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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency

Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. By Ranajit Guha. (London: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. 215).


The historiography surrounding Indian peasantry and rebellion has been a source of ardent debate for historians. Being able to add clarity to the labyrinth of Indian peasant history is no small task for any writer. Ranajit Guha, however, effectively provides strong and convincing evidence that adds a new perspective to the time period and the historiography of Indian studies. In this book, Guha focuses on the critical formative development and understanding of subaltern studies to convince his audience that the elementary aspects of peasant historiography are to be found in the subaltern themselves, and not the traditional British colonial history of years past.

In defense of his work, Guha points out that the traditional understanding of peasant historiography has generally come from a very Eurocentric position, which labels Indian peasants and their rebellions as being wild, ferocious and violent outbursts that required the strong arm of European might to control. In this sense, the “discourse of power,” as Guha put it, places an emphasis on the “rebel conscience” and not the “liberated conscience” (11). To support such a claim, Guha makes special note of several Indian rebellions (ranging from the 18th century to the 20th) and how each rebellion demonstrated a unique consciousness and development, which, for Guha refutes the notion that these various rebellions were the acts of impulsive warmongers (4). And since the rebellions indicate that a strong sense of development and planning went into them, Guha insists that a continued Eurocentric understanding of Indian peasantry and its rebellions will render an incomplete history and continue to deny the subaltern a voice.

It is Guha’s emphasis on the role of the subaltern that renders his work to be highly praised. Instead of automatically labeling the actions of peasant rebels as ferocious, violent, etc., Guha is left free to uncover the psychology behind the burnings and lootings of British homes, stores, etc. In so doing, Guha uncovers the methodical, predetermined objectives behind these rebel attacks (144). It therefore comes as no surprise that Guha’s focus on the subaltern involves the role of class division, which was taken advantage of by the British at every opportunity. However, as the subaltern became more aware of his place in society, the desire to “fight for prestige” and “abolish the marks of his own subalernity” became the principle motive behind the revolts themselves (75). And as Guha continually reminds us throughout the book, this is a reality that cannot be discovered through a continued Eurocentric view of Indian history.

And while Guha’s central thesis rests upon the notion that the subaltern (in this case, Indian peasants) have a discernable voice that is to be recognized by historians, it is interesting to note that much of his research and defense rests upon Western concepts and perspectives. For example, Guha sites and draws upon Marxist ideas to support the dichotomy that existed in the social classes (165-166). However, in so doing, Guha seems to distance himself from his original thesis, which is that a subaltern should be taken at face value, without the influence of (in this case) Eurocentic concepts and ideas, which tend to distort the historical record. By using Marx as a source for his illustration of class distinction in India, Guha draws in the very Eurocentric ideology he claimed to shun.

Yet, this apparent flaw in Guha’s thesis actually adds a measure of credibility to the book’s argument. As Guha points out, the traditional understanding of subalterns tends to be from the perspective of the “dominant” civilization, in this case the British (219). However, by using a traditionally Eurocentric source like Marx, Guha is able to illustrate to a European audience how the subaltern came about seeking an improvement in their social status, which, in turn, helps his audience understand the elementary aspects of peasant insurgencies.

In summation, Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency is a striking summation of the “behind the scenes” events that triggered a plethora of peasant rebellions in India. By focusing on the subaltern, Guha presents his audience with an alternative perspective to traditional, Eurocentric Indian historiography. The appeal of his work should therefore be seen through the lens of the often-voiceless subaltern, who, according to Guha, have left behind and indelible impression on Indian history. And though many of his conclusions are likely to be challenged, Guha’s work is sure to remain relevant to the discussion of Indian peasantry and subaltern studies for many years to come.

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