This post is designed to recap a few points regarding peasant rebellions, consciousness that we had discussed in class. I think you’d take more out of it, if you have done your readings. In any case, its designed to try and get you thinking about what you’ve read. Hope its useful . (as usual, thanks to Gautam & co. again)
The arguments of Ranajit Guha in The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India are significant in laying down the basis on which it is argued that the peasant has an independent political consciousness. Guha states that: ‘the general orientation of… elitist historiography is to represent Indian nationalism as primarily an idealist venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom… a sort of spiritual biography of the Indian elite.’
The relation of dominance and subordination, for the extraction of surplus, in Guha’s opinion, makes it a ‘political relation… a semi-feudal relationship which derived its material sustenance from pre-capitalist conditions of production and its legitimacy from a traditional culture still paramount in the superstructure.’ This had the consequence of debt, loss of land etc and surplus concentration in the hands of the state/British and their agents such as the zamindar.
These revolts are often characterized as being “pre-political” in most mainstream historical writing due to the fact that they neither had a blueprint nor clearly defined aims and often lacked a magnetic leader. Thus, these were “pocket revolts” more than a conscious movement of the peasants.
How can we say that the peasants had consciousness?
First, consciousness was an acknowledgement of their state of being – in effect a negation of their oppressors. Guha (R) argues that they do this by expressing it in the language of the oppressor. Second, while their acts were often characterized as “criminal”, he points out that the fact that these were activities undertaken at the level of the community, they cannot be characterized as criminal in that sense. Third, they attacked public authority through acts which actively served to undermine authority rather than because they were criminal in nature. Fourth, there was group solidarity, the basis for which may have differed from group to group but usually was in negation to the authority rebelled against. Further, these groups exhibited “territoriality” in that they defined the span of their activities by the manner in which they envisaged the spread of the dominant authority’s spread coupled with their ethnic spread.
They also believed that the peasant consciousness is not something that is created by the choice of an individual based on his preferences but is a network of social relations and solidarity which are pre-existent. This is why, according to Partha Chatterjee, the subaltern perspective cannot be understood by the ‘bourgeois paradigm’. Rather, he places importance on the concept of community, which he feels has been left ‘formal, abstract and empty’ by Guha, a proper theoretical context.
Essentially, Chatterjee considers community to be the site of peasant struggle where respective rights and duties are established and contested. This community is defined by the deeply and intricately stratified social relations, and the continual and pervasive struggle between peasants and dominant groups in everyday life.
Popular representations include that the refusal of the peasant to put up with the oppressive measures is seen by colonial historians as minor skirmishes. (The Imperialist describe the Indian village as being in a state of decay, to be restored by the intervention of the colonial state).
On the other hand, Nationalist historians too have presented a pitiable picture of peasant uprisings. While the causes of the discontent among the peasants are shown to be the oppression of the Colonial system of revenue collection, the uprisings are depicted as spontaneous, unorganized, unthinking and violent.
Marxist historians, too, fail to attribute to agency to the peasant. Irfan Habib takes the stance that the ‘basic feature of peasant movements… is their comparatively backward level of class-consciousness’. He also goes on to mention that the peasant’s first acquisition of self-awareness was due to the National movement
Chew on these:
1. Is Guha’s methodology on subaltern historiography too absolute in its characterization of peasant consciousness? (Does he function by attributing characteristics – i.e. is he reliant on correlation rather than causality while he makes his arguments? Again, do the “elite” historians, in turn, also attribute characteristics to subalterns that they assume is true –such as they being mute and handicapped on their own. How would you respond to this?)
2. Are subalterns homogenous groups being represented as homogenous?
3. Do/Can peasants only express themselves through “rebellions/insurgency”?
4. Are the revolts to the same authority figures? If not, what kind of homogeneity can be attributed t them? (What does Sarkar say about this? Clue: Shift from the british to the more immediate oppressor- so how do we see revolts say pre-1857 and most of the revolts post then – against whom are they directed?)
5. Do the middle class have a role in mobilizing or organizing the peasants? If so, around when can this said to have started and why?
6. Even if we criticize Guha’s methodology, does that detract from the point that the popular representation of peasants showing a lack of consciousness is flawed?
7. Are Guha & Co. concerned with whom the rebellion was against as much as that it was against a certain type of figure?
8. Does the fact that these are more localized movements make them less important?
9. Given that the popular representation of the peasants in history is of being “ignorant, simple, easily influenced by the elite classes and impoverished”, how do subalterns respond to such representations?
10. Are the explanations of the Imperialists and the Nationalists unable to explain adequately the peasant uprisings of the nineteenth century?
11. What is the role of the congress in the later peasant uprisings? Doe sit become a forum for them – for e.g.: does the Congress actively champion their cause? Is this an organized move on the Congress’ part? (is this question a “nationalist” representation of the peasant rebellion) (answered? Does the question imply that the peasants had no organization, consciousness till the Congress stepped in? Does it “attribute” the character of obedience to them?) [Can you link this up to anything Bipin Chandra is saying?]
12. From a Marxist perspective can we say that the peasant rebellions were a socialist movement given the marxist’s conception of historical change? How does this tie up with a lot of Marxist writing (about India) that our consciousness was largely a product of middle-class and elite consciousness and leadership?
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