Reminiscing About Ranajit Guha

The historian remained a consummate and daringly self-conscious stylist.

I first met Ranajit Guha 50 years ago in the dining hall of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. It was the heady 60s; we were lapping up the news of student revolts from Paris and elsewhere, spending our ‘pocket money’ on Marxist classics such as The Dialectics of Liberation and Monopoly Capital.

There was a group of radical students at St. Stephen’s with the charismatic Arvind Das as our captain. Founded by the Cambridge Mission, the College had moved into its stone-n-brick building, whose foundation stone had been laid by Gandhi’s associate, C.F. Andrews. Our dining hall aped the layout of Oxbridge Colleges: students sat on benches across long teak tables, staff members on a ‘High Table’ – a raised platform at a remove from us. Teachers, called Senior Members, would often invite others of their tribe to the High Table, and conversed  in hushed tones over biryani, and lamb kababs; we were dished out the usual potato-based hostel fare. Wednesdays were guest nights for both faculty and students. Ever the iconoclast, Arvind attempted to turn our world upside down by inviting Professors Amalendu Guha, Amartya Sen and Ranajit Guha as guests to break bread with us on the student benches. Amartya Sen was already a celebrity; the two historians, Amalendu and Ranajitda, were visiting professors on sabbatical from their parent universities. After dinner, Arvind shepherded our three guests to his hostel room for an informal interaction. There was nothing academic about that evening – the discussion veered around the political stirrings in the universities, the rising tide of peasant movements,  the impending food crisis in India and the coming into power of the parliamentary left in the eastern state of Bengal. It was a stirring experience for all of us. I, reading for an undergraduate degree, was particularly attracted to the historian Ranajit Guha from Sussex University.

Ranajitda and his wife Mechthild were at that time staying in a small flat at Riveria apartments across the road from the University cricket grounds, where some years ago, our home team had worsted the test material, Bombay University  XI. When Tapan Raychaudhuri left on sabbatical to the University of Pennsylvania, Ranajitda and Mecthiltd moved into his spacious bungalow at 24 Cavalry Lines. Some of us – I quite often – gathered in the evenings to partake, with proforma hesitance, Mechthild’s homemade savouries and get gyan, as our slang had it, from Ranajitda. Ranjit Guha would often parse articles published in the radical Calcutta weekly Frontier, to which he was a frequent contributor: ‘On Culture and Torture’, ‘Knowing India by its Prisons’, ‘Neel Darpan: A Liberal’s view of a Peasant Revolt’ were some of the essays that are fresh in my mind. I simply imbibed the ambience, and went back to my undergraduate studies.


In the mid-seventies, Ranajitda went on to publish several pieces on Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ in Frontier. These included a little-known article with the bland title, ‘Two Campaigns’. It was a masterly analysis of the power and arbitrariness of the state, down to its lowest rung, to meet quotas for recruits by the British for World War I  in one case, and the sterilisation drive during ‘The Emergency’ on the other. Guha was able to do this as he had meticulously maintained card indices on both these ‘campaigns’, and as I came to know later, for his large collection of classical Hindustani music, by raga and artist!


As a PhD student in England, I met Ranajit Guha frequently. Two conversations from the mid-1970s   have stuck in my mind. I was waxing expansively one evening about my proposed thesis on peasant economy and peasant politics in colonial North India. Ranajitda waited for the clatter of the Brighton-Lewis train that passed by his house on Eggington Road to die down. ‘But aren’t you ignoring something: the ornaments worn by the women of the region, for instance?’ he intoned with mock seriousness. ‘Why do you want to do a flabby thesis? Why not focus on one important crop, and see where it takes you?’ Suitably chastised, I went back to Uttar Pradesh and rummaged through district and village records. Collecting a large amount of material on just one crop was difficult enough; writing a connected narrative seemed like an impossible task. Thesis-writer’s cramp had set in. Ten pence coins on the ready, I dialled Ranajit Guha from a telephone booth. ‘Ranajitda, I have been trying very hard, but I just can’t write.’ ‘That’s good. It means you have something to say,’ were Ranajit Guha’s reassuring words. I spent a year ordering all this material into some kind of shape and submitted my doctoral thesis with the prosaic title, ‘Sugarcane Cultivation in Gorakhpur, 1800-1940’.

I converted the thesis a year later into what seemed a decent-enough book manuscript, and sent it to Ranajit Guha for his comments. Ranajitda had gone through the text with a comb, and appended three pages of comments, starting with, eschew verbose and long-winded sentences, do not overburden the reader with a surfeit of vacuous arguments and pseudo-scholarship … and definitely read the chapter on ‘working time’ and ‘production time’ in Marx’s, Capital, vol. II. Indeed, at one of our subaltern studies meetings, Ranajitda brought his copy of the volume to indicate the section that would help my analysis. This was one of the several such occasions when he would literally take me to a particular passage of a book to read and ponder over. Stage two, shall we say, of learning to be a historian was to desist from carpet bombing the reader with one fact after another. A long letter ended with the  admonition: 

“I do think it is necessary to introduce in our work concepts … which can add rigour to the writing of history. In fact, I am sick of the cult of comfortable prose, the one that flows like sugarcane juice, and makes up Indian historiography the feeding bottle on which to suck infantile academic minds and put them gently to sleep … No, I am not asking you to indulge in comfortable prose … We do need conceptual rigour … But however rigorous the thinking, hence the writing, it can hardly dispense with the need for lucidity.” 

Adil and Shahid Amin with Ranajit Guha. Photo: Author provided


Others have written about the originality of Ranajit Guha’s mode of thinking. What will continue to strike his readers is the tautness – indeed, the pungency of his prose. It would be an inadequate appreciation of his originality, were we to overlook the mode and manner in which he wrote up his thoughts. Consider the opening passage of his, 1963 book, A Rule of Property for Bengal An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement. He wrote:

In his early youth, the author, like many others of his generation in Bengal, grew up in the shadow of the Permanent Settlement: his livelihood, like that of his family, was derived from remote estates they had never visited; his education was orientated by the needs of a colonial bureaucracy recruiting its cadre from among the scions of Lord Cornwallis’ beneficiaries; his world of culture was strictly circumscribed by the values of a middle class living off the fat of the land and divorced from the indigenous culture of its peasant masses. He had therefore learnt to regard the Permanent Settlement as a charter of social and economic stagnation.

Subsequently, as a postgraduate student of Calcutta University he read about the anti-feudal ideas of Philip Francis and was at once faced with a question which the textbooks and the academics could not answer for him. How was it that the quasi-feudal land settlement of 1793 had originated from the ideas of a man who was a great admirer of the French Revolution? One could not know from the history books that such a contradiction existed and had to be explained.

The manuals were satisfied that the good work England had done in India represented a series of successful experiments which had little to do with the ideas and prejudices inherited by the rulers from their European background. This view of British policy as a ‘rootless blossom’ is not confirmed by the history of the land law that had the longest life under the raj. The author hopes that he has been able to locate the origins of the Permanent Settlement in that confluence of ideas where the two mainstreams of English and French thought merged in the second half of the eighteenth century. There were still many local pundits in Calcutta who doubted the validity of the central thesis of this essay when it was first published as a series of articles in the Bengali journal Parichaya in 1956-7. Since then the publication of Professor Eric Stokes work on the English utilitarian influence in India has made many converts. The author’s own humble contribution will have served its purpose if, taken together with Professor Stokes’ researches, it helps to some extent at least to redress the one-sided interpretation of British rule in India exclusively in terms of conflicts and coalitions of interests.


The author is grateful to the Department of Economics, University of Manchester, and particularly to Professor B.R. Williams for all the encouragement and facilities received for the completion of this work. He is indebted to Dr K.A. Ballhatchet, Dr George Blyn, Professor Asa Briggs, Professor Holden Furber, Dr Daniel Thorner and Dr Peter Wexler for having read through the manuscript and offering their comments.

Manchester, August 1962


Or the supple foreshadowing of The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in India (1963) in his article, ‘The Prose of Counterinsurgency’.

When a peasant rose in revolt in any time or place under the Raj, he did so necessarily and explicitly in violation of a series of codes which his very existence as a member of that colonial, and still largely semi-feudal state. For his subalternity was materialized by the structure of property, institutionalized by law, sanctified by religion and made tolerable – even desirable by tradition.

To rebel was indeed to destroy many of those familiar signs which he had learned to read and manipulate in order to extract a meaning out of the harsh world around him, and live with it. 

In turning these things upside down under these conditions was indeed so great that could hardly engage in such a project in a state of absent-mindedness.

Later in his life, Guha brought to his academic work another of his abiding passions – a deep curiosity about language and rhetoric, sustained by his life-long interest in the work of the great masters of modern Bengali literature. In fact, in the last two decades of his working life Ranajit Guha decided to write and publish only in Bengali. Many of his contemporaries in Calcutta remember him for his trenchant intervention in the mid-1950s in the journal Parichay over a Bengali translation of Macbeth.

Indeed, in conversation and in writing, English as well as Bengali, in wry humour or biting sarcasm, rousing rhetoric or analytical precision, Ranajit Guha remained throughout a consummate and daringly self-conscious stylist.


A young scholar called Simool Sen in Calcutta has dug out the film of a 1976 conference on Interpretation of Public Rituals held, I believe, at King’s College, London with Ranajit Guha, Bernard Cohn, Peter Burke, Terence Ranger and Keith Thomas. Guha is at his scintillating best deploying structural linguistics to explain ritual. You can see Elementary Aspects in the making.

Shahid Amin is a historian.