An Intellectual Pursuit

Ranajit Guha, Subaltern School and Anthropology in India

Abhijit Guha

The recent demise of Ranajit Guha, (1923–2023) the legendary icon of Indian historiography prompted a flurry of news items, obituaries and personal memoirs in the media. More will come in the future. This was obvious and natural owing to Guha’s monumental, unorthodox and challenging contributions in the writing of Indian history, which was often regarded as ‘revolutionary’ by his co-workers and disciples who built up the ‘subaltern school’ with their shinning brilliance.

Partha Chatterjee, a renowned political scientist of India and also, one of the chief collaborators of Ranajit Guha described the objectives of the subaltern school in his article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences in a lucid language:

The objective of subaltern historiography was to oppose the two elitisms. The field of modern South Asian history was dominated in the 1970s by a debate between a group of historians principally located in Cambridge, UK, and another based mainly in Delhi, India. The former argued that Indian nationalism was a bid for power by a handful of Indian elites who used the traditional bonds of caste and communal ties to mobilize the masses against British rule. The latter spoke of how the material conditions of colonial exploitation created the ground for an alliance of the different classes in Indian society and how a nationalist leadership inspired and organised the masses to join the struggle for national freedom. Guha argued that both these views were elitist–the former representing a colonial elitism and the latter a nationalist elitism. Both assumed that nationalism was wholly a product of elite action. Neither history had any place for the independent political actions of the subaltern classes (Chatterjee: 2001: 15237-15241).

By thoroughly opposing the elitist views of Indian historiography, the subalternists led by Guha discovered new historical sources and through a rereading of the existing archives had shown that the subaltern classes were not always being manipulated by the elites but raised their own voices. The real task for the historian, therefore, was to record and write about how the socially underprivileged groups lived their lives and specially, protested against the colonial rulers. Unsurprisingly, the philosophy of the subaltern school was closely allied with the anti-colonial, Marxist and left-wing political ideology of India in particular and South Asia in general. One should not forget that the subalternists were post-colonial scholars studying colonial past and the then anti-colonial struggles, but by the very nature of their discipline they had no onus to take part in the present process of nation-building in the post-independence period. Writing a subaltern history was purely an intellectual pursuit.

The tragedy of Indian anthropology
Unlike historians, the post-colonial anthropologists of India by the very nature of the objective and methodology of their discipline had to record the world-of-everyday-life of the subalterns, the tribes, the low-ranked castes and other socially underprivileged groups living in the vast rural areas of India. From the very beginning, the task of the anthropologist in India was never a search for pure knowledge. Anthropology was always a practical project. During the colonial period the census data on the tribes and castes were collected to serve the Empire and this tradition was continued in the post-colonial period by the Anthropological Survey of India, the largest governmental organisation of the anthropologists in India(Guha 2017:23-25). The earliest anthropology department at the University of Calcutta was also established during the colonial period, which largely followed the British pedagogy. With the independence of the country, the practical objectives of anthropology changed and remarkable studies were being done by some of the pioneering anthropologists, which were directed towards better planning for the economic improvement and social emancipation of the subalterns affected by famine, resettlement and displacement caused by big dams and industries (Guha 2022). Despite these few remarkable studies on the subalterns, the self-reflection of the anthropologists in post-colonial India was quite pessimistic. In the same decade when Ranajit Guha and his associates began to write on the subaltern voice in history, an Indian social anthropologist and sociologist Jaganath Pathy critiqued anthropology in general and third world development anthropology in particular for serving the colonial and imperial powers ((Pathy 1981:623-627). I quote Pathy:

In the pursuit, the anthropologists should shed their value-neutrality and stop opposing large scale changes. The need is to transform anthropology from being an instrument of domination of the oppressors to becoming an instrument of liberation of the oppressed (Pathy 1981:627).

Pathy, however made no attempt to show how social anthropology or anthropology during the post-colonial era could be put to use in a truly nationalist spirit to serve the interests of the oppressed by transcending itself from the colonial hangover. In fact, long before Pathy’s article, a standard critique of Indian anthropology had already grown by the Indian anthropologists themselves. The critics, in a self-reflective manner opined that Indian anthropology was the product of a colonial tradition and the Indian anthropologists for various reasons followed their colonial and neo-colonial masters in one way or the other. I arrange the critiques of Indian anthropology in a chronological manner from 1952-1997.

A chronology of the critiques of Indian anthropology

1. As early as 1952 one of the doyens of Indian anthropology, Nirmal Kumar Bose in a significant article published in Man in India enumerated the research projects undertaken by the Department of Anthropology, (the former name of the Anthropological Survey of India) and the anthropology departments at Calcutta, Madras, Lucknow, Delhi, Gauhati and Osmania universities. Bose’s investigation was exhaustive and based on written replies from the Heads of the aforementioned institutions. After reviewing the overall scenario he concluded:

There does not seem to be any problem which Indian anthropologists have made peculiarly their own. Anthropology in our country have, on the whole, followed the tracks beaten by anthropologists in the more powerful countries of the West. What they do, we generally try to repeat on the Indian soil (Bose 1952:133).

Bose however ended with the positive note that there were exceptions to the above generalisation and if Indian anthropologists could work independently on Indian problems, there was still sign of hope. Just after 10 years, N K Bose published another article ‘Researches in Indian anthropology’ in the same journal in which he turned the attention of the readers from applied to ‘certain fundamental problems in anthropology’ and mentioned the researches done by the social anthropologists on the persistence of the caste system. Along with this, Bose mentioned the anthropometric surveys carried out by the physical anthropologists at the all-India level as another type of fundamental research and he found young anthropologists at the Anthropological Survey of India as ‘first-class workers’ (Bose 1962:179).

2.    After Bose, his famous student Surajit Sinha in his insightful article published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society in 1971 observed that despite considerable growth in research publications and professional human power in social and cultural anthropology during the last 100 years, the Indian anthropologists largely remained dependent on western and colonial traditions (Sinha 1971: 1-14). In continuation of his pertinent examination of the colonial dependence of Indian anthropology, Sinha contributed a full chapter entitled ‘India: A Western Apprentice’ in a book, Anthropology: Ancestors and Heirs, edited by the Marxist anthropologist Stanley Diamond in 1980 published by Mouton. In that article Sinha discussed ‘the process of naturalisation of the different strands of Western anthropological traditions’ and finally ended with a pessimistic note:
For some time, the proliferation of trained manpower, random efforts at catching up with the latest developments in the West and a general increase in the number of publications will characterise the development of Indian anthropology (Sinha 1980: 281).

Trained by both Nirmal Kumar Bose and Tarak Chandra Das and also at a later stage by Robert Redfield, Sinha was exposed to a wide arena of global and national anthropology. He completed his major works on the relationship between tribe and caste in the context of Indian civilisation as well as state formation by mid 1960s. A closer view of his published works revealed that he first presented the critical idea on Indian anthropology in a Wenner-Gren Foundation conference held in New York in 1968 (Sinha 1968). In fact, Sinha’s self-critical views on the growth of Indian social science in general and anthropology and sociology in particular could be traced back to his article entitled ‘Involvement in social change: a plea for own ideas’ published in the radical social science journal Economic and Political Weekly as early as 1967 (Sinha 1967:1707-1709).In this article Sinha stated quite categorically:

A scholarly tradition of leaning heavily, if not abjectly, on ideas borrowed from the West is growing in this country. This is clear from the post-independence writings of a large number of Indian social scientists and the research policies of some of our modem research institutions. The borrowed ideas and concepts, when accepted uncritically, obscure the major issues involved in planned social change and stand in the way of posing the right kind of questions in the study of social change (Ibid 1707).

Sinha pursued this critique of Indian social science by converging his attack on Indian anthropology in the subsequent articles. Taking note of his earlier article in the JIAS, Sinha in his ‘Foreword’ of the precious book Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (1974) written by Shyamal Kumar Ray made a remark:

...there was a general reluctance among Indian scholars to take due note of the research publications of Indian pioneers and contemporaries. As a result, research endeavours of Indian scholars tend to be derivative, leaving the responsibilities of breaking new grounds exclusively to western scholars (Sinha 1974: iii).

Although Sinha praised N K Bose and T C Das at the individual levels for their insight and ethnography respectively, the critiques advanced by Sinha in his 1967, 1971 and 1980 articles on the overall achievement of Indian anthropology was quite pessimistic and distressing. For him, there was hardly any sign of an independent, let alone nationalist Indian anthropology. In his article entitled ‘Urgent Problems for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology in India: Perspectives and Suggestions’ published in Sociological Bulletin in 1968 Sinha identified three distinct social anthropological ‘vantage points’ to approach the urgent problems in India, which were: (i) study of ‘Primitive Groups’ of tribes, (ii) study of human groups for the theoretical understanding of Indian society and (iii) anthropological study of problems urgently needed for national reconstruction and development. Curiously, Sinha left the third area untouched for the purpose of the paper (Sinha 1968:123-131). It was not clear why he had done so and what purpose prevented him to undertake discussion on this vital area. More interestingly, few years later, Sinha wrote in the Foreword of the book Bibliographies of eminent Indian Anthropologists:

We are also impressed by the fact that these pioneering scholars, often working under severe limitations of resources, were engaged in life-long endeavour in their particular areas of academic interest. Each of them demonstrated a rare quality of mental independence while living most of their lives under colonial rule (Sinha 1974: iii).

Surajit Sinha never came up with a comprehensive and overall review of the results of the ‘mental independence’ of his predecessors who lived their ‘lives under colonial rule’. He seemed to satisfy himself only with the praise of N K Bose and occasionally T C Das.

3.    Celebrated Social Anthropologist and Sociologist André Béteille in one of his articles published in Sociological Bulletin in 1997 wrote:

In India, each generation of sociologists seems eager to start its work on a clean slate, with little or no attention to the work done before. This amnesia about the work of their predecessors is no less distinctive of Indian sociologists than their failure to innovate (Béteille 1997:98).

Béteille’s observation on Indian sociologists however, was not novel. Long before his pronouncement, N K Bose and Surajit Sinha critiqued Indian anthropologists almost in the same manner, which I have already mentioned.

Why the subaltern school needs more anthropology?

The factual description of the critiques, which I have made in the previous section, is a partial one. The other side of the story is also generally overlooked by the historians and Indian anthropologists. This is the story of the subaltern historians’ due recognition of the contribution of anthropology, and none other than Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee were the forerunners. The narrative began with the publication of a foreword by Ranajit Guha of a significant book entitled An Anthropologist among the Historians and other essays (1987) by a renowned American anthropologist, Bernard Cohn, who did his intensive fieldwork among the untouchable castes (the Chamars) in a village of Uttar Pradesh as early as in the 1950s.Bernard Cohn in his seminal essays published first in 1962 and then in the 1980s developed ideas about the relationship between the ‘field’ of the anthropologist and the ‘archive’ of the historian. (Cohn 1987). Cohn wrote in one of his important papers in the collection An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays:

The diagnostic work place of the historians and anthropologists, the field and the archive, contrast with respect to the differing modes of comprehension each represents…. The past exists not only in records of the past, but survives in buildings, objects and landscapes of the present day, the observation of which assists the historian in constructing the context. The anthropological historian therefore should have the working experience of both the field and the archive (Cohn 1987:18-49).

Cohn viewed archives as ‘cultural artifacts’, which were created by none other than human beings and accordingly, historians and anthropologists often interpenetrate archive and the field in many interesting ways, and he mainly studied the colonial archives in India. Ranajit Guha in the ‘Introduction’ to Cohn’s aforementioned book located anthropological research within the post Second World War period:

Since the end of the Second World War it is anthropology, rather than history, which has led the revolt against the mutual segregation of the two disciplines within the domain of South Asian Studies. Cohn was not the only rebel; he was one of a number of scholars whose writings showed unmistakable signs of a rapprochement in this respect (Guha 1987: vii-xxvi).

Apart from the important contributions of ‘writing history from below’ which corresponded with the ethnographer’s attempt to grasp ‘the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world’ the subaltern approach signalled a closer connection between anthropologists and the archive, the latter itself becoming increasingly understood as a valid ethnographic site (Mathur 2000:89-106; Comaroff & Comaroff 1992; Ortner 1984:126-166; Guha 1987). The subaltern advance, however, suffered its setback within thirty years, which of course was not a very short period of longevity for a school of thought. Among others, one of the reasons for the setback was its lack of touch with real people on the ground. Subaltern theorists were moving from one interesting archive to another, from one set of text to another set to construct their meta-narratives of anti-elitist historiography and finally losing the practice of the people in their day-to-day world-of-everyday-life. Partha Chatterjee, one of the core contributors of this genre admitted:

As an intellectual project, Subaltern Studies was perhaps overdetermined by its times. Given today’s changed contexts the tasks set out by it cannot be taken forward within the framework and methods mobilised for it. Subaltern Studies was a product of its time; another time calls for other projects (Chatterjee 2012:44-49).

What were the new projects visualized by Chatterjee? Interestingly, he observed that a more recent trend in the social science disciplines was to study the practice of the people rather than the texts which recorded the past or the present practice. In his words again:

We must also note the more recent trend in several disciplines to move away from texts to the study of practices. Led by anthropologists, this move highlights the autonomous status of embodied or institutional practices whose significance cannot simply be read off texts describing the underlying concepts. Thus, religious ritual is not necessarily an instantiation of a theological concept or dogma; the practice may be performed without the subject subscribing to, or perhaps even being aware of, the underlying religious concept (Chatterjee 2012:49).

More than a decade ago, in an extensive review of subaltern studies and the relationship between History and Anthropology, K. Sivaramakrishnan noted the importance of anthropological methodology of putting texts in their specific spatial contexts:

Therefore, the subalternists’ contribution to the convergence of history and anthropology is important. Resorting to anthropology and history from below can recover partial and hidden histories but it is not enough to juxtapose these fugitive accounts with master narratives and their exalted claims to total knowledge. The subaltern story may lose its punch if not situated in context (Sivaramakrishnan 1995:395-429).

In recent years the conjunction between history and anthropology became more pronounced in the writings of Brian Axel and Saurabh Dube. (Axel 2002 & Dube 2004 & 2007). Both Axel and Dube envisioned new unities between history and anthropology, archive and ethnography, synchronic and diachronic in their historical anthropology and more importantly, both have viewed power relations in colonial and post-colonial times as key elements in their project.

Significantly, following the trails of Cohn and the subalterns, some of the anthropologists who utilised the archives as cultural artifacts in India have put their major thrust on the annals created by the British colonialists, rather than the practices of the people in any specific locale. Notable examples of the archive genre are the series of works done by Nicholas Dirks on the colonial times of India (Dirks 2001). Important anthropological studies which juxtaposed field and governmental archives on post-colonial state in India however have also emerged in the recent years.In this connection, one may note that Surajit Sinha in a significant paper written as early as 1959 studied the social movements among the Bhumij community in the then Bihar (presently Jharkhand) by using colonial as well as post-colonial archival data along with his own field.

In sum, Ranajit Guha’s early pronouncement on the reunion of anthropology and history and Partha Chatterjee’s recent caution to subaltern historians’ over-emphasis to archive rather than looking at the real people on the ground as had been done by the anthropologists, is gradually looming large over the academic horizon. The sooner the subalternists in India put them into action may be a better option.

Axel, B. (Ed.). (2002). From the margins: Historical Anthropology and its Futures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Béteille, A. (1997). Newness in Sociological Enquiry. Sociological Bulletin. 46(1): 97-110.
Bose, N.K. (1952). Current research projects in Indian anthropology. Man in India, 32(2): 121-133.
Bose, N.K. (1962).Researches in Indian anthropology. Man in India, 42(3): 175-180.
Chatterjee, P. (2001). Subaltern History. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 2001, pp. 15237-15241(2nd edition 2015) on 04/05/2023).
Chatterjee, P. (2012). After subaltern studies. Economic and Political Weekly. XLVII: 44-49.
Cohn, B. (1987). An anthropologist anong the historians; a field study. In Bernard S.Cohn An Anthropologist among the Historians. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Cohn, B. (1987). History and Anthropology: the state of play. In Bernard S.Cohn An Anthropologist among the Historians. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Comaroff J, Comaroff J. (1992). Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Dirks, N.(2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dube, S. (2004). Post-colonial passages: Contemporary history-writing on India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Guha, A. (2017). The empire, its law and the bankruptcy of anthropologists. Economic and Political Weekly, 52(36): 23-25.
Guha, A. (2022). Nation-building in Indian Anthropology: Beyond the Colonial Encounter. New Delhi: Manohar.
Guha, R. (1987). Introduction. In Bernard S.Cohn An Anthropologist among the Historians. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Mathur, S. (2000). History and Anthropology in South Asia: Rethinking the Archive. Annual Review of Anthropology. 29: 89-106.
Pathy, J. (1981). Imperialism, Anthropology and the third world. Economic and Political Weekly, 16(14): 623-627.
Ortner S. (1984). Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society an History. 26(1):126- 66.
Sinha, S. (1959). Bhumij-Kshatriya Social Movement in South Manbhum. Bulletin of the Department of Anthropology. Calcutta University. VII(2): 9-32.
Sinha, S. (1967).Involvement in social change: a plea for own ideas. Economic and Political Weekly, 2 (37):1707-1709.
Sinha, S. (1968). Urgent Problems for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology in India: Perspective and Suggestions. Sociological Bulletin.17 (2):123-131.
Sinha, S. (1971).Is there an Indian tradition in social/cultural anthropology: retrospect and prospect? Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society. 6:1-14.
Sinha, S. (1974). ‘Foreword’. In Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (WITH LIFE-SKETCHES) By Shyamal Kumar Ray. Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta.
Sinha, S. (1980). India: A Western apprentice. In Anthropology: Ancestors and Heirs. Edited by Stanley Diamond. The Hague: Mouton.
Sivaramakrisnan, K. (1995).Situating the subaltern: History and Anthropology in the subaltern studies project. Journal of Historical Sociology. 8(4): 395-429.

I owe my debts to Partha Chatterjee and Ramchandra Guha for first inspiring me through ‘Dumont Sociology Study Group’ at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Kolkata during 1983-84 on this subject.


Back to Home Page

Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023