by Vinay Lal

Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (Delhi: Oxford, 1983) remains, two decades after its publication, the most articulate and insightful (if not always compelling work on the subject of peasant insurgency in colonial India. How should peasant insurgency be represented? As Guha argues, our understanding of it remains trapped between colonial historiography, from the standpoint of which peasant insurrections were violent infractions of the public peace, indeed mere “law and order” problems, and nationalist historiography, which was inclined to view them as lesser-developed manifestations of nationalist or socialist sentiment. Drawing heavily on the work of Antonio Gramsci, particuarly his notion of the two consciousnesses, or one contradictory consciousness, such that a subaltern group has its own (generally inadequate) conception of the world, but has nonetheless adopted a conception which is not its own but is borrowed from another group, Guha theorizes insurgency as the “site where the two mutually contradictory tendencies within this still imperfect, almost embryonic, theoretical consciousness — that is, a conservative tendency made up of the inherited and uncritically absorbed material of the ruling culture and a radical one oriented towards a practical transformation of the rebel’s conditions of existence — met for a decisive trial of strength” (p. 11). The rebel consciousness is, Guha avers, “not a liberated consciousness”, and indeed the rebel is often imbued with a sense of reverance towards those against whom he directs his violence at particular moments (p. 164). The “peasant-rebel” can revert back to a “peasant-servant”: this is what Guha calls a double displacement, or a “displacement displaced” (p. 218).

In this extraordinarily wide-ranging work, drawing on European history, semiotics, the work of Sanskrit grammarians, Marxist and neo-Marxist scholarship, post-structuralism, sociolinguistics, and, of course, the archives of colonial India, Guha takes recourse to the history of several dozen, and perhaps many more, insurrections, rebels, jacqueries, and iusurgencies that took place in India between 1783 and 1900. Prior to 1783, Guha argues, the scholar is confronted with a paucity of material; on the other hand, the terminal point, which witnessed the death of the famous Birsa Munda, is favored by Guha since it allows him to study “the elementary aspects of rebel consciousness in a relatively ‘pure’ state before the politics of nationalism and socialism begin to penetrate the countryside on a significant scale” (p. 13). What sort of rebel consciousness is “pure”, even “relatively pure”, and does not pure here also stand for the authentic, the real real? Bourgeois or elite nationalism — itself categories that Guha takes as granted, barely worthy of investigation — is conceived by Guha as an inauthentic form of expression; on the other hand, the peasant’s consciousness marks a certain kind of innocence, a certain virginity before male penetration creates new histories. Texts and intellectual traditions are deployed with brilliance; the erudition of Guha is eveywhere on display. And yet the inescapable feeling remains that the weighty apparatus is at times excessively used; Guha carries his learning with self-consciousness. Guha’s “displacement displaced” is a mouthful.

Guha has given us in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency a grammar of peasant dissent. How was this dissent carried out, with what degree of success, and with what consequences? How far did it extend, and what were its characteristic features? The tropology of peasant dissent is captured in Guha’s writing by a hexagon of words: negation; ambiguity; modality; solidarity; transmission; and territoriality: each concept is, in turn, adumbrated by another set of ideas, such that, for example, the mode of the struggle is best captured by the four dominant forms of struggle, namely burning, looting, eating, and wrecking (p. 136). Peasant rebellions in India shared with similar outbreaks in Europe a history of the demolition of symbols of the enemy; Guha says this is largely true of burning as well. Or, to take the notion of negation, Guha observes that encapsulated under this are the ideas of inversion, of the world turned upside down, indeed of the acquisition of one’s identity through someone else; the other is the negation of the self, not an ontological category.

Complex as Guha’s study is, analytically dense, insightful, even gripping and exemplary as a work of scholarship, Guha’s fondness for elegant sociological formulations, and the ostentatious display of erudition, both oftentimes lead him into epistemological problems, strange formulations, and jarring claims. His theoretical apparatus is derived from European intellectual traditions and texts; India is still the field of operations, so to speak, the repository of raw material over which the skilled European mind, with its inheritance of the Enlightenment, leaves its impress. Guha’s proclivity towards semiotics and structuralism leave one with the impression that, in keeping with Brahminical traditions, he is faintly obsessed with classification, with a precise order of knowledge. His distinction between crime and insurgency is a case in point (p. 145). Rebel violence expresses itself in “essentially political acts” that often turned the world upside down; crime was aimed at transferring property from victims to protagonists of acts. Guha argues, altogether convincingly, that it was part of the design of colonialism to assimilate insurgency into the broader category of crime: to do this was not only to strip insurgency of its political salience, but it was to render rebels into ordinary criminals, and consequently to rightly place them under the disciplinary regime of the stage. Yet, when Guha begins to enumerate the precise modes of distinction between crime and insurgency, he falters. Insurgency can be extricated from the “placenta of common crime” in which the state attempted to place it by establishing its identity as a
violence which is public, collective, destructive and total in its modalities” (p. 109; emphasis in original). These are, of course, the very attributes of the violence characteristically deployed by the modern nation-state. What name shall we give to that violence? Surely not insurgency? In what language shall we speak of the crimes of the state?