Source: Biblio: June 1997, p. 15-17. ++Page 15

Shifting Subalternatives
Subaltern Studies IX: Writings on South Asian History and Society

Edited by Shahid Amin & Dipesh Chakrabarty. Oxford University
Press, New Delhi, 248 pp., Rs 475. ISBN 0-19563865-4

Reviewed by Masayuki Usuda

Gramsci was fully aware of the subalterns' incapability of thinking the state. Consciously, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed out, "Once the subaltern could imagine/think the state, he transcended, strictly speaking, the condition of subalternity". This remark, if superimposed on Marx's comment on the French lower peasantry's inability of representing themselves, predestines that the subaltern will not remain as it is when it speaks out systematically. Therefore, the appearance of a "subaltern" scholar in the SS group may be called an epoch-making event.
Undoubtedly one of the most influential and concerned intellectual endeavours in contemporary India, Subaltern Studies (hereinafter referred to as SS), started the publication of its series in 1982. The latest volume (No. IX) was issued last year.

The tone of SS, however, turned markedly with Vol. IV published in 1985 and a discursive shift took place then. After the publication of Vol. VI, Ranajit Guha relinquished the overall charge of editing SS. Vol. VII was issued under joint editorship in 1992. The shift in tone that had already begun in Vol. IV got all the more marked from this volume onward.

I would like to point to two basic trends directly relating to the reality of the subalterns. Subaltern Studies IX One is the apparent polarization between the rich and the poor, and a widening gap between the upper and bottom strata of the poor itself. Another is politicization of various levels/groups, such as the Backward Classes, NGOs and many citizen's movements on environment, gender, human rights and so on. In short, the "subaltern" today appears to be no more than a simple entity, silently waiting to be discovered/represented.

The shift of SS, in another sense, should be understood with reference to the global intellectual trends. The Indian market has been closely linked with the global economic system as a result of liberalizing processes. Intellectuals too cannot stand aloof from this trend. Even earlier, their diasporic situation had come into being as part of the colonial legacy. They had already settled in English-speaking countries in large numbers and established a wide academic network all over the world.

Since the beginning of the movement, SS has developed interdependently with various related fields of study and academic trends, such as cultural studies, post-colonial, post-structuralism and post-modernism. This relationship between SS and relevant fields of global current intellectual endeavour is, for instance, the reason why SS has been accepted as a part of cultural studies or post-colonial studies in the Japanese general intellectual scene.

Though Partha Chatterjee's lecture on SS delivered at Tokyo University appeared in translation two years later in 1987 with an introductory comment by Prof. Nagasaki, it did not affect Japanese intellectuals at large as it was published in the University Bulletin. In 1990 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's "In Other World" was translated in abridged from. The translators, however, omitted the "Deconstructing Historiography", article published in SS 4. This clearly shows the way Spivak was accepted in Japan. She was introduced before anything else as a rising literary critic in the US. The Japanese translation of Dipesh Chakrabarty's article appeared in Siso, one of the largest selling monthly magazines among intellectuals in its special number on cultural studies. Most of the readers recognised it as one of the standard works of cultural or post-colonial studies; the Japanese academic community was, however, not particularly concerned about its Indian context. In these circumstances, SS is deemed highly international and, ironically enough, intellectually 'elite'!

The shift within SS may be observed In various aspects. I would like to focus on just two of them, namely the question of subaltern/elite dichotomy and gender.

Ranajit Guha eloquently outlined the identification of the two domains, subaltern and elite in the very first volume of the SS series. Their conceptualization is indeed the key to the entire framework of the SS project. Discovery of subtalterns, who have been silent and had almost disappeared in the historical discourse, as a substantial entity on which "history from below" could be constructed was the starting point of scholars gathered in the SS collective. The foundation of this new discourse was laid by Guha through his long and assiduous efforts in the UK. His analysis of the Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India clearly shows where the foundation of SS was laid.

The essence of his contention was crystallized as a kind of manifesto in an artr1cle entitled "On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India" published in the first volume of SS. After criticizing elite historiography of Indian nationalism generated by both colonialism and nationalism, he shows that there existed an autonomous domain of people's or subaltern politics parallel to that of elite politics. The subaltern classes are identified in terms of the conditions of exploitation to which they were subjected while engaged in either manual or intellectual labour. In short, the subaltern classes are considered to form a substantial entity. However, the movements which arose from among the subaltern classes were not powerful enough to form a full-fledged struggle for national liberation. Therefore, their story is largely tragic, one of failure. On the other hand, it is also the story of failure on the part of bourgeois elite, so long as it could not properly incorporate subaltern in a newly-built nation state.

Even before the paradigmatic shift took place in SS, Prof. Amales Tripathi, a leading elite historian, made a frontal attack upon SS. He felt that, "Though efforts to write history of the lower classes have widened and deepened the purview of our knowledge, they have. (also) created many vacua." He raised three questions. First, "subaltern scholars" cannot give any clear and reasonable definition of subalterns. Adivasi insurgencies are over- emphasized while protests posed by other classes are belittled. Besides, the differentiation within adivasi communities should not be ignored either. Second, SS also do not take into account the obvious fact that in many cases subalterns tried to envisage their hopes, longings and dreams in the leadership of elites. Third, by applying structuralist techniques imprudently, SS reject the statements of both British and Indian elites, and thereby the SS scholars indulge in recursive reading.

More "regularly left-minded disciplinary historians" seem to take on more or less the same stance as Tripathi. Prof. Bipan Chandra is no less critical of the SS, saying "The Subaltern school's characterization of the national movement bears a disturbing resemblance to the imperialist and neo- imperialist characterization of the national movement. This approach is also characterized by a generally ahistorical glorification of all forms of popular militancy and consciousness and equally a historical contempt for all forms of initiative and activity by the intelligentsia, organised party leaderships and other elites."

In the course of the development of Subaltern Studies, however, the very meaning of the term "subaltern" seems to have shifted from a substantial entity to a mere conceptual one. Far from becoming clearer and more reasonable, the concept of "subaltern" has been further entangled and made more complex. Participants in various movements on environment, gender, human rights and so on are so diversely intersected that none of them is attributable to any decisively marked substantial entity. It is here that rather loosely conceptualized "subaltern" is able to subsume all such drifting participants in multifarious movements under a single category.

Yet it should be borne in mind that SS scholars do not exclude the domain of elite politics from their project. The phase of overlapping of the domains has been duly emphasized from the very beginning. However, it was mentioned in Vol. 1 itself that "the braiding together of the two strands of elite and subaltern politics led invariably to explosive situations". Nevertheless, after the second shift (1992), SS came (++Page 16) to be criticized for neglecting the subalterns. Increasing number of articles on bhadralok (Bengali Hindu middle class) society gave substance to the criticism. it was said that SS had turned to Bhadralok Studies! This tendency arose out of the growing concern about the subaltern position of women in bhadralok society. This was, presumably in the judgement of the members of the SS collective, an enlargement of their project. However, those who stick to the old concept of "subaltern" as a substantial entity see a deviation from the original intention. Extension of the concept of "subaltern" is a product of social changes and an incentive toward intellectual innovations as well.

The third point of Tripathi's criticism regarding recursive reading is important. Howsoever easily accept- able a criticism against international misreading (such as regarding a rogue as a protester) may be, it is an indispensable means to approach subalterns. Without the sense or will to read against the grain, nobody will be engaged in SS. This is manifested if we read Vivek Dhareshwar and R. Srivatsan's fine article on "rowdy- sheeters" (criminals on the black list) in Andhra Pradesh (SS IX). In the last section of their article, they say, "The figure of the "rowdy" emerges, and constantly duplicates itself, the very heart of the political discourse whose conditions of possibility is, paradoxically, the split or double-doubling (between the legal-political-moral subject and empirical subject of political technologies) that it tries to overcome."

SS is obviously an intellectual project which involves many theoretical difficulties. In SS IV, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak sums up the precarious position of SS in the following words: "Yet, since a 11 reading against the grain" must forever remain strategic, it can never claim to have established the authoritative truth of a text, it must forever remain dependent upon practical exigencies, never legitimately lead to a theoretical orthodoxy. In the case of the SS group, it would get the group off the dangerous hook of claiming to establish the true- knowledge of the subaltern and his consciousness.

However, let me return to a simple question. Is it right that SS remains as an intellectual project promoted only by elite schools? Has not there been a shift in the subaltern classes them- selves? And is the shift reflected in SS? It is only in the latest volume of the series that we can find an article written by a scholar of subaltern origin. Heretofore the pages of SS have largely been occupied by upper caste men, so far as the family names of contributors indicate. In Volume IX, Kancha Ilaiah has contributed an article entitled "Productive Labour Consciousness and History: The Dalitbahujan Alternative" as self-consciously the first scholar of subaltern origin.

When I thought of the absence of scholars of subaltern origin, I used to recall a Japanese short poem: "When a cowherd makes a poem, new styles of poetry arise in great numbers." Although it appears to be a good-for-nothing piece without any appeal to our mind now, it is a famous haiku repeatedly reproduced in school textbooks. Sachio Itoh (1864-1913), author of this poem, was one of the innovators of a traditional style of poetry and a dairy farmer by profession. This style of poetry has been loved by the Japanese including innumerable commoners. Yet, we must admit that his movement ultimately dwindled away to a rather self-satisfied organisation which supported imperialist-fascism. How about subalterns of India in the 1990's.?

Gramsci was fully aware of the subalterns' incapability of thinking the state. Consciously, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed out, "Once the subaltern could imagine/think the state, he transcended, strictly speaking, the condition of subalternity". This remark, if superimposed on Marx's comment on the French lower peasantry's inability of representing themselves, predestines that the subaltern will not remain as it is when it speaks out systematically. Therefore, the appearance of a "subaltern" scholar in the SS group may be called an epoch-making event. However, there still lie many difficult problems to be solved for the intellectual progress and accumulation of cultural capital on the part of subaltern classes.

On another matter, in the first three volumes of SS, women were not taken up as the theme of any article. Spivak comments on attitude of SS group towards women as follows: "The group is scrupulous in its consideration towards women. They record moments when men and women are joined in struggle, when their conditions of network or education suffer from gender or class discrimination. But I think they overlook how important the concept-metaphor woman is to the function of their discourse."

What were neglected in early SS can be summed up in the following points. First, the instrumentality of women was important in the shifting of the function of discursive system as insurgent mobilisation. Yet the discursive possibility of women is seldom raised by the group. Second, woman's subjugation is generally dissolved into the solidarity of the subaltern community. As a result, the subjectivity or subject-positioning of the the woman is placed outside the research agenda. There is the complicity between the subject and object of investigation, that is, the male historian and the patriarchal subaltern. Much more attention should be paid to the problem of women's subjugation which was brought about by the exchange of women even in subaltern communities. In this sense, Partha Chatterjee's attempt to consider the clash between kinship and politics is noteworthy. Third, today women's subjugation assumes a different character from that of colonial days. The combination of pre-existing structures of patriarchy and trans- national capitalism brings much misery to the urban sub-proletarian female who is a typical victim of the global economic system.

Spivak deconstructed the discourse of SS in this manner thus pushing its narrative of goddesses towards that of living subaltern women. It was again Spivak who wrote the first article on women for SS. She translated a Bengali short story written by Mahasweta Devi and contributed an article analysing it for Volume V Spivak's deconstructive reading paved the way for multifarious possibilities relating to the women's question. Roughly speaking, her consideration is related to nationalism (in her criticism of the author's explanation), analysis of labour and capital (in her discussion on Marxist feminism), feminism in international situation (in her comment on liberal feminism), psychoanalysis (in her consideration of a theory of woman's body) and religion (in her discussion on gendering).

It is, of course, simplification to sum up her elaborate discourse in this manner. Yet, by the wide coverage of her discussion, we may understand that the scope of women's studies was expanded. Let us see Spivak's approach in her own words: "Used as a text, 'Stanadayini" calls into question that aspect of western Marxist feminism which, from the point of the work, trivialises the theory of value and, from the view point of mothering as work, ignores the mother as subject. It calls into question that western liberal feminism which privileges the indigenous or diasporic elite from the Third World and identifies Woman with the reproductive or copulative body."

After Spivak's powerful intervention, arguments about gender appear to have taken the two different courses. One is the endeavour to understand the changing front of the contemporary women's question within the frame- work of the nationalist movement. The other stance, though mainly historic in perspective, has a close relation with the contemporary situation. It is because .the nation-wide patriarchal mobilisation of the Hindu Divine Mother and Holy Child" which is the target of criticism in Mahasweta Devi's "Standayini" is a negative legacy inherited from the nationalist movement.

The former course expressed itself in volume VI of the series. Julie Stephens contributed an article entitled "Feminist Fictions: A Critique of the Category 'Non-western Woman' in Feminist Writings on India." It is a bold theoretical attack upon westernized Indian feminists like Madhu Kishwar. Her contention is that westernized Indian feminists, in ardent pursuit of their Indian cultural construction, have lost sight of the importance of women as subjects and subaltern women are always beyond their reach. Susie Tharu, in her "Response to Julie Stephens" also published in the same volume, naturally, deplores the latter's "supercilious" distance from "the muddy world" in which Indian feminist workers "live and fight" within apparent limitation. This is what may be called a bad example of intervention from outside. However, faults should be attributed not to this young Australian postgraduate student but to the SS group who, I suppose, were eager to give wider outlook to their women studies.

In the latest volume of the SS, Susie Tharu herself has a fine article on the contemporary women's movements. Various type of movements, such as the anti-Mandal agitation, the politics of contraceptive choice, the feminism of the Hindu Right and anti-arrack movement are placed under her security. All these occurred in the early 1990's which, according to Tharu, "represent a turning point for Indian feminism". They definitely point to a new phase of feminism which cannot be gauged with "established" gender theory. For example, the Mandal issues questioned the validity of gender theory built on the liberal model. Pro~ Mandal groups we re accused that they were retrogressive supporters of casteism. In the politics of contraceptive choice, privacy, autonomy, and empowerment is now on the agenda of multi-national capital. What is more, powerful feminist lobbies such as the s Feminist Majority in the USA endorse these claims. Thus, under pressure of liberalization and globalization of economics, neo-nationalism has deeply affected the upper strata of Indian society while internationalization is going on as self-evident process.

Many interests intersect one another, as a result of which campaigns and movements, whether feminist or democratic, are promoted on a rather limited scale or by loosely-knit organizations. Anti-arrack movements in Andhra Pradesh illustrate this. Women, irrespective of their religion, caste or classes unite to prevent arrack from entering their village, but they never try to collaborate with any movement of the same kind beyond the village boundary. Susie Tharu's article conveys a vivid picture and problems of the contemporary movement involving women of India.

The second trend of discussion on women's problems is largely historical. Historians like Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty have engaged themselves in positioning women in the scheme of the nationalist movement. The starting point of the argument is why the "Women's/Women question' lapses into the relatively unimportant issue for nationalist discourse by the end of the 19th century. Chatterjee answers this traditional question as follows: the reason, Chatterjee says, lies in nationalism's success in situating the "women's question" in an inner domain of sovereignty, far removed from the area of political contest with (++Page 17) the colonial state. His argument is based on the well-known dichotomy of spiritual/material, feminine/masculine, and home/world. Middle class women were regarded as the embodiment of spiritual values which were the essence of the Indian nation. Their homes were regarded as sanctuaries to be protected by any means from vicious influences of the material outside world. Thus the 's question ceased to be an issue women I to be discussed in public. However, Chatterjee seems to be fully conscious of this. In his view, women were bound "to a new, and yet entirely legitimate, subordination "under the new patriarchy advocated by nationalism".

Nationalist ideology on women worked on the principle of exclusion, demarcating sharply between "new" women and common women who lived in the subaltern domain. Chatterjee also noticed this limitation. Referring to the biographical details of a few women, he examined how women who did not belong to the middle class were excluded from the nationalist value system. The purpose of his study lies in an attempt to find a way for overcoming the subjugated condition of common/subaltern women.

Dipesh Chakrabarty's article on the management of the bhadralok's domestic life invited some criticism. As subalterns were excluded from the purview of his narrative, this article was jeered at as typical piece of bhadralok studies. Its post-modernistic title, "The Difference-Diferral of a Colonial Modernity: Public Debates on Domesticity in British India" appears to be not a small cause for the criticism attracted by this article. However, what he writes, though certainly not how he writes, is easily understandable. In the modern bhadralok home, Victorian values such as discipline, obedience, dilligence, hygiene, education were intentionally introduced. Many books on domestic science were written in Bengali by authors, both male and female. These values served to link the domestic with the idea of the national in Bengal. as it did in England. On the other hand, the home was sanctified and protected from the colonial state with the utmost care even as it was exposed to modern British values by the same nationalist intellectuals.

Lastly, in SS IX, Kamala Visweswaran, analyses the moments self- assertion of middle class women. She is critical of Chatterjee's argument. Her contention is that in Chatterjee's discourse women's agencies are subject to a kind of silencing. Women are considered to be subaltern within the patriarchal frame of society. But they should be distinguished from subaltern women. Analyses of women's behaviour in jail reveal the distinction between women as subaltern and subaltern women as the jail became the sites for the struggle over the definition of classes and caste. Middle class women prisoners did their best to get treatment conformable to their social status. Naturally, lower-class women were deprived of jail privileges which middle class women received: "In this way, elite nationalists and colonial administrators shared similar attitudes towards lower class, poor women." Her other contention is that, contrary to what Spivak says, subaltern women can speak, though their voices are inevitably small.

Back to the top.

Return to Biblio, June 1997 OR go to

Webber Philip McEldowney
Last Update - Friday, 16-Oct-2009 10:08:12 EDT
Count - 3