Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Historiography”, Nepantla: Views from South 1.1, Duke University Press, 2000

Note – I found this essay to be unpleasantly turgid and jargon obscured. However, the following points may be of interest –

Nationalism and colonialism thus emerged, unsurprisingly, as the two major areas of research and debate defining the field of modern In­dian history in the 1960s and 1970s. At one extreme of this debate was the Cambridge historian And Seal, whose 1968 book The Emergence of-Indian Nationalism pictured "nationalism" as the work of a tiny elite reared in the educational institutions the British set up in India. This elite, as Seal put it, both "competed and collaborated" with the British in their search for power and privilege. A few years later, this idea was pushed to an extreme in a book entitled Locality, Province, and Nation (1973) to which Seal, his colleague John Gallagher, and a posse of their doctoral students contributed. Their writings discounted the role of ideas and idealism in history and foregrounded an extremely narrow view of what constituted political and economic "interest" for historical actors. They argued that it was the penetration of the colonial state into the local structures of power in India - a move prompted by the financial self-interest of the raj rather than by any altruistic motives—that eventually, and by degrees, drew Indian elites into the colonial governmental process. According to this argument, the involvement of Indians in colonial institutions set off a scramble among the indigenous elites who combined—opportunistically and around fac­tions formed along "vertical" lines of patronage (in contradistinction to the so-called horizontal affiliations of class, that is)—to jockey for power and privilege within the limited opportunities for self-rule provided by the British. Such, the Cambridge historians claimed, was the real dynamic of that which outside observers or naive historians may have mistaken for an idealistic struggle for freedom. Nationalism and colonialism both came out in this history as straw and foil characters. The history of Indian nation­alism, said Seal (1973, 2), "was the rivalry between Indian and Indian, its relationship with imperialism that of die mutual clinging of two unsteady men of straw."

‘At the other extreme of this debate was the Indian historian Bi­pan Chandra, a professor in the 197os at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Chandra and his colleagues saw Indian history of the colonial period as an epic battle between the forces of nationalism and colonialism…. Chandra (1979) argued that colonialism was a regressive force that distorted all developments in India's society and polity. Social, political, and economic ills of postindependence India—including those of mass poverty and religious and caste conflict—could be blamed on the political economy of colonialism. However, Chan­dra saw nationalism in a different, contrasting light. He saw it as a regen­erative force, as the antithesis of colonialism, something that united and produced an "Indian people" by mobilizing them for struggle against the British. Nationalist leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru were the authors of such an anti-imperial movement for unity of the nation. Chandra claimed that the conflict of interest and ideology between the colonizers and the "Indian people" was the most important conflict of British India. All other conflicts of class or caste were secondary to this principal contradiction and were to be treated as such in histories of nationalism….

Yet as research progressed in the seventies, there emerged an in­creasing series of difficulties with both of these narratives. It was clear that the Cambridge version of "nationalist politics without ideas or idealism" would never ring true to scholars in the subcontinent who had themselves experienced the desire for freedom from colonial rule!' On the other hand, the nationalist historian's story of there having been a "moral war" between colonialism and nationalism wore increasingly thin as research by younger scholars in India and elsewhere brought new material to light. New infor­mation on the mobilization of the poor (peasants, tribals, and workers) by elite nationalist leaders in the course of the Gandhian mass movements in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, suggested a strongly reactionary side to the … Indian National Congress. (Researchers have) documented the way nationalist leaders would suppress with a heavy hand peasants' or workers' tendency to exceed the self-imposed lim­its of the nationalist political agenda by protesting the oppression meted out to them not only by the British but by the indigenous ruling groups as wel1….

Subaltern Studies … started as a critique of two contending schools of history: the Cambridge school and that of the nationalist historians. Both of these approaches, declared Cuba in a statement that inaugurated the series Subaltern Studies, were elitist. They wrote up the history of nation­alism as the story of an achievement by the elite classes, whether Indian or British…. Subaltern Studies was part of an attempt to align historical reasoning with larger movements for democracy in India…. As in the histories written by Thompson, Hobsbawm, Hill, and others, Subaltern Studies was also concerned about "rescuing from the con­descension of posterity" the pasts of the socially subordinate groups in India…. As he(Guha)  put it:

In all writings of this kind [ i.e., elitist historiography] the pa­rameters of Indian politics are assumed to he or enunciated as those of the institutions introduced by the British for the gov­ernment of the country.... [Elitist historians] can do no more than equate politics with the aggregation of activities and ideas of those who were directly involved in operating these institu­tions, that is, the colonial rulers and their élèves—the dominant groups in native society. (Guha 1984, 3-4)

‘Using "people" and "subaltern classes" synonymously and defining them as the "demographic difference between the total Indian population" and the dominant indigenous and foreign elite, Guha (1984, 4-5) claimed that there was, in colonial India, an "autonomous" domain of the "politics of the people" that was organized differently than the domain of the politics of the elite. Elite politics involved "vertical mobilization," "a greater reliance on Indian adaptations of British parliamentary institutions," and "tended to he relatively more legalistic and constitutional in orientation." In the domain of subaltern politics, on the other hand, mobilization for political intervention depended on horizontal affiliations such as "the traditional organization of kinship and territoriality or on class consciousness depending on the level of the consciousness of the people involved." They tended to be more violent than elite politics. Central to subaltern mobilizations was "a notion of resistance to elite domination." "The experience of exploitation and labour endowed this politics with many idioms, norms and values which put it in a category apart from elite politics," wrote Guha. Peasant uprisings in colonial India, he argued, reflected this separate and autonomous grammar of mobilization "in its most comprehensive form." Even in the case of resistance and protest by urban workers, the "figure of mobilization" was one that was "derived directly from peasant insurgency."