Decolonization Resource Collection: Violence

Female militia member manning a machine gun.  Indonesian Press Photo Service. Image from the Library of Congress.

Primary sources

“Telegram from Britain’s High Commissioner in India on Kashmir and Sikh developments” (1947)
In this 1947 telegram, the British High Commissioner in India reports to London on guerrilla activities in the increasingly contested area of Kashmir. The telegram also contains reports of violence against Sikhs in Pakistan and the prospect of Sikh retaliation.

The Mau Mau Warrior Oath (c. 1950s)
This warrior oath was sworn by Mau Mau warriors who rebelled against British colonial rule in Kenya during the 1950s. The oath stipulates that Mau Mau warriors must protect indigenous Kenyan lands from European theft at all costs, and that warriors must commit themselves to violent, self-sacrificial resistance in order to do so.

Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (1959)
In his second major work, Martiniquais philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon discusses the causes of the Algerian War. Fanon focuses on the potential for massive political and cultural change when the colonized reject the authority of their oppressors.

Military Activities and Arrangements in Namibia and Other Colonial Territories” (1988)
This report from the United Nations Department of Special Political Questions, Regional Co-operation, Decolonization and Trusteeship details increased militant activities in Namibia, Angola, and Zambia. Increased mass militarization and military organization in southwest Africa in the 1980s was part of an ongoing decolonization conflict known as the South African Border War.

Secondary sources

Articles and essays

Branche, Raphaelle, “Sexual Violence in the Algerian War,” in Dagmar Herzog (ed.), Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
English-language historians have argued that the category of gender is particularly useful and relevant for understanding the violence of war,with rape now clearly identified as a ‘gendered war crime’. Very few French historians of the modern period, however, have examined past conflicts from a gender-based perspective. Still, times are changing and analyses of rape and sexual violence, and, more generally, a gender-based approach to wars are becoming less and less unusual in French historical studies

Brass, Paul, “The Partition of India and Retributive Genocide in the Punjab, 1946-1947: Means, Methods, and Purposes,” Journal of Genocide Research 5, 1 (2002).
This article focuses on the great massacres that occurred in the huge territory of the Punjab which, in the time before the partition of India, encompassed the present-day federal states of Pakistan Punjab and Indian Punjab, as well as a number of then semi-autonomous princely states. As the violence extended more and more broadly and viciously in this site of political partition, the outgoing British authorities themselves, as will be shown below, struggled to define what was happening, what label to place upon it.

McDougall, James, “Savage Wars? Codes of Violence in Algeria, 1830s-1990s,” Third World Quarterly 26, 1 (2005).
Political violence in Algeria has often been accounted for only by recourse to caricatures of society supposedly ‘intensely violent’ by nature, or else rationalized as the product of a peculiar political culture and national historical experience. Departing from both approaches, this article suggests that state and non-state violence must be understood as particular, distinct moment in both the recomposition and breakdown of inherently conflictual social relations.

Misri, Deepti, “The Violence of Memory: Renarrating Partition Violence in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers,” Meridians 11, 1 (2011).
This article explores how Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel What the Body Remembers builds on Partition feminist historiography in order to exhume and retell the story of family violence against women during India’s Partition, intended to “save their honor” from rioting mobs. While feminist historiographies have restored Partition survivors’ memories of violence to the historical archive, Baldwin’s novel explicitly foregrounds the role of gendered bodies in and as the archive of communal memories of violence.

Silvestri, Michael, “‘The Sinn Fein of India’: Irish Nationalism and the Policing of Revolutionary Terrorism in Bengal,” Journal of British Studies 39, 4 (2000).
In this article, Silvestri explores connections in rhetoric between anti-imperial movements in Ireland and Bengal, and how violence and rhetoric often reinforced one another. This revolutionary link between Ireland and British South Asia may seem far-fetched, but this article is part of a growing movement in decolonization studies focused on comparative historiography.

White, Aaronette, “All the Men are Fighting for Freedom, All the Women are Mourning their Men, but Some of us Carried Guns: A Raced-Gendered Analysis of Fanon’s  ‘Psychological Perspectives on War’,” Signs 32, 4 (2007).
White applies a gendered critique to Fanon’s analysis of violent insurgency and its influence on the individual. In this dense yet informative essay, White argues that “Fanon was overly optimistic about the psychological potential of revolutionary violence,” a misperception rooted in his ignorance of the “gendered aspects of anticolonial war.”

White, Luise, “Separating the Men from the Boys: Constructions of Gender, Sexuality, and Terrorism in Central Kenya, 1939-1959,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 23, 1 (1990).
In this article focusing on gender in pre-Mau Mau Kenya, White focuses not on Kenyan women, but Kenyan men, who, White argues, have been studied as “patriotic, zealous, enemies of imperialism.” White focuses instead on the nature of men’s domestic rights and how these private battles sometimes coincided but often conflicted with their role as warriors and revolutionaries.

Books and readers

Branch, Daniel, Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War and Decolonisation, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
This book details the devastating Mau Mau civil war fought in Kenya during the 1950s and the legacies of that conflict for the post-colonial state. It explores the instrumental use of violence, changes to allegiances, and the ways in which cleavages created by the war informed local politics for decades after the conflict’s conclusion.

Devji, Faisal, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.
Devji focuses on the ethical content of Osama bin Laden’s and Al-Qaeda’s jihad against America and the West, as opposed to its purported political intent. Devji contends that Al-Qaeda, with its decentralized structure and emphasis on moral rather than political action, differs radically from such groups as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (which aim to establish fundamentalist Islamic states), and actually has more in common with multinational corporations, antiglobalization activists, and environmentalist and social justice organizations.

French, David, The British Way in Counter-insurgency, 1945-1967, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
The main contention of this book is that the British hid their use of naked force behind a carefully constructed veneer of legality. In reality they commonly used wholesale coercion, including cordon and search operations, mass detention without trial, forcible population resettlement, and the creation of free-fire zones, to intimidate and lock-down the civilian population.

Glassman, Jonathan, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar, Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011.
This book explores how violently enforced racial boundaries arose from Zanzibar’s entangled history. Jonathon Glassman challenges explanations that assume racial thinking in the colonial world reflected only Western ideas. He shows how Africans crafted competing ways of categorizing race from local tradition and engagement with the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.

Klose, Fabian, Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence: The Wars of Independence in Kenya and Algeria, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
This book explores the relationship between the human rights movement emerging after 1945 and the increasing violence of decolonization. Based on material previously inaccessible in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, this comparative study uses the Mau Mau War (1952-1956) and the Algerian War (1954-1962) to examine the policies of two major imperial powers, Britain and France.

Misri, Deepti, Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence and Representation in Postcolonial India, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, Dissident Feminist Series, 2014.
Misri shows how 1947 marked the beginning of a history of politicized animosity associated with the differing ideas of “India” held by communities and in regions on one hand, and by the political-military Indian state on the other. Assembling literary, historiographic, performative, and visual representations of gendered violence against men and women, she establishes that cultural expressions do not just follow violence but determine its very contours, and interrogates the gendered scripts underwriting the violence originating in the contested visions of what “India” means.

Pandey, Gyanendra, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Through an investigation of the violence that marked the partition of British India in 1947, this book analyses questions of history and memory, the nationalization of populations and their pasts, and the ways in which violent events are remembered (or forgotten) in order to ensure the unity of the collective subject – community or nation. Stressing the continuous entanglement of ‘event’ and ‘interpretation’, Pandey emphasizes both the enormity of the violence of 1947 and its shifting meanings and contours.

Sherman, Taylor C., State Violence and Punishment in India, London, UK: Royal Asiatic Society Books, 2010.
This book explores the relationship between punishment, state violence and the state in India during the period 1919-1956. Sherman argues for an expansion of our understanding of punishment and the state by opening up the idea of the ‘coercive network,’ and exploring institutions, laws and practices in new ways.

Van Young, Eric, The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810-1821, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Mexico’s movement toward independence from Spain was a key episode in the dissolution of the great Spanish Empire, and its accompanying armed conflict arguably the first great war of decolonization in the nineteenth century. This book argues that in addition to being a war of national liberation, the struggle was also an internal war pitting classes and ethnic groups against each other, an intensely localized struggle by rural people, especially Indians, for the preservation of their communities.

Weizman, Eyal, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, Verso Books, 2012.
The notion of a humanitarian “lesser evil” has become instrumental in justifying the West’s military adventures. It informs obscene calculations determining how much collateral damage is permissible in conflict. Weizman argues that this can be seen in particular in the regime imposed upon Gaza by the state of Israel. Examining the damage following the 2010 bombardment, he pieces together the systematic process of destruction, revealing the political atrocity within the debris.