The Challenge of Subaltern History

History and Empire

The Indian histories that exist today are inadequate and lack imaginitive histories, consisting largely of fables, mythologies and folklore. Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that's part of the epic, Mahabharata. A warrior in the story becomes unsure during the height of battle about going against his friends and his charioteer then becomes the great god Krishna. This shows how Indian histories can sometimes be inadequate.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (part of the Governor General's Supreme Council in Calcutta) stated that ‘all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.’ But James Mill suggests that you could learn more about India sat in your closet in England for a year than you could by your own eyes and ears if you lived there with the longest life.

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Organisation of Indian History

The Western people organised Indian history into certain periods. The first was the Buddhist period which ran from the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD. Then came the Hindu period which ran from the 5th to the 10th century AD, and then came the Muhammadan period which ran from the 12th century to the 18th century. They presented the Hindu period as being a time of corruption, and then the Muhammadan period as a time of little progress (although this is true in part, this is actually caused by invasions rather than anything they could control). This shows how the West viewed the particular religions.

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Subaltern History

Subaltern history is a school of history that was developed to take another look at Indian history. It creates a relationship between cultural diversity and historical knowledge. It helps create a history that isn't changed my cultural divisions, like India being part of the British Empire. It recreates the history of the subaltern when they may not have been able to write it down themselves.

When British power left India (rather hastly following the collapse of their Indian provinces like Bengall), more and more power was placed in the hands of the Indians. It was a transitional period. The Indian identity was recovered and it was this that led to the total eradication of British rule. There had been mass movements before this which had failed, but the subaltern historian wanted to know why there was such a mass participation.

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Sources and the Subaltern Voice

The subaltern historian wanted to recover the politics of the peasantry in India as they had their own priorities, especially in places that didn't have access to written texts as everything that was written was by the British authorities.

On the 4th February 1922 in Chauri Chaura, a large crowd of protesters attacked a police station and killed 21 policemen. From this it was established that the Indian people weren't disciplined enough to hold effective demonstrations leading Gandhi to call off his 'non-cooperation movement'. He became a person that was almost deified.

The Santhal Hool rebellion (1855-56) was a native rebellion against the British and the upper caste zamindari system. Its impact was largely shadowed by the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but the legend of the Santal Rebellion lives on as a turning point in Santal pride and identity.

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