-santosh kumar

Subaltern as a class is highly unrepresented and marginalized in the historical narrative for a long time. Voice of this class hardly appears in historical accounts much less in official government records and whenever in the nationalist struggle did this group appeared in the struggle it was painted by the colonial perceptions about the subalterns. Ranajit guha identifies the elitist nature of the historiography of the nationalist struggle which he identifies as colonial and nationalist or neo nationalist historiography. In the colonial historiography national movement was a defined as a process of compromise between the colonial state and new emerging elite class for sharing power and resources. Conversely the nationalist and neo nationalist historiography traces the movement as an initiative of the elite leaders who led the masses to revolution.

Both these interpretations have something in common. That is, both of them keep the subaltern class at bay. Mass movements are either not recognized or are seen as deviation from the mainstream nationalist movement. These mass movements are typically characterized as being unorganized violent movements

Here we are intended to study the role of archives as a source to understand the history of these marginal classes. Here we must keep in mind certain things about the archive. Firstly as is not generally understood archives are not neutral sources nor are they unbiased. Archives are created by the state and is an instrument of rule therefore the accounts of the archives represent the perception of the state therefore Ranajit guha urges to look beyond the archive and not to look archive at face value but rather to read the archive against the grain

But here we come across a fatal error that Ranajit guha commits. That is to assume state as well as the subalterns to be a monolithic homogeneous class. It must be emphasized that neither the subalterns nor the state holds any single ideology. This point is very well illustrated in the work of Ann stoler who points out the discrepancies in the accounts of different colonial officials in the case of a violent upsurge by the plantation workers in java east coast. In her article colonial archive and act of governance she points out that there are multiplicity of perspectives even within the state archives and colonial perception about the native population is also not something that remains fixed throughout. These perspectives are variable as well as changeable. Thus what is emphasized here is to read the archive as a critical source as a historical artifact in itself and to read along the grain than against the grain

Another harbinger of this subaltern understanding is shahid amin who through his work events metaphor memory uses chauri chaura as a background to critique the elitist nature of the nationalist struggle. He has pointed to the absence of subaltern voice from the official accounts but also questions whether the voice given to the peasants in certain colonial accounts is really the voice of the subaltern or is it the colonial perception about the peasantry. This point is also shared by Ann stoler who points out that often the colonial officials filled the gap in his accounts through their imagination or through their perception of the incidents. Shahid amin also similar to Ranajit guha thought of studying beyond the archives and tried to construct the history of the subalterns through the oral sources. But his work is seminal in the sense it led to a debate on the traditional way of looking at the archival material as well as the national movement and attempts were made to restudy and reread the sources which Romila thapar calls as critical study and which according to Charu gupta though not flawless in itself is very important to remove the stamp of authority from the sources

So returning back to Ranajit guha who tries to analyze how archival sources treat the subalterns in a particular way. According to him language plays a very dominant role here. Language in itself is not unbiased. And often we find choice of value laded terms alter the meaning of the text considerably. For example the common word used for peasant revolutionaries in colonial records is an insurgent which has a very different connotation from that of revolutionaries. Similarly we find the use of natural phenomena like thunder hailstorm to signify the actions of the insurgents. The whole process of using choice words or sentences which denote a particular viewpoint (that is the colonial viewpoint) is what Ranajit guha calls the process of functions and indices

Ranajit guha finds the process really important as these views don’t remain restricted to the archival source but the words and with the words the particularistic understandings get transferred when these archives are used by the scholars to write their own accounts accounts. Ranajit guha calls it primary secondary and tertiary discourse. Primary accounts are the one written by the officials as official transactions or letters exchanged at the time of the peasant uprising. Such accounts according to Ranajit guha shows the signs of fear and prejudice of the peasants whom they consider violent god fearing and haters of colonial regime as also reflected in Ann stoler’s analysis of Sumatra east coast. Thus these accounts use language like insurgents violence illegal hostile for the peasants while legal bureaucratic terms like order forces action etc for the British retaliation. In the secondary discourse we find the accounts written by officials some time after the rebellion either as official records or as personal accounts for mass reading. Though we find in certain cases, like in case of Sumatra plantations, dissenting voices in these accounts, We don’t find the sense of urgency in these accounts like in primary discourse but the language seeps in to the secondary discourse like for e.g. we hunter’s account of santhal rebellion though gives the feeling of being unbiased reflects through its language the bias of treating as a irrational mindless class. Secondary accounts are in a sense the language of the state masked by neutrality
The tertiary discourse are the modern works on peasant rebellion which derives their sources from these accounts. But according to guha in the nationalist and Marxist discourse still we find the echoing of colonial language which tends to focus on the elitist version of history and thus corresponds to the colonial view of treating the masses as irrational and not giving them space as political actors of the rebellion rather than just being the followers of some elite leaders

So what we can point out from our discussion is that archive though gives a feeling of being an unbiased repository of information unlike literary sources which need to interpreted and have subjective perceptions of the author this distinction is highly falsified. Archives can also be biased and subjective as literary sources but archives rather than any individual represents the perceptions of the state.

But here we must be conscious of the fact about how we define state. No longer can we adhere to a changeless entity of state. Which also means that archive offers multiple perspectives of the state but which also means that archive keep on changing with change in power relations or change in ideology of the state

Talking of the subalterns they also like the state are not a homogeneous category and are divided by caste religion and ethnic identities etc. As some scholars argue that the conditions of famine etc many a time rather than uniting divide the peasantry due to their competition over limited food resources. But even as a class peasants are hardly represented in official records due to overemphasis of nationalist history “from above” which rules out or marginalize the role of peasant class. It is a pity that this marginalization and ignorance of historical agency of peasants have not been given enough weight age even after independence though the coming of subaltern school in Indian history has led to critical evaluation of sources in this regard we are yet struck to elitist frame of history when it comes to mainstream history

Thus it becomes even more important to read archives with a critical eye to see the hidden representation of the subalterns. The questions to be asked from archives are twofold: how are peasants represented in archives and secondly what seems to ask- whether this is really the voice of peasants or state’s perception of the voice of the peasants


  1. Guha, Ranajit- the prose of counter insurgency
  2. Guha, Ranajit- on some aspects of historiography of colonial India
  3. Stoler, Ann- in cold blood
  4. Stoler, Ann- colonial archives and acts of governance
  5. Raj, merin simi- revisiting nationalist historiography through the narrativization of past events
  6. Amin, shahid- event, metaphor, memory: chauri chaura