Religion is the oldest of archives in our subcontinent. All the principal moments of the ancient relationship of dominance and subordination are recorded in it as codes of authority, collaboration, and resistance.
Ranajit Guha, “The Career of an Anti-God in Heaven and on Earth” (1985)
Ranajit Guha (1923-2023) passed away on 28 April. He had helped establish the Subaltern Studies school, and thus moulded the birth of postcolonial studies and non-Eurocentric global history. This essay deploys Guha’s work to sketch a distinctly anticolonial tradition of political theology, critical of state and capital, and thereby showing how Indian intellectual developments were connected to the wider world. My argument is: Guha was both a critical chronicler of the longue durée theological foundations of state and capital, as well as a bard of the ancient heritage of revolt against these structures of oppression.
In conventional scholarship, the genealogies of political theology as an academic field are drawn to certain twentieth-century European thinkers. These include the (Nazi-sympathizer) German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) and the German-Jewish historian Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963). Behind them, and influencing them, stand other giants: from Roman theologian Eusebius of Caesarea (fourth century CE) to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). This genealogy generally neglects thinkers outside the Euro-American Christian world.
Yet, in India and elsewhere in the colonized world, modern ways of thinking about political theology arose out of the maelstrom of decolonization. A pioneer thinker was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94), nineteenth-century India’s most influential nationalist writer. Bankimchandra deployed two terms dharmatattva (theory of dharma/ethical law) and devatattva (theory of divinity) to translate theology, and placed a fundamental political contradiction at its heart. On the one hand, Bankimchandra constructed a Hindu nationalist political theology aiming at a future independent Indian nation-state. On the other, he offered socially-egalitarian, even revolutionary, modes of thinking about political theology, where women and peasants would help in overthrowing state power and taxation. Bankimchandra drew on European thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). He influenced, in turn, later Indians writing on political theology, including the Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).
The Communist Party of India was founded in Tashkent, in Soviet Turkestan, in 1920. By the interwar years, Karl Marx (1818-83) moulded Indian discussions on the relation between the theological and the political. Islamic socialism occupied a major space, with Indians engaging with debates in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Java. Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) thus interpreted world-revolution through Islamic and Hindu eschatological notions, placing peasants, industrial workers, and women at the heart of a messianic struggle to create an egalitarian polity of God. Socialist and feminist perspectives about labour intersected in political theologies advanced by Nivedita (1867-1911) and Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949).
Since the late seventeenth century, millenarian peasant rebellions had challenged imperial formations in South Asia. Sikh, Maratha, Jat, and Satnami peasant revolts brought about the downfall of the Mughal Empire. From the late eighteenth century, the British too confronted such rebellions. By the interwar years, middle-class nationalists in India—above all, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)—engaged in political-theological dialogue with these rebellious communities. To Indian multitudes, the British colonial state, with its policies of fiscal maximization and violent subjugation of peasant-tribal communities, appeared as demonic. Militant peasants pressured Gandhi and the Indian National Congress to radicalize anticolonial nationalism, condemning British colonialism as a revenue-extracting kingdom of monsters that needed to be violently overthrown. Simultaneously, many subaltern communities remained dissociated from Congress nationalism, and formed alternative “lower-caste” movements and theologies, often inspired by B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956).
Ranajit Guha’s political theology can only be appreciated when contextualized within this longue durée. When I first met Guha at his home in Purkersdorf, on the outskirts of Vienna, in 2011, he mentioned how Bankimchandra influenced his childhood in a village in interwar Eastern Bengal; later, Marx would be equally pivotal. Meanwhile, by the 1940s, Indian discussions on political theology had bifurcated. On the one hand, various Hindu and Muslim intellectuals and politicians saw in a Hindu-Indian or Indo-Islamic nation-state the political future of South Asia. Divine authority would legitimate the postcolonial nation-state, defined in terms of Hindu or Islamic majoritarian democracy. On the other hand, the strong anti-statism that had animated anticolonial politics since the nineteenth century – that saw the state as evil, a tool of capitalist-colonial ruling classes—remained resilient.
When India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, many Communists felt that this had entailed only a transfer of power from one elite to another, and not a genuine independence. Guha was among them. As a member of the Communist Party following the so-called Andhra Line, he advocated for a Chinese-style agrarian socialist revolution in India. His research on the eighteenth-century Physiocratic intellectual origins of the Permanent Settlement of 1793, colonial India’s earliest agrarian fiscal regime, stemmed out of critique of colonial-origin land hierarchies. First published as a series of essays in the Bengali Communist journal Parichay, it was published from Paris as A Rule of Property for Bengal in 1963.
Guha was an itinerant Communist activist in the 1940s and 50s, living in Paris and Calcutta, besides travelling across Eastern Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. Meanwhile, during the 1950s, as the Cold War deepened, the Indian nation-state, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), became a key ally of the Soviet Union in Asia. The Communist Party of India eventually became a state-serving, rather than state-opposing, organization. Hence, following Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Guha left the Communist Party. It seemed that official Communism had betrayed the heritage of decolonization.
But others took up the baton of socialist anticolonialism. Across the 1960s, the Communist Party of India suffered successive splits. Those who broke away tended to support China rather than the Soviet Union, and repose faith in peasant militancy from below, rather than in vanguardist top-down party-led reforms. Guha sympathized with the Naxalite armed struggle that had broken out in the late 1960s, with epicentres in eastern and south-eastern India. For Naxalites, the Western and the Soviet power blocs embodied comparable forms of imperialism that needed to be overthrown through locally-rooted but globally-connected anti-imperial struggles. The Indian state functioned on behalf of the class interests of Indian capitalists and big landlords, acting in alliance with American, Western European, and Soviet military-industrial complexes. Indian and global state and capital cooperated to extract value from peasants and other working communities. In opposition to this condominium, Naxalites drew comfort from the successes of revolutionaries in China, Vietnam, and Latin America, as well as from the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
For Guha, inspiration came in particular from the Chinese Revolution and the writings of Mao (1893-1976), and from the Algerian War of Independence and related writings of Frantz Fanon (1925-61). Guha mentioned to me that his turn to Hegel in this phase came out of disenchantment with Soviet-style official Marxism. Indeed, decolonization propelled Guha and Fanon to similarly turn to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), and especially the master-slave dialectic. They felt that anticolonial insurgents, in rising up against the colonial masters, would carry forward the march of world-history towards freedom. Studying the opposing consciousnesses of the master and of the subaltern became central to the decolonizing project.
Across the 1970s, the Indian state brutally crushed peasant insurgency. But it was not completely successful. From the 1960s to the 1990s, successive waves of “lower-caste” peasant uprising completely transformed the texture of sovereignty in India. The Congress party waned in influence, as regional parties, supported by regional agrarian and other labouring communities, expanded their power. We witness here the gradual emergence of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi politics—termed by Christophe Jaffrelot as India’s “silent revolution”.
The 1980s and 90s mark the maturity of Subaltern Studies. After two decades in the United Kingdom, at the Universities of Manchester and Sussex, Guha had joined the Australian National University at Canberra in 1980. But he remained embroiled in Indian political debates. In Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), Guha outlined how the British colonial state worked with Indian landlords, merchants, and moneylenders to extract value from Indian peasants. Here, as in Dominance without Hegemony (1997), Guha investigated political theologies supporting state and capital.
Guha’s early training in Sanskrit was crucial here. In the above books and other essays, Guha went back to ancient Indian texts, like Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, Manusmriti, and Jaimini’s Mimamsasutra, composed between the late first millennium BCE and the early first millennium CE, to unearth the longue durée origins of the grammar of Indian social hierarchy. Guha demonstrated how caste and gender stratification moulded class conflict in India. In analysing agrarian society as grammar, Guha drew on Francophone structuralists Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Émile Benveniste (1902-76), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), and Roland Barthes (1915-80). French structuralism had been centrally shaped by Sanskrit grammar and linguistics; so there was a cyclicality at work here. Guha revealed how Indian theologies of bhakti (devotion), dharma (ethical-sacral law), and danda (coercive sovereignty) syncretized with British-European models of obedience, improvement, and order, to forge the rule of state and capital in colonial and postcolonial India.
From agricultural fields to tea plantations and factories, ancient theologies of value-extraction seamlessly nourished modern capitalism’s quest for profit. Contemporary scholarship presents Agamben as the progenitor of the academic field of economic theology. In fact, French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) had coined the term “théologie juridico-économique” in The Gift (1923-24), while discussing and translating the ancient Indian theology of donation (danadharma). When Mauss was translated into English, the term was rendered as “economic theology”. Guha adopted this translation in 1985, decades before Agamben, to investigate “hierarchically graded entitlements to resources,” which were traditionally structured in India by caste, but also informed colonial capitalism. Further, Guha drew on Marx’s Grundrisse to underline the nexus between religious functionaries and capital, between “the mediatory status of exchange value in the world of wealth and the role of intermediaries of the spiritual world.”
But Guha did not stop here. In Elementary Aspects and Dominance without Hegemony, Guha described how precolonial-origin peasant community structures and religious beliefs nurtured peasant rebellion against the oppressions of state, capital, and landlordism. He drew some inspiration from British Marxist social-religious history. Guha’s manifesto essay “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” that opened the first volume (1982) of the Subaltern Studies book series, argued that the politics of the people/subalterns constituted “an autonomous domain.” Caste-oppressed and tribal/Adivasi rebels were the pre-eminent agents of India’s decolonization and democratization. They were infinitely more influential in mobilizing the multitudes as compared to modern parties led by Western-educated high-caste elites. Elementary Aspects therefore concluded that “all mass struggles will tend inevitably to model themselves on the unfinished projects of Titu, Kanhu, Birsa and Meghar Singh.” In many ways, Guha’s work expanded the thoughts of the late Marx of the 1870s-80s—who felt that village communities in India, Russia, and the indigenous Americas might provide the roots of revolutionary democracy, bypassing the depredations of industrial capitalism.
In short, political theology was not just about rule, but also about revolt; not just about sovereignty, but also about democracy; not just about value-extraction, but about redistribution. Soviet-style Communist modernism had made a fatal error in neglecting popular religion which was, as Bengali historian Sumanta Banerjee observed (invoking Marx) “logic in a popular form.” Early Indian Communism had been surcharged with subaltern vocabularies, from Islamic socialism to tribal/Adivasi beliefs. However, it had gradually become ontologically impoverished – eschatologies of revolution had been replaced by “scientific-socialist” frameworks of statist planning, constitutionalism, and developmentalism. Against this, Guha sought to revisit and renew the subaltern religious wellsprings of Indian democracy. For him, subaltern religion embodied an eternal dream of justice. Hence, he told me, he believed in the concept of God as a model of human perfectibility.
Subaltern Studies evolved from dialogues between Guha and other scholars across the 1980s and 90s. Partha Chatterjee (b. 1947) identified subaltern community as the main force able to oppose the rule of modern state and capital. Dipesh Chakrabarty (b. 1948) showed how religion shaped the lives and politics of industrial working-classes. Gautam Bhadra (b. 1948) analysed democratic political theologies among anticolonial peasant communities in eastern India. Tanika Sarkar (b. 1949) and Ajay Skaria (b. 1965) analysed tribal/Adivasi uprisings against the British and their religious idioms. Shahid Amin (b. 1950) uncovered how millenarian peasants constructed a messianic Gandhi to legitimate their revolution. Ramachandra Guha (b. 1958) wrote about peasant protests against colonial forestry, moving Subaltern Studies towards “ecologically-oriented study of history.” Soon, Latin Americanists embraced Subaltern Studies to investigate (anti-)colonial (and) Indigenous politics in that continent. As Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena emphasizes, there is a natural convergence between Subalternist focus on autonomous peasant consciousness and Latin Americanist emphasis on the autonomy of Indigenous political ontologies resistant to state and capital.
Yet, at the peak of its success, the tide turned against Subaltern Studies. The 1990s and 2000s saw the meteoric rise of Hindu nationalism, in tandem with the state “opening up” India to the forces of neoliberal capitalist globalization. Many urban Indian middle-class academics despaired that Indian subalterns were becoming victims and agents of majoritarian nationalism and capitalism. Euro-American universities tamed the political radicalism of Subaltern Studies. Feminist scholars put forth the critique that Subalternist valorization of community had ignored the communitarian roots of women’s oppression, thus undermining the struggle for women’s rights. Poststructuralist critique of wholeness eroded faith in community. Drawing on French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s (1930-2004) book Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (b. 1942) asked whether the subaltern could speak – or, at least, if their voice could reach us unmediated. Derrida had critiqued Lévi-Strauss’ anthropological project of recovering authentic Indigenous Amazonian voices with emancipatory democratic potential. Spivak questioned whether Subaltern Studies could recover authentic subaltern voices, especially those of women.
Indian historian Sumit Sarkar proclaimed in 1996 the decline of the subaltern in Subaltern Studies. Certainly, many Subaltern Studies scholars grew sceptical of the possibility of subaltern autonomy. In his writings in the 2000s and 2010s, Partha Chatterjee argued that the subaltern was no longer an absolute Other of state. Rather, a political society had emerged in postcolonial India where subalterns carved out their politics in dialogue with the state. Dipesh Chakrabarty suggested that the goals of redistributive justice, aimed at the material wellbeing of human subalterns, were antithetical to environmental concerns that demand limits on human consumption. Chakrabarty’s doctoral student Andrew Sartori (b. 1969) rejected the subalternist standpoint, arguing that capital/property needed to be democratized, not overthrown. According to him, liberalism was more essential for human wellbeing than subaltern community.
Nevertheless, in his twenty-first century writings, Guha continued to explore ways of resisting dominant statist-capitalist consciousness. He counterposed popular poetics against statist historiography. In this he resembled the Bengali socialist-feminist writer and Adivasi rights activist Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016). The novelist Amitav Ghosh’s (b. 1956) early anthropological work developed in engagement with Guha and Subaltern Studies. Subalternist influence remains visible in Ghosh’s English-language fiction about sylvan-animal gods and littoral communities, written in response to the climate crisis.
Unlike Ghosh, Guha in this epoch mostly wrote in Bengali. Guha studied Indian epics, centring state-critical women like Sita, Draupadi, and Shakuntala. He invoked Hegel to analyse the contradictions between female-nurtured community and male state in Sophocles’ play Antigone. Guha, unlike Hegel, refused to subsume this contradiction into a narrative of the triumph of state. Subalterns, championing the unwritten law of the gods, would always challenge state law. But such reflections, mostly still untranslated, were largely ignored by Indian and global academia.
Yet, while mainstream Indian academia was repudiating Subaltern Studies, other currents centre-staged subaltern consciousness. Over the last two decades, Dalit-Bahujan and tribal/Adivasi scholars have demonstrated that Indian democracy’s true roots lie in subaltern communities and aspirations for freedom. They have pointed out that high-caste left-modernist intellectuals and politicians have been largely incapable of working in equitable long-term partnership with Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities. These activists have drawn strength from Black and Indigenous struggles.
In our book Subaltern Studies 2.0: Being against the Capitalocene, Jelle Wouters and I argue that there are natural convergences between these insurgent voices and the tradition of decolonization which Guha embodied. In his commentary in our volume, Dalit philosopher Suraj Yengde (b. 1988) agrees about the need to centre oppressed-caste perspectives in thinking about multispecies democracy. In Yengde’s work as in ours, subaltern spirituality stands fundamentally opposed to the value-extracting hunger of state and capital. Similarly, Dalit feminist Kalyani Thakur Charal (b. 1965) reminds us that traditions of Dalit spirituality must nourish our quest for democratic justice.
Subaltern Studies may have declined in academia, but subaltern theology is ever more alive and exuberant today. We see it in Black congregations, in Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi movements, in Indigenous environmentalisms, in feminist and queer spiritualities. From Dakota to Whanganui, from Palestine to Niyamgiri, from Amazonia to Kurdistan, indigenous spiritualities—gods, spirits, and ancestors—are at the forefront in the global struggle against violent state sovereignty and exploitative capital. The need of the hour is to connect, with ever greater intensity, these rooted struggles. As Yengde says: “The Dalit identifies with the rootedness of everyone.”
Guha revealed that ancient theologies of hierarchical rule had paved the way for the modern rule of state and capital. Equally, he deciphered that modern global democracy draws strength from the sacred struggles of rooted communities, from the centuries-old heritage of subaltern millenarianism. In the age of climate crisis and mass extinction, this subaltern revolutionary consciousness carries the only seed of saving the world, of protecting the earth’s human and nonhuman denizens. Guha’s thoughts thus remain alive, as does the inextinguishable flame of anticolonial political theology.