Subaltern means the subordinate. It is a popular word in cultural studies to denote the ‘marginalized’ people. Derived from the ranks used in Army, the word subaltern has various associations in the present context. Theoretically, it refers to the people who are socially, politically and economically outside the hegemonic power structure of the establishment. Now this establishment can be a ‘state’, a ‘nation’, a ‘colony’ or a ‘demographic group’.
If we talk about the present Indian society, then the elite class, which constitutes of the intellectuals, the nobility, the aristocratic and the patricians; have always enjoyed superior economic status and have also claimed superior intellectuality. In the race to attain the elite status, they used English language as their weapon against the non-elites. Due to their hegemonic supremacy, they were able to give English the undue advantage over all other regional Indian languages and dialects. English became a tool of the elite class to gain an upper hand over the non-elite rustic class whom the elite marginalised to the subaltern status. The global supremacy of the English language worked in the favour of the elites. They emerged as a hegemonic group with sustained advantage over the weak marginal group. Moreover, all the cannon literature and technological research was available in English language only. This made it difficult for the non-English speaking class to break the hegemony of the elites. To sum up, the subaltern didn’t speak English.
Now, the revolutionary idea is- What if they do? If the subalterns conquer the English language they would in general be breaking the hegemony of the elites. They would actually not only enter into a realm of highly potent discourses but also would be the key beneficiaries of the regional advantage which they already possess. If the non-elites have to stand, it can use the same tool as a shield. Learning English would not only be a kind of defence mechanism but also an aggressive step forward towards the freedom from the reckless oppression policy of the elites. This would end the era of hegemony and the word subaltern would also cease to exist. Nevertheless, English language would still have retained its importance.
Blog by – Prof. Jayesh Mehta
Assistant Professor of English