Ranajit Guha on Elitist Historiography – An Analysis

The essay “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India” by Ranajit Guha analyses and compares neo-colonialist historiography and neo-nationalist historiography from the elitist perspective. The essay also touches upon the subaltern groups’ contribution to Indian Nationalism, which has been overlooked by the elite historiographers.

There are sixteen points discussed in the essay with reference to bourgeoisie nationalist, colonialist, elite and subaltern tendencies in the writing of Indian history. The essay speaks of both pre-colonial and post-colonial India with reference to Nationalism.

The author begins by establishing the differences between the history written by British elite groups and Indian elite groups. The British adopt a method of neo-colonialism or the use of economic, political and other pressures to control or influence a former dependency such as India. This method is adopted chiefly by British writers but not without Indian imitators. On the other hand, the neo-nationalists attribute the entire credit of achieving Indian Independence to native (Indian) elite groups. There are liberal British historiographers who support this idea along with the Indian historiographers.

The one commonality however, is their prejudice to the elite class making them predominant heroes who brought about the nationalist consciousness in an otherwise subdued India.

In the neo-nationalist sense the Indian elite groups are made up of Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas. It seems correct, for, the Indian neo-nationalist history credits the whole of the struggle for Independence as an act performed by a group of elitist lawyers such as Gandhi, Nehru, Ram Mohan Roy, Tilak, Gokhale, Patel, Rajagopalachari and others.

In the neo-colonialist sense the elite groups are made up of British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions and cultures. The neo-colonialist definition of Indian Nationalist portrays it as a function of stimulus and response. A good example would be the text book depiction of the 1857 War of Independence as “Sepoy Mutiny”. This portrayal attempts to classify the 1857 rebellion of the Indian soldiers as a mere reaction to a provocation of their religious sentiments (The Enfield Cartridges). It also portrays the native elite as a group of people who were in a learning process, trying to assimilate a huge governing structure and understand its principles. This too is not due to any great idealism but only because the native elites seemed to want to gain power, wealth and positions of pride. The Zamindars and princes (bourgeois) are always represented as the subordinate natives who would commit treason for their own ends. They were also depicted as being divided, inefficient, dull and easily surmountable.

As opposed to the neo-colonialist depiction, the native elitist historiographers depict the elite nationalists as idealists who led the people from subjugation to freedom. There are several versions in this sort of historiography depending on varying degrees of emphasis on individuals and institutions. The chief aspects highlighted about the indigenous elite nationalists are:

1. Their goodness and its phenomenal expression in the form of Indian Nationalism.

2. Their antagonistic stance against the colonial regime.

3. Their role as promoters of the cause of the indigenous people.

4. Their altruistic and self-abnegating characters.

Guha puts it across very satirically and sardonically by placing an opposition next to each of these tall claims.

“They have completely tried to evade the accusations of being collaborationists, exploiters and oppressors who scrambled for power and privilege, making them appear like spiritual men…” he says.

There are certain advantages in elite historiography. It helps:

  1. In understanding the colonial state structure.
  2. In knowing the various state organs and their operation during certain historical circumstance.
  3. In knowing the ‘nature of alignment of the classes’.
  4. In the identification of elite ideology as dominant during certain periods.
  5. In understanding the contradictions between Indian and British elite groups, their oppositions and coalitions.
  6. In classifying the roles of certain important people and organizations of the Indian and British elite groups.

The ideological characteristics of such historiography, is made evident by these interpretations.

The people or the subaltern groups and their contributions have been looked at as mere response to an elite inspiration and influence. The British elite represents the subaltern nationalist upsurges as a ‘law-and-order’ problem and the Indian elite represents it as the response to the charisma of a certain leader. They use the term “vertical mobilization of factions” to describe these leaders moving the whole nation towards a common goal. This sort of falsehood and misrepresentation gets exposed where history has to explain phenomena such as the Rowlatt Movement and the Quit India Movement where the people acted against the colonialists without any elite control or guidance.

Such inadequate history whose efficiency is doubly crippled by beliefs such as the ones upholding the colonialist superstructure and ‘class outlook’ can never give the native nationalists as much importance as they deserve. The subaltern groups mobilized themselves. Guha calls them an “autonomous domain”. Though colonialism intruded into elite nationalism several times and rendered it ineffective, the subaltern nationalism continued to operate vigorously by a) adjusting and adapting to changing conditions and b) developing new ideas in form and content.

Subaltern politics considered mobilization as a horizontal activity that touches upon social groups of equal status at any point in time. The elitist groups practiced vertical mobilization that touched upon several levels of colonial hierarchy. Such elitist mobilization depended on the movements of the British parliamentary institutions and such. For example, Patel who unified the Princely States after independence did it with great difficulty by using vertical mobilization. Horizontal mobilization involved kinship, territorial and class associations at the level of consciousness of the people involved. This was simpler and pragmatic. It was spontaneous and violent unlike the controlled, legalistic, and cautious mobilization methods of the elites.

Peasant uprisings and such subaltern revolts had a constant element of antagonism to elite domination. This ideology was in varied degrees. Sometimes it helped by increasing the concreteness, focus and tension in subaltern politics. At other times, by its communal interests, it resulted in bigotry and confusion. Two things that drove the subaltern class in a certain path was their understanding of exploitation and of productive labour. This was a distinct factor that set it apart from elite politics.

Despite the living contradictions that stopped the subaltern politics from actualization in history, clear demarcations ideology, operation and spontaneity can be made between subaltern politics and elite politics. The failure of the bourgeoisie in speaking for the nation is evident. Their hegemony created a dichotomy which cannot be ignored by an interpreted of history. Ignoring the vast differences in ideologies between the subaltern and the elite could mislead the history reader.

These two factions are not watertight compartments sealed off from one another. They still overlap due to bourgeoisie attempts to integrate them. These efforts succeeded when backed by anti-imperialist motives. They failed miserably causing nasty strife among the sects when the anti-imperialist motives were not firm and when compromises were made with the colonialists. A good example would be the partition of India and Pakistan.

Due to the inability of the working class to rise above the local limitations, and the lack of good leadership, history has interpreted their national struggles as fragmented local rebellions for economic, political and petty reasons. The inadequacy of the bourgeoisie and the working class has resulted in a historic failure.

The end result could have been either ‘a democratic revolution under the bourgeoisie hegemony’ or ‘a ‘new-democracy’ under the subaltern hegemony’. Unfortunately, it was neither.

Ranajit Guha concludes with a need to resolutely fight against elitist historiography by ” I) rejection of spurious and unhistorical monism and II) recognition of the co-existence and interaction of the elite and subaltern domains of politics”. The purpose of the writers of subaltern studies, he says, is to create a convergence of elitist views and ideas opposing it. Criticism and discussions that ensue would help in learning a great deal more about how to preserve the integrity of historiography.


Historiography: The writing of history, the study of history-writing.

Historicism: The theory that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history.

Subaltern: A marginalized group rendered voiceless by oppression.

Elitism: Advocacy of or reliance on leadership or dominance by a select group.

Bourgeois: Upholding the interests of the capitalist class.

Neo-colonialism: The use of economic, political and other pressures to control or influence other countries esp. former dependencies (a country or province controlled by another.)

Neo-nationalism: An ideology supporting the creation of a nation-state.

Idealism: The practice of forming or following after ideals.

Ideological: The system of ideas at the basis of an economic or political theory, the manner of thinking characteristic of a class or individual.

Vertical: Involving at the levels of hierarchy of an organization.

Mobilization: Organize for service or action.

Hegemony: A leadership by one state or confederacy.

Dichotomy: Division into two (sharply defined)

Localism: Limitations arising from attachment to a local custom or ideology.

Monism: The doctrine that only one ultimate principle or being exists.

32 thoughts on “Ranajit Guha on Elitist Historiography – An Analysis

  1. thanks! this actually helped a lot… i wasn’t going to cut through guha’s jargon to figure out what he was saying, but now i see that it’ll actually be pretty useful to my thesis. i have no idea why you wrote this, but thanks!

  2. You are all seriously mistaken in thinking Guha utilizes excessive jargon in his essay. What makes it so hard to read is that fact it is written with such anger, you can just imagine him sitting at his typewriter with smoke coming out of his ears. He tries to make it seem as if he is providing an alternative way of looking at the rise of the nationalist movement in India, but this piece reeks of his personal bias against Indian elites. Nevertheless, it was an interesting read.

  3. Subaltern theory begins with a bias… typical of any attempt at decentralization.

    Oh god..I so badly want to go back and read Indira Parthasarathy’s “Nandan Kadhai”.. have you read it? Damn I want an academia blog! I want to IM on juicy critical theory.

    Elitist? Ja! ;-)

  4. That’s what irritates me about scholars who make it seem as if they are just providing a different way of looking at things, when really they just want to add in their bias to the mix. They should just acknowledge that it’s basically impossible to provide an unbiased opinion and then say what they need to say, in whatever fashion they want to.

    This essay was pretty much my introduction to Indian critical theory, which I didn’t even know existed up until now. I actually read it for a class, which I’m only taking because my dad insists I make some Indian frieds at university…but there’s only like 5 other Indians in the class, so the joke’s on him I guess.
    I haven’t read anything by Parthasarathy…is he another disgruntled academic?

  5. I am not sure if Ranajit Guha is a disgruntled academician. Indira Parthasarathy’s Nandan Kadhai is a subversion of an existing legend about a man named Nandan who was supposedly one of the greatest devotees of the Hindu God Shiva.

    Nandan is from a lower caste and is a bonded laborer to a man from the higher caste. Nandan has a lifelong dream of visiting the temple of Lord Shiva at Chidambaram but his master does not allow him to go. The master lays down an impossible condition that Nandan must sow, plough and harvest his paddy fields within a single night upon the completion of which he will be sent to Chidambaram without further questions. Nandan is saddened because it is humanly impossible to complete the assigned task.

    At this point, Shiva makes an appearance and miraculously completes the entire task overnight and the harvested paddy is stacked in front of the master’s house, the following morning. The master is shocked and realizes Nandan’s greatness. He allows Nandan to go to Chidambaram.

    People from the lower caste are not allowed to enter the temple and Nandan is forced to see the God from outside. Shiva’s vaahanam (vehicle) is a bull named Nandi and there is usually a Nandi idol in front of every Shiva idol. The Nandi at Chidambaram is huge and hides Shiva from Nandan’s eyes. Nandan sings a soul-wrenching song about his love for Shiva and the Nandi is moved by Nandan’s devotion. At this point, the Nandi idol moves sideways to allow Nandan to see the God from outside the temple. Nandan is overwhelmed and Shiva makes an appearance again and grants salvation to Nandan.

    This is the original story. I will post about Indira Parthasarathy’s subversion soon.

  6. history writing in india is very much part of “India’s Nationalism”…!commin from North east India, i feel there has been consistent exclusion of North East in the “history of India”.the regional specificity has been ignored by the academic community until the recent time.This indifferent attitude towards the North East is evident in national cu rricula.The cultural history of various communities of the North East has hardly found space in national curricula. Their heroes are forgotten and instead fed with the stories of kings and kingdoms of the rest of India that largely does not appeal to the people of the North East. The struggle of Khasis, Mizo Chiefs, Jaintias and Nagas against the British have no place at all in the history of India. This is not only sad but also extremely unfair. The question remains the same with when Spivak asks ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’! (‘Can the Northeasterner Speak’). (Gayatri Spivak, 1988) The answer is still ‘No’ in Indian history unless a comprehensive change in the historical discourse of India takes place.
    So, i guess we need subaltern history in North East Indian context…

  7. Well.. as you might already be aware there have been several local rebellions that have no place in history textbooks (students would be quite happy to read as little history as possible!)

    It is sad that some loss of lives have never been accounted for in history. There is a separate discourse on “women-led” rebellions that have been conveniently forgotten in historiography.

    It is left to you and I to research and write such forgotten stories. If we are not bogged down by our own lives, that is!

  8. Guha is most definitely a disgruntled academic, and to suggest otherwise would be absurd. He initiated the Subaltern Studies group to extract the subaltern voice from colonial/national documents, and yet later gave up on this objective because of the inherent biases present in such documents.

    So, actually, disgruntled would be putting it lightly.

    • Most subaltern writers cannot avoid sounding disgruntled simply because their works have a theme of injustice, subversion and rebellion. I have not followed through Guha’s career to see where he has got but he surely created an awareness of the subaltern discourses in the elite/academic circles. I would not get so cynical about Guha’s audience. There are activists born everywhere and these works help produce some even in the upper crest and even if it makes a difference to one person it’s worth the effort.

  9. hey
    i have a presentation on this… and i found this extremely helpful

    thank you :) would you suggest anything else that should be looked into in relation to this piece?

  10. Hey Arun

    You can try and find Subaltern Studies Readers from any good bookshop or library.

    If you are interested in the subaltern as a subject perhaps you must read books like “Karukku” by Bama and “Nandan Kadhai” by Indira Parthasarathy. (Both are in English.)

    And do read, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
    You can watch one of her lectures here: http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZHH4ALRFHw

  11. it helped me alot but it does not define who is subaltern people wheather they are marginal or voiceless if both so who would write the history. if other person writes the history of subaltern that would not be accepted. anyway thank alot

  12. Most subaltern people have had ancestors who were marginalised but some of them have found a voice to speak in the recent times. That certainly does not mean that all of them have privileges to express themselves openly. There are some of them who are still suppressed and oppressed. Subaltern are the voiceless who are denied a voice and who are outside the scope of even using methods of communication to get their story across. For example, a poor oppressed peasant may not be able to represent himself in an elite forum for the mere reason that he has been denied access to the English language all through his life. He cannot ever have a voice/ or sort out his grievances (the solutions for which lie in the hands of the elite) without the intervention of someone else who is in a much more privileged position.

  13. hey thanks alot! This has been really helpful. I can’t get hold of his books at the moment and this was useful for my lit review.

  14. I know this may be heretical, but it strikes me that most of the (broadly) European people involved in colonial projects were also subalterns, and probably acted at least at a tangent to the wishes of elites. Do you know of any work on them?

  15. @richard

    That is certainly a thought worth contemplating but the history that we read portrays them as the Lords and the Ladies – and it seems like they had access to luxurious palaces, cigars, ice cream and gramaphones. I am not sure if they had reasons to complain against their Queen at least with reference to the colonisers in India. They have only been portrayed as loyal servants of the Queen who enjoyed what they were doing.

    I will try and look this up – but it seems more like an onsite assignment for them than a forced situation to stay in a colony. I don’t think they were court-marshalled if they wanted to leave the backward colonies and go back to Europe – know what I mean?

  16. If we are mentioning subaltern authors we should also mention Partha Chatterjee and Sumit Sarkar (who later split from the movement).

    With regard to bias I believe the subaltern writers are well aware of their bias, and indeed the bias of any person writing history – they are after all heavily influenced by post-modernist theory.

    No scholar would claim to have discovered the truth in anything – but rather to add to the discussion and gain a greater understanding of the topic involved.
    The subaltern school has undoubtedly achieved this aim in India.

    Guha is a renowned theorist – his Dominance without Hegemony is an impressive read and theory tends to involve big words! It is worth the effort though.

  17. Subaltern begins and subsists on bias. Is n’t it? If not for bias (and the perpetuation of it), the subaltern would not exist.

    I have a personal thought on Nationalism in India. How can a nation with so many differences consider itself as a single entity? Even in the discussion that we have there is a constant rage that some of us have been left out over the others. Where is the sense of nationalism in that?

    It is easy for a country like France or Japan to be nationalist because they have a single language and a similar culture throughout their country. How is India supposed to do that?

    Has anyone read “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. What is your take on that?

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