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Subalternity : A Site of Resistance and Dissent-Naghmana Haseeb

Mid of 20th century was marked by the process of decolonization of the Subcontinent. It shacked that era with the emergence of two independent post-colonies namely Pakistan and India. This reconstruction of Subcontinent and the rise of nationalism in this region were well-anticipated and promising for its people. The people of post colonies who were once crushed under imperialistic pressure find themselves more expecting for a prosperous life as citizens of an independent nation. But the nations which got their independence had had their specific problems and loopholes in their reconstructions. One of those issues is to become other of one’s own nation of its subaltern class. Once they were others of other but in their sovereign states they were marginalized by their own nation. During colonization, subaltern groups were more crushed than elite class by their imperial masters. Subaltern was the segment which once faced imperial grind and pressure with its full force, find itself stuck in the dilemma of freedom and confusing nationhood.

For many it was a shift from colonialism to internal colonialism. Nationalism which was a rigorous force once for a community to resist against colonialism was observed with skepticism on having a setup of divided society, almost on the same pattern which was offered by imperialism: powerful and powerless, haves and haves not. As Fanon(1961) commented in the preface to  The Wretched of the Earth:  “The European elite under took to manufacture a native elite…they branded them, as with a red hot iron, with the principles of Western culture…After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, white washed. The subaltern class of Subcontinent either of Pakistan or India was still be ruled, first by a stranger, colonizer and after their departure by a native elite. It was the sector which gets power through indulging in national politics, by establishing industries and mills and by connecting itself with State machinery.

Soha (2013), a lecturer in English in Stamford University Bangladesh wrote an article to question the representation of the untouchables, subalterns particularly in Indian context where the problem of untouchability was still a burning issue even after independence. The scholars who felt unrest on the way history is written or nationalistic discourse which mostly include national elites were actually wanted to see history from below or history in context of subaltern class of a nation. Soha selected two texts for his analysis: Anand’s untouchable and Mistry’s A fine Balance. He selected some textual quotes from these texts. “Why are we always abused?…they always abuse us. Because we are sweepers. Because we touch dung. They hate dung. I hate it too… from them I am a sweeper, sweeper—Untouchable! That’s the word Untouchable! I am an untouchable”.

This agony of a marginalized one, on not having a share of honour and centrality of a culture of which one is considered to be a part, kills his/her self-respect and practically all opportunities to lead a prosper life. Saha again quotes Mistery in this context, “More than twenty years have passed since independence. How much longer? I want to be able to drink from the village well, worship in the temple, walk where I like”.

When the actual fact of exploitation of subalterns was being noticed, the subalternity becomes a site of resistance. Many writers satirize this illusion that independent and sovereign state will provide security and equal opportunities to its masses without any distinction.  Instead all rules and documented rights of the citizenship will not able to ensure peace and prosperity to subalterns. Rather, ironically, in spite of all these laws margins of newly born nations were pushed aside to a risky unstable and unbearable life.  The voice of protest from the subaltern is heard often and channelized by many writers who put forward the question of the place of subalterns in a culture through a systematic discourse. In Pakistan if it is Zulifqar Ghose or Muhammad Hanif who gives voice to the mute subaltern class of Pakistan, in India there are Mulk Raj Anand, Amitav Ghose, Kiran Desai and many more who resisted this national tyranny against poor out-casted, marginalized social classes.

This inconsistency further gives an air of unsatisfaction when it has hegemonic national elites who substituted imperial authorities, so national discourse is displaced by other unending discourses. Subaltern discourse in one out of all these discourses which create ambivalence in national discourses. Poor, migrant, minority class of a nation creates anxiety in national discourse. Bhabha (1990) puts forward: “Minority discourse acknowledges the status of national culture—and the people—as a contentious, performative space of the perplexity of the living in the midst of the pedagogical representation of the fullness of life”.

This perspective of nationalism gives space to the narratives of subalterns or minority groups of a nation. The identity of a nation is generally narrated by its official discourse and it is not a totally bad thing but the thing which should be keep in mind is that it is a two-fold process: the one is pedagogical dimension that is based on total sociological facts and the other is performative dimension reminding that the total facts are open and ready to be altered every day. So, there is an oscillation between these two aspects which re-emphasizes temporality and counter narratives to the national narrative.

 Here cultural front is a term that better explains the interwoven concepts of nationalism and subalternity. Bhabha was influenced by the postcolonial criticism and further explains the works of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, whose idea of hegemony is very central to all this discussion. When Gramsci (1935) suggests that the power is not only a matter of domination but of consent as well. Bhabha constructs an idea of counter-hegemony. When the consent is created in interest of national elites and powerful classes through different institutions and agencies of the state, all segments of nation do not passively internalize these propagated narratives, rather they argue with them. So, hegemony, in trying to create consent, actually encounters a dissent as well.

Here the concept of ‘cultural front’, coined by Bhabha is that segment of a society or a nation which negotiate with hegemony and creates dissent and resistance by different counter narratives. A culture front changes the meaning of hegemony because it does not have a totalizing or homogeneous view of the world. And in its resistance, it undermines the idea of a dictated or given political power. This is how the idea of hegemony is blended with that of subalternity when Bhabha works that how “hegemonic imagination is translated when coupled with Gramsci’s idea of the subaltern?” (Huddart,2006). Here the works of Indian historians encompassed who challenge elite colonial historiography including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who later claims that subaltern cannot speak.  Bhabha emphasis the connectivity of subalternity to the all philosophy. “Subalternity represents a form of contestation or challenge to the status quo that does not homogenize or demonize the state in formulating an opposition to it”. In this way this rooted identity is questioned by subalterns to form a dissent and a counter hegemony.

Ludden (2000) puts forward in his A brief History of Subalternity;

By 1983, scholars were writing two kinds of national history: one, a people’s history filled with native culture and popular insurgency; the other, an official history filled with elites and political parties. Nations and state are separating like oil and water….. a new kind of nationality was coalescing in a separate domain of popular experience, which was becoming increasingly isolated from state institutions and national elites.

It was subaltern studies which consistently do an effort to rethink the history from a subaltern perspective and claims to represent the culture and politics of the people. It actually rejected the official national narratives. It was a new context in which ‘the nation was being re-configured, re-imagined, re-theorized’. Subaltern studies become a site for a new kind of resistance and dissent. It indicates that to exercise power is not a simple and one-way process. It has to face resistance from the other side. Power exerted in form of hegemony or ideology, collides with counterhegemonic forces, usually less audible if not muted, from the subaltern segment of a society and continually to be renewed, recreated and redefined. National narrative, which is amongst one of the metanarratives is continuously challenged by the subaltern dissent. This consistent challenge from subaltern to Pakistani nationalist discourse encourages to revisit the whole system with an intention to give voice to subaltern. The nation which came into existence to protect the right of its people without any discrimination was mentally colonized with inherited flaws from imperialism. The plight of subaltern class still persists in the society which is scarred with class discrimination, corruption, an unending lust for power and money by the powerful elites of the homeland. In this situation, subaltern voice would be continuously disruptive to the national discourse unless and until it would not be addressed properly so that a sense of belonging can be infused to subaltern class by removing their insecurities and their feelings of being othered in their own homeland.

Naghmana Haseeb is an assistant professor of English in GPCW,Sahiwal.

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