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History from below: What colonial-era peasant rebellions teach us about ourselves

History from below: What colonial-era peasant rebellions teach us about ourselves

‘De-colonisation’ is a rather undramatic term for one of the most dramatic processes in modern history: the disintegration of empire as a political order, and the de-legitimisation of racial subjugation as the dominant structuring principle.

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Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 21:02 IST
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Agriculture is the least-preferred occupation and the village, the least preferred home in India today, a far cry from the Gram Swaraj -- the republic of villages -- that Mahatma Gandhi envisaged.

This dichotomy is rooted in India’s colonial history, and there has been a wide range of studies on the agrarian question and peasant struggles. ‘De-colonisation’ is a rather undramatic term for one of the most dramatic processes in modern history: the disintegration of empire as a political order, and the de-legitimisation of racial subjugation as the dominant structuring principle.

What was missing in this discourse, though, was the question of power. It was in this backdrop that Ranajit Guha’s groundbreaking ‘Subaltern Studies’ appeared as the alternative dynamic, and presented the simple but obvious argument that the fundamental division in society was the one of the relations of domination and subordination.

Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (EAPI), published in 1983, is a classic work in subaltern studies and explores rebel consciousness during the Indian colonial period. EAPI describes from the peasants’ viewpoint the exploitative relations in rural India from 1783 to 1900. Peasant rebellions usually aimed not simply to expropriate property, but to reverse relations of domination and subordination, to “turn the world upside down”.

They were marked by ‘negation’, a consequence of the fact that the peasant’s “identity amounted to the sum of his subalternity…he learnt to recognise himself not by the property and attributes of his own social being but by a diminution, if not negation, of those of his superiors”. The appearance of EAPI, created a ferment in such diverse disciplines as history, anthropology and literature, compelling a radical rethinking of knowledge and social identities authored and authorised by colonialism and western domination.

EAPI is a powerful example of scholarship. In this wide-ranging study full of brilliant insights and methodological innovation, Guha returns to 19th-century peasant insurrections in colonial India. Reading colonial records and historiographical representations with a prescient eye, he presents a thought-provoking narrative of peasant-insurgent consciousness: mythic visions and bonds of community.

Challenging the idea that peasants were powerless agents who rebelled blindly against British imperialist oppression and local landlord exploitation, Guha emphasizes their awareness and will to effect political change. He suggests that the rebellions represented the birth of a theoretical consciousness and asserts that India’s long subaltern tradition lent power to the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Early in EAPI, Guha writes that peasant revolt in colonial India “was traditional only insofar as its roots could be traced back to pre-colonial times, but it was by no means archaic in the sense of being outmoded; it was, in fact, as modern as elite politics”. It should be no surprise then that farmer revolts reappeared in the wake of the growing crisis of the Indian State in the 1970s, and have recurred since. The dominance of the nation-state, cobbled together during the nationalist struggle against British rule, became precarious with growing social and political inequalities and conflicts.

The outbreak of powerful movements of different ideological hues -- not least JP’s Nav Nirman movement -- challenged the State’s claim to represent the people, and the State resorted increasingly to repression to preserve its dominance. Combining coercive measures with the powers of patronage and money, on the one hand, and the appeal of populist slogans and programmes, on the other, appear a recurring theme ever since for the State to gain legitimacy.

How then might we situate India as a Republic at 75? Those interested in India and those inimical to it, describe it in different vocabularies. Such scholarship has usually been marked by a teleology in which the future of India often tends to be seen in the present of the western world. The evident differences are then listed as marks of an incomplete ‘transition’.

Analysing India’s progress is often a search for what is wrong and its shortcomings, and of how far it has progressed in its ‘transition’ to where the West has already arrived. We need to reject this, not out of nationalist self-assertion, but because this approach stems from the inadequate de-colonisation of our minds. If we recognise that India’s long civilisation does not represent an earlier point in the arc of western historical development, it follows that articulating our future will require abandoning some of our conceptual vocabulary, born of our colonial past. To recall Jacques Derrida: “White mythology …remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest.”

Read Ranajit Guha’s EAPI. It tells you, without saying so, why India must seek its own ‘world view,’ independent of the western paradigm. And it is time to re-assert our autonomy, not as subalterns but as those who are now capable of writing our own history, free of colonialist or nationalist narratives.

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