History is derived from the greek word “istoria” which stands for search, inquiry, research and information. History is reconstruction of our past. History writing is an art and this history of historical writings and its techniques is called historiography.

 To interpret the events in history properly, there is a need to understand the major approaches in which history is written. The modern history of India can be studied under the following approaches:

  1. Colonial historiography
  2. Nationalist historiography
  3. Marxist approach
  4. Subaltern approach


Colonialism:- It refers to the practice or phenomenon in which a nation or group of people exerts influence and control over another nation with an aim to subjugate and exploit it. It is mainly done with the purpose of profiting from the colonies’ resources and economy. Colonialism is a social formation in which the economy and society is controlled by a foreign capitalist class.  

  • It is also known as the imperialist point of view.
  • It refers to the colonial ideology which justifies the colonial rule and domination over the colonies.
  • This approach glorified the western culture and criticised the countries which were colonised by them.
  • The colonialist approach defended the British position in conquering India and promoted the view that India was conquered in a ‘fit of absent mindedness’.
  • It denied the existence of drain of wealth from India and economic exploitation by the British.
  • It did not accept the feeling of ‘nationalism’ in India and highlighted the division of society on the grounds of religion, caste etc. and thus denied India being a nation.

Valentine Chirole in his book “Indian Unrest”(1910) asserted that India was a ‘mere geographical expression’ and even gave the credit for forging this geography to the British. The nationalist historians deny these claims by citing examples from past where great empires were build in India and excelled in administration (Kautilya’s Arthashastra).

  • Orientalist representation of India and how the British rule bought law and order, opportunities and prosperity to the Indians.

This claim was also brushed aside by the nationalists who contradicted this view by remarking the justice dispensed to all by the kings in ancient and medieval India and the welfare of people as their ultimate aim. For eg: the Mantri Parishad described by Kautilya was compared with the Privy Council of Britain.

  • India was viewed as a stagnant society which could only progress through the British guidance which came to be known as ‘white man’s burden’.

           To deny this claim, R.C.Majumdar in his book ‘Corporate Life in Ancient India’ wrote that ‘institutions which are accustomed to look upon as of western growth had already flourished in India long ago’.

Nationalist historians countered the colonial view. In their opinion, Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka, Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Akbar were great as they succeeded in building great empires.

Also at the time when Britishers arrived in India, the economy was flourishing. R.C.Dutt says that “Weaving was the national industry of the people and spinning was the pursuit of millions of women”. Indian textiles went to England, other parts of Europe, to China and Japan, Burma and Arabia, Persia and parts of Africa.

  • James Mill, Elphinstone, Vincent Smith, Gallagher are the pertinent examples of this trend.

James Mill, although never visited India wrote History of British India in which contained a lot of prejudices about India and its natives.

Vincent Smith referred to the fragility of India’s unity in the absence of a strong imperial authority in his work time and again and how the iron hand of British ensured stability and progress in India.


  • It developed as a response to the Colonialist approach.
  • This school emphasized the existence of colonialism and its socio-economic and political effects.
  • It pointed to the rise of nationalism and the spread of patriotic feelings in India.
  • It highlighted the contradiction between the British colonial interests and the interests of Indian people.
  • It tried to prove the falsity of claims by colonial school by revisiting the golden past of India and emphasizing on all those factors claimed by Britishers to have introduced in India to be already existing in India.
  • The basic limitation of this approach was the ignorance of social realities in India. They pointed out the conflict of interests between the British and India but not among the Indians which was corrected by the Marxist School.
  • R.C.Majumdar, R.L.Mitra, Tara Chand, R.G.Pradhan are noted historians of the nationalist approach.   


  •  This school focused upon some corrections in the nationalist approach of historiography.  
  • The Marxist school pointed out that there was not just a single contradiction between Indians and Britishers but dual contradiction i.e primary (between the interests of Indian people and British colonial interests) and secondary (between Indians themselves-capitalists and proletariat; different religious sects; landlords and peasants etc.)
  • They accept the nationalist’ stand and recognize its legitimacy but also take note of the internal tensions within the Indian society.
  • The central theme of this school is its focus on social classes in determining historical outcomes.
  • Major historians related to Marxist school are M.N.Roy, R.P.Dutta, Anita Desai, Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and others.


  • Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist scholar was the one who coined the term ‘subaltern’, meaning “marginalized” or “oppressed”.
  • This school later developed as an Indian school of historiography in 1980s under Ranjit Guha.
  •  This school gave emphasis over the role of masses rather than the role of leadership. They believe that one common problems with all other schools is that they give much more importance to the leaders in a movement rather than the masses.
  • The subalterns believe that the mainstream historiography has overlooked the peasants and tribal movements in the colonial period and their focus is to highlight their importance.
  • Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gyanendra Pandey are significant examples of subaltern school.
UGC-NET History A researcher by profession and a historian by nature.

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