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In defense of nationalist historiography of colonialism

Friday 11 October 2013

Chambi Chachage

2013-10-10, Issue 649

An examination of the nationalist struggles in India and those in Africa reveals a historiography that is splashed with personalities. But these did not simply emerge as elite phenomena

“We recognize of course that subordination cannot be understood except as one of the constitutive terms in a binary relationship of which the other is dominance, for ‘subaltern groups are always subject to the activity of ruling groups, even when they rebel and rise up’” – Rajinat Guha

In their seminal Selected Subaltern Studies published in 1988, one of the editors – Rajinat Guha – presented ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’. As he noted in the preface, dated August 1981, the concern of the collection was to combat elitism in South Asian Studies. By this he meant the elitist bias of assigning “spurious primacy” to dominant groups even when historicizing insubordinate groups.

This paper, then, provides an auto-critique of Guha’s text. By this I mean a critique from within the elitist structure that both I, and Guha – then writing about India while in Australia – are relatively confined to due to the nature of the academic enterprise. As such this is a reflexive critique that acknowledges one’s own positional limits in attempts to transcend some aspects of the elitist project of nationalist historiography.

Picking a cue from “the six-point project envisaged by Antonio Gramsci in his ’Notes on Italian History’” (p. 35), Guha presents, by way of critique, 16 points in regard to the then historiography of colonial India. He first identifies two manifestations of what he considered to be the elitism that had dominated the historiography of Indian nationalism for a long time – “colonialist elitism and bourgeois nationalist elitism” (p. 37). “Both”, he correctly observed, “originated as the ideological product of British rule in India, but” had “survived the transfer of power and been assimilated to neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist forms of discourse in Britain and India respectively” (Ibid.) He also correctly noted that the latter counted “British writers and institutions among its principal protagonists but” had “its imitators in India and other countries too” (Ibid.) Thus in the case of India it was “primarily an Indian practice but not without imitators in the ranks of liberal historians in Britain and elsewhere” (ibid.)

What follows then is an extension of the same scathing critique that this nationalist historiography had been meting on its protagonist, the colonialist historiography, in the context of decolonization. “Both these varieties of elitism”, asserts Guha, “share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness—nationalism—which informed this process were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements (Ibid.) Whereas in “the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies these achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions and culture”, in the case of “nationalist and neo-nationalist writings”, he sharply argues by way of comparison, the credits goes “to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas” (Ibid.) Here we an earlier debunking of nationalist struggles as culminating in the replacing of one form of elites with another. In the case of Africa this accusation is epitomized by some variants of the racial phraseology of ‘Africans replacing the white master with the black master.’

For sure a cursory, let alone, close examination of the nationalist struggles in India and those in Africa that were inspired by its relatively early independence in 1947 reveals a historiography that is splashed with personalities – from Gandhi to Nkrumah – and institutions – from the Indian National Congress to the African National Congress – as well as activities – from the salt match to dockworkers protests – and ideas – from Satyagraha to Pan-Africanism. But these did not simply emerge as elite phenomena. After all if one takes the dictionary definition of the subaltern, as that “‘of a lower rank’” (p 35), that Guha subscribes to, then even the subalterns have ranks within. As such the fact that one or some of their ‘kinds’ – be it “in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way” (Ibid.) – may emerge as spokespersons against domination does not necessarily make them elites in the same sense as the dominators. And the fact that some or many of these high ranking subalterns who took the reigns of the post-colonial state inherited colonial institutions and even turned them into neo-colonial apparatuses does not mean that was the intended consequence of nationalist struggles that they led. Attributing the after-the-fact to a situation that was open-ended is reading history back, through hindsight knowledge, in a deterministic way. Even Frantz Fanon’s (1960) predictions, in The Wretched of the Earth, of how post-colonial elites would be neo-colonial were based on his observations in/of places that had already attained full or partial independence.

Social categories of what Guha refer to as “subalternity” intersects in ways that creates ranks within. Take for instance, the case of Susan Geiger’s (1997) TANU Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanganyikan Nationalism, 1955-1965. In aptly critiquing the nationalist historiography of Tanzania for privileging the role of male personalities, such as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, at the expense of the role of (subaltern) women who were part and parcel of the movement, it ends up highlighting the role of the Tanzanian African National Union (TANU), a political party that would fit into the type of institutions Guha refers to. Moreover, in highlighting the role of Bibi Titi Mohamed, a Muslim woman, Geiger also ends up lifting this personality relative to the other TANU women. In fact most of them were African elites in the colonial context even though, as a social category, they were subalterns.

Hence in this sense Nyerere and Mohamed were both elites as far as their positions in the nationalist movement as strong and influential personalities were concerned, however, one was more of a subaltern than the other not least because of his position as a man, teacher and TANU chairman. With slight modification the same argument can be extended to Mohamed Said’s (1998) Abdulwahid Sykes (924-968): The Untold Story of the Muslim Struggle against British Colonialism in Tanganyika. Nyerere and Sykes were both elites as far as their social status in the colonial context and political position in the struggle for independence were concerned, however, one became marginalized in the nationalist historiography presumably because he belonged to a religious group that was ostensibly being forced into becoming a subaltern category.

What these examples from Tanzania illustrate is that in both the case of elites and subalterns, personalities emerge as potential spokespersons and, by their own volition or not, vie for representation of the given groups. The singling out and the criteria that the groups use to select their spokespersons range from their rank within those groups to their own rise above the rest. So any historiography, no matter how subaltern-centered, would still resort to certain personalities. Even the case of James Scott’s (1985) Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance engages with Indian subaltern personalities who, though not elites in Gandhi’s sense, are also prominent in their society when it comes to resisting domination in non-elitist ways. It does not help to do away with privileged personalities in the nationalist historiography of colonialism for they would still be replaced by other personalities. What is important is to ensure that history is not turned into hagiography or one’s biography.

To his credit Guha acknowledges that there “are several versions” of the nationalist historiography which differ from each other in the degree of their emphasis on the role of individual leaders or elite organizations and institutions as the main or motivating force in this venture” (p. 38). However, he is adamant that its “general orientation” in the case of India “is to represent Indian nationalism as primarily an idealist venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom” (Ibid). The “modality common to them all”, he goes on with his sweeping generalization, “is to uphold Indian nationalism as a phenomenal expression of the goodness of the native elite with the antagonistic aspect of their relation to the colonial regime made, against all evidence, to look larger than its collaborationist aspect, their role as promoters of the cause of the people than that as exploiters and oppressors, their altruism and self-abnegation than their scramble for the modicum of power and privilege granted by the rulers in order to make sure of their support for the Raj” (Ibid.) “The history of Indian nationalism”, he concludes in this regard, “is thus written up as a sort of spiritual biography of the Indian elite” (Ibid.) But he does not explain how much of their negative attributes came to be in the post/neo-colonial era.

Having lumped the colonialist and nationalist historiographies together as an elitist historiography, through what he perceives to be their significant similarities despite their glaring differences, Guha affirms, rhetorically if not sarcastically, that it “is of course not without its uses” (Ibid.) “It helps us”, he expounds, “to know more of the structure of the colonial state, the operation of its various organs in certain historical circumstances, the nature of the alignment of classes which sustained it; of some aspects of the ideology of the elite as the dominant ideology of the period; of the contradictions between the two elites and the complexities of their mutual oppositions and coalitions; of the role of some of the more important British and Indian personalities and elite organizations” (p. 38-39). “Above all”, he states pertinently, “it helps us to understand the ideological character of historiography itself” (p. 39). However, in other words, he is saying that it is more of a historiography of colonialism than anti-colonialism. For him it thus says more about colonization than decolonization. But every counter-discourse operates in relation and response to the premises of the discourse it counters for it primarily defines itself in opposition to it.

The then nascent postcolonial theoretical framework that Guha was co-developing through subaltern studies clouded his appreciation of the significance of the dialectics of colonialism and nationalism, the epigraph above notwithstanding. Where there is oppression there is indeed opposition. As such an oppressive, colonialist historiography would generate an oppositional, anti-colonial historiography. For Guha, however, the anti-thesis is too preoccupied with the thesis at the expense of the very people it was formulated in the first place to fight for/with. He thus dismisses it:

“What, however, historical writing of this kind cannot do is to explain Indian nationalism for us. For it fails to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contribution made by the people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this nationalism. In this particular respect the poverty of this historiography is demonstrated beyond doubt by its failure to understand and assess the mass articulation of this nationalism except negatively, as a law and order problem, and positively, if at all, either as a response to the charisma of certain elite leaders or in the currently more fashionable terms of vertical mobilization by the manipulation of factions. The involvement of the Indian people in vast numbers, sometimes in hundreds of thousands or even millions, in nationalist activities and ideas is thus represented as a diversion from a supposedly real political process, that is, the grinding away of the wheels of the state apparatus and of elite institutions geared to it, or it is simply credited, as an act of 1deological appropriation, to the influence and initiative of the elite themselves. The bankruptcy of this historiography is clearly exposed when it is called upon to explain such phenomena as the anti-Rowlatt upsurge of 1919 and the Quit India movement of 1942—to name only two of numerous instances of popular initiative asserting itself in the course of nationalist campaigns in defiance or absence of elite control. How can such one-sided and blinkered historiography help us to understand the profound displacements, well below the surface of elite politics, which made Chauri-Chaura or the militant demonstrations of solidarity with the RIN mutineers possible?” (Ibid.)

But even the cases he presents were not simply sporadic, without inspirational personalities and messages. “This inadequacy of elitist historiography”, Guha nevertheless argues, “follows directly from the narrow and partial view of politics to which it is committed by virtue of its class outlook” (Ibid.) Ignoring the class alliance evident in the cases presented, he accuses “all writings” in that historiography of not being able of doing “no more than to equate politics with the aggregation of activities and ideas of those who were directly involved in operating these institutions, that is, the colonial-rulers and their élèves – the dominant groups in native society’” (p. 40).

Assuming, in a romanticizing way, the purity of the continuity of pre-colonial practices, Guha goes on to claim that “throughout the colonial period” there also existed an “autonomous domain” of Indian politics that “neither originated from elite politics nor did its existence depend on the latter” (Ibid.) But he contradicts himself when he correctly affirms that far “from being destroyed or rendered virtually ineffective, as was elite politics of the traditional type by the intrusion of colonialism, it continued to operate vigorously in spite of the latter, adjusting itself to the conditions prevailing under the Raj and in many respects developing entirely new strains in both form and content (Ibid.) If it was that autonomous why did it have to adjust itself to the very prevailing conditions generated by colonialism in relation to responses of the colonized that also included those of the so-called elite nationalism?

Ultimately, what Guha manages is to thus create an overblown difference between two parts, which, as Gandhi leadership shows, fed each other in nationalist struggles:

“Mobilization in the domain of elite politics was achieved vertically whereas in that of subaltern politics this was achieved horizontally. The instrumentation of the former was characterized by a relatively greater reliance on the colonial adaptations of British parliamentary institutions and the residual of semi-feudal political institutions of the pre-colonial period; that of the latter relied rather more on the traditional organization of kinship and territoriality or on class associations depending on the level of the consciousness of the people involved. Elite mobilization tended to be relatively more legalistic and constitutionalist in orientation, subaltern mobilization relatively more violent. The former was, on the whole, more cautious and controlled, the latter more spontaneous” (p. 40-41).

Expectedly, the coup de grâce comes when Guha concludes that it is an “un-historical historiography” since, in his view, it has left out the politics of the people” (Ibid.) Such a dismissal is hard to take given that the nationalist historiography, at least in its people-centered and liberation-oriented variant, has focused on the masses. Even when its leaders have been showcased, it has been as lenses through which the aspirations of the people have been channeled. Ironically Guha makes this agile turn:

“Such dichotomy did not, however, mean that these two domains were hermetically sealed off from each other and there was no contact between them. On the contrary, there was a great deal of overlap arising precisely from the effort made from time to time by the more advanced elements among the indigenous elite, especially the bourgeoisie, to integrate them. Such effort when linked to struggles which had more or less clearly defined anti-imperialist objectives and were consistently waged, produced some splendid results. Linked, on other occasions, to movements which either had no firm anti-imperialist objectives at all or had lost them in the course of their development and deviated into legalist, constitutionalist or some other kind of compromise with the colonial government, they produced some spectacular retreats and nasty reversions in the form of sectarian strife. In either case the braiding together of the two strands of elite and subaltern politics led invariably to explosive situations indicating that the masses mobilized by the elite to fight for their own objectives managed to break away from their control and put the characteristic imprint of popular politics on campaigns initiated by the upper classes” (p. 42).

Yet he acknowledge that “the initiatives which originated from the domain of subaltern politics were not, on their part, powerful enough to develop the nationalist movement into a full-fledged struggle for national liberation” (Ibid.) The blame for this failure is laid on the very elites whose historiography he has been dismissing and the vanguard workers who were ostensibly supposed to “complete the mission which the bourgeoisie had failed to realize” (Ibid.) Thus succumbing to an elitist, albeit Marxist, historiography Guha laments a failure of what he has been critiquing: “The outcome of it all was that the numerous peasant uprisings of the period, some of them massive in scope and rich in anticolonialist consciousness, waited in vain for a leadership to raise them above localism and generalize them into a nationwide anti-imperialist campaign” (Ibid.) In the end Guha reverts, in a twist of irony, to a nostalgia for nationalist historiography when he concludes that “much of the sectional struggle of workers, peasants and the urban petty bourgeoisie either got entangled in economism or, wherever politicized, remained, for want of a revolutionary leadership, far too fragmented to form effectively into anything like a national liberation movement” (p. 43). When he thus states, by way of conclusion, that “it is the study of this failure of the nation to come to its own” that “constitutes the central problematic of the historiography of colonial India” (Ibid.), he is talking about a problematic that the nationalist historiography of colonialism has been grappling with in its auto-critique not least because of the continuity of colonialism by way of neo-colonialism.

Dismissing the nationalist historiography as merely elitist undermines the very subalterns that Guha and his colleagues are attempting to speak for, since it ironically dismisses their role in constructing nationalism in the first place. In attempting to rectify historiography, on behalf of the subaltern, we indeed run the risk of replacing it with our version of an elitist historiography made in the armchairs far away from the places we are historicizing about. Subalterns, like elites, can choose and make their leaders.

* Chambi Chachage is a PhD student at Harvard University.

See online: In defense of nationalist historiography of colonialism