Social Scientist. v 11, no. 119 (April 1983) p. 3.


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SABYASACHI BHATTACHARYA^

'History from Below9

I SHALL begin by citing an obscure manifesto of a group of Puerto Rican historians in the early 1970's: "We face the problem that the history presented as ours is only part of our history. ... What of the history of the 'historyless', the anonymous people who, in their collective acts, their work, daily lives, and fellowship, have forged our society through the centuries?'51 About the same time a leader of the 'Dares Salaam school of history' voiced a similar dissatisfaction with the received version of national histories in newly independent African countries: "We would end with the singularly useless 'history', celebrating individuals, narrating their biographies and heroic acts or, at the most, erecting monuments for valiant tribes. These would leave the large mass of our people out of history, without history."2 In another Third World country Rodolfo Stavenhagen, in the front rank of his profession in Mexico, called for the "de-elitization" of social sciences as part of the process of intellectual decolonisation.3 And in Europe there developed a strong trend towards what came to be known as 'history from below', of which perhaps the most outstanding practitioner in non-European history is Chesneaux, the French Sinologist. He points out the quaint tradition of Confucian mandarins of referring to common rebels as fei—a negative grammatical expression denoting non-persons, a denial of their existence in the eyes of history.4 Chesneaux has called this "occultation" which is "one of the most widespread practices in the state's system of control over the past...entire sections of world history have no other existence than what the oppressor permitted us to know of them. ..."

I have cited just a few representative statements of a point of view that has been gaining ground over the last decade. In part it is a reaction 10 the kind of attitude exemplified by that possibly apocryphal story of the Tsar of Russia who, when told of Pushkin's plans of writing the history of the peasant leader Pugachev, said placidly:

"Such a man has no history."5 In part this has been a reaction, in my own field of interest, to a disenchantment with economic history of

*Professor, Centre of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.



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