Editorial: Remembering Ranajit Guha

John Holmwood

We are very pleased to publish a series of articles, remembering Ranajit Guha, the Indian historian, scholar and founding spirit of ‘subaltern studies’. He died in Austria on April 28th, 2023, at the age of 99. His was a long-life of political engagement and scholarly reflection as set out in the obituary by Vinita Damodaran. Guha made an immense contribution to the social sciences and the humanities beyond the discipline of history.

Guha was born into a wealthy zamindar or land-owning family in East Bengal. He was active in the Indian Communist Party in the 1940s, but left following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He migrated to Britain in 1958 to take up a fellowship at the University of Manchester from where he was appointed Reader in History in the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex in 1962. He left in 1981 for a position at the Australian National University from which he retired in 1988.

It was while at ANU, and after, that much of the work in subaltern studies for which he became widely known was published. It was incubated during his time at the University of Sussex and the articles published in this issue are drawn from a memorial event – Remembering Ranajit Guha – held at the University of Sussex on October 20th, 2023.

The articles address his influence within history, anthropology and sociology. They include contributions from former students as well as those who knew him only through his writing. Most contributors have links with the University of Sussex and attest to its unique status at the time when Guha was there. Academics and students were associated with an academic discipline, but were also located in an interdisciplinary school – for example, African and Asian Studies, American Studies, Culture and Community Studies.

Of these, AFRAS was the most significant in defining the possibility of a new post-colonial approach to knowledge and its contribution to social justice on a global scale. This was fertile ground for the development of subaltern studies, though it must be said that Guha was not especially productive during his period at Sussex. Nor was he a convivial figure on campus, acting more as a goad than conciliator, though undoubtedly there were problems of the host community fully accepting an eminent Indian scholar.

Alice Corble provides the flavour of Guha as teacher and colleague via the only documents in the University of Sussex that record his time at the university – these are a reading list for a ‘special subject’ in the history curriculum on ‘Imperialism 1879-1914’ and a scathing open letter to the Dean of AFRAS over the decision to invite Samual Huntingdon to give a campus talk in 1973 on the Vietnam War. Adi Cooper provides a personal account of undertaking a PhD with Guha on the tebhaga movement of Bengali share-croppers. Her family background of Polish migrant communists found validation through Guha’s own background in communism and the doors it opened with tebhaga activists. Her narrative recalls a demanding teacher, but a lasting influence.

Sanjay Seth  describes his own experiences as a postgraduate student of Guha shortly after his arrival at ANU and the excitement of the new perspective being developed. Guha opened the space to address power and the agency of the oppressed as subjects of their own history against various forms of telling history from above, including the unfolding of the structural logics of modes of production.

Gurminder K. Bhambra addresses Guha’s major publication shortly after he arrived at Sussex, A Rule of Property for Bengal. This dealt with discussions within the British East India Company on how to organise property relations to derive a permanent source of revenue for the company. This was a major contribution to the history of political economy, but she raises two puzzles. One is the failure of Guha to discuss pre-existing property relations and the nature of British colonialism itself, while the other is the lack of engagement between him and Donald Winch, the other great historian of the political economy of colonialism appointed to Sussex at the same time.

Notwithstanding, as Maya Unnithan shows, subaltern studies provided a valuable resource for considering how pre-colonial property relations were significant for understanding how Girasi claims of Rajput heritage were mobilised against the colonial power, albeit unsuccessfully. She shows how subaltern studies entered into anthropology to deepen understandings of power and the agency of the oppressed.

Most of the articles deal with the role of subaltern studies in transforming approaches to British colonial history, especially on the Indian sub-continent. Jane Cowan shows that Guha’s approach also influenced her understanding of a ‘post-colonial’ (after the breakup of the Ottoman empire) minority of Macedonians in Greece and their struggles for recognition. The legacies of empire and their multiple ethno-nationalist mobilisations last through to the present-day.

Finally, our collection ends with a contribution from Moushumi Bhowmik who recounts Guha’s empathy for the people he studied as reflected in his appreciation of folk music, poetry and song. Her article recounts her approach to providing a performance of music, song and poetry to celebrate Guha’s life at the end of the memorial event.

The memorial event remembering Ranajit Guha was organised by Gurminder K Bhambra, Alice Corble, Ben Rogaly, and Vinita Damodaran. It was co-sponsored by the University of Sussex Schools of Global Studies and Media, Arts, and Humanities, and by the Centre for Rights and Anti-Colonial Justice. 

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: 


Holmwood, John 2024. ‘Remembering Ranajit Guha’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2024.01.0001