Postcolonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka, and the Question of Nationhood

By Sankaran Krishna | Go to book overview

6
Narratives in Contention:
Interpreting the Agreement of July 1987

It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world… the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one's image in the mirror.

—AMITAV GHOSH, SHADOW LINES

In a piece that inaugurated the influential subaltern school of historiography, Ranajit Guha (1983) describes the British colonial archive on Indian peasant protest movements as the “prose of counter-insurgency.” Written from the perspective of officials saddled with the task of maintaining “law and order, ” the archive eviscerates any agency or rationality on the part of the peasant as he fought against the multiple discriminations of colonial rule. Instead peasant rebellions are described through metaphors that see them as irrational, incomprehensible, and naturalistic: forest fires, rainstorms, raging rivers, earthquakes, and the like. Throughout, the colonial archive juxtaposes western rationality and respect for property with a nativist, millenarian irrationality that left random destruction in its wake. Guha suggests we might better understand subaltern consciousness by first acknowledging that what passes for conventional history is predominantly a prose of counterinsurgency, then proceed to read that prose against the grain and to augment it with sources deemed outside the ambit of conventional historiography (such as myth, ballads, folk songs, proverbs, stories, and so on).

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