The Small Voices Of History

Posted by Santosh Kumar Mamgain in Politics
January 12, 2018

What if I were to ask you to name the people associated with national movements? You most probably would come up with names like Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Subash Chandra Bose and many more. But can we limit the national movements to just the leaders who were at the centre stage and were the intellectual harbingers of the revolution? Or should we also include the amorphous masses, who remain unnamed, unrecognized and unrecorded in the historical annals, which is dominated by what Ranajit Guha calls the “elitist” historiography of the national movement?

To assume that the masses feel the same as the leaders, or that the masses represent one coherent ideology is problematic, even though the identification of these masses is based on their social identity. Thus, we need to understand how individual streams of consciousness get moulded or lost in the process of mobilization. What about the people who, standing at the fringes, become a part of a national movement not because they are participants in the campaign, but because they are the victims of the repercussions of such movements?

Whenever such movements are met with violence, it is these unnamed masses who lose their lives or limbs. These people can be participants, followers or mere onlookers, but they become a part of the discourse. And then, the leader of such movements take their voice to become the ‘public’s voice’, or actually, the leader then decided to speak on behalf of these people, who hardly ever get a coherent voice of their own.

Elitist historiography assumes individual leaders as harbingers of revolution and is esteemed with personal references. But the role of the subaltern in the national struggle is often relegated to a secondary position. They represent the unnamed, amorphous masses with no identity of their own. They are not harbingers of the revolution, but rather followers. The group represents their consciousness, unity and a character they all belong to, and thus, their voice as individuals is overpowered by this communitarian view, and more importantly, by the view of the elitist leader who represents or leads them.

In relation to events like Jallianwala Bagh or Chauri Chaura, these movements are important as nationalist movements not because of their independent position as a movement, but rather how these events, which involved the amorphous masses and not the elitist leaders, became a rallying point for these elitist leaders to carry their movement forward. These movements then become the point of genesis for these individual movements to crop up.

Events and people of the Jallianwala Bagh incident are nostalgic memories to strengthen the national movement, but the people of these events are not represented individually. They are phantoms in our nationalist memory. We can’t name them and still remember them. It’s not to say that Jallianwala Bagh or Chauri Chaura are not important events, it is to say that these events are remembered for their consequences more than their nature or content.

We are so enamoured by the cult of personality that the smaller things take a backseat. Masses are silenced so that the leaders could be heard, even though the leaderless mass initiative is even more dangerous than a leader dictating the masses. We don’t even care to give agency to these amorphous masses. We have to accept that our discourses are mediated by relations of power and structures of hierarchy, and even though the Marxist movement consider workers as the vanguard of their movement, in practice this agency is mediated by the elitist intelligentsia.

This is one problem of history – we always learn the historical events from the perspective of the elite. How the natives, local people perceived it, we never get to know. Grander schemes and narratives supersede their emphasis, their priorities, their needs. Let ‘s think over it – how different all these wars would have been from the perspective of the people who were unnecessarily sandwiched between two or multiple antagonist forces? Do these significant events in history bring any change in the life of the people at margins?

So how can we understand their perspective, if we keep taking our historical narratives for granted? It’s high time we broaden our understanding of history and enlarge our methodological tools to include the small voices of history.