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:
- In understanding the colonial state structure.
- In knowing the various state organs and their operation during certain historical circumstance.
- In knowing the ‘nature of alignment of the classes’.
- In the identification of elite ideology as dominant during certain periods.
- In understanding the contradictions between Indian and British elite groups, their oppositions and coalitions.
- 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.