Ranajit Guha (1923-2023)

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By SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAM*

Commentary on One of the Most Influential Intellectuals of the Indian Left in the XNUMXth Century

Ranajit Guha, who recently died in the suburbs of Vienna, where he spent the last decades of his life, was undoubtedly one of the most influential intellectuals of the Indian left in the XNUMXth century, his influence extending far beyond the subcontinent. As founder and guru (or 'pope', as some jokingly called him) of the historiographical movement known as Subaltern Studies, the relatively modest body of his work was read and misunderstood in many parts of the world, eventually becoming part of the canon of postcolonial studies.

Ranajit Guha enjoyed intellectual confrontations for much of his academic career, although he became a bit of a quietist in the last quarter of his life, when he took a surprising metaphysical turn by seeking to combine his readings of Martin Heidegger and classical Indian philosophy. This confrontational style has earned him a fiercely loyal following and virulent detractors, among the latter several among the mainstream left in India and abroad.

Ranajit Guha was never one to take the easy way out, despite the circumstances of relative social privilege into which he was born. His family were rentiers from the riverside eastern part of Bengal (now Bangladesh), beneficiaries of the Permanent Settlement instituted by Lord Cornwallis in 1793. In the Bakarganj (or Barisal) area, where he came from, another Bengali historian was also born, Tapan Raychaudhuri (1926-2014), also of zamindar.

Tapan Raychaudhuri was himself a complex figure, a storyteller and good life with a melancholy streak, which was destined to represent Porthos to the Aramis of Guha. Ranajit Guha was sent to Kolkata (Calcutta) for education in the 1930s, where he attended the prestigious Presidency College and soon became a communist. It would have been in those years that he acquired his violent aversion to the 'buyer' Gandhi and his version of nationalist politics, which accompanied him for most of his life.

He also came to be influenced by a leading Marxist historian of the time, Sushobhan Sarkar, while at the same time he developed a tempestuous relationship with another important figure, Narendra Krishna Sinha (by no means a Marxist), under whose supervision he was to work on a thesis. on the colonial economic history in Bengal, which was never completed. At the height of Indian independence, Ranajit Guha briefly left Kolkata for Mumbai and, in December 1947, traveled to Paris as a representative of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, led for a time by the controversial Aleksandr Shelepin.

In the following years, until his return to Calcutta in 1953, Ranajit Guha traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, the Western Islamic world and even China. This travel experience included a two-year stay in Poland, where he met and married his first wife. On his return to India, he was already accompanied by 'an aura of heroism' (as one of his friends wrote) and he exercised over his younger colleagues a degree of charisma and mystique that would serve him well later on.

After a brief period as a trade union organizer in Kolkata, he embarked on a peripatetic career in undergraduate teaching and began publishing his first essays on the origins of Permanent Settlement in the mid-1950s. But in these years Ranajit Guha also moved away from the communist establishment, as – as for many of his generation – the Hungarian crisis of 1956 proved to be a turning point. Although his plans to defend a doctoral thesis never came to fruition, he eventually got a job in 1958 at the newly founded Jadavpur University, under the protection of his former teacher Sarkar.

But he quickly abandoned that post to move first to Manchester and then to sussex university, where he spent nearly two decades. There is much that remains unclear about this phase of his career around 1960, including the question of how a barely published historian managed to obtain such positions in the UK, where few other Indian historians had penetrated. Oral tradition says that he was also proposed for a position in Paris, in the 6th section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, apparently on the initiative of the American economic historian Daniel Thorner (himself a refugee from McCarthyist persecution in Paris). It was also Daniel Thorner who helped organize the publication by Mouton & Co of Ranajit Guha's first book, A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963)

This work remains a puzzle six decades after its first publication. Although it began as a work of economic history, it ended up clearly becoming an exercise in the history of ideas. At a basic level, this impetus was provided by Ranajit Guha's own childhood experience in a rural context where Permanent Settlement Cornwallis set the rules of the game, ultimately leading (by some accounts) to the progressive agrarian decline of Bengal over a century and a half.

But rather than analyzing class relations or related issues, Guha turned to debates among East India Company administrators in Bengal in the 1770s and 1780s over how the province's land resources should be managed. Such a discussion was presented as a complex struggle between different trends in political economy, influenced, on the one hand, by the physiocrats in all their variety and splendor, and, on the other, by the adherents of the Scottish Enlightenment (to which Governor-General Warren Hastings was connected). Demonstrating an impressive talent for close reading, Ranajit Guha thoroughly analyzed the minutes, proposals and counterproposals presented and debated in the board of directors at the time. A central figure to emerge in all of this was Dublin-born Philip Francis. Although the opposition between Francis and Hastings was generally read simply through the prism of factional politics, Guha was able to elevate the differences to the level of genuine intellectual debate, with lasting consequences for Bengal.

At the same time, it can be said that the work showed little or no concern for the 'basic realities' of eighteenth-century Bengal, let alone the complex property regimes that existed before the Company's rule. This would have required Ranajit Guha to become involved with Mongolian history and issues of Hanafi Muslim law, which were far removed from his inclinations. Furthermore, there is little The Rule of Property that suggests that it is a Marxist story, even if one wants to interpret that term broadly.

Critics at the time often compared it to another work published a few years earlier., The English Utilitarians and India (1959) by Eric Stokes, probably to Guha's chagrin. Eric Stokes placed less emphasis on details and adopted a broader chronology, showing less talent for close reading of texts. But there are probably more things that unite these books than separate them. While Eric Stokes' work was widely acclaimed, Ranajit Guha's, somewhat unfairly, languished for a time in obscurity.

It is notable that for the remainder of the 1960s Ranajit Guha virtually stopped publishing, and when he did in 1969 (in the form of a revision of a long-forgotten collection of Indian nationalism) it was a bitter attack on practiced Indian history. in England, including Sussex University, "where students are introduced to the logic of . . . thinly disguised imperialist procedure". It was at this time that Ranajit Guha decided to spend a gap year in India based on Delhi School of Economics through the intermediation of his friend Raychaudhuri, who taught there.

The communist movement in India, with which Ranajit Guha was linked in the 1940s and early 1950s, had already undergone considerable changes. The pro-Soviet Communist Party of India (CPI) had split in 1964, producing the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)], which was initially more oriented towards Chinese communism and far more hostile to the party. in power, the Indian National Congress (INC). However, in 1967 a further split occurred in the context of a rural uprising in North Bengal, producing the CPI(ML) [Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)], which eschewed parliamentary politics in favor of a strategy of armed peasants and student mobilization. Radical student groups in cities such as Kolkata and Delhi formed in support of the trend, generally known in common parlance as 'Naxalites'.

Ranajit Guha, a visitor to Delhi in 1970-1971, found this new movement attractive due to his own pro-Maoist thinking and began to attend these student groups. A few memoirs have covered this story, including a recent one by development economist Pranab Bardhan. Due to his fieldwork, Pranab Bardhan had a good understanding of India's rural problems and was less than impressed by what he saw at a secretive meeting orchestrated by Ranajit Guha, describing it in Charaiveti (2021-2022) as a “collection of clichés”, with speakers “regurgitating rhetoric… learned from some cheap pamphlet”. However, some of these students not only became activists, but also historians, directly inspired by Ranajit Guha's formulations.

The first of Ranajit Guha's new interventions was an essay, first published in 1972 but with subsequent reworkings, on the 1860 indigo rebellion in Bengal. This was accompanied, in the following years, by several pieces of political commentary on the Congress and its political profile, as well as on state repression and democracy in India. Amidst the political turmoil of the decade (symbolized by the infamous period of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi), Ranajit Guha's intellectual influence began to spread.

This was helped in part by Raychaudhuri's move to a post at Oxford: several of his doctoral students from came to be mentored, in practice, by Ranajit Guha, who thus acted as a kind of mentor. power behind the throne based in Brighton. This eventually led to a series of informal meetings in the UK in 1979-1980, where a collective decision was taken to launch the movement called 'Subaltern Studies', using a term taken from the prison notebooks by Antonio Gramsci. The first volume of this title appeared to considerable fanfare in 1982 and was followed a year later by Guha's second book, Elementary aspects of peasant insurgency in colonial India.

After nearly two decades of relative occlusion, this was the moment of Ranajit Guha's second advent. In a tease in the first volume of the series Subaltern Studies, Ranajit Guha protested the “long tradition of elitism in South Asian studies” and, after listing various elements that made up foreign and indigenous elites, summarily declared that “subalterns” were the “demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those we describe as the 'elite'”.

He further argued that the “subalterns” or “people” had their own “autonomous domain” of political action and that an elitist view of Indian nationalism led to a consensual narrative that left aside “the contribution made by the people on their own, i.e. is, regardless of the elite for the construction and development of this nationalism”.

This open attack not only on British but also on Indian historians gave rise to a series of violent arguments, particularly with historians linked to the CPI(M) as well as with more conventional nationalists. These debates occupied much of the 1980s, when Ranajit Guha had taken up his last academic post at Australian National University. By the end of the decade, and with the publication of six volumes under the direction of Ranajit Guha, Subaltern Studies had established itself as the dominant force in the study of modern Indian history.

This was despite doubt cast on the originality of the project itself, given earlier forms of story seen from below, as well as questions regarding the highly uneven content of the six volumes. Intellectual fatigue with standard left-nationalist historiography may explain part of this triumph, but the new jargon of the new school also played a role. During the 1990s, the main thrust of the project as a contribution to radical social history progressively faded, and the group itself began to fragment and disperse, with some bitter recriminations from former participants. By the twelfth volume, published in 2005, the project had lost its shape, becoming mired in a fruitless engagement with deconstructivism on the one hand and cultural essentialism on the other.

Going back to the original 1982-1983 moment, however, several peculiar features of Ranajit Guha's posture deserve mention. One was his insistent adherence to a particular reading of structuralism that had been popular in the 1960s – not so much the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, but rather the reinterpretation of Saussurian linguistics by figures such as Roland Barthes. As we know, Barthes' own position changed considerably in the years following his “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966), but Ranajit Guha did not follow him in this trajectory.

Instead, he stuck to certain surprisingly simple ideas based on a binary divide between elites and subalterns. This, in turn, became the basis of another article of faith, namely that the voice and perspective of the subaltern could be alchemically extracted from the colonial records of repression through certain translation protocols. These ideas, expressed by Ranajit Guha in some form in the first volumes of the Subaltern Studies, can also be found in some of the essays of his disciples. But they are presented at greater length in his Elementary Aspects, which provide us with another example of the long (and ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to reconcile structuralism and historical materialism.

Friendly critics such as Walter Hauser were distressed to find in the work an unmistakable streak of elitist arrogance and an unsubtle flattening of the complexity of peasant societies, though they nonetheless recognized Ranajit Guha's importance in renewing peasant history. There have also been questions raised by historians of the Wear like Burton Stein on whether Ranajit Guha would not have confused different categories such as hunter-gatherers and peasants through his adherence to the logic of binarism.

In the years that followed, Ranajit Guha's most influential writings took the form of essays, many of which were collected in a volume titled Dominance without hegemony (1997), who argued that in India's colonial political system (as opposed to British metropolitan politics) overt coercion trumped persuasion, and that the Indian state after independence continued to practice an overtly coercive version of the same policy.

He also developed his somewhat problematic reflections on historiography, which appeared in their final version as a published set of lectures, History at the limit of world-history (2002). In some of these later essays, we find Guha moving away from his structuralist position to experiment with other approaches. One of the most successful and widely cited is “Chandra's Death(1987), in which Ranajit Guha presents a very close reading of a small body of legal documents from 1849 in Birbhum, about an unsuccessful abortion that led to the death of a young woman. Here, we see Ranajit Guha employing his intimate knowledge of rural Bengal as well as his hermeneutical skills in dealing with materials written in a “rustic Bengali” that has a “strange mix of rural language and Persianized phrases”.

Though interspersed with genuflections to Michel Foucault, these are moments when Ranajit Guha comes closest to the spirit of the microstory Italian, an approach he was never formally involved with. In contrast, lectures on historiography take a very different tack, embracing the critical Nietzschean vogue of the Enlightenment of the moment, as well as claims to the superiority of literature over history. We also find the introduction and defense of the concept of “historicality” as a way of re-enchanting the past. This will lead, almost ineluctably, to the last phase of Guha's career, in which he will turn largely to literary criticism written in Bengali and focus mainly on the greats of the Bengali literary pantheon.

Unsurprisingly, then, over nearly a century, Ranajit Guha's career has been marked by several unexpected turns. The “biographical illusion”, as Pierre Bourdieu called it, may require a more organized form of plot than this life offers us. All this despite the fact that we are dealing with someone with a powerful drive, not towards career and careerism, but towards a more complex form of charismatic self-configuration that caused Ranajit Guha to largely shun the spotlight, leaving it to some of his younger disciples.

Perhaps the reserved habits of your early adult years proved difficult to break. However, by choosing the fringes of the academic world, Ranajit Guha has managed to exert greater influence than many of those who have occupied important positions of academic power. In doing so, he showed that he really had a keen understanding of politics and how it worked.

*Sanjay Subrahmanyam is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Author, among other books, of Connected history: essays and arguments (Verse).

Translation: Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri.

Originally posted on the blog Sidecar, from New Left Review.

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