I had the opportunity to share my reflections regarding being taught by Ranajit Guha at an event at Sussex University celebrating his career on 20th October 2023. I have had, and continue to have, a very varied career – I am a long away from where I was in 1984 submitting my PhD on the tebhaga movement, the sharecroppers’ struggle that took place in Bengal in the late 1940s. I have worked in the charity sector, as a paramedic, as a qualified social worker, manager and senior leader in Adult Social Services. I continue to work in the specialist field of safeguarding adults in England. This may appear quite random but there is a connection between then and now. People requiring safeguarding are often the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society in England; sharecroppers were amongst the most oppressed and dispossessed in rural communities in Bengal.
It is no exaggeration to say that Ranajit Guha changed my life; first in motivating me to undertake my degree in the School of African and Asian studies (AFRAS) in Sussex University, and then to undertake a PhD on sharecroppers’ struggles, particularly the tebhaga movement. In 1976, when I was choosing a subject for my PhD, no one had studied the tebhaga movement, which grew from a pre-history of peasant activism and was led by the Kisan Sabha, the peasant wing of the Communist Party of India.
Ranajit supported me to do my PhD in so many ways – significantly by advising me to do a PhD in the first place. I wanted to go to India after 3 years of studying Indian history and he said – ‘don’t go as a tourist but go as a scholar’, so I did. In Kolkata his connections sent me to the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences where I was supervised, befriended and supported by so many people through different networks, scholars and students. His name opened doors.
I had read – probably directed by Ranajit – Sunil Sen’s memoirs of being an activist in Dinajpur in the tebhaga movement. I wanted to know more: how, what, when and where the movement had taken place. I wanted to understand how marginalised and oppressed Bengali sharecroppers became the fighters, resisters, and activists in the tebhaga movement, demanding to keep a larger share of the crop, challenging the landlords and oppression in their lives. I wanted to record their history. I undertook conventional research and found written records in the Writers Building in Kolkata and government archives in Dhaka. I wanted to go beyond and behind these texts to find out from people who were still alive in the late 1970s what they remembered, and I was fortunate as so many people were able to tell me their stories.
I learnt Bengali before I left England and spent 2 years meeting and interviewing over 200 people who had been involved in the tebhaga struggles. I searched out people, followed up leads, used different networks to find them. I collected their memories, stories and songs. I spoke to so many different people, in towns and villages, young and old, men and women, in West Bengal and Bangladesh; landlords, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers, peasant activists and communists, including a Minister in the West Bengal CPM government. I travelled all over Bengal and then returned to England to write the PhD thesis. I tried to do justice to their experiences.
Studying the tebhaga movement was unconventional because it was about Bengal – both East and West Bengal, now Bangladesh and India. My privilege as foreign scholar was that I could do this, at that time, when local historians couldn’t cross the international border. This helped me with my own issues about being a white English woman doing this work. Local scholars assured me that in this way I could make a helpful contribution. In current discussions and debates about decolonising, I can frame this discomfort in a clearer way.
The post-colonial legacy of guilt haunted me even though my own family were immigrants to the UK, and anti-imperialists. They were communists. In this context I remember walking through some paddy fields with an interpreter (because my Bengali wasn’t adequate for understanding all the local dialects), in single file behind an elderly peasant activist who was walking ahead of us, whom I was going to interview, talking to himself. ‘What was he saying?’ The interpreter told me – ‘he was asking himself, ‘why has this English woman come all this way to speak to me. This because of international communism’. This has stayed with me for decades. There was some truth in his reflection because I had been brought up with an internationalist perspective in a communist family.
Studying in Sussex
Ranajit had been my tutor throughout my undergraduate course, as well as supervising my PhD. I had met him in 1972, arriving in Brighton after travelling overland from Pakistan. Coming back to Sussex I really wanted to know more about the history of the non-European world. A schoolfriend introduced me to Ranajit and I was inspired. I moved across to AFRAS and this changed the course of my life. University life in Sussex in the 1970s was very different to how I understand it might be now. Sussex had a radical reputation both academically and in terms of the student experience. The radical approach to learning was why I had applied to go there: the inter-disciplinary schools of studies and the more fluid approach to curriculum, with courses based on cross-cutting themes like ‘millenarian movements’, rather than historical periods. I was attracted to the radical political activism that Sussex was known for. I was already involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, anti-Vietnam demos, school student radicalism in London. Sussex was perfect for me.
It was a privilege to be taught by Ranajit although I don’t think I recognised this at the time – you take for granted that your experience is normal when you are young and have little to compare it with. I have memories only of tutorials with 2 or 3 other students. Ranajit spoke about whatever the subject was – he was hugely knowledgeable, and there were discussions and debates. I remember him talking about the way in which Greek philosophers taught their students through discourse. So, his teaching methods did make sense. What was this like for students? Exciting and scary. Writing essays to explore ideas. Being pushed to think and consider different ways of thinking. Light bulb moments. Stimulating and intellectually challenging. Terrifying and I was always in awe of him. Our essays would be tightly critiqued with respect and ambition. Correcting our use of language. ‘Inspirational and challenging’ as I called this piece.
He was an intellectual giant – Anna (another student of Ranajit’s in the 1970s) reminded me that he learnt Gujarati to read Gandhi’s work. He referenced Marx, Lenin and Gramsci, structuralism and post structuralism, semiotics. We learnt how to deconstruct text – being able to read other stories from what was on the surface, to see through to what was behind and the stories that weren’t told. This was his biggest legacy. Anna reminded me of her arguments with him about feminism – would sexism fade away with capitalism as a relic of feudalism? And he always had the last word. Studying with Ranajit was never dull. He always went to what was most important – issues of justice and human rights, class analysis. He also said that history was the true and only worthwhile academic discipline. He was so astonishingly erudite; he would use literature and multiple cultural references; unapologetically an intellectual.
AFRAS had a very strong identity – we learnt about imperialism and post-colonialism from radical scholars. So different to history in school. It was a great place to be and learn. Ranajit was part of that – he had his own style and brilliance. Additionally, it was special but not unusual to be invited to academics’ homes to meet other students. I did feel privileged but a bit overwhelmed to meet the scholars that Ranajit brought together. It was helpful to know that there was a community of interest, in which he was the centre. The connections were helpful when I went to India and in validating what I was doing, which always felt niche and isolated, particularly when I was in England.
When I came back to England in 1979, I experienced serious culture shock on re-entry. Looking back, I think Ranajit’s high standards of scholarship and his critique of my writing triggered a writer’s block and I made the very difficult decision to change supervisor. I moved to work with Terry Byres at SOAS, who helped me through this. I completed my PhD on sharecroppers struggles and sharecropping in Bengal in 1930s and 1940s. It was published in Kolkata and part translated into Bengali and published in Bangladesh. I was driven to ensure that at least there was a record of what I had been able to find out. I owed it to all the people that I had met. Decades later I emailed Ranajit, prompted by Shireen Huq, a mutual friend who visited him in Austria (she also studied with Ranajit in the late 1970s). I said what I’d been doing over the many years and got a lovely response from Mechtild Guha; there was closure.
Remembering those years, I want to also reflect on our politics at that time. We were intellectually and academically applying a Marxist lens and critiquing it – so my PhD was about the economic history of sharecropping as a semi-feudal mode of production, as well as a political history of a peasant struggle. Ranajit introduced us to what was happening in Indian communism at the time, including the Naxalite struggles. This had significant personal resonance for me; coming from a communist family, as a child living through the 1950’s Cold War backlash of anti-communism, parents who had been deported from America due to McCarthyism. This was another connection. I had a tutor who could make some sense of that. Researching a peasant struggle led by communists was amazing on a personal level. I was in West Bengal when the CP(M) came to power after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule: this was an extraordinary experience for me. All the hammer and sickle graffiti on the walls and communist red flags waved in demonstrations on the maidan. This was incredible for someone whose grandfather, a Polish tailor, had heard Lenin speak in Paris. In India and Bangladesh, my communist party family identity was an asset, not something to hide. People trusted and helped me in my research because of it. As the elderly peasant activist said – I had come to speak to him ‘because of international communism’.
Postscript/legacy – some final words
Looking back, I just feel very grateful to have had the experience of being taught and inspired by Ranajit. In subsequent decades I have randomly come across people who knew his work, so belatedly I have understood that during those years he was developing his subaltern studies approach. It is always such a surprise and a gift to have those conversations. I have continued to utilise the skills I learnt, and I have always maintained my values and commitment to supporting people who are most marginalised and excluded. For the last 15 years as a social work leader this has taken the form of transforming the ways vulnerable adults are safeguarding in England.
I ceased my academic career once my PhD was published, although have developed one in social work. But I have come back to this part of my life. An American professor sought me out a few years ago; I showed her the notebooks recording the interviews that had been kept in the loft, unopened for 25 years. She wrote a blog about the encounter. That was a key turning point. Subsequently Dr Layli Uddin contacted me and with her encouragement and support, I have been transcribing the interview notes. I want to place the transcripts in archives so others can access them, reflect, analyse, and learn from these stories.
This is also part of Ranajit’s lasting influence. I still believe that this work is so important – there is an ongoing interest in subaltern studies; in the histories of people, seen to be at the margins but really at the centre. There is so much richness in these recollections of their experiences, their memories. This is a legacy that I want to pass on to others. A legacy that wouldn’t exist, if not for Ranajit Guha.
Adrienne Cooper Sharecropping and Sharecropper’s Struggles in Bengal 1930-1950, K.P.Bagchi, Kolkata, 1988
Sunil Sen Agrarian Struggles in Bengal 1946-47 P.P.H. Delhi 1972
The full text of the presentation is in the upcoming volume:
Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): Bishesh Sankalan (Ranajit Guha (1923-2023): A Special Commemorative Collection). Edited by Sourav Chattopadhyay, Kolkata: Alochana Chakra, 2024. ISBN: 978-93-83208-15-9.
Adi Cooper OBE is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bedfordshire, Independent Chair of two Safeguarding Adults Boards in London and Adviser for safeguarding adults (Partners in Care and Heath). She is a Non-Executive Director of Social Work England. She also works as a safeguarding consultant and has published books and articles on safeguarding adults. She is a qualified social worker and worked in Adult Social Care for over 30 years, including as Director of Adult Social Services, Housing and Health for nine years. Her PhD thesis about the tebhaga movement was published in Kolkata on ‘sharecropping and sharecroppers struggles in Bengal 1930-50’ and she studied as an undergraduate and post-graduate with Ranajit Guha at Sussex University. Twitter @adi_coo
Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons (government open data licence, India)
TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:
Cooper, Adi 2024. ‘Ranajit Guha: An inspirational and challenging teacher’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1): https://doi.org/10.51428/Dsoc.2024.01.0003