There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.
― Arundhati Roy
In the Indian subcontinent the Subaltern Studies Group or the Subaltern Studies Collective occupies a large space in the scholarly world in general and in the study of postcolonialism, political economy as well as sociocultural and literary criticism in particular. The group of scholars, predominantly historians, who are into this school of thought, has been inspired by the ideals of Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony. Or, we may say these scholars appropriated Gramsci’s expression to articulate on India.
In essence, it refers to the idea of resistance and articulation of voiceless people who live in the periphery of a society. A few area specialists in subaltern studies believe that ‘subaltern’ is a code word used for proletariats or the lower class that Gramsci had invented to bypass the censorship inside a jail—though the exact reason is open to question. Incidentally, he was imprisoned for his leftist political stand against the fascists.
It is an irony that the foundation of subaltern studies was laid by a few Western social scientists for the postcolonialists to speak out against the Western hegemony and most of these supporters are English-speaking elites. Nevertheless, the movement gained ground in the Eighties—with contributions from distinguished personalities like Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Vivek Chibber, amongst others—to build a narrative from local perspectives rather than from those espoused by Western Samaritans. The trend had been initiated by English scholars a decade earlier.
First of all, the group/collective also draws their inspiration heavily from the likes of Eric Stokes, colonial historians and Marxism, and nobody would see the partiality. This is because apparently, the goal has been focussed on building a narrative from the perspective of colonised people, independent of those articulations provided by colonisers; albeit the primary issue is the lack of perspectives.
Politically speaking, the experts of subaltern studies—though they would even negate the use of ‘experts’, who belong mostly to the Indian mainland—has been in a rush to re-raise the voice that had been muffled during the British rule. In this charade they have completely ignored the fact that India has donned the mask of a colonialist or for that matter, that of a neocolonialist, in less than a couple of years after the departure of the British imperialists. They should read the political history of Manipur or Kashmir if they do not believe it or maybe they know it better. In a way, for us, we are now stuck between the postcolonialists and the neocolonialists.
Gayatri Spivak would ask and answer herself: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ on which she would do a monologue: ‘The subaltern “cannot speak”…because her speech falls short of (a) fully authorised, political speech’.
In this context, it is noteworthy to ask whether the subaltern studies are exclusive or they are too lazy to take a glance sideways and see the realities of a postcolonial world around them. The British has been gone a long time but our collective life has become a living hell after the formation of the Indian nation-state. Armed conflict has been going on for as long as the number of years India has been independent; but save for a few individuals, a majority of them has no stand on the atrocities of the union government. At the end of the day, subaltern studies are a hokum that a select few would want to discuss over a dinner or a few rounds of drinks. Alternatively, the so-called Subaltern Studies Group is obsessed with their own politics and selective amnesia that are no different from those of mainstream political parties or national media comprising both print and broadcast journalism.
This follows that they should emphasise on caste rather than class; else their framework of analysis is no different from an anonymous skeleton in a hospital’s janitor’s room, especially when their deliberations are overly fancy academese or inaccessible to the laypeople. What’s more worrying is the fact that the subalterns are fighting against the hegemony of the west while in their backyard, their global-largest-democratic government is building a military empire. To put it briefly, the principle of subaltern studies is based on a theoretical resistance against cultural imperialism; yet a few groups of its ‘imagined communities’, such as in strife-torn Manipur, have banned Hindi films from screening in cinema halls on the ground of spreading cultural pollution and questioning the very Indian establishment.
Just like the Nagas would emphasise on the idea of unique history, the subaltern studies have taken a break from Marxism to broaden the space for inserting postcolonial observations; though the leftist inclination exists pretty much clearly. In fact, Vivek Chibber does mention once about the influence of Marxism in shaping the ideals of this kind of ‘studies’. Nevertheless, if the western world views do not hold good in the Indian or postcolonial states’ landscapes, then the ABCs of Indian subaltern studies, starting right from the basic speculation on the universalisation of capital, ‘autonomous domain’ and cultural differences between the east and the west, are just hollow ideas in our world that are best kept confine in the classrooms of a university or a college.
As luck would have it, Ranajit Guha believed that elsewhere the bourgeoisie has the voice, the hegemony; but the condition in a postcolonial world is pathetic and this group has failed miserably while it becomes merely a dominant voice. No surprise the contemporary Indian middle class is always at the receiving end. The joke goes that thousands of farmers are committing suicide; the incumbent government is hell-bent on saffronisation; the addiction of corruption has hit rock bottom and all; but the middle class feels nothing; yet when they heard about the EPF tax on their income, all of them have lost their mind. One group’s rebel is another’s conformist!
This gives no option but to re-state the difference between postcolonialism and neocolonialism: Postcolonialism, it studies the consequence of colonialism; and neocolonialism, it is occupied with the indignation of controlling a nation by another, by force. There is no issue with subaltern intervention in the Indian historiography but the extreme homogenisation of India is, to put it mildly, nauseating though anybody in their right frame of mind would appreciate the fact that subaltern class have made its way into the historical walk of fame. To conclude, when we are bogged down under crisis after crisis, we need neither sympathy nor theory but a little bit of peace and justice. With this simple desire and no pressure, we can write the obituary of subaltern studies effortlessly.