Ranajit Guha gave a new dimension to history writing through subaltern studies

A historic historian, Guha remains India's pride for another reason— as a diasporic voice publishing in his regional language and speaking to his cultural roots through decades of living abroad

Dr. Ranajit Guha (Photo: NH File Photo)
Dr. Ranajit Guha (Photo: NH File Photo)

Nitya Chakraborty/IPA

Dr. Ranajit Guha, perhaps the world’s best-known Indian historian, passed away on April 28, less than a month before the Renaissance man was due to touch his 100th year on May 23. Guha is remembered for having introduced a new approach to history writing, informed by subaltern studies. Born in 1923 in the then-Bakharganj district of undivided Bengal, now in Bangladesh, Guha spent his last 23 years since 1999 in his villa in Vienna, Austria. He remained intellectually active to the end.

Hailing from a well-to-do landowning family, Guha’s father was a leading lawyer and he imparted his nationalist ideas to his son during his school days. Small wonder that Guha, ever curious and a voracious bookworm, grew into an activist for the communist-dominated Students’ Federation during his years at Presidency College in Kolkata (then Calcutta).

He was a favourite student of the legendary Susobhan Sarkar, who headed the history department in those days. Guha obtained his M.A. degree in history from Calcutta University. By this time, he had become a full-fledged and active member of the Community Party of India (CPI), the country’s first. His organisational talent in particular had the party leadership sitting up and taking notice. Guha was sent to Paris in 1947 as the CPI's nominee to the World Federation of Democratic Youth, which was very active in the post-World War II period. Guha did his job extremely well during his seven-year tenure of organising the youth movement globally.

During this period, he was also a key person monitoring the activities of the Indian students who were close to the CPI. The veteran CPI leader Mohit Sen wrote in his memoir of Ranajit Guha telling him of the CPI high command’s directive that, after completing his term at Cambridge, he would move to China for three years, joining the international party school. Guha came back to Kolkata in 1953 and taught at a number of colleges, before finally joining Jadavpur University. There he found a young Amartya Sen as a colleague in the newly set up economics department.

About Guha, Amartya Sen wrote in in his memoir: “Ranajit-da and the circle around him were not only intellectually important for me, they also contributed greatly to my social life in Calcutta. Regular conversations with the group were a huge addition to my life as a young teacher in Calcutta. When Dharma Kumar visited Calcutta and came with me to Ranajit-da’s addas, she expressed astonishment at the range of issues we managed to discuss in our evening gatherings. Even now, I feel that as academic discussions go, it would be hard to match those in the small, unassuming apartment in Panditiya Road in the mid-1950s.”

Ranajit Guha left Jadavpur University and Calcutta in 1959, continuing his work at various universities abroad—notably the University of Sussex and the Australian National University. However, the foundation of his career as one of the most influential historians in the world was owed to Bengal, including that six-year stint in Kolkata between 1953 and 1959.

Guha’s doctoral thesis looked into the changing features of industry, agriculture and revenue systems under the East Indian Company. The first publication born out of this research, on the ‘Salt Industry in Midnapore’ was written in Bengali and came out in the journal Itihash in 1954.

This was followed by a controversial piece in the leading literary monthly Parichay, a distinctly Left-leaning publication. It would be the beginning of Guha’s series on the Permanent Settlement of Bengal and its consequences. His approach was innovative enough compared to the conventional Marxist thinking to cause an uproar—he was compelled to discontinue the series midway, though his entanglement with the CPI had dwindled and he was not a formal member of the party at this point.

Guha went on to complete his thesis during his years abroad. In the 1960s, his essay A Rule of Property for Bengal, published in Paris with the assistance of American economist Daniel Thorner (who was then in exile in France, owing to the McCarthy-period anti-communist vendetta), established Guha as an up-and-coming historian of promise with a fresh perspective.

After teaching in Sussex till 1980, Guha went to Australia for eight years. Guha’s seminal work, titled The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, also came out during his stay in Australia, in 1983. Its roots can be traced back to his tenure at Delhi University in 1970–71, when he had discussions with a number of Naxalite leaders and students. Having extensively studied the background of the movement in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh during the Naxalbari period, he incorporated these insights. In the meantime, he edited six volumes of Subaltern Studies, which he handed over to younger colleagues in 1989.

After that, until his shift to Vienna in 1999, he travelled the world as visiting faculty at various universities. During his work as editor of Subaltern Studies and his travels, Guha’s interests and reading diversified into other areas besides history—philosophy, linguistics, and, especially, Bengali literature.

While the academic community of English-speaking historians was familiar with Guha’s expertise and signal work in informing history with Gramscian subaltern studies, for the Bengali readers, his insights were something unprecedented when Guha started writing in his mother tongue in 2007. The falling in love seemed mutual—Guha continued to write exclusively in Bengali thereafter, for the last fifteen years. As recently as last month, in discussion with Chicago-based historian Prof. Dipesh Chakraborty, he commented on current political and literary trends in Bengal.

In 2009, at the age of was 86, Guha published two Bengali-language books. One of them reviewed Bengali literature from canonical greats such as Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, all the way to recent poets such as Sankha Ghosh, Sunil Ganguly and Utpal Kumar Basu. Guha also presented a new critical understanding of the last part of the Mahabharata. Leading literary theorist and academician Sukanta Chaudhuri, in his introduction to Guha’s latest collection of writings in Bengali, writes that after Buddhadeb Basu and Sudhindranath Dutta, no other critic had traversed the vast canvas of Bengali literature with such ease and with such clarity.

The living legend passed on this Friday at the ripe old age of 99, leaving both sorrow and pride in the nation of his birth, although he had lived abroad for 64 years—not just a historical historian of India, but also one of very few diasporic voices to continue producing in their regional language.

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