A Heretical Intellectual

More on Ranajit Guha

Arup Kumar Sen

Recently, a major thinker of present time, Ranajit Guha, passed away a few days before his centenary. Being famous all over the world as a historian, his intellectual journey spread to literature, philosophy and other disciplines of knowledge.

Born in a khas talukdar family in undivided Bengal, he witnessed the symptoms of ‘semi-feudal culture’ in his everyday life. The structure of power relationship between the praja (peasant) and the manib (lord), witnessed by him in his childhood years, persisted in his memory and influenced his heretical scholarship in later years. In his own Bengali words: “The manib is not supposed to do the work done by the praja; the praja is poor, so his survival depends upon the food provided in the rich manib family; the manib calls the praja by name, the praja calls him ‘babu’; (the praja) stands up in the presence of the ‘babu’; the old-aged praja touches the feet of the ‘babu’, prepares his tobacco for smoking, does not smoke in his presence; the ‘babu’ rebukes, the praja swallows it without protest, and so on. After a few decades the dialectical relation of domination and subordination and historical forms of peasant insurgency will be conceptualised in my mind in the light of this symbolic relationship.” (English translation mine)

Ranajit Guha left his village in the 1930s and came to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for his studies. While being a student of Presidency College, he got involved in the activities of the undivided Communist Party. He became interested in tracing the origins of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal, while pursuing his studies in the M. A. class. In the 1950s, he became disillusioned with the politics of the Communist Party and resigned from his membership. Then he embraced the world of teaching and research to address his mental vacuum. His unfinished research project in Bengali – ‘ChirasthayiBandobosterSutrapat’ (Beginning of the Permanent Settlement) led to his path-breaking book, A Rule of Property for Bengal. It was published in 1963 when Ranajit Guha was settled abroad for his research. The book explored the debates among the colonial officials for land settlement in Bengal before it took final shape in the form of thePermanent Settlement of Bengal, introduced by Lord Cornwallis in 1793. This book is a landmark in the agrarian history of Bengal. In the Preface of the book, Guha observed how the society of Bengal carried the signature of the Permanent Settlement in later years: “ In the early youth the author, like many others of his generation in Bengal, grew up in the shadow of the Permanent Settlement: his livelihood, like that of his family, was derived from remote estates they had never visited; his education was oriented by the needs of a colonial bureaucracy recruiting its cadre from among the scions of Lord Cornwallis’s beneficiaries; his world of culture was strictly circumscribed by the values of a middle class living off the fat of the land and divorced from the indigenous culture of its peasant masses.”

Ranajit Guha’s later heretical writings were also influenced by his social life. The peasant insurgency in Naxalbari in the 1960s/1970s had a major impact on his thought. Recently, it is known from Sumanta Banerjee’s letter to Ranajit Guha, carried in Frontier (Autumn Number, 2022), that Guha visited India in 1970-71, addressed the students of Delhi University in a meeting and urged them to come forward in support of the movement. In his interview with Milinda Banerjee in 2010, Guha stated: “… I became something of a Naxal intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Majumdar’s ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. But Charu Majumdar and his followers were weak in organisational capacity, which resulted in the movement being crushed.”

Ranajit Guha’s book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in ColonialIndia, published in 1983, was a classic book that initiated new frontiers of research in peasant insurgency. Guha theoretically analysed in novel ways the peasant insurgencies and peasant consciousness in colonial India. Going beyond the conventional Marxist framework, he argued that the peasants revolted against the oppressions under British colonial rule, being propelled by their own political consciousness.

Under the leadership of Ranajit Guha, Subaltern Studies started its journey in the early 1980s, with a group of mostly young scholars. Questioning the dominant paradigms of history writing-colonial, nationalist and Marxist–the writings of Ranajit Guha and his associates established the Subaltern Studies collective as an alternative school of history writing and influenced scholars from other disciplines in India and abroad.

Ranajit Guha boldly wrote against the state violence in the 1970s. In 1971, he wrote a critique of state violence against the Naxalite youths in his article ‘On Torture and Culture’, carried in the Frontier weekly. This article exposed the repressive character of the Indian State and theorised it. His famous article, ‘Indian Democracy: Long Dead, Now Buried’ was first published in Journal of Contemporary Asia in 1976. Guha made a critique of the State repression of the ‘Emergency’ years in the article. It may be mentioned in this connection that the editor of Frontier, poet Samar Sen, wrote to his friend Ranajit Guha around that time (April 6, 1976) that tamasahas increased a lot in Kolkata after the declaration of‘Emergency’ and many of his Coffee House friends started avoiding his company. Paying tribute to Samar Sen after his death, Ranajit Guha wrote in Bengali:“Possibly Samar-da wanted to communicate the message in his poems and work – ‘O Dhrupadi Shanti Amader Noy’ (That Classical Peace is not Our Motto)”. (See Pulak Chanda edited Anustup Special Samar Sen Number, 1988, for Ranajit Guha’s article on Samar Sen, titled ‘Shanti Nei’)

In the last days of his life, Ranajit Guha started writing on Bengali language and literature in his Bengali books. In his introduction to Ranajit Guha’s Bengali writings (Ananda Publishers, 2019), Partha Chatterjee emphasised the rare cosmopolitan character of Guha’s Bengali literary writings and sound theoretical foundations of his literary criticism.

Ranajit Guha’s quest for social justice continued even in his advanced age. This is evident in the Preface of his Bengali book, ‘Rammohan Roy O Amader Adhunikata’ (2010), where he argued that he thought of writing this treatise sometime after the communal killings in Gujarat in 2002, when nothing could be properly visualised in the blind environment of power-crazy violence.

Ranajit Guha’s heretical tradition of scholarship and activism will survive in his admirers’ collective memory in the coming years.

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Vol 55, No. 47, May 21 - 27, 2023