“What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)
Chandra’s Death is a powerful text, that documents the intersections of colonial power, with patriarchal and caste relations. In the text, Ranajit Guha provides the account of the death of a young Bagdi woman, Chandra. Reading into the legal depositions of those accused of her murder, Guha paints a picture of social relations in agrarian Bengal, that is dominated by a dialectic between the reciprocities of solidarity and fear. By reading between lines and into the silences of the legal document, Guha offers a provocative analysis of history, politics and power. Davies argues, that “theory need not be regarded as a static and dead description or analysis, but rather an activity or process which participates in the life of its object.” In this regard, it is essential to examine how theory offered by Guha “enters the life of its object” in law-school.
The law-school attempts to offer pictures of subversion and resistance. As Baxi suggests, the classroom appears as an enabling space – for the collective ‘ecstasies and catharses” of teachers and students. In a close reading of Chandra’s Death, I seek to ask whether the text can truly engender “social intervention” in a legal classroom. This piece therefore seeks to interrogate how post-colonial approaches can be imbibed and filtered within the classroom space. Through this, it seeks to question the radical promise that post-coloniality seems to offer within legal curriculums.
Critical jurisprudence courses often turn to post-colonial critical positions to provide the tools to criticise the liberal premises of colonial law. I will argue, that in its narration of human tragedy and loss, the text offered an image of politics and resistance that describes it as every day, routine. Guha, by offering such an imagination of tragedy and political action, erases certain radical possibilities from the classroom. By not etching a depiction of concrete organised political action, and by not indicating the urgency of organisation, the illustration of resistance in Chandra’s Death disarms his audience – the law student. I will attempt to illustrate how Guha’s analysis of power renders a feeling of defenceless. Kennedy shows how the depoliticisation of the classroom space functions to produce certain ideological meanings in the minds of students. I will attempt to read Chandra’s Death critically and interrogate how it too works in similar ways within the classroom.
Dwelling in this text means contending with the troubling conceptions of – history as fragment, a theory of power in which it is fluid. Locating oneself in the text means to sully political convictions, making them murky by the contradictions of post-colonial thought. I will hence attempt to reflect on and problematize the images of power, history, politics and subaltern consciousness that Guha invokes in Chandra’s Death.
Reading Against the Grain: History as Fragment
The manner in which Guha pictures history is instrumental to understanding its implications. Postcolonial legal theories are not restricted to legal processes in the time after colonialism, when a former colonized state gains independence. In contrast, postcolonial legal scholarship underscores that even when colonialism has officially ceased to exist, the injustices of material practices endure over time and in many ways frame emergent legalities and legal consciousness. It is this bending and opening of time that complicates students’ engagement with law and time, action and association. As Kapur points out, the first challenge posed by postcolonialists is to question the narrative of progress and pose itself against the conception of time as linear, and the assumptions of modernity about the integral interconnection of progress and human history.
While I am intent on locating my own politics within such a conception of history, it is first essential to locate Guha’s arguments within historical movements. Chibber describes the subalternist and postcolonial tradition – which arose in the early 1980s, as an emergent “new left,” that was a “flirtation” with Marxist and other radical traditions. In emerging in a post-Soviet world, the politics they employed – while it appeared to capture the aspirations of the working people, largely espoused cultural and literary modes of analysis. While subaltern studies seemed pre-occupied with the conditions of the peasants in the third world, they were intent on distancing themselves from the socialist projects that were being built by peasants, for peasants.
For Guha then, narratives are what is reified – they permeate and enable social control. For instance, Guha uses the term “exchange” to describe the relationship between the quotidian and historic. This contrast is interesting, considering the use of exchange within Marxist thought – in which it is used to explain how capital renders human beings into commodities characterized by relations of exchange, and commodities into beings contouring social interactions and relations. By making contrasts between the everyday and the extraordinary – it is visible that subalternists make these separations reified. This in turn renders a historical and structural theory of power relations impossible. Aman argues that pedagogic tools in legal classroom must cultivate critical sensibility. The flippant usage of “exchange” by Guha, that seeks to extricate the term from theoretical origins points to the dangers of post-coloniality, and its divestment from meta-narratives. Its unwillingness to highlight larger processes, structures and relations negatively impacts the law classroom, as it does not provide students tools to cultivate their own “critical sensibility.”
When Guha proposes that colonial power can also be situated in the punitive practices of law that emerge from the discursive strategies of the state, it must be located in relation to post-structuralist conceptions of power as fluid. In Kaiwar’s intellectual history of the subaltern and post-colonial schools, he points to how – these traditions simultaneously attend to the Global South by shunning Enlightenment and modern modes of analysis, and emphasising the distinct character of agrarian societies, the tools they borrow are largely from French post-structuralism. It is important to highlight these academic connections – because it discloses the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies in subalternist thought. What then appears is that subaltern scholarship –is reliant on the “economic capital” of American academia, and the “cultural capital” of French post-structuralism.
By distancing themselves from structuralist analysis of history in the state, the post-colonial school does not untangle itself from other intellectual traditions that emerge from the imperialist centre. It is integral to emphasise academic inheritances within the subaltern approach, because it discloses the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies in its thought.
The political project that the text lays down is closely intertwined with the politics of history writing. By proposing that historiography needs to make a paradigm shift, the method that Guha proposes is one that posits itself as diametrically opposed to existing approaches. Guha begins by asking how historical texts can be retrieved and “reclaimed” for history. Arguing that the “ordinary apparatus of historiography” would be inadequate, Guha attempts to offer a novel approach towards reading the archive. It is apparent at the outset, that central to Guha’s project is the rejection of traditional historiography. As a response, Guha offers that history should not comprise of the ordinary, but should instead attend to the small dramas and the quotidian. Indicating that the past is “dismembered” Guha suggests, that a critical historiography should “bend closer” and attend to the “traces of a subaltern life.” This invocation of “traces” reveals how the subaltern project shuns the grand processes of time. Locating myself in the questions that Guha asks, then means to examine the political implications of shunning history as a process, and characterizing it as a “trace.” How can a tradition that characterises history as sporadic envision a future of the oppressed?
Interestingly, Baxi utilises an analysis of temporality in a manner that seems to directly speak to Guha and the post-colonial impulse to characterise processes in history as mere “traces.” Baxi argues, that the teacher in a legal classroom constitutes the site at which both past and future are articulated. The law-school space in turn becomes a space to untangle history and imagine radical futures. It is in this regard, that he suggests that this temporal function of legal teaching helps to interrogate and encounter tyranny and exploitation. Guha’s conceptualisation of time as a trace does not open up an expansive conceptualisation of history – for students to map cartographies of the bygone and becoming.
By exposing history as a “grain” post-colonialists fail to account for the meta-narratives of history. By naturalising categories of East and West, they reproduce and strengthen the Orientalist separations of First and Third World. The implications of this in the legal classroom are immense. By treating history as characterised by spurts of political action, Guha denies his reader – the jurisprudence student – the larger historical processes and work it takes to build radical contestations with and within the law. By emphasising spontaneity, Guha does not allow the law-student to grasp the arduous tasks of courage, patience and discipline that are a part of political action and history making.
Furthermore, this approach permeates into the way Guha analyses crime and the law. He suggests that it “enlarges proportions” and makes the “grain of history” visible. Here again, it is apparent that social reality is composed of minute moments – like grains. The violence of the law is then not its visible coercions and open brutalities – but its contextualizing function, its ability to create “narrative” from “frantic” and “autonomous” moments in time. By pointing to the discursive act of power in creating this “matrix of abstract legality,” Guha paints a new critique of legal power, by situating it within language. Hence, an important shift that emanates from the text is a movement from examining history, law and state power as a product of class antagonisms, to instead being produced through the knowledge production and discursive processes.
When Guha explicitly suggests that it is necessary to attend to the “traces of subaltern life,” he categorically refuses to refer to the working people in class terms. Habib indicates how the grouping of all modernist historiography as “elitist” is an error by post-colonial scholars. By discarding modernist historiography as ‘colonialist elitism’ and ‘bourgeois nationalist elitism’ the subaltern project is able to then relegate all organised movements – with any kind of ideology – as elitist, external, and a product of the Enlightenment. By attacking state and nation, Habib points to how subalternists conveniently evade the economic truths in history. Ahmad points to the remarkable ahistoricity of this approach of subalternists by indicating how theories of post-industrialism were coming into vogue in the moment when industrial production was permeating outward from the imperialist centre to the periphery. Just when neoliberalism was enabling capital to become “a global story,” the figure of the subaltern was invoked – just when the industrial working class was becoming a rising, global group.
The critique then posed by subalternists – is that modernity is a fundamentally European phenomenon cannot explain the fundamentally distinct character of non-European society. They point to how there is an “enduring asymmetry” between East and West, and how the rule of law is produced through the logics of colonialism. In creating these distinctions, Ahmad argues that this creates a “misplaced moralism”, making modernity a “very bad thing” imposed by Europeans on non-Europeans. It is contradictory that post-colonial thinking then reproduces essentialist and Orientalist distinctions between East and West – the very classifications that need to be resisted.
Hunt points to how the form of law within capitalism is through reification – a process by which categories are made separate to continue the illusion of ideology. The post-colonial project too, seeks to reify and separate East and West as natural and timeless categories. This in turn does not allow students to recognise how there is no fundamental and irreconcilable antagonism between East and West, but is instead historically contingent on the advent of capitalism.
Encounters with Foucault: Conceptualising Power as Knowledge
Just as Chandra’s Death cannot be extricated from the intellectual tradition that it belongs to, it must further be situated in the role that it plays within law school curriculum. In the range of intellectual traditions that we attend to in class, post-colonial and post-structuralist forms of thinking pervade jurisprudence courses. Kaiwar for instance argues that the critique of modernity that is provided by subalternist historians indicates a shift from “classes to identitarian groups.” We attend to the contributions of Edward Said, and Janet Halley repeatedly and recurrently – more than the number of times we read Marx, or Ambedkar. The caste module in South Asian curriculums for instance, remains banished to a week in the curriculum that is fraught with hurry, when classes are characterised by low attendance and exam related commitments. It is fascinating, that in jurisprudence curriculums across law-schools, one encounters the subaltern as a category before caste, which has been relegated to the margins of the syllabus. Being left as a topic in the tail-end of the semester, further indicates how more politically radical categories preoccupy postcolonial academia less, due to its reluctance to engage with modernist categories. Chibber in this regard has illustrated how the enthusiasm among academics to appear “cutting edge” has in turn lead to conceptual advances within postcolonial thinking to adopt subalternist modes of analysis. He argues, that this has inturn created “conceptual inflation,” meaning there is the “substantive influence of a framework appears to extend far beyond its actual reach.”
Encountering subaltern studies without a firm grounding in understanding caste or class indicates the ideological location of law school. It is ideological, in that it refuses to equip us with the political tools that drive and form people’s movements today. The ideological character of legal curriculum is revealed through its emphasis on understanding power in non-material terms – which in turn does not enable the student to gauge and critique the social relations that undergird academia.
The analysis of power offered by the text is also necessary to contend with. Firstly, Guha reposes authority in the editor – the individual who separates and sifts the archive. Reading into the deposition, he points to how the disparity in the language of the text can be located in the “disciplinary thrust” made by the colonial regime. By indicating how state power is exerted into society through the processes of knowledge production, Guha’s analysis of power must be located within a Foucauldian analysis of power. Explicitly reminiscent of Foucault is Guha’s open reference to the mechanisms of “discipline and punishment” of the colonial state and familial caste connections within the text. It is necessary to examine the implications of such an analysis of power on politics.
By reducing the “complex tissue of human predicament” into a “case,” Guha illustrates how colonial power is exerted through legal discourses and their methods of knowledge production. This fundamental divergence between post-structural scholars, and Marxist scholars needs to be attended to closely – because one offers the tools for revolutionary politics while the other offers a sobering narration of tragedy. It is in this regard, that Habib argues – the subalternists and Marxists have opposing “visions for humanity.” By relegating the status of political economy and state to the margins of historical narration, and by offering a picture of power as “dispersed, diffused, impersonal, multiple, wielded by no one, with no identifiable origin or defined purpose,” Guha and Foucault do not offer emancipatory possibilities in their analysis of power, because it is not organised within the nature of the state or political economy.
The most important contribution Foucault has to offer within the discussion of subaltern historiography is the “problem of origin.” Guha reflecting on the deposition of Chandra’s relatives points to how the document “violates the actual sequence” of the incidents that lead to Chandra’s death. Here, Guha refers to Foucault’s rejection of chronology as an effective mode of explaining power, because for Foucault, the present is fraught and not easily traceable. Rejecting structural views of power, Foucault then proposes a theory of history in which the origin cannot be located – and to attempt to do so is naive and intellectually untenable. Both Guha and Foucault would refuse to espouse a conviction that humankind should aspire to socialism, because their analysis of power is not one that can be altered by collective and organised struggle. In contrast, for Marxists, it is the job of a scholar to not only be narrators of tragedy, but also join movements that attempt to overthrow what creates those tragedies. By waging “war on totality” and harbouring an “incredulity to meta-narratives” Guha’s approach to power is debilitating to read, because it outrightly rejects emancipatory and revolutionary politics and methods.
Confronting this as a student of law, Foucauldian positions that highlight the expansiveness of power seems powerful and critical at first sight. However, a closer glance suggests otherwise. Kennedy indicates how ideological content of legal education seeks to portray it as an apolitical space. Within a scheme of analysis that accounts for power as fluid and indeterminate, Guha in the law school continues to mystify all social relations, thus obfuscating the politics and hierarchies within it. By highlighting the everywhereness of power, and the inability to trace its origin, Guha fails to point to the primacy of state, social relations, production – which undergird and explain all exercises of domination. A postcolonial text and it’s analysis of power within a legal classroom serves as means to mystify social relations.
Chandra’s Death: Implications for Movements
An affective response to the text emerges from my straddling two contrasting spaces – the first, is my location within the law school, and the other is the emergence of farmers, worker’s and students movements around me. This in turn has mediated my encounter with Guha, who offers a contrasting position on the question of how to resist. For Guha, the lens of class struggle is an untenable framework, as it is a glorification of the violences of modernity. While Scott suggests that daily, silent resistances that poststructuralist frameworks offer can be reconciled with collective class struggle, because both – Marxist and subalternist illustrations of praxis are so jarringly disparate, they cannot be intellectually or theoretically reconciled and read together. Their conceptions of history are diametrically opposed, and therefore it is not possible to weld together both movements. Extending this further, I would suggest that subalternists do not intend to have a true conception of praxis as – “reflection and action upon the world to transform it” as Friere remarks. In this regard, it is essential to note what Habib means, when he writes subalternists and Marxist historians have “opposing visions for humanity.”
Kennedy illustrates that legal education incapacitates the possibilities of alternative practice. The disregard that subaltern studies has for the formulation of a whole revolutionary theory furthers the fragmentation of political action and its forms within the legal classroom as well. Baxi suggests that the specialisations and fissures between different subject matters violates the teacher-taught relationship by making the curriculum “disembodied”. This consequently reduces students into passive consumers, who must in turn squander away their education that is doled out in silos. The depoliticisation of classroom space reduces students as non-agentic beings. Guha through Chandra’s Death does not offer the student legal tools to imagine and build democratic practice. By deterring his reader from movements building and participation – an aspect integral for all progressive law students – Guha unwittingly suggests to students that it is “more prudent to kiss the lash than to strike out your own.”
Prashad argues that subaltern historians have disappeared the role of organisations by according centrality to instinct. This method emphasises on spontaneity, erasing the role of the masses and vanguard. As opposed to Marxist historians who read theory in struggles, subaltern theorists view their role as generating theory of historical events, reducing the marginalised to merely custodians of experience. As a student caught in a moment that is rife with people’s movements – from the farmer’s struggle to the anti-CAA resistance, such a conception of politics appears restricted and narrow. It excludes possibilities of collective and organised struggle in the name that it is external and imposed. Lenin for instance argues, that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” For Marxists, the subject who is designated as subaltern is actually the professional revolutionary, engaging in theory. In emphasising conceptions of struggle centered around experience, subalternists offer a deeply constrained analysis of movements. Mukherjee indicates how the romantic glorification of violent forms of struggle within the subaltern school is misleading also because it diverts attention from a discussion of the actual determinants of revolutionary struggle – which is organization. She additionally points to the emphasis of subaltern autonomy, and emphasis on spontaneity and instinct within politics leads to an erasure of the historical contribution of peasant leaders – who are at the centre of subaltern analysis.
When Guha lays out the task of the text – to “reclaim the document for history,” it can be noted that the purpose laid down for the scholar is to retrieve history from the clutches of documentary processes of the state. The political task laid down then, is deconstruction of text – to extricate from ideological meanings imposed by the state. Furthermore, he suggests that it is necessary to reclaim “historical experience from the forgotten crevice of the past.” The use of “experience” indicates a conception of politics that foregrounds the understanding that movements must centre themselves around lived experience. It is apparent that there is an outright rejection of theory to inform and contour the politics of the marginalised.
Looking at the Subaltern as Radical
The usage of ‘subaltern’ to describe the political and oppressed classes is fascinating, because it indicates a disinterest in using caste or class as categories. Patnaik in this regard suggests, that “class struggle occurs in the realm of concepts too.” The subaltern is then a term that seeks to see the people “as undifferentiated in class terms”, which in turn has problematic implications, because it disarms us of the intellectual categories – including a materialist conception of the working class, that are important in informing politics in a time of neoliberalism and fascism.
It is remarkable that Guha – while pointing to family, landlessness, caste and untouchability, refuses to join the dots in a manner that can inform and arm political movements. For instance, he distorts Marxist analysis in different instances through the text – in one instance Guha employs the phrase “rural proletariat” to mean landless labourer, and in another instance, he describes the relationship between the ruling and working Bagdi caste by using the phrase “they don’t occupy either end of society.” Here – in not relying on the framework of means of production and its relationship to class, Guha does not closely interrogate why the Bagdis are impoverished, but merely offers that they are. It should be further noted that landless labourer also includes tenant farmers. Distinguishing these terms – proletariat and labourer – is important because it refers to different classes under separate modes of surplus extraction in distinct historical epochs. There is hence a lack of attention paid to relations of production Guha employs an unserious attitude to understand and explain the category of who is oppressed. By relying on the term “subaltern”, subalternists easily evade the question – of who the revolutionary class is. Thus, they cannot offer a clear conception of whom to politically mobilise, and whom to politically mobilise against. In this regard, by glorifying rural backwardness and denying class as a category, it is interesting to note how the landlord too can become a subaltern figure within subaltern studies.
Using the concept of timing, Matsuda too foregrounds the importance of centring the histories of oppressed groups within legal pedagogy to inform inquiry. She suggests that timing “as an element of jurisprudential inquiry” can help to ask -” how much can we hope to attain at this moment. When is it time to assert a new principle of law? When is it time to openly defy law? When is it time to sit and wait?” Through this, it is possible to glean that excavating a clear conception of oppression and exploitation can enable students of law to exercise multiple consciousness and discern what strategies of contestation to employ within and outside law. Murkiness within the category of the oppressed does not enable the student to garner their multiple consciousness.
Chandra’s Death shares a very interesting echo with another important piece of literature – Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak. In her essay, Spivak refers to a a woman – Bhuvaneshwari Bhaduri, who committed suicide. Within the subalternist tradition, Spivak reads the death of this woman as a text, and in this regard, Ahmad points to how Spivak ascribes several motivations behind why she committed suicide. Similarly, Chandra too is read as a text – to study patriarchy and colonial control. Guha infact considers using Chandra’s name an act of scholarly subversion, a “transgression” as he calls it. Chandra’s body is then used to study the legal and editorial powers of the state. This reducing of human beings to text then reveals that the subaltern figure cannot speak because the subaltern scholar is involved in reading and deconstructing on their behalf.
Additionally, the category ‘subaltern’ allows Guha to romanticise feudal life – in the name of peasant life. This is apparent in the essay, in which Guha consistently describes the violent attempts to control women’s sexuality as “deployments of alliance” and as “solidarity,” despite recognising how Bagdi women’s bodies are constructed as available. He further also uses the world “help” to describe the activities of the several women who were involved in Chandra’s death. The endogamous superposition of caste relations into the bodies of women, is rephrased into new terms – as “reciprocities” and “solidarities.” In refusing to recognise the primarily caste violence and origin surrounding the death of Chandra, it is apparent that the category of ‘subaltern’ is evading using the term ‘caste’ and can hence shun the violence of feudalism. The subalternist resistance towards development and civilising discourses then encounters a challenge – it seems to advocate a return to pre-modernity as a solution to modernity.
Chibber indicates, that the intentionally chaotic character of subaltern studies reveals its underlying political agenda. He suggests that “if a field of research or intellectual practice becomes truly chaotic, it poses some special challenges for critics.” The usage of terms like “fragment” “hybrid” or “subaltern” reveal a disinclination to use class, or caste as categories for analysis.
In his analysis of gender, Guha erases the role of land in centrally regulating sexual expression. Guha’s formulation of the “reciprocities” of sexuality and alliance is devoid of any analysis of land, and private property. While Guha explicitly refers to the landlessness of the Bagdi caste, he does not make any connections between the ownership of land, and control of women’s sexuality within class society. By pointing out how control of surplus necessarily gives rise to the family form, Engels reveals how patriarchal control over sexual expression is intimately tied with preserving property relations. As Marx indicates, the family “contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state.” This analysis is essential, because it helps to explain how the family and marriage as institutions help to contain class tensions. By centering an analysis on production and property – it is possible to open a site for politics. However, in conceptualisations of “reciprocities of fear,” for instance, Guha is unable to clearly excavate a site for politics.
By not explicitly positing a radical and political class, Guha fails to define students too as social actors. This lack of clarity compounds with the other ideological functions within the classroom space in producing a docile, and competitively minded workforce. As Kennedy indicates, the manner in which law-school engenders a spirit of competition and hierarchy mindedness disarms law-students of any subversive attitudes against power. Instead, they are forced into an inclination for submissiveness and obedience toward power. Thus, the complications within the category of subaltern in turn sullies the possibilities for dissent for students as well.
Guha casts a long shadow in the study of a law student because, by rejecting Enlightenment tools of thought, by debunking revolutionary theories for political action and emphasising spontaneity and independence, he pushes politics into a realm away from organisation. Just as we read Derrida and not Ambedkar for a module on justice, we read Guha to understand the position of the third world . A reading of Chandra’s Death offers the dangers of studying post-coloniality within the law classroom. The contradictions within its own intellectual tradition taint the possible radical potentials of law-school and disarm students of potential for political activism.
The questions that Guha from the subaltern studies tradition raises towards legal institutions and processes often provide the tools for critical reading within law curriculums. By attempting to dismantle the conceptions of progress and development as a linear process and the creation of the Oriental Other, it attempts to debunk the premises of legal rules taught in the law-school. However, the ways in which this has implications for – social movements and the imaginations of resistance within classroom is debilitating.
By critically exposing the faulty foundations of subaltern studies, one reveals how this intermingles with legal pedagogy to make the classroom space less about provocation and democracy. By painting history as sporadic, social relations as not rooted within a material conception of power, resistance as unorganised, and state power as primarily fluid and multiple – “Chandra’s Death” as a text serves to continue the ideological character of the curriculum while posturing as radical.
Instead, it is necessary to conceive of radical and critical pedagogy in more material terms – which foregrounds the centrality of productive relations, caste and state. Friere importantly indicates that pedagogy plays an important function in making the ambitious demand for the transformation of social relations into a more just, progressive order. He argues, that it is necessary to respond to curriculums that “begin with the egoistic interests of the oppressors” and instead foreground humanitarianism. Thus, in the constant dialectical struggle to make, and remake pedagogy – it is essential that jurisprudence curriculums in Global South attempt to create critical, radical minds that can contend with the challenges and promises that are posed to them. Simply put, as Friere would remind us – “discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action.”
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