha calls an “epistemological paradox”, unravelled the original idea of creating an improvement and investment-oriented bunch of capitalist farmers, and ended up creating a group of indolent and sectarian “middlemen” landlords. Secondly, and much more broadly, he also questioned how the colonial violence implicit in the process of the settlement was not necessarily a deviance from the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, but an instance where “a typically bourgeois form of knowledge was bent backwards to adjust itself to the relations of power in a semi-feudal society”.
In the 1981 preface to the second edition of the book, Guha wrote: “Capitalism which had built up its hegemony in Europe by using the sharp end of Reason found it convenient to subjugate the peoples of the East by wielding the blunt head. This helped the indigenous elite as well to perpetuate their own authority in collaboration with colonialism and independently after decolonisation. As the Indian experience shows, the formal termination of colonial ruin, taken by itself, does little to end the government of colonialist knowledge.” Through this reading, Guha was also building up his critique of Nationalist and Marxist schools of Indian history (no wonder Indian Marxists weren’t thrilled with the argument of the book), questioning its allegiance to statist and elitist spheres of knowledge production in their archival approach.
The Naxalite movement
In 1959 Guha left for Manchester on a fellowship, and for the next two decades he would be teaching mostly in the University of Sussex. Guha’s political thinking took another sharp turn in the early 1970s when he came to India to conduct research on Gandhian Socialism. However, his interest soon turned to the Naxalite movement. For Guha, the question of the Naxalite movement and the agrarian base of the Indian Republic was inseparable. In his 2018 interview with Chatterjee, he mentions how he saw the violent aspects of the Naxalite movement as a statement of revolt against “middle-class communism” entrenched in the leftist accommodation of parliamentary politics.
For Guha, the question of peasant revolts addresses the fundamentally undemocratic and violent bases of the postcolonial republic. Guha found the platform to critique these elements in Samar Sen’s (1916-1987) weekly, Frontier. Along with the Bengali journal Ekkhan, co-edited by Guha’s close friend Nirmalya Acharya (1935-1994), Frontier probably played the most crucial role in giving Guha’s thoughts a public-facing voice in the 1970s. On the pages of Frontier, Guha’s prose was not only deliberately polemical but also insurgent. In his long essay “Torture and Culture”, first published in January 1971 in Frontier, he describes the brutal methods of police torture as a cultural weapon of “ultimate persuasion” by state regimes, as their “official violence starts meeting with revolutionary violence.”
Guha sees the emergence of torture as a cultural lesson because the higher educational institutions themselves have become obsolete and socially irrelevant for today’s youth, as their “refusing to have their minds bent and the old culture forced down their throat.” As a result, the space and mode of the “lesson” are transferred, as the “Central Reserve Police takes over Jadavpur University”. In essays like this, or “Two Campaigns”, or “Knowing India by its Prisons”, all published in Frontier, we see a distinctly evolving political voice emerge.
It was also a time for Guha to keep making new intellectual companionship. Distinguished writer and historian Sumanta Banerjee, who himself was underground with his political activities for much of the 1970s, recalls his enriching correspondence with Guha. When Banerjee was working in Delhi as a journalist with The Statesman in New Delhi in 1970-71, Guha came to visit and they had long discussions on the Naxalite movement and international politics. In an open letter to Guha for Frontier published late last year, Banerjee fondly remembers the discussion, writing: “You disagreed with me on my views about the activities of the Chinese Red Guards, whom I had criticised (in an article in Frontier) for their depredations during the Cultural Revolution. You were in favour of them. But both shared our common admiration of the peasant warriors and the student activists of the Naxalite movement.”
I wanted to end on this note of spirited companionship not bound by hierarchical logics of kinship, especially since I never personally knew Guha. Guha’s leading argument for Subaltern Studies, addressing the crisis of doing history, burst through the Indian and then the international historical scene in the early 1980s. Since then, he developed a range of devoted mentees and followers in India and abroad. Many of their tributes are understandably personal. Written from the position of addressing loving male elders in the Bengali family they often reveal the exclusivist and insulated networks of elitism in Bengali culture, and by extension, its academia. But to truly understand Guha’s global yet deeply rooted soul, it is important to understand the unstructured and non-hierarchical sense of kinships he developed, grounded in political commitment.
He was an extraordinary thinker, historian, and prose stylist. But he was also a dedicated and idealistic political worker. He worked in academia always remembering this personal history.
Somak Mukherjee is a PhD scholar in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.