“Subaltern Studies”, founded in 1982 by a group of historians of India, has now established itself as an internationally recognised school of history. Its most famous article was published a few years later and simply titled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” – and the author, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ended by denying the very possibility of meaningful subaltern utterance.

It is indisputable that Dalit-Bahujan political formations such as the BSP have risen to prominence in Indian life since the 1990s and this has therefore found lodgements in the academic world, till then obsessed with the multiplicity of modes of production and the authentic flavour of Indian nationalism. The role of Dr BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) in the making of the Indian republic was more widely accepted. His precursor – and founder of the non-Brahman movement, Jyotirao (known in Maharashtra as “Mahatma”) Phule (1827-1890) also received wider recognition in the English-language segment of Indian public life.

Meanwhile, a hitherto little-noticed Dalit celebration at the British-era war memorial to at Bhima-Koregaon burst into public notice when the gathering was attacked on January 1, 2018. The episode illustrated how a Dalit historical memory has gathered around the site since the 1920s, unnoticed by the official media and academy.

My recent book studies when and where subaltern voice and Dalit memory could be heard and remembered, and contrariwise, why certain regions and times accumulated the textual archives from which history has been written. Edited excerpts appear below.

Why did the state and elites elicit subaltern speech even while they confined Dalits and lower castes to low-status roles and subjected them to many arbitrary exactions?

Social inequality was, after all, as pronounced here as elsewhere in South Asia. The book argues that whether subaltern voices were elicited or suppressed depended upon the social structure and property system prevailing in each area. The tightly knit villages of Western Maharashtra elicited speech and accustomed ordinary men and women to public roles.

Thus when a dispute arose over the hereditary post of blacksmith and carpenter in Sasvad, the peasant landholders together with office-holding craftsmen such as the gardener, astrologer (Joshi), temple attendant, Dalit village servants, the Muslim maulana – all were assembled in the village temple, and asked to testify on the matter.

The reported age of each witness was recorded: the youngest was forty and the oldest eighty.

Every village in Maharashtra had at some time required the holders of these offices to bear witness on contested matters. Older men had probably done so many times. Most such testimonies have perished but many survive.

When the hereditary post of headman of Vadgaon (near Pune) was being litigated, the king asked both sides if they would abide by the verdict of the other hereditary office-holders. Then all of the latter were summoned to court. Five village office-holders (watandārs) – Būd the gardener, Śivji son of Konḍji the barber, Bajāji son of Vaḍjoji washerman, and Rāynāk son of Sāynāk, and Hansā son of Cāndnāk, both Mahārs – gave depositions of what they knew from their fathers and grandfathers.

A less detailed statement was given by Nimbāji son of Janoji, the carpenter and Vaḍjā son of Bahirā, the leather-worker. Older witnesses were found in a second round of depositions: so the narrative of Sukhmāli, son of Santmāli, a man of seventy-five, went back to the time of Sayad Burhan, the earliest remembered village headman, who had vanished during the famine of 1629-30.

Thus despite widespread illiteracy, ordinary villagers had passed on key elements of a local history from generation to generation. The subaltern was expected to speak, and learned to do so in official settings. Colonial officials were disconcerted by the directness with which even ordinary plebeians asserted their claims. Richard Jenkins, an experienced official accustomed to North Indian servility, wrote in 1827:

“The most remarkable feature perhaps, of the character of the Marhattas, of all descriptions, is the little regard they pay to show or ceremony in the common intercourse of life. A peasant or mechanic, of the lowest order, appearing before his superiors, will sit down of his own accord, tell his story without ceremony, and converse more like an equal than an inferior; and if he has a petition to present, talks in a loud and boisterous tone, and fearlessly sets forth his claims.”

Such subaltern self-representation is generally hard to find in the South Asian record.

This feature of local political and judicial life in Maharashtra allows me to address the historical self-conceptions and traditions of tribal and Dalit (both subaltern) communities in seventeenth and eighteenth century Western India. I end with a telling example of a woman speaking.

It was common for cattle from the desiccated plains to be sent up to the hills in summer as some grass would survive there. The boys of Pargaon and Ghargaon took the animals from their villages up there to graze. They then amused themselves by forming two teams, “Mughals” and “Marathas” that replayed the wars of the previous generation.

Mimic warfare turned serious and the “Marathas” defeated and pursued the “Mughals”. One of the latter fell over a cliff in his flight, suffering a head injury of which he died about two weeks later. His parents were the hereditary barbers of Ghargaon: his mother then went to the Islamic judge in the city of Ahmednagar and demanded the other village answer for the death. The judge declared that it resulted from a quarrel between children and there was no case to answer.

She was not appeased and took the case to various officers. This would be no small inconvenience: the messenger sent to bring the headman would have almost certainly exacted a small fee and the costs of the journey and a longer or shorter wait for an audience would fall on the defendant. Finally, the woman’s voice penetrated the circle of attendants and reached directly to the Maratha Chatrapati, Shahu I (r 1708-1749). The headman of Pargaon was summoned to the royal court to explain. He was ultimately exculpated – but now we can see why Jenkins was surprised by the “loud and boisterous tone” of common people in Maharashtra. It had long had a place in even in royal courts.

Excerpted with permission from History & Collective Memory In South Asia: 1200-2000, Sumit Guha, Permanent Black.

Sumit Guha is Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin.