The phenomenon that was Ranajit Guha

May 14, 2023

Guha’s novel approach did not immediately win the approval of the orthodox economic historians

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enowned historian and pioneer of subaltern history, Ranajit Guha, passed away in Vienna on April 28, a month before his centennial. He was born in an East Bengal village on May 23, 1923. Guha was born at Siddhakati village of Bakerganj upazila of Barishal in Bangladesh in a family of taluka owners.

Ranajit’s father shifted his family to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1934 and started working as a lawyer in the Calcutta High Court. By that time, Ranajit was ten and ready to embark on his academic journey at a high school. Prior to that, his grandfather had introduced him to the rudiments of Sanskrit grammar and the works of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. His education opened him up to the poetic brilliance of Tagore. He retained this interest as a lifelong intellectual resource.

In 1938, he enrolled at the Presidency College to pursue studies in history. Although he later became a revolutionary figure in the field, the initial plan was to become a regular historian. He joined the student wing of the Communist Party and rose through the ranks as an influential organiser.

His commitment to his political convictions eventually caused a strain on his studies, leading to a mediocre performance in his BA examination in 1942, with no honours to his name. When he was assigned to the party’s daily newspaper, Swadhinata, his studies were further hampered, leading him to missing out on his MA classes. General secretary PC Joshi then intervened, advising Guha and a few of his comrades to not ignore their education. Guha obtained his MA degree in history in 1944 with flying colours.

Living in Kolkata during those tumultuous years, Guha witnessed the Japanese bombings in 1942, the devastating famine in 1943, and the horrifying communal riots in 1946. This left him disillusioned with the promise of a fresh dawn of independence.

The same year, he was selected to represent the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the secretariat of the World Union of Democratic Youth in Paris. The following six years marked a turning point in his intellectual growth. Living in Paris during the exhilarating days of liberation from Nazi occupation; travelling across socialist countries in Eastern Europe; and being part of one of the first foreign delegations to visit China after the revolution; gave him a firsthand understanding of communist parties worldwide – a rare experience among Indian communists. This knowledge was a vital lesson for him in later life.

Returning to Kolkata in 1953, Ranajit Guha deftly combined his new position as a college teacher with his duties at the editorial desk of the Communist Party daily. When Soviet tanks trampled the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Guha relinquished his party commitments and turned to historical research in the archives. Two years later, he joined the newly established history department at Jadavpur University, which was then headed by Susobhan Sarkar, his teacher at the Presidency College.

Guha’s approach to historical research did not follow the orthodox conventions laid down by the custodians of the discipline. Focusing on the landmark legislation of 1793, the Permanent Settlement of Bengal, on which countless tomes had been written, Guha posed a question that no one had ever considered before. Drawing from physiocracy, an economic doctrine invented in the 18th Century France that traced the source of national wealth not to foreign trade like the mercantilists but to the products of the soil, he sought to unravel how this doctrine, applied to Bengal by the East India Company officials seeking to create enterprising farmers, ended up producing the neo-feudal monstrosity called the zamindari system of Bengal.

Guha delved in those 18th Century debates and revealed that the unintended outcome was not brought about by the ineptitude of colonial officials or the mendacity of Bengal’s zamindars. It was, in fact, a necessary consequence of the very logic of the British colonial rule. He wrote, “A typically bourgeois form of knowledge was bent backwards to adjust itself to the relations of power in a semi-feudal society.”

Guha’s novel approach did not win the approval of the orthodox economic historians of Bengal who discouraged him from writing a doctoral thesis on the subject. He began to publish the results of his research in the Bengali journal Parichay, which was affiliated with the CPI. However, after a few episodes, he was asked to stop.

Frustrated on all fronts, Ranajit Guha took up a fellowship at the University of Manchester in 1959 to finish his thesis. It was printed and submitted to the Sorbonne University in Paris for a doctoral degree. It was rejected. Entirely by coincidence, a copy fell into the hands of Daniel Thorner, the American economic historian living in exile in Paris because of the McCarthy investigations. Thorner contacted Guha and published the book in his series under the title, A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963). Today, it is recognized as a timeless classic of modern Indian history.

Guha spent twenty years teaching at the University of Sussex but avoided academic conferences and publishing in scholarly journals. In 1970-71, he returned to India with the intention of writing a book on Gandhi but instead found himself supporting the violent Naxalbari movement as a warning to communists. This experience inspired him to write a book on peasant revolts, which would become Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983).

He also criticised the Indira Gandhi regime and its brutalities, organised a group of young scholars into an editorial collective and launched the landmark series Subaltern Studies in 1982. Subaltern histories challenged elitist and nationalist views of Indian history by demonstrating that oppressed groups possessed an autonomous political consciousness and their own reasons for joining or refusing to join movements launched by elite leaders.

Subaltern Studies sparked controversy among the Indian historians but gained appreciation among scholars abroad and contributed to the emergence of Postcolonial Studies. Guha, who retired from Sussex in 1982, explained the relevance of his work beyond India, warning against simplistic views of colonial rule and arguing that it relied on both coercion and persuasion.

In his essay, Dominance Without Hegemony, he showed how colonial rule was a form of dominance without true hegemony, as it failed to gain the consent of the subaltern classes. He extended this argument to post-independence India where ruling classes relied on violence to maintain dominance, rather than achieving true hegemony.

He lived in Purkersdorf, Austria, with his German-born wife Mechthild Guha née Jungwirth, herself a leading scholar of subaltern studies, whom he had met at the University of Sussex in the early 1960s. Afterwards, they moved to the Australian National University where both continued their work.

In 1989, after six volumes of Subaltern Studies, Guha stepped down as editor and retired from the university. In the 1990s, Guha gave lectures around the world on literature, discussing authors like Dickens, Chekhov, Conrad and Orwell. He declared that history, which is built around the state, does not hold the truth about human life. Rather, literature depicts changes in the everyday existence of ordinary people, a concept he called historicality.

Guha was sensitive to language, analysing text, ritual and folklore with a study of structural linguistics. He had read a lot of English literature as a schoolboy, which helped him develop an elegant English style. However, he always thought in Bengali. In his eighties, Guha stopped writing in English and instead wrote five books and several essays in Bengali on literary and philosophical topics. He reflected on episodes from the Mahabharata, which reminded him that human beings can restore their faith in a mutually supportive social life. Guha’s mind has now come to rest, leaving behind a treasure trove of ideas for scholars to explore.

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