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Subaltern Historiography, the Working Class, and Social Theory for the Global South

The Indian Freedom Movement (1857–1947) was a significant period which had a politically important impact on the Indian state’s subsequent formation. The historiography of the movement was until recently much more monochromatic than the movement itself, highlighting the contributions of “great men.” The Subaltern Studies Collective (1980s–present) rejected this approach, taking a broader and more productive approach to telling the story of the movement via the bottom-up contributions to Indian history. Surprisingly, however, what became known as Subaltern Studies has downplayed the empirical role of the working class. One reason for this underemphasis is a specific and culturally essentialist mode of appropriating the work of E P Thompson, Carlo Ginzburg, and Hayden White, who are declared influences on Subaltern Studies. Why that was so remains an important question.

In the late 1970s, in the throes of the Emergency, the Subaltern Studies scholars looked to the formation of independent India to understand how democracy could have been so easily taken away. Not only was state formation in 1947 a defining factor in explaining this crisis of the Indian state, but an important factor was also how the many social movements that fought for an independent India played an important role in shaping postcolonial society. Disillusioned with Indian nationalism and its associated historiography, Subaltern Studies historians wanted to provide an alternate narrative to the great man narratives of Indian freedom in which Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and sometimes Muhammad Ali Jinnah or Subhas Chandra Bose loom disproportionately large. Subaltern Studies endeavoured to tell an alternative story, one of “bottom-up” contributions to Indian history and society. In order to do so, those in the Subaltern Studies mould seized on the work of E P Thompson, Hayden White, and Carlo Ginzburg, for theoretical as well as empirical inspiration. Yet, the curious “cultural essentialist” appropriation of these thinkers issued in a particular reading that

inadequately theorised the transformative historical role of the Indian working class.

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Updated On : 29th Oct, 2019

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