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Reconciling Difference and Equality

Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories: Investigations from India and the USA edited by Gyanendra Pandey (London: Routledge), 2010; pp 230, £ 26

Reconciling Difference and Equality

Peter Geschiere

yanendra Pandey’s move from the University of Delhi, via Johns Hopkins (Baltimore), to Emory (Atlanta) set the stage for this original and inspiring collection. As one of the founders of the Indian school of “subaltern studies”, and author of a series of inspiring books imbued by a subaltern perspective – on the forging of communalism in colonial India, the horrors of partition in the south Asian subcontinent, and on “routine violence” more generally – Pandey brought rich historical expertise to Emory, sensitised by sophisticated methodological concerns.1 He has worked there now for six years in close collaboration with colleagues from African-American studies. This motivated the present volume, comparing the histories of the dalits in India and former slave populations in the United States (US). Surely an audacious comparison, yet it works: it highlights more or less implicit assumptions in historical studies of these marginalised groups, and it helps notably to further deepen the notion of subaltern histories in all their differences and correspondences.

The Politics of Difference

The tone is set by Pandey’s imaginative introduction – notably by the way he links subaltern to citizenship. The central notion “subaltern citizens” – Pandey calls it a “paradoxical category” – is programmatic. It heralds a switch from the vision of Ranajit Guha, the guru of the subaltern collective during earlier decades, of the subaltern as a peasant rebel, whose capacity to forge his/her own history had to be salvaged from under the dominant vision of nationalist and modernist history. The present-day inclusion of most subalterns – peasants and others – in new settings, even if it is parttime, makes the very idea of the subaltern

book review

Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories: Investigations from India and the USA

edited by Gyanendra Pandey (London: Routledge), 2010; pp 230, £ 26.

as being excluded from citizenship dated. However, neither are they fully included as citizens. The question is rather how subalterns have acquired citizenship “without becoming quite mainstream”.

Particularly inspiring for the present collection is Pandey’s linking of this trend to the question of “difference”. This gives his introduction, and the collection as a whole, an impact that is much broader than the field of south Asian or African-American studies. The sophisticated way in which Pandey relates the subaltern notion coming from an Indian background to the notion of difference, that has acquired such heavy meaning in North America and lately also in Europe, opens up seminal propositions.

He notes an important change towards the end of the 20th century when subaltern groups began to struggle for emancipation, not only to be accepted as equals, but also with full recognition of their right to be different. Obtaining equality was no longer the sole aim, recognition of difference became as important. However, relating difference to subaltern suggests immediately that it is the production of difference that requires our attention. The subaltern notion, emphasising hierarchy and the many ways, often implicit, of struggling against it, suggests that we look at differences – of race, gender, sexuality – not as given, but as constantly in the making: not as pathology but rather as politics (as Pandey expressed it in a recent presentation). This approach to difference as politics – not in the sense of identity politics but

february 25, 2012

rather as the politics of forging identities

– is critical for many situations in the present-day world.

India and the US may be both hotspots for identity politics and struggles. But the question of how to reconcile the liberal idea of citizenship – the equality of all

citizens before the law – with difference is now haunting most nation states in the world, the European ones included, and even Japan. The liberal version of citizenship with its celebration of formal equality may serve to affirm the dominance of those who are the norm over those who are different – and thus mask deep inequality. Yet, formal recognition of the rights of groups of citizen to differ may open up the possibilities of new forms of domination and subordination. A panacea formula of how to reconcile citizenship with recognition of difference has not yet been found, and is probably also impossible. Solutions may only be worked out situationally. This is why Pandey’s “subaltern view” on difference as a process, as constantly in the making, and therefore deeply political, is so valuable.

A Fruitful Tango

Pandey’s introduction raises many more points that inspire the subsequent contributions. Another concept that really works in this collection is his suggestion for historians to focus on the fragment – as “a disturbing element, that resists the whole” (p 6). But it is especially the general point of “difference as politics” that make for fascinating diptychs from Indian and US history. I very much liked, for instance, the juxtaposition of M S S Pandian’s analysis of dalits’ propensity for poetry

– which he does not see as an effort to compensate theoretical deficiency, as suggested by dominant discourse in social sciences, but rather as a critique of this theoretical discourse – to Leslie Harris’ text on New Orleans’ history as the loss of a “subaltern city”. The topics may seem to be completely different. Yet, Harris’ text similarly highlights how important it is to work from the language of participants, rather than from the dominant categories in a given discipline (in this case urban studies). In a different,

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yet parallel way Colin R Johnson’s subtle text on same sex relations among casual labourers in rural US highlights a form of “subaltern sexuality” – that tends to remain invisible because of the urban emphasis in the field of sexual (gay) studies.

Similar complexities behind unidimensional visions of identity are highlighted by Earl Lewis’ analysis of the multipositionality of black schoolteachers, in line with W E B DuBois’ vision of African-Americans “…having two warring souls, one black and the other American”; and by Ruby Lal’s analysis of how the focus on the figure of the girl-child/woman helped to make women as historical subjects disappear from both colonial and nationalist discourse in India. Milind Wakankar studies the historical traces of the Kapalikas, a now extinct low-caste sect, as “a pre-history of suffering” that speaks directly not only to the Ghost Dance among Native American groups, but also to present-day African-American novels as “rites of mourning”. Prathama Banerjee discusses the quite surprising sequence of different stereotypes of dalits: peasant rebels to their landlords, labourers to capitalists, potential revolutionaries to Marxists, carriers of local knowledge to ecologists. The stereotypes may suggest fixity and essence, but their rapid succession highlights volatility and shifts.

Sudipta Sen shows the difficulties of discovering “disarticulated, resistant subjects” behind the paternalist legal discourse that imposed “a grammar of subjection” from the very beginning of British rule in Bengal. Mary E Odem’s chapter approaches a similar question from the other side, showing how undocumented Latino immigrants’ claims to citizenship in the US by simply “being there” are almost impossible to ignore completely. For an earlier period Steven Hahn highlights that even during the high time of slavery in the American south, slaves were politically active despite all odds. Of course, a very important statement, yet one can wonder whether his opening statement (p 178) that “… in historical accounts, slaves rarely, if ever, make their appearance on the political stage as participants…” does not reflect a certain narrowness of view. From all over the world

– Rome to China to Africa and Latin America – come many examples of slaves playing highly important political roles, behind the scene but also openly. This highlights the need to overcome a radical opposition of subaltern and citizen, with full attention to unexpected articulations of (in)equality and difference.

Extending the Debate

The collection is closed by two contributions by Partha Chatterjee and Jonathan Prude. Chatterjee gives the subaltern citizen notion quite a different turn. He agrees that earlier views on the role of subaltern – mostly as rural rebels – have been superseded by developments. He tries to capture these changes by focusing on a growing discrepancy between “civil” and “political society”. Subaltern groups may still not be recognised as full members of civil society – indeed they seem to become ever more “superfluous” due to incisive changes in productive processes. But they have become very much part of political society. Their massive presence in huge slums cannot be ignored any longer. Thus, political regimes have to protect them one way or another – by special benefits – from primitive accumulation as an ongoing process. This is, again, an interpretation that has much broader relevance than the Indian setting alone – just as Chatterjee’s remark that the middle classes tend to withdraw from politics, leaving to populist leaders the cumbersome task of satisfying at least to a certain extent large subaltern groups who threaten to become superfluous in an economic sense but are all the more present in a political sense. There are striking parallels with the upsurge of right-wing populism in Europe and its resentful defence of the welfare state against infiltration by strangers; or with the proliferation of all sorts of pensions – minimal but still a basis to hang on to – in liberated South Africa.


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Prude offers an insightful evaluation of the collection as a whole from a perspective of African-American, and more generally American studies. Clearly the subaltern view raises new challenges for this field. Of interest, for instance, is Prude’s answer to a question Pandey raised in the beginning: why did Indian historians study different modes of dispossession under one enveloping rubric like subalterns, while Americanists did not? (pp 2 and 212). The question is of interest since it relates directly to the issue of “intersectionality” – the problem of how to do justice to the urgent fact that in practice different oppositions (of, again race, gender, class, generation) overlap and thus intertwine. Prude’s answer to the question is what


he calls “American exceptionalism” – the continuing emphasis on America following a unique trajectory. Maybe it is possible to be more specific here by emphasising the heavy overtones the notion of identity acquired in many American contexts, and the concomitant difficulty of doing full justice to the shifting character of these identities and their making, as a continuous process.

It is precisely this focus on the production of difference as an ongoing process in which both dominant and subaltern groups are involved in complex patterns of confrontation and connivance, that makes the concept of subaltern citizen so relevant to presentday struggles. A common point in the various contributions is that they give


vivid accounts of this “making of difference” in political struggles – albeit in highly different ways. There lies for me the particular value of this collection: the comparison between the struggles of Indian dalits and African-Americans works because it compels us to look at difference not as a given but as a process.

Peter Geschiere ( teaches Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


1 Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories (Stanford UP 2006); Remembering Partition – Violence, Nationalism and History in India (Cambridge University Press, 2001); The Construction of Com munalism in Colonial North India (Oxford University Press, 1990).

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