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Jun 3, 2014

Making of the Subaltern in India: Jyoti Agrahari


Making of the Subaltern in India: Jyoti Agrahari

The groundbreaking text Orientalism written by Edward Said has widened the arena for the post-colonial thinkers to consider the text with a new mechanism in Third World context.Orientalism has developed a purported approach of binary opposition to dismantling the East/West dualism in relation to Eurocentric edifice. The focal point of Said's study is the 'West' and its observation of the 'East'. The former having all positive traits: white, brave, dynamic, civilized, cultured, educated, rich of the 'Empire' identifies the 'Eastern countries' as the 'Other' with all the negative attributes: black, coward, static, barbaric, natural, uneducated poor people of the 'Colony' - subjected to their contempt. The post-colonial intellectuals challenge the Eurocentric view by drawing the attention towards the 'people' of the 'decolonized nations' in which the 'Other' belonging to the elite or bourgeoisie sections of the society emerges as the neo-colonizers to exploit its other (the subaltern or other’s other) who are inferior to them in terms of caste, class, office and gender.

Post-colonial India has taken a lead in probing the issue of subaltern in all the existent field of knowledge. It has promoted the interdisciplinary researches clubbing history, economics, politics, psychology and anthropology to re-read those dynamics of Indian civilization and history that caused and perpetuated the regime of an unequal society. Initially the term 'subaltern' was a military term used to refer to the officers under the rank of captain. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks used the term to refer to the unorganized groups of rural peasants based in Southern Italy, who had no social or political consciousness as a group and were therefore susceptible to the ruling ideas, culture and leadership of the state. (Morton 2007, p. 48) In its current usage drawn from Gramsci, Ranajit Guha with other Subaltern Studies Historians have employed the term for all those who are at the lowest in terms of class, caste and gender and thus the 'people' become the central point of contention in the cultural studies across the world.

Subaltern studies has drawn in its ambit more significantly political and economic history to understand and expose how the distribution of power and wealth throughout ages supported and promoted the interest of social group having political and economic power. Moreover by circulating the myth of the inferiority of the colonized and getting it re-informed through the education system, the colonizers get it internalized by the natives. Once that is done, this myth acquires a dimension in which the colonized views his status through the mirror of the colonizers. Therefore, it becomes essential for the subaltern studies group to include all the post-colonial intellectuals to recognize how certain social group has the position of advantage and the 'other' has been remained dispossessed. Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Sumit Sarkar, Gayatri C. Spivak and other contributors to the Subaltern Studies represent their engagement with a new kind of history writing that tries to identify with the 'subaltern' in sociology, history and politics prevailed in India from colonial age to independence and after.

Therefore, the post-colonial academic scholars collectively and individually excavate and underscore that the narratives of discrimination and injustice against the deprived segment of India has ingrained in power relationship since the ancient times. They testified that the traditional history has been the representative of imperialist history because it has allied itself with the concern of 'elite' classes. They raise questions about the truthfulness of history, "how can history claim to speak the truth about past when it has focused its attention on the dominant group of society, the elite?" Substantially with the subaltern studies a new field of cultural studies comes into being that claims to explore those fields of history, culture, literature, and economics that particularly is concerned with the 'people' living 'behind the wing' having a neglected existence in the nation. The subaltern studies historians in their meticulously researched analyses not only seek to identify the modes and mores of domination that makes subalterns subordinate to power but also try to find out an understanding of people as "subjects of their own histories". (Das 1988, p. 312)

The persistent hypotheses such as caste, class, gender, system of patriarchy and nation bring to acknowledge that subalterns' consciousness is predominantly governed by physical coercion of the state (presence) rather than mutual consent of the 'people' (absence) as a result most of the masses of hinterland have been effaced throughout history. In order to make the absence into presence the subaltern studies group profoundly show their concern to the relevant affair of the age and think it their commitment to 'fill up the gap' by turning the things upside down. To emphasize their task Rosalind O' Hanlon quotes Partha Chatterjee's statement:

The task now is to fill up the emptiness, that is, representation of the subaltern consciousness in elitist historiography. Its must be given its own specific content with its own history and development...only than can we recreate not merely the whole aspect of human history whose existent elitist historiography has hitherto denied, but also the history of the 'modern period', the epoch of capitalism". (O' Hanlon 1988, p. 196)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word 'Subaltern' as 'of inferior rank', whether it is expressed in terms of class, caste, race, gender and office or in any other way. 'Sub' means 'under' or 'below', 'altern' means 'other'. In other words, subaltern studies focuses on the traditionally and historically neglected groups: the rural and urban poor, schedule castes, schedule tribes, landless, dispossessed and women. (Guha 1982 a, p. vii) Although it is difficult to deal the definition of the same, for e.g. a poor Brahman woman's identity can be homogenized and trapped in double jeopardy if she lives in a rich household of a lower caste because the status of a person in any society is constituted and constructed by power relationship. The term 'subaltern' (the subordinate) can easily be understood in relationship of which the other is 'elite' (the dominant). The subalterns are the disempowered people excluded from the political and national representation in post-colonial nations such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.

The perception of the elite society to look at the prevailed hypotheses - belief in religion, power politics of class, caste, gender and nation and narration from traditional point of view has hardened the lives of subalterns and degraded their status. They have been compelled to accept their inferiority as the dispensation of fate though tribal peasantry has always emerged as rebel against unjust rulers and iniquitous social order. This is the reason why Partha Chatterjee in his analysis on the subalterns writes, "The subaltern is a unity of two contradictory aspects: in one, the peasant is subordinate, where he accepts the immediate reality of power relations that dominate and exploit him: in the other, he denies those conditions of subordination and asserts his autonomy". (Chatterjee 1994 a, p. 167) However, the contrast between the ostentatious luxury and excessive deprivation has given origin to Marxism and Feminism. These approaches have found a ready soil in India to challenge the current norms of established tradition. Marx with his condemnation of poverty and his justification of class war as an instrument of social progress has challenged the foundation of Indian's belief and has appealed to the masses as well as to the egalitarian to be the volunteer to discard the futility of prevailed 'ideologies'.

Ideology is a concept in which the men live out their roles in an interrelationship of caste-class system, its values, ideas and images that tie subalterns to their social functions and prevent them from a true knowledge of society as a whole. The knowledge of this etiquette has been internalized by the common people as their 'consciousness' in moral terms it becomes their 'common sense' - the truth beyond any question or justification that Raymond Williams refers to the "world view" or "class outlook". (Barry 1995 a, p. 164) It turns out to be their "subaltern consciousness" alienating them from their 'self'. Foucault replaces the term ideology by employing the term "discourse" - the advancement of the modern regime of power, in which power is meant not to prohibit but to facilitate to produce. It represents the whole 'mental set' of powerful people determining the knowledge and the truth about those who are controlled. (Barry 1995 b, p. 176) the social structure of class, caste, gender and nationalism may also be considered as 'historicized political belief' constructed under discourse of power to serve the purpose of the 'maker of society' that seems to subalterns as a natural and unavoidable truth.

The issue of Subaltern could evidently be understood by an explication of the prevailed ideologies in Indian society because the essence of India lies in the 'caste system' that governs the citizens all their life. It has provided India with a very simple maxim that wherever one lives in India, he will be surrounded by the world of caste, whether he is Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or any tribal group. It is at the centre of Hindu religion that establishes a wider gap between people. The core thought of Hinduism has provided the means of exploitation to the strong: the upper three castes Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers), Vaishyas (merchants) against the weak Shudras (untouchables) and Atishudras (outcasts). It is deeply entrenched in Indian society as Varnashram. Shashi Tharoor's perception of caste gives a clear understanding of caste system:
Caste began, quite simply, as apartheid; the original term for it, Varna, meant “colour” in Sanskrit, and the caste system was probably invented by the light-skinned Aryans who invaded north India in about 1500 B.C. to put down the darker-hued indigenes. A verse of Rig Veda enshrines the original fourfold caste division: when god made Man, the verse says, the learned, priestly Brahmin emerged from his forehead, the warrior Kshatriya from his arms, the farmer-merchant Vaishya from his thighs, and the laborer-artisan Sudra from his feet. The Untouchables lay even beyond this caste classification, and were therefore literally outcasts… (Tharoor 1997, p. 103)
Before colonisation, the division of caste was based upon the upper caste feudal aristocracy but after the British conquered Bengal and eventually the whole of India, they set out to administer the colony and converted the feudal aristocracy into bureaucratic autocracy. They shattered the community system by introducing the ‘zamindari’ system in 1793 in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa as ‘the permanent settlement of land’ and in due course spread all over India. (Mukherjee 1999, p. 1759) The British benefited the rich, upper caste landowners, moneylenders and traders by providing them the authority of the land and successfully created anarchy in the tribal areas through rapid deforestation and industrialisation. Through this strategy, they made the rich upper caste Indians instrumental in exploiting the lives of common peasants. The Indian bourgeoisie contentedly accepted the social, political, economic and technical developments initiated by the British. The people belonging to middle castes were involved under 'comprador classes'. The status of king and other rulers was given to the new classes who were entirely depended upon the East India Company for their prosperity. The aim of colonizers was consisted in the Macaulay's "Minute on Indian Education" (1835): "We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". (Spivak 1988 a, p. 282) These men were called 'Babu' literate persons from elite society enjoying some privilege under the government. With the passage of time, however they became aware of being deployed only as comprador class and not the real participants in the governance which made them launch open protest against the British rule and led to the foundation of the Congress in 1885. With the intervention of the British, the caste structure has transformed itself into the class structure and caused the origin of the nation in colonial and post colonial India. A Marxist historian E. P. Thompson comments:

Classes do not exist as separate entities, who look around, find an empty class, and then start to struggle. On the contrary, people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways (crucially, but not exclusively, in productive relations), they experience exploitation (or the need to maintain power over those whom they exploit). They identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence to struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling, they discover themselves as classes, and they come to know this discovery as class-consciousness. (Bahl 1997, p. 1338)

Thus, the ideology of nationalism and class, the two major products of the European import, have continued to colonize the mind of the decolonized nations. It has deeply engrossed the mind of citizens all over the world. Both of them have certain limitations because neither nation nor narration of history (the emergence of national symbols such as the flag, anthem and emblem) has ever recognized the 'people' as the part of its culture. All of us are aware of the role of leaders in Indian independence such as Mahatma Gandhi and many others who belong to the elite society but a few people know about Birsa Munda and other tribal groups who also have fought against the exploiters and paved the way for nationalists to fight against the British. It is an unavoidable truth that without the abolition of the caste/class disparities any reformation: economic, political, social, cultural and national cannot be achieved.

Partha Chatterjee addresses the nationalist elite in terms of middle class, literati, and intelligentsia (Chatterjee 1994 b, p. 35) 'of bhadralok' (the respected folk 'mockingly'). These middle classes being very cautious about the spiritual sphere have made all the propaganda about the subalterns and the tactics of their subordination. While talking about The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Questions Partha Chatterjee has elaborated how the Indians separated themselves in two domains: the material and the spiritual: in the material sphere (the outer world) related to 'men', they accepted the subjugation by the western civilized. But the colonized never permitted them to govern the spiritual (inner) sphere the 'home' or 'women'. They had blocked women's progress, they imprisoned them in the medieval age of darkness and emphasized that a woman should aspire for mythological qualities of Sati, Savitri and Sita-the icons and virtues of femininity. Thus, the new women confined to bear new responsibilities within the paradigm of spiritual qualities: sacrifice, benevolence, modesty, devotion, religiosity, etc. and the nationalists sought to resolve the women's question in accordance with the historical project. (Chatterjee 1990 c, p. 248)

Under the new regime of power politics, the nationalists have advocated for women 'the honour of social responsibility' that bound them to a new subordination-drained of their identity. The subaltern woman is one of the principal interests to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the world's foremost literary theorists, feminists, translators and subaltern historians commenting on the approach of the Subaltern Studies group writes in her landmark essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" :
...between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the "third-world woman" caught between tradition and modernization.((Spivak 1988 b, p. 306) 
 Spivak emphasizes that both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant and female in "shadow". It is therefore clearly perceptible that women are subjected to 'double colonization' - that is, in the first instance in the domestic sphere, the patriarchy of men, and then in the public sphere, the patriarchy of colonial power. This has led to increasing companionship being made between patriarchy and colonialism. It is the key of the contention why "female emancipation" seems to disappear from public agenda.

In this matrix, it would not be inappropriate to say that the issue of the subalterns within the framework of women and the discarded segments of society calls the third world Marxists, feminists and deconstructionists to analyze diverse kind of tragic predicaments of the people. The geopolitical, economic, historical, political and social maps of the highly backward Indians of the rural and urban regions guided by their 'subaltern consciousness' make us alert to recurring famine, drought, starvation, malnutrition, disease, superstitious belief, bonded slavery, sexual exploitation and humiliation as the by-product of elite society.

Bahl, Vinay 1997, "Relevance or (Irrelevance) Of Subaltern Studies", Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 32, no. 23, p. 1338
Barry, Peter 1995 a, quotes Raymond Williams's “Marxism and Literature”, Beginning Theory, New York: Manchester University Press.
Barry, Peter 1995 b, Beginning Theory, New York: Manchester University Press.
Chatterjee, Partha 1994 a, "The Nation and its Peasants", The Nation And Its Fragments, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Chatterjee, Partha 1994 b, ibid.
Chatterjee, Partha 1990 c, "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Questions", in Sangari, Kumkum and Vaid, Suresh, (ed.), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Das, Veena 1988, "Subaltern as Perspective", in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies VI: Writing in South Asian History and Society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Guha, Ranajit 1982 a, "Preface" in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies I: Writing in South Asian History and Society, New York: Oxford University Press.
Morton, Stephen 2007, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, New York: Routledge.
Mukherjee, Ramkrisna 1999, "Caste in Itself, Caste and Class, or Caste in Class", Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 34, no. 27 p. 1759
O' Hanlon, Rosalind 1988, "Recovering the Subject Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia", Modern Asian Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 189-224
Spivak C. Gayatri 1988 a, quotes Mahamahopadhyay Haraprasad Shastri, A Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Government Collection under the care of the Asiatic society of Bengal: Calcutta, 1925, vol.3, p. viii, in her essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?", (eds.) Carry Nelson and Larry Grossberg, Marxism and Interpretation of Culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Spivak, C. Gayatri 1988 b, "Can the Subaltern Speak?", in Carry Nelson and Larry Grossberg, (eds.) Marxism and Interpretation of Culture, 282, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Tharoor, Shashi 1997, "Scheduled Castes, Unscheduled Change", India: From Midnight to the Millennium, New Delhi: Penguin.

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