Ranajit Guha: A giant in academia with profound human emotions

Ranajit Guha
Bhaskar Mukherjee

Ranajit Guha fell short by 25 days to become a centenarian but his thoughts and work will provoke us for at least the next hundred years.

The most eminent historian of the subcontinent died yesterday, on 28 April at his Austrian residence.

Guha is largely known as the most influential figure of the subaltern studies and was the editor of the early anthologies of the group.

But it would be wrong to treat Guha only as a subaltern historian or even a mere historian, he was the giant in academia who changed the perception upside down and almost single-handedly changed the way of practicing history of South Asia.

What was Guha in short? He was the one who used to question relentlessly by shattering the traditional practice, status quo and even thought process. And on top of it, this questioning was not hardcore, lifeless academic approach, rather it was always done with the immense passion of humanity. As a matter of fact, Guha always thought himself as a student of literature who became a professional historian to comprehend and explain the society and polity.

That is why we see the dominance of literary passion and air in his write-ups where he seeks the relationship of state, capital and personnel. He never snatches the ‘agency’ of human being and humanity, a common practice in the neoliberal system not only in academia but also in politics.

Guha, who migrated to UK in 1959 as a reader in the history of Sussex, was inspired by the European thought process that was shaped for thousands of years but the most amazing thing was he not only utilised it to explain South Asian history but the metamorphosis of his process went back to Europe to explain the continent itself with a new light. The inception of subaltern studies changed the process of studying history upside down. It may be said that only Gramsci could make such a profound impact in the realm of thought process in the last century.

Talking about Gramsci, we may go back to the youth of Guha. In his early life he was deeply influenced by his mentor Susobhan Sarkar. Sarkar’s Notes on Bengal Renaissance was a huge revelation that compelled readers to think about the progress of history in different light. It showed the weakness of nationalism, the fault lines of Bengal Renaissance that held the inequality and profound segregation in the society albeit enlightenment as Franz Fanon later showed the deep compartmentalization in the post-colonial societies.

Sarkar himself was not only an avid Marxist but also an activist who wrote the manifesto of Indian Communist Party (CPI) but he did not miss the point that the enlightenment of Bangali was basically a rise of middle class educated Hindus as marginal people remained out of the domain.

Ranajit Guha nurtured the seed of this thought to make a giant tree. Not only the nationalist politics, he also found the absence of observing things from the ‘very bottom’ even in the communist politics in India. The political parties seemed to become cages of ‘theoretical spaces of middle class people’ as was seen in the Soviet Union which lost its humane shine to become a rather mechanized state emphasising mostly on lifeless and somewhat impractical theories.

As a result, Guha was compelled to leave party politics but despite having a settled academic life in Europe he was keen to understand India. He could understand that to do that he must study and comprehend the subaltern people. From this thought and work he produced the book titled A rule of property for Bengal: an essay on the idea of permanent settlement, published from Paris in 1963.

The amazing thing about the write-up was it was not limited as a historical investigation of the political economy of the Permanent Settlement (1793) in Bengal. Rather, Guha shows how the modes of colonial knowledge formation were deeply influenced by the notions of governance derived from the strands of post-enlightenment philosophical traditions in Europe. This philosophical foundation played a key role for Guha understanding history.

Interestingly, Guha stayed away from ‘academic politics’ in next two decades. He did not publish any academic article or books, he would even largely avoid going to conferences. Basically, he was in a self-imposed exile from the professional community of historians during that epoch.

Guha, who seemed to be completely dedicated to his teaching in that time, took it as chance of deep thinking and that produced his next book- Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India in 1983.  He read an essay at the department of history at Calcutta University titled Nimnoborger Itihaash (The History of the Subaltern) which created a new avenue of reading history.

Most importantly it paved the way of subaltern studies, which influenced scholars around the world with a vigour, and Guha was considered the pioneer of it. However, as expected from the scholar, he was aware not to reduce it to a ‘romantic’ genre and was keen to criticise his own works.

In next decades Guha came out with two other influential pieces- An Indian Historiography of India: A Nineteenth Century Agenda & Its Implications and Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. The later was published from Harvard University Press.

With those works Guha taught was to question. The questions sometimes may sound silly and even wrong but he emphasised that was the most important thing for seeking knowledge. Despite having distance and even loathing from Marxists, he never ceased the process of dialectic in his thought. In that regard it even seems he was more Marxist in approach that many claimed ones.

At the turn of the century, Guha, a keen reader of literature not only deeply focused on literary studies trying to seek the historical answers through literature, he also decided to express his thought in Bangla. Guha thought the immense faith of academia upon archive was inadequate and browsed through literature to seek the mystery of human life and history. Guha produced Kabi O Sorbonam, one of the finest readings in Bengali depicting the dialectics of Rabindranath Tagore. His search of knowledge continued.

He did it till his last breath. Amrtya Sen says, he was the most creative Indian historian in last century, but we may paraphrase the words and say Ranajit Guha was the most creative and thought provoking Bangali. An academic giant with profound human emotions.