A Tribute

Ranajit Guha (1923-2023)

Partha Chatterjee

When Samar Sen, editor of Frontier, presented Ranajit Guha with a copy of his memoirs called Babu Brittanta (A Babu’s Tale), the latter had chided his poet-journalist friend: “Do you think you can erase your birthmark by mocking your Babu-ness?” Later, Guha regretted the remark. One who could say, “I was born a Babu, but the life of a Babu is intolerable for me,” had reached a state of alienation which was, in fact, the generative source of the critical imagination. Indeed, Guha himself, in some of his rare autobiographical musings, recalled a few moments from his childhood when he had felt the same stress of alienation. He had noticed, for instance, that elders in his family would refer to his village playmates as children of the praja (tenants) and they in turn would call him the munib’s (master’s) son. When the praja came to their house, they would never sit down and would touch the feet of even the children of the master’s family. Guha’s curious mind began, even at that early age, to ponder about the significance of these habitual practices of a hierarchical society.

Away from home
Ranajit Guha, the renowned historian, who passed away in Vienna on 28 April 2023, a month before he would have turned 100, was born in a village in East Bengal. He came to Kolkata at the age of ten to enter high school. By then, he had been introduced by his grandfather to the rudiments of Sanskrit grammar and the writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. At school, he encountered the poetry of Tagore. These would remain abiding intellectual resources throughout his life.

He entered Presidency College in 1938 to study History. Although the world now knows him as a path-breaking practitioner in the field, he did not initially set out to be a historian. Instead, he wanted to make history. He joined the students’ wing of the Communist Party and became a prominent organiser. Soon, he left home to become a whole-time party worker. “My chosen life as a communist did not fit the family routine,” he later remarked. His studies suffered. In 1942, he sat for the BA examination and barely managed to pass without an honours degree. Assigned to the party daily Swadhinata, he had no time to attend MA classes. Apparently, P C Joshi, the general secretary, intervened and persuaded Guha and a few other young comrades not to ignore their education. Guha passed his MA in History in 1944 with a First Class.

Living in Kolkata during those fateful years, Guha witnessed the Japanese bombings of the city in 1942, the wrenching scenes of hundreds of emaciated dead bodies lying on the streets during the famine of 1943 and the dreadful communal riots of 1946. The promise of a fresh dawn at independence seemed hollow. That year, Guha was selected to represent the CPI in the secretariat of the World Union of Democratic Youth in Paris. The next six years added a completely new dimension to his intellectual vision. Living in the Open City of Paris in the heady days of liberation from Nazi occupation, travelling in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, making the journey by train across Russia as part of one of the first foreign delegations to visit China after the revolution, Guha acquired a first-hand knowledge of life within various communist parties of the world that was rare among Indian communists. That knowledge too would become an important lesson for him in later life.

The unconventional historian
Returning to Kolkata in 1953, Ranajit Guha combined his new occupation as a college teacher with his duties at the editorial desk of the Communist Party daily. In 1956, when Soviet tanks entered Hungary to crush popular protests, Guha relinquished his party commitments and turned to historical research in the archive. In 1958, he joined the newly established History department at Jadavpur University headed by Susobhan Sarkar, his former teacher at Presidency College.

His research did not follow the conventions laid down by the guardians of the discipline. Turning to the landmark legislation of 1793 called the Permanent Settlement of Bengal on which countless tomes had been written, Guha posed a question no one had asked before. Physiocracy was an economic doctrine invented in eighteenth-century France that traced the source of national wealth not to foreign trade as did the mercantilists but to the products of the soil. It became a major economic instrument for the dismantling of the feudal system in Europe. How did that doctrine, applied to Bengal by East India Company officials seeking to create enterprising farmers, end up producing the neo-feudal monstrosity called the zamindari system of Bengal? Delving into those eighteenth-century debates, Guha showed 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 historical logic of British colonial rule. “Reason is born spastic in the colony,” he wrote. “A typically bourgeois form of knowledge was bent backwards to adjust itself to the relations of power in a semi-feudal society.”

His novel approach did not find favour with 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, affiliated to the CPI. After a few instalments, he was asked to stop, apparently because the series was getting too long. Frustrated on all fronts, Ranajit Guha, in 1959, took up a fellowship at the University of Manchester to finish his thesis. It was printed and submitted to the Sorbonne in Paris for a doctoral degree and was turned down. Entirely by coincidence, a copy fell into the hands of Daniel Thorner, the American economic historian exiled 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). It is now a classic of modern Indian history.

The peripheral academic
Guha found a job at the University of Sussex where he would spend the next two decades. He was a diligent teacher but shunned academic conferences and did not publish in academic journals. In 1970-71, he spent a year in India with the intention of writing a book on Gandhi. The aftershocks of Naxalbari were shaking university campuses in India. “I supported the violence of the Naxalbari movement because it was a warning to communists who were sliding down the slope towards a corrupt parliamentarism,” he later reminisced. Guha returned to England with an entirely new project in mind: an analytical history of peasant revolts. The book would appear a decade later as the Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983).

In the meantime, he wrote some trenchant criticisms in Frontier of the Indira Gandhi regime, its torture of political prisoners, extra-judicial killings and the brutalities of the Emergency. On the intellectual front, he organised a group of unknown young scholars into an editorial collective and launched the series Subaltern Studies which became a landmark in modern South Asian studies. “The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism–colonialist elitism and bourgeois nationalist elitism”, Guha announced in the first volume published in 1982. Historians of the former school believed that modern institutions were the gift of Britain to India and that nationalist politics was nothing but the squabble of parochial leaders for the loaves and fishes of government patronage. On the other hand, nationalist historians argued that a dormant Indian people was roused to patriotic consciousness by the leaders of the Indian National Congress. Challenging both views, Guha and his associates showed that the subaltern classes of peasants, workers, forest dwellers and other oppressed groups possessed an autonomous political consciousness. They had their own reasons for joining the movements launched by elite leaders, just as they often refused to join. Sometimes, after joining a movement, they withdrew. Subaltern histories were not reproductions of elite history; they had a structure and logic of their own.

An untimely celebrity
Subaltern Studies created a stir among historians of India. A lot of the reactions were negative. “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, Guha responded, “and we don’t mind the weeds”. Surprisingly, the series was received much more appreciatively in academic circles abroad, not only among historians but among anthropologists and literary scholars too. Even more striking was the fact that the enthusiasm was not confined to those who studied South Asia as their regional specialisation. Subaltern Studies came to be discussed for the novelty of the critical questions it raised about colonialism as a constitutive part of Western modernity. It became, from the 1980s, a significant feature of a new field called Postcolonial Studies.

 Guha had, in 1982, retired from Sussex to take up a fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra. The reception of Subaltern Studies brought Guha out of his self-imposed obscurity. He began to lecture and attend conferences at universities all over the world. He explained the relevance of the questions raised by him and his associates not just for India but for an understanding of relations of dominance and subordination everywhere. He warned against the simplistic view that colonial rule was founded solely on violence. No system of rule could endure without eliciting a certain degree of consent from the subordinate classes. In a long essay called “Dominance without Hegemony” (1989), Guha argued that there were two distinct idioms of politics that were intertwined in colonial India: one was British and the other precolonial Indian. The coercive laws of the colonial state were justified by a combination of the British concept of order and the Indian notion of danda punishment, while persuasion took the form of a mix of the liberal idea of improvement with that of dharma or right conduct. For the subaltern classes, obedience was expressed in the idiom of bhakti (devotion), whereas rightful dissent took the form of protest against the violation of dharma. Guha made the important point that peasant resistance in colonial India was not derived from liberal notions of right but from the duty to protest against the adharma (wrong conduct) of the ruler. But in India under British rule, coercion always outweighed persuasion. Consequently, colonial rule was a dominance without hegemony. He extended the argument to assert that the ruling classes of independent India too had failed to achieve hegemony, since there was frequent and overt use of violence to maintain their dominance.

Good riddance to history
In 1989, after bringing out six volumes of Subaltern Studies, Guha stepped down from his position as editor of the series. He also retired from the university. Ten years later, he and his wife Mechthild settled down in an apartment in a suburb of Vienna. Now, through the 1990s, in lectures delivered in different parts of the world, he seemed to travel well beyond the boundaries of history to reflect in brilliant prose on some of his favourite authors– Charles Dickens, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell. In 2000, in a series of lectures at Columbia University later published as History at the Limit of World History (2002), Guha declared that the truth of human life was not to be found in history which was necessarily built around the life of the state. That truth was stored in literature which depicts changes in the everyday existence of ordinary people– something that he, following the philosopher Martin Heidegger, called historicality.

Guha was always extraordinarily sensitive to the nuances of language. His incisive analysis of text, ritual and folklore was strongly influenced by a close study of structural linguistics. Not only was he a superb stylist himself, in both Bengali and English, he was also a remarkably careful reader and listener. Asked how he had developed his elegant English style, he confessed that he had never written more than three or four pages of continuous English prose before he embarked on A Rule of Property. “It’s probably because I read a lot of English literature as a schoolboy. I read every book in my father’s library”. But, he insisted, he always thought in Bengali, even when was required to write in English. As age caught up with him and ill health prevented him from travelling, Ranajit Guha, living in quiet seclusion on the edge of the Vienna Woods, immersed himself in a mental world to which he believed he truly belonged–the world of Bengali literature.

He stopped writing in English and instead, between 2007 and 2014, published five books and around a dozen essays in Bengali on literary and philosophical topics. He wrote on Bankim, Tagore and more recent poets. In several pieces, he reflected on episodes from the Mahabharata. It was an astonishing achievement for a man in his eighties. Most of these writings echoed his final realisation about the futility of political solutions to the troubles of human life. In his book Prem na pratarana [Love or Betrayal] (2013), Guha looked back at Vidyasagar’s retelling of the story of Sita’s banishment in which Vidyasagar, on behalf of his countless Bengali readers, accused Rama of betraying his innocent wife in order to placate his powerful courtiers who had unjustly blamed Sita of infidelity. Bankim, in a bristling riposte, had reminded Vidyasagar that Rama was only following his duty as a king for whom rajadharma must take priority over marital love. In this debate, Guha’s sympathy was entirely with Vidyasagar.

In another poignant piece where Guha emphasises the senselessness of political contest, he recounts that harrowing scene from the little discussed Stri Parva of the Mahabharata where, at the end of the eighteen-day war, the battlefield of Kurukshetra is strewn with the bodies of dead soldiers. Jackals and vultures are feeding on them. Moving between the corpses are the Kaurava women, looking for their husbands, brothers and sons, weeping and cursing those who had taken away their loved ones. “All wars come to an end”, says Guha. “What doesn’t end is the cycle of mourning and recrimination.” That scene from the Mahabharata reminds us that, despite episodes of indescribable cruelty, human beings can reclaim the sentiments of mercy and compassion to restore their faith in a mutually supportive social life.

In these late writings, Ranajit Guha travelled far from his youthful convictions about a life given wholly to politics. But then, he had also shown, at several critical junctures in his career, a predilection to move away from a course that had turned conventional and sterile. After Samar Sen passed away in 1987, Guha, in a tribute to his friend, said, “The life an intellectual in our ill-fated country is blessed with the dignity of humanity only when it is agitated by the April storm, prolonged by conflicts among the people and made complex by the whirlpool of alienation–when, in other words, it can find no peace.”

Guha’s incisive, capacious, restless mind has now come to rest. For us, he has left behind a treasure house of ideas that scholars will explore for years to come.

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Vol 55, No. 46, May 14 - 20, 2023