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The Subaltern as Subaltern Citizen

The "re-presentation" of the subaltern (a relational position in the way power is conceptualised) as subaltern citizen is not about the technical question of citizenship; rather the claim is about historical agency, and about belonging - in a society and in its self-construction. For 200 years and more, the struggles waged by the oppressed and subordinated, i e, the subalterns, were seen as struggles for recognition as equals. The history of these efforts appeared as a history of sameness. However, in the later decades of the 20th century, this struggle was extended to encompass another demand - the demand for a recognition of difference - the existence of a variety of differences that explained the diversity, density and richness of human experience. It is this paradox that needs to be answered, while debating the construction of a subaltern citizen: how is the long-standing struggle for equality supposed to be folded into this newly asserted right to the recognition of difference?


The Subaltern as Subaltern Citizen

The “re-presentation” of the subaltern (a relational position in the way power is conceptualised) as subaltern citizen is not about the technical question of citizenship; rather the claim is about historical agency, and about belonging – in a society and in its self-construction. For 200 years and more, the struggles waged by the oppressed and subordinated, i e, the subalterns, were seen as struggles for recognition as equals. The history of these efforts appeared as a history of sameness. However, in the later decades of the 20th century, this struggle was extended to encompass another demand – the demand for a recognition of difference – the existence of a variety of differences that explained the diversity, density and richness of human experience. It is this paradox that needs to be answered, while debating the construction of a subaltern citizen: how is the long-standing struggle for equality supposed to be folded into this newly asserted right

to the recognition of difference?


his essay begins with a provocation in its juxtaposition of terms from two very different discourses: “subaltern”, a relational position in a conceptualisation of power, a space without identity, as Gayatri Spivak has recently described it;1 and “citizen”, a juridical figure in a pronouncement of autonomy and rights. I need to clarify the reason for this juxtaposition.

The subaltern is, by definition, a political category. Citizen is not the ideal term for a rendering of the inherently political character of subalternity. But, until we think of another more suitable alternative, let me work with this.

For the purposes of the present statement, it is “citizen” that qualifies subalternity, not “subaltern” that qualifies (or describes) the status of citizenship. My use of the phrase “subaltern citizen” is not primarily intended to suggest the subordinate status of certain citizens, though of course it can be used precisely to describe such a condition in particular times and places. Nor is it used to describe a historical process of moving from a status of subalternity to one of citizenship, although again such a process may indeed be traced in different parts of the world, not least in the context of the anti-colonial struggles of the 18th to 20th centuries. I am concerned with a somewhat different proposition, having to do with the potential that the subaltern possesses (or the threat s/he poses) of becoming a full member of the community, the village, the neighbourhood and the polis.

Thus, the point in my re-presentation of the subaltern as subaltern citizen is not centrally about the technical question of citizenship, statutory or anticipated, of the kind that has been accessible in democratic or quasi-democratic societies over the last two centuries. For this has plainly not been an issue for most human beings for the major part of recorded history. The claim is rather about historical agency broadly defined, and about belonging – in a society and in its self-construction. That is to say, it is about the living of individual and collective lives, and the limitations on that living: about the potential for life and creativity, in given historical circumstances, and the restriction of that potential.

Unavoidably, the term citizen appears in two different senses in the pages that follow. The first is that of the bearer of the legal right to residence, political participation, state support and protection in a given territory. The second is this more diffuse sense of acceptance in, and acceptance of, an existing order and existing social arrangements.

One immediate advantage of the use of the term “subaltern citizen” is that it prevents the easy erection of a barrier between us (citizens, the people with history), and them (the subalterns, people without), as well as that between our times (the time of equality, democracy, the recognition of human worth) and earlier times (the time without such reason and such understanding). “Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives”. That was Sartre in his 1961 preface to Fanon’s Les Damnes de la Terre.2 Yet we know how persistent the thought has been. It is salutary therefore to emphasise that the subaltern citizen is a necessary element of all social arrangements, and that the condition of subalternity exists in the age of reason and enlightenment no less than in that of barbarism; in the advanced, capitalist, supposedly liberal north, as surely as it does in the poorer, “developing”, illiberal societies of the south.

That said, let us return to the figure of the subaltern as s/he has appeared in recent investigations of history and society classed under the rubric of subaltern studies.

The Peasant Paradigm

For a quarter of a century now, in this project of a new critical history that originated in south Asia, the archetypal figure of the subaltern has been the third world peasant. From Ranajit Guha’s insurgent peasant and Bagdi agricultural labour; to Mahasweta Devi’s poor tribal peasant women (translated by Gayatri Spivak); to Amin’s ‘otiyars’ or peasant volunteers of Chauri Chaura, Skaria’s bhils and Hardiman’s patidars; to Chatterjee’s “fragments of the nation” in which as one reviewer noted the industrial working class was conspicuously absent; and even in Chakrabarty’s study of the Calcutta working class, which underlined the persistence of feudal values, networks and practices in the activities of the jute mill labourers, to take a few prominent examples from the writings in Subaltern Studies,3 it is this figure – superstitious, illiterate, illequipped, isolated and non-political as s/he had appeared in much of the received social science and historical literature – that emerges again and again as the paradigm of the subaltern.

“Historiography has been content to deal with the peasant rebel merely as an empirical person or member of a class”, wrote Guha, “but not as an entity whose will and reason constituted the praxis called rebellion”.4 The task of subaltern historiography was to recover this underdeveloped figure for history, to restore the agency of the yokel, recognise that the peasant mass was contemporaneous with the modern, part of modernity, and establish the peasant as the maker of his/her own destiny. “What distinguished the story of political modernity in India from the usual and comparable narratives of the west”, as Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in a retrospective account of the Subaltern Studies project, “was the fact that modern politics… was not founded on an assumed death of the peasant. The peasant did not have to undergo a historical mutation into the industrial worker in order to become the citizen-subject of the nation.”5

This was an insightful and important departure. The peasant was modern no less than the working class or the insurance agent. The peasant archetype itself was confounded in many respects. Large numbers of peasants became part-peasant/ part-worker, moving between the “rural” and the “urban” on a regular or cyclical basis, and even between continents, owing to colonial displacement, economic imperatives and tax structures. The societies of the “third world” were contemporaneous with those of “Europe”, not a relic from the past, produced in tandem with the advanced industrial west, productive of it.

Once the argument about the peasant is made for south Asia, its application to the historical experience of other parts of the world (including Europe) is readily evident: and colleagues working on Africa and Latin America have generously cited the south Asian initiative as they have pursued some of the same questions in relation to the histories of their continents.

Looking back at our attempts to rewrite the subaltern experience, and with it the whole colonial construction of history, one might suggest that we have had to contend with an insufficiently acknowledged obstacle. This has to do with a subterranean faith that persists, perhaps even in the writings of many subalternist scholars, in the lack of fit between the peasantry and industrialised bourgeois society, in the “incipience” of peasant political (hence, historical and cultural) consciousness, and the belief that peasants need to advance – towards modernity and full cultural and political citizenship of the modern world.

There is another dimension to this difficulty. Many (one might even say, most) modern peasants and agricultural labourers do not wish to remain peasants or agricultural labourers. They seek to be in the cities, with the amenities of modern civic existence – comfortable homes and jobs; running water, electricity and access to power (of all kinds); motorised transport; good schools and hospitals; and leisure time that they may organise in a variety of ways.6 That was the burden of Ambedkar’s argument against Gandhi’s romanticisation of “village India”, and the significance of his choice of the western gentleman’s suit and hat over Gandhi’s peasant loin-cloth. The attempt to recover the peasant as a contemporary of modernity, and a maker of the modern, thus runs up against the common sense of the age, that the peasant, for all his or her heroism, has remained at the receiving end of larger forces of historical change and progress.

Whatever its achievements, the attempt to recover the peasant subaltern for history has had to live with an enduring view of peasants as passive objects, or what one might call the inertia of modern political thought, premised to a large extent on the passing of “traditional” society. Seen as the pre-political survival of a pre-industrial social order in a whole variety of social and political analyses, from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire to Gellner’s discussion of the passage from an agrarian to an industrial age,7 the peasant has been the object of all kinds of radical social engineering throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Peasant, “the adjective used for describing the masses”, still stands for backwardness in society and state, as various commentators have noted.8 It is in this context that I propose the recasting of the figure of the subaltern subject into the deliberately paradoxical, not to say oxymoronic, category of the subaltern citizen.

The Wretched of the Earth

What do we gain in our exploration of subalternity by the pairing of the terms “subaltern” and “citizen”? Here is my submission. The term citizen helps to underline – in a way that the word “subject” perhaps cannot, even with a recognition of its split meaning, as “subject of” and “subject to” – the fact of historical agency and political arrangement (or “persuasion”). It underscores the necessary presence of the subaltern for the existence of dominance, not to say of society. It indicates also the necessity of choice (however limited), and the ongoing negotiation of lives and worlds. For the struggle to reproduce even the bare minimum conditions of survival (or humanity) in an oppressed “everyday” has been an important aspect of social existence through the centuries.

The words subaltern and subalternity of course reinforce what the quest of a critical historiography – Marxist, feminist, anticolonial, subalternist, minority – has long been about: the endeavour to recover lives, and possibilities, and politics that have been marginalised, distorted, suppressed and sometimes even forgotten. They allow us to reinforce the point that not all “citizens” (or human beings) are born equal, that many remain “second class” even when granted the formal status of citizens, and that many are denied formal citizenship altogether – today, and of course over most of human history.

The aim of such an intervention, as the south Asian Subaltern Studies project has made amply clear, is not simply to recover a neglected underside of human experience, and to announce that subaltern groups also counted in the unfolding of history, but to rethink the pattern of historical development as a whole, grasp the contradictions that lie at its heart and outline political possibilities that have been lost to view or remain to be elaborated.

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have put forward the term “citizen” as a qualifier for the “subaltern”, an indicator of the political quality of all subalternity (and all dominance). To explicate the argument a little, it will help to turn for a moment to perhaps the most influential philosophical explanation of the motor of human history and the sources

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

of social change from early times to today, namely, Hegel’s short discussion of “Lordship and Bondage”. I borrow from William E Connolly’s excellent summary account9 in presenting the following outline of the argument. For Hegel, the saga of history is the unfolding of the spirit and the development of self-consciousness. It is in the formation and consolidation of the lord/slave relationship that the seeds of self-consciousness are sown. The political scientist quotes the philosopher: “Selfconsciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged”.

The conscious or unconscious desire for recognition takes the form of a struggle. In this battle, if the one kills the other, recognition is not possible. But if the victor sets himself/herself as master, forces the vanquished into slavery and service, and forces the latter to recognise his or her lordship, then (in Connolly’s words) “the fateful dialectic of self-consciousness has been set into motion”.

Yet, this is only the beginning of the irony. “The servile one, because he has been forced into servility, lives in circumstances propitious to the seed of self-consciousness,” as Connolly puts it. The lord, having gained recognition, remains restless, desirous of recognition from an equal, yet unable to do anything about it for fear of losing an established superiority. Not so the slave. “The prospect of death leads one to concentrate the mind, to plumb the priorities of one’s life and the depth of one’s commitment to life. By examining these priorities in explicit knowledge of the contingency and finitude of one’s own life one begins to give shape to one’s self, forsaking those goals because they are unimportant or not expressive of one’s best potentialities, accentuating these because they are fundamental to one’s highest purpose.”10

As is clear from the above, for Hegel both the master and the slave are vulnerable, given that the selfhood of each depends on the other. That vulnerability, which is also implicitly changeability and historical contingency, in the position of lord and bondsman, needs to be underlined. For it is the history of that vulnerability and changeability, and attempts to thwart change, that provides the content of human history.

For Hegel, as for Marx, the slave has the greater potential to think beyond current conditions, to achieve a higher level of self-consciousness, and conceive and build new worlds. For Hegel, it is not the lord but the bondsman who will perform the historically necessary task of transcending the conditions of his/her present existence. “Through absolute fear and enforced work he…[begins] to acquire a coherent self and an enhanced consciousness of it. He can think now about what freedom means for the individual and what kind of world will enable that freedom to be.”11 For Marx, in a parallel move, it is not the bourgeoisie but the proletariat that is the universal class, the sign of the future, in the age of capital. The subaltern is the seed of progress

– in life and, crucially, in thought.

There is an idealism here, in Marx as in Hegel, that will not easily survive the ravages of recent history. But there is also, in the inherently irresolvable character of the dialectic they postulate, much food for thought about historical development, and about our understanding of subaltern conditions.

Subalternity and Citizenship

We may return at this point to the question of subalternity and citizenship. In an analysis of the mass nationalist campaigns of the 1920s to 1940s in India, Ranajit Guha invokes the idea of a dual political move on the part of the nationalist elite: “discipline and mobilise”. “The theme of mobilisation has a tendency to figure in all modes of dominant discourse as the nationalist elite’s entitlement to hegemony”, he writes. “What is highlighted in such discourse is that aspect of the phenomenon which speaks only of the enthusiasm of the mobilised. But as should be clear from our survey, there was another side to it – that is, the rigour and extent of the discipline used to bring it about.”12

Guha’s concern is with the discipline that was deemed necessary in the course of popular mobilisation. There is no doubt about the importance of this aspect of mass politics. However, I want to turn the terms “discipline” and “mobilise” around, to suggest not only that such mobilisation must also be followed by disciplining, but also that the dyad used here for an exposition of Gandhian tactics in anti-colonial civil disobedience may well serve as a description of a central theme in world history. This history might be characterised as an extended campaign to mobilise and discipline resources – not the least of which are human resources – for production, conquest, political advantage, the establishment and reinforcement of privilege.

The history of human achievement is also a history of exertion to maintain or alter conditions of production and reproduction, comfort and want, dominance and subordination. It is a struggle between the privileged and the unprivileged, “citizens” and those who would be “citizens”, over the rules of appropriation, accumulation, preservation (and destruction) of resources, power, prestige and more. It is a struggle to institute and perpetuate subalternity, or in other words, relations of dominance and subordination: and it is marked by continually changing modes of mobilising and disciplining.

The fact of citizenship, statutory, anticipated or feared, is in my view written into the condition of subalternity. Over the last 300 years and more during which modern political thinkers have celebrated or lamented the passing of the ancien regime and the arrival of a new regime of modernity, the view has gained ground – however grudgingly this may have been conceded (and may still be conceded) in the era of colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism – that human beings are created equal, that they deserve equal rights and are, at least theoretically, entitled to citizenship of the city and the nation.

The subaltern as potential citizen is the condition of the history of these times. In earlier ages too, I am arguing, the subalterns were potential resource and potential danger. On the boundaries of the community and the polis: whether barbarians, Huns, Tartars, Mongols, or conquered populations, “untamed” forest dwellers, women and servants. People who could, and sometimes did, threaten and even subvert the established order.13 In a word

– and necessarily – potential equals.

Without that potential, the slave cannot be there to recognise the master. That is the conundrum facing the dominant classes. How to deny this potential its full possibilities, and maintain the subalternity of the subaltern, without which dominance and privilege are immediately lost? How to perpetuate his or her disenfranchisement, using that term in its broadest sense? It is the struggle over the multifarious and ever-changing forms of enfranchisement and disenfranchisement, I suggest, that has constituted the political history of the world, past and present.

Two propositions here need to be carefully underscored. First, subaltern is a position in a relationship, and one that describes the situation of many who are not at the bottom of one giant social heap. Secondly, dominance and subordination – the relation of subalternity – is produced historically, and therefore may also be altered historically.

In terms of referent, of the touchstone if you like, the popular understanding of the subaltern as the down and out, the impoverished, oppressed, humiliated and scorned, makes a good deal of sense. Subaltern history would lose its moorings without the attempt to understand the lives and struggles of the most marginalised and oppressed.14 Yet the condition of subalternity, of wretchedness and humiliation, attaches to individuals and groups and who are not obviously poor and downtrodden, and even to some who might be described as subaltern elites.

The second caveat is equally important. The relation of subalternity is, necessarily, always negotiated. It is the struggle to overcome the marks of an inherited subalternity on the one hand and to reinstitute it on the other that lies at the heart of subaltern history. ‘Les damnes’, to be sure, but in a repeatedly negotiated and renegotiated damnation.

The Institution of Subalternity

The perspective outlined above may help to amplify and complicate the notion of subaltern/ity, and the ways in which we attempt to understand the history of subaltern groups and classes. It brings back to the subaltern domain the differentiated character, the contradictory forces and tendencies, shall we say the complexity that was central to the initial “Subaltern Studies” proposition. It restores to the subaltern the position of being a two-part subject-object,15 and recognises the layered and intricate character of the political structures, institutions and opportunities within which subalternity has been located, reinforced and re-inscribed at different times and in different places.

The histories that subalternist scholars have sought to engage are the histories of the underprivileged and disenfranchised: religious, ethnic and sexual minorities; marginal nationalities; dispossessed indigenous communities; immigrant labourers, the rural poor, urban squatters and working peoples of numerous other descriptions; African-American and dalit women in the US and India (to refer to the two countries I work on); African-Americans, dalits and women. What are the resources that have been available to different classes of people, to different constituencies and assemblages in the past, to live their lives and have their being? What are the resources available to individuals and groups in this era of globalising nation-states, in which societies continue to be very carefully monitored by the state, yet consist of populations that are far more summarily mixed, and often deracinated and baffled? What kinds of traditions and histories and senses of community have dislocated and vulnerable populations invoked, in earlier times and in our own?

Over the course of the 20th century, subaltern groups have commonly been granted formal citizenship across the globe. Even where they have not – as in the case of illegal immigrants, refugees, “guest” workers and floating assemblages of many other kinds – their existence as relatively stable populations has been secured (not to say necessitated) by the essential character of many of the services they provide, and they have been able consequently to make certain kinds of claims on state and quasi-state resources. How do these conditions of legal and quasi-legal residence, voting or various welfare rights for subaltern groups, or simply the impossibility of doing without ill-paid and sometimes unregistered labour, affect the business of subaltern political mobilisation on the one hand, and of governance on the other?

For recent times, one might examine the history and politics of elite groups linked with historically subordinated populations: the African-American and the dalit middle classes for example, the “black bourgeoisie” and “dalit brahmins” as they have been called, white but not quite (in Homi Bhabha’s powerful and widely travelled phrase), groups that are under pressure simultaneously to be citizens of the modern world (national, meritrocratic and middle class) and to speak for their still under-privileged communities: in other words, “not to forget where they come from”.16 At another level, one could take up for investigation what Partha Chatterjee has called “political”, as distinct from “civil”, society: populations of slum dwellers, domestic servants, cheap labour in hotels and small businesses, construction workers, road builders, seasonal labourers on farms, whose legal standing remains uncertain, who may seek and obtain a degree of protection and support from the state and ancillary institutions, but who can still scarcely be counted as members of civil society.17

In one frame, these are histories of the homeless, the uninsured and the marginalised (and I repeat that these terms are not to be understood in a merely literal way; they are always relative, as we know very well); in another, of materially more comfortable citizens who are even so not allowed to be part of the polis, that is to say, citizens in the classic sense. The figure of the subaltern citizen, and my proposition about changing modes of disenfranchisement, allows us to investigate the shifting structures and practices of dominance and subordination in quite distinctive contexts with a renewed attention to contending epistemes, inherited constraints and unexpected opportunisms. Two very brief examples will help to make the argument more concrete.

Consider, first, the litany of exclusions that were meant to be suffered by the adidravidas (the “original inhabitants”, long consigned to the status of outcastes or untouchables) in Ramnad district, south India, in the early 20th century. According to what representatives of the locally dominant kallar caste told the census commissioner in 1931, the adi-dravida men were not supposed to wear clothing below the knees or above the hips, or cut their hair short; the women were not to cover the upper parts of their body, nor to wear flowers in their hair. Adi-dravidas were not allowed to use anything but earthen vessels even in their own homes, or to wear gold or silver jewellery, or wear sandals, cover themselves with cloaks, or carry parasols or umbrellas. In 1931, following a serious conflict between the kallars and the adi-dravidas in the previous year, and perhaps further motivated by the gathering of information for the decennial census, the kallars drew up an even more stringent list of prohibitions, which included a ban on learning to read or write (which suggests that some of the adi-dravidas were now beginning such learning), on playing music at their own weddings and other ceremonies, on using horses or sedan chairs in these weddings, and so on.18

An appreciation of the obvious cultural and symbolic value of clothing and public display, in all societies, will help to set this in context. Being denied the right to wear the same clothing or jewellery as other people is a sign of subordination and humiliation. In India, for a man to remain bare-chested at all times was an indication of poverty and humility. Many temples required male worshippers to remove their shirts before entering the inner precincts.

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

In the famous breast-cloth controversy of the mid-19th century, sparked off in part by colonial and missionary propaganda against existing customs, the lower castes in Kerala demanded the right for their women to wear blouses or breast-cloths, at a time when in the countryside even high-caste women did not cover their breasts. Not surprisingly, the struggle for the right to cover one’s upper body and head, or wear shoes, or carry umbrellas, or to stand erect while talking to a “superior”, or to sit down on a chair or a cot in his or her presence, has been a central part of the struggles of the lowest castes and classes in colonial as well as postcolonial India.19

For a very different case, I want to turn to the history of race relations in Atlanta, Georgia in the era of the civil rights movement and after, as told by the historian Kevin Kruse in his White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.20 A booming centre of capitalist growth in the heart of the Old South of the United States, a leading hub of commercial, transport and service facilities, Atlanta was portrayed as a beacon of the New South, “a place where economic progress and racial progressivism went hand in hand”. When Atlanta desegregated its public schools in 1961, apparently with great success and a minimum of disruption, numerous observers showered praise on its accomplishments, and Mayor William Hartsfield coined the famous slogan, “the City That Was Too Busy to Hate”.

A year later violent clashes between blacks and whites erupted in Peyton Forest. Here, white activists set up physical barricades on a crossroads dividing an expanding black residential zone from the shrinking white sections of the city, in what they clearly saw as a last stand of (the old) order. As a black middle class emerged and moved into what were traditionally white neighbourhoods, the Southwest Citizens Association representing white homeowners stated that the barricades were nothing more than a response to “the vicious, block-busting tactics being used by Negro realtors”. It was not just Peyton Forest, an office-bearer of the association declared, but all of white Atlanta that was “endangered” by black expansion.

The barricades were removed within weeks, owing to the resistance of black activists and other civil rights groups, and decisions in court cases that were instituted in the wake of the violence. In less than a month after that, most white homes in Peyton Forest were listed for sale with black real-estate agents. The ‘Peyton Wall’ incident, writes Kruse, was “only the most public eruption of the much larger phenomenon of white flight.” “We are trying to find some area outside the city limits where we can buy homes and get away from the problem (of desegregation)”, the president of the Southwest Citizens Association noted. “Everybody I know is definitely leaving the city of Atlanta.”

In the five years preceding the Peyton Forest debacle, nearly 30,000 whites had left the city. During the 1960s another 60,000 of the remaining 3,00,000 whites fled; during the 1970s another 1,00,000. “The City Too Busy to Hate”, the sceptics remarked, was fast becoming “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate”.21 In a classic replication of residential patterns in other American cities, it was also mutating into an inner city populated by blacks, including many of those who had moved up into the ranks of the comparatively comfortable middle classes, and surrounded by an expanding area of wealthy and isolated white suburbs.

There are other aspects to the story. The desegregation of buses in Atlanta led segregationists to boycott public transport and hence to its substantial collapse. The opening up of the city’s public education, which was carried through much more effectively and peaceably than in cities like New Orleans, led to a white migration to private schools and academies and to the reappearance of what desegregationists were fighting against – increasingly overcrowded all-black schools. In the last decades of the 20th century, as new wellto-do coloured immigrants moved into the suburbs, the phenomenon of resegregation of schools was seen in new areas. The departure of suburban whites from racially mixed schools was part of a new stage in white flight, in which whites abandoned the inner ring of suburbs just outside the city and moved to an outer ring of “exurbs” in the counties beyond.22

Notice the determination in all of this to maintain “distance”, and to reinforce the marks of subalternity even upon those who have escaped from poverty and the more undisguised forms of discriminatory social regulation. The negotiation of a higher status by individuals and groups who have been historically subordinated is a process that has always been fraught with obstacles.

Indeed, the exodus of rich whites from large American cities proved to be one of the most effective segregationist responses to the legal, political and perhaps moral pressures they felt during and after the civil rights era. In another significant twist, white conservatives, confronted by an ascendant civil rights movement, turned from their traditional and openly racist arguments about inheritance, intelligence and enterprise to a sharpened statement of individual rights and freedom of choice: the “right” to associate (or not associate) with whomever they pleased; to select neighbours, friends, and children’s classmates; and to manage economic and social affairs as they wished, without governmental interference. Through this shift, as Kruse observes, conservative politicians at the local level “discover[ed] a number of ways in which they could preserve and, indeed, perfect the realities of racial segregation outside the realm of law and politics.”23

Generations of prejudice and privilege are not given up in a day.

Subalternity and Difference

The point of the argument presented above has been to recognise the variation and sophistication of inherited histories and cultures, religious, political and economic rituals, states and state policies, and to underline the highly differentiated character of subaltern groups and their politics, without losing sight of the undoubted facts of immiserisation, oppression or marginalisation. The examples cited in the previous section should have served to illustrate the range of tactics, the adaptability and cunning, the subtle and the not so subtle ways in which contending parties have fought at different times and in different places to alter or perpetuate particular conditions of dominance and subordination.

I want to conclude with a brief reflection on another aspect of this dialectic, which has become the focus of some exploration and debate only in recent times. For 200 years and more, the struggles of the oppressed and subordinated were seen as struggles for recognition as equals. The history of these efforts appeared as a history of sameness, and the right to sameness: “one man, one vote”, equal pay for equal work, the need to overturn inherited structures of power, to capture state power, and so on. In the later decades of the 20th century, the battle was extended selfconsciously to encompass another demand

– the demand for a recognition of difference – as the awareness grew that differences of gender, of communal practices and ways of being, even of incommensurable languages and beliefs, have provided the very ground for the diversity, density and richness of human experience. One question inevitably follows: how is the long-standing struggle for equality supposed to be folded into this newly asserted right to the recognition of difference?

The answer is hardly straightforward. At one level, the demand for the recognition of difference refines and expands the demand for fundamental human rights, equality and justice. For, until the assertion of a politics of difference by feminists, marginal nationalities and other “minorities”, the proclamation of difference was always a means of containment. Yet, if the latter suggestion is correct, it leads to another, more fundamental proposition about the place of difference in the history of dominance and subordination.

It is my belief that there is a critical and still largely unexplored relationship between dominance/subordination and the categorical attribution of difference. Difference, one might say, is the mark of the subordinated or subalternised, precisely because it is measured against the purported mainstream, the “standard” or the “normal”. And it is in the attribution of difference that the logic of dominance and subordination has always found expression. Men are not “different”; it is women who are. Caste Hindus are not “different” in India; it is Muslims, and “tribals”, and dalits who are. White Australians are not “different”; Vietnamese boat people, and Fijian migrants to Australia, and, astonishingly, Australian aboriginals are.

Such an insight may help us also in analysing the situation of the doubly subalternised. The tribal peasant woman: “different” as tribal, and “different” again as woman. Or women of colour: subaltern twice over. Subalternity and difference rolled into one. Difference as subalternity. Subalternity as difference.

The point I am making is not that the issue of difference must be added to that of subalternity. It is to recognise that they appear all too often as one and the same thing. The foregrounding of gender, caste, race, etc, in this manner, as so many ways of organising subalternity, may help to complicate and deepen our understanding of social and political power, even as we work to expose the roots of contemporary as well as past prejudice and discrimination, and refashion the project of turning the world upside down.

Ironically, today, at the very time when the question of difference and its relation to struggles for social justice and equality has been established as a matter for debate and intervention in widening academic and political circles, and it has become clear that the issue of difference has necessarily to be folded into any programme of democratic struggle, conservative political and intellectual groups are pivoting towards another line of reasoning, one they have long shunned. Right wing forces around the world, who have for ever so long stated their claim to continued power and privilege in terms of innate difference (the superiority of a particular race, caste, sex, etc) are now sometimes turning to an affirmation of sameness.

We are all the same, this particular version of the argument goes – men and women, black and white, upper caste and lower caste, Christian, Hindu and Muslim. No one needs to be given any special advantages or state support. Success and advancement depends, and must depend, on merit, individual ability, hard work, and, maybe (just maybe) “luck”. And those who don’t make it simply do not deserve to.

The underlying proposition here has to do with the equal rights of all (irrespective of caste, colour, race, sex or creed, as several modern constitutions declare). Freedom of choice, the ability to decide what religion one follows, what associations one joins, whom one associates with, where one lives, shops, plays, or where one’s children go to school – these are fundamental human rights, so eloquently articulated in the 18th century revolutions and since. It is on this hallowed ground that, in the age of civil rights, the dominant classes in India as well as the US replace claims about race and caste with the language of liberal individualism, equality of opportunity and free choice to try to keep dalits (“ex-untouchables”) and African-Americans (“ex-slaves”) “in their place”.

In Hegel’s abstraction of the masterslave relationship, the slave has to be recognised in order to give recognition to the master; and yet his or her enslavement has to be maintained. Concrete history compounds the problem. The subaltern is a necessary presence, s/he cannot be wished or spirited away; and yet he or she cannot fully belong. S/he has to be the same – and yet different at the same time. Difference is not to be privileged, yet it must not be entirely denied.

It is precisely the competing demands of “difference”, on the one hand, and the language of equal rights and social justice, on the other, that produced the twisted American slogan, “Equal but Separate”. So long as African-Americans and European Americans both had access to schools, hospitals, hotels and parks, what was the harm in keeping these separate for each “race”. The proposition of course has a wider provenance, although, as we have seen, its terms are sometimes modified.

Whatever the specific argument, the “separate” in this proposition are hardly the salt of the earth. The Muslims of India are like the rest of “us”, they deserve no special privilege or state protection: yet they do not really belong, since they adhere to a “foreign” religion. It is the same with Latina/Latino migrants to the US: they can never be truly American, since they cannot dream in English.24 The dalits and the African-Americans of course belong. However, as the familiar elitist proclamation has it, generations of “low” life – loose living, dirty personal habits, the collective mentality of the ghetto – have made the majority of them “different” and, shall we say, somewhat “unworthy”: they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and deserve only the minimum of social welfare or state support.

In complex ways, then, the powerful manoeuvre to return the figure of the subaltern to its appointed location: the

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traditional “third world” peasant eking out a miserable existence in Haiti, Rwanda or Bangladesh; dalits “unfairly” promoted to college degrees and bureaucratic office (and, even more dangerous, medical practice) in India; African-Americans “looting” the stores and “shooting” at relief helicopters in the wake of the Katrina disaster. Much of this would be laughable, were it not part of a widely accepted common sense, resolutely purveyed and promoted by the media.

What underlies this effort is the conscious or unconscious attempt to isolate subalternity and assign it to the margins of society and history, “margins” that have been brought into being by the historical accident of “backwardness” or the unfortunate inheritance of poverty. This is a move that is both predictable and insidious

– in its denial of the politics that goes into the establishment and sustenance of privilege, and in its confining of difference to another discourse which, as the pretence has it, has nothing to do with the business of dominance and subordination.




[I owe thanks to several friends in Emory – Shalom Goldman, Bruce Knauft, Chris Krupa, Ruby Lal, Ken Maclean, Laurie Patton, Aruna Ramachandran

– and to David Hardiman in Warwick for comments on an very rough first draft; and to other members of my graduate seminar on “Subaltern Citizens” whose questions have made it harder to write this essay.]

1 Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, ‘Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular’, Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol 8, No 4, November 2005, p 476.

2 Preface to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York, 1963, p 7.

3 See the eleven volumes of Subaltern Studies. Studies in South Asian History and Society, especially volumes I-VI, published by Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1982-1989; Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983; Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, In Other Worlds. Essays in Cultural Politics, Routledge, New York, 1988; Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1995; Ajay Skaria, Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999; David Hardiman, Peasant Nationalists of Gujarat, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1981; Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments. Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993; Dipesh Chakrabarty,

Re-thinking Working Class History: Bengal,

1890-1940 Histories, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1989; and for further examples, Gyanendra Pandey, The Ascendancy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh: Class, Community and Nation in Northern India, 1920-1940, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2005; Gyan Prakash, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003; and Ramchandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990.

4 Ranajit Guha, ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’ in Ranajit Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies II, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983, p 2.

5 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2002, p 19.

6 It goes without saying that modern capitalist farmers not only desire these facilities and comforts, but often enjoy them in full measure, adding the joys of fancy country homes to the resources of the city.

7 See Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852; International Publishers, New York, 1963; Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1983.

8 The words in quotation marks are from Gokhan Bacik, ‘Turkey and Russia: Whither Modernisation?’, Journal of Economic and Social Research, Vol 3, No 2, 2001, p 56.

9 William E Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1988. 10 These quotations come from Connolly, Political

Theory and Modernity, pp 94-96.

11 Ibid, p 96.

12 Ranajit Guha, ‘Discipline and Mobilise: Hegemony and Elite Control in Nationalist Campaigns’ in Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey (eds), Subaltern Studies, VII: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989; reprinted in Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemeony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997: the quote is found on p 150 of this volume.

13 Consider the ‘Slave dynasty’ that ruled in Delhi in the 13th century; or the Mamluks who ruled from Cairo from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Or, for a different kind of example, consider the renowned 16th century Bhakti poet of northern India, Goswami Tulsidas’s well known verse: “Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, naari; yeh sab taaran ke adhikari (The rustic, the lower castes, women must be beaten to be kept in shape – like [domesticated] animals and like the drum)”

14 Cf Ranajit Guha: “When Abhoy Mandal of Momrejpur, considered polluted by the asthmatic attacks suffered by his mother-inlaw, submits himself for expiation to the local council of priests and says, ‘I am utterly destitute; would the revered gentlemen be kind enough to issue a prescription that is commensurate with my misery?’ or when Panchanan Manna of Chhotobainan, his body racked by anal cancer, pleads before a similar authority in his own village, ‘I am very poor; I shall submit myself to the purificatory rites of course; please prescribe something suitable for a pauper’ – are we to allow these plaintive voices to be drowned in the din of a statist historiography? What kind of history of our people would that make, were it to turn a deaf ear to these histories which constitute, for that period, the density of power relations in a civil society where the coloniser’s authority was still far from established?”; see his ‘The Small Voice of History’ in Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakrabarty (eds), Subaltern Studies IX: Writings on South Asian History and Society,

Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996, p 6.

15 This is a position we all share, yet one that is not easily granted to the master or the slave, since the one is seen as a fully autonomous subject (that is agent) and the other as pure object (acted upon).

16 For the African-American case, see, for example, E Franklin Frazier,Black Bourgeoisie, Free Press, New York, 1957, Bart Landry, The New Black Middle Class, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987, and Stephanie Shaw, What a Woman Ought to Be and Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995; for the Dalit middle classes, Harold Isaacs, India’s Ex-Untouchables, Harper, New York, 1964; Sacchidanand, The Harijan Elite: A Study of the Status, Networks, Mobility and Role in Social Transformation, Thomson Press, Delhi, 1976; Nandu Ram, The Mobile Scheduled Castes. Rise of a New Middle Class, Hindustan Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 1988; and for a recent foray into this history, Gyanendra Pandey, ‘The Time of the Dalit Conversion’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLI, No 18, May 6, 2006.

17 Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

18 See Robert Deliege, The Untouchables of India, Berg, Oxford, 1999, pp 109-10.

19 For the breast-cloth controversy, see ibid, p 108; Robert Hardgrave, ‘The Breast-Cloth Controversy’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 5, 2, June 1968, pp 171-87; and Kawashima Koji, Missionaries and a Hindu State: Travancore 1858-1936, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000. For other struggles over similar issues of deference and power, see, for example, Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983; Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India, Subarnarekha, Calcutta, 1980; and Kalyan Mukherjee and Rajendra Singh Yadav, Bhojpur: Naxalism in the Plains of Bihar, New Delhi, 1980.

20 Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2005.

21 The quotations and figures in this and the preceding paragraphs are from ibid, pp 3-5.

22 Ibid, pp 114-15, 147, 168ff, 263-64.

23 Ibid, p 8; see pp 8-9, 161ff and passim.

24 Samuel P Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004.

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