Monday, 21 September 2009

Leo Kuper: Genocide and the Plural State

… focusing on the fallout from the partition of India.

It’s impossible not to question either the sanity or the good intentions of the state that could not keep these groups from each other’s throats yet insisted on their mass import into Britain contrary to the expressed wish of its natives. Kuper should have included that group, us, the Britons - distinct in race and religion from the groups focused on here - in his history of India’s partition. Partition followed violent uprisings against us, we were driven out of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh just as the peoples of those states drove each other out of their new homelands. We are unique only in that we were compelled to suffer the mass immigration of peoples unlike ourselves into our homeland. This double standard, genocidal in itself if taken to extreme, was merely the first ‘superimposition of inequality’ post-independence and partition. In modern Britain we are subordinated, discriminated against in the political structure, the economy, education, human rights, and access to amenity: structural conditions Kuper identifies as conducive to large scale violent conflict and, potentially, genocide.

From Leo Kuper, Genocide (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 57-56.

The plural society provides the structural base for genocide, the presence of a diversity of racial, ethnic and/or religious groups being the structural char­acteristic of the plural society, and genocide a crime committed against these groups. This is not to say that genocide is inevitable in the history of plural societies, but only that plural societies offer the necessary conditions for domestic genocide. The many genocidal conflicts in plural societies (as for example in India on partition, or in Bangladesh, or in Rwanda and Burundi) suggest an intimate relationship between the plural society and genocide.

I do not use the term plural society to mean simply the presence of a diversity of racial, ethnic and/ or religious groups. The effect of this would be to classify the overwhelming majority of societies as plural societies. I use the term rather, in a tradition deriving from J. S. Furnivall, to describe societies with persistent and pervasive cleavages between these sections. It is a dis­tinctive type of society, recognized as such in the literature under a variety of names-divided societies, communally fragmented societies, multi-ethnic or multiple societies, composite societies, segmented societies and internally colonized societies.

In the plural society, racial or ethnic or religious differentiation is elabor­ated in many different spheres. There is generally inequality in the mode of political incorporation, as in the constitutional provisions which exclude Africans from the vote for members of the South African parliament. Even where there is formal recognition of political equality, there may be practical inequality, as in Northern Ireland, where Protestants succeeded in maintain­ing an entrenched political domination over Catholics, notwithstanding a democratic constitution. The political inequality is usually associated with economic discrimination-in opportunities for employment, in wages, in access to the means of production. There is almost certain to be discrimina­tion also in provision for education, sometimes with quite startling differ­ences in expenditure for dominant groups as compared with subordinate. Segregation may be imposed in many spheres, including prohibition against intermarriage, or an increasing segregation may develop in the course of conflicts protracted over many years. Differences in culture and social organ­ization may add further to division between the different sections.

The plural society, in its extreme form, is characterized by a superimposition of inequalities. The same sections are dominant or subordinate, favoured or discriminated against, in the political structure, in the economy, in opportu­nities for education, in human rights, in access to amenity. And issues of conflict tend also to be superimposed along the same lines of cleavage and inequality. These structural conditions are likely to be conducive to genocidal conflict. They aggregate the population into distinctive sections, thereby facilitating crimes against collectivities. The divisions being so pervasive, and relatively consistent in so many spheres, issues of conflict may move rapidly from one sector to another, until almost the entire society is polarized. A quite local racial disturbance, for example, of seemingly minor significance, may set off a chain of reactions - rioting at distant geographical points, demonstrations, strike action, police reprisals, reciprocal terrorism and vio­lent political confrontation at a national level. So too, by reason of the superimposition of issues of conflict, particular issues, however specific in their origin, become generalized to a wide range of grievance. And if there is a long history of struggle, with its models, for the dominant group, of effective violent repression, and its memories, for the subordinate group, of past injustice and atrocity, it will give an emotional charge to the conflict, which may escalate to high levels of destructive violence. But this is by no means an inevitable development. A society which one might characterize as an extreme plural society on the basis of objective measures may remain quiescent for long periods, perhaps indefinitely, lacking the subjective reac­tions and opportunity to sustain a destructive conflict.

In the examples which follow [fellist: Arabs and the French during the process of decolonisation, Tutsis and Hutus post-colonially, and the example I quote from, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims at Partition] I have drawn on case studies of highly destructive violence to establish the argument of a genocidal potential in the conflicts between racial, ethnic or religious sections of a plural society. I would not personally describe each of the case studies as genocide. But they are all conflicts in which the charge of genocide has been made - though this charge is often made in a loose and exaggerated way. And they are all conflicts in which there has been massive slaughter, with episodes of genocidal massacre, whole communities of the target group being annihilated.


In India, the conflicts in the process of decolonization were aggravated by the religious cleavages. At the time of partition, the relationship between the British, Hindus and Muslims was hardly comparable to the two-tier structure of Rwanda under Belgian mandate. Hindus were in a great majority, some 300 million Hindus as against 100 million Muslims. They were separated from Muslims not only by their religion, but also by caste prohibitions on inter­mingling. They had been more ready than Muslims to seize the opportunities for British education, and they were largely the administrators of India for the British. It was mainly from their ranks too that India's businessmen, finan­ciers and professionals were recruited. To be sure, the great majority of Hindus and Muslims must have been living in equal poverty. Still, in an independent India, politically unified but communally divided, Hindus would have dominated the society.

Partition transformed this situation, giving dominance to the majority, Muslim or non-Muslim, in the partitioned sections. But the distribution of populations, with substantial religious minorities in areas dominated numeric­ally by members of other religions, or with much intermingling of people of different religion, or with segregated enclaves, did not permit of an easy severance into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. The structure thus gave opportunity for the persecution of minorities, and for retaliation in massacre, as reprisal provoked counter-reprisal in areas of mixed living, and as atrocity against Hindus or Sikhs in Muslim areas, or against Muslims in areas of Hindu or Sikh dominance, set off counter-massacres in a continuous spiral of escalating violence.

Already massacres had started in some areas prior to partition, when communal sentiment became inflamed in the troubled course of constitu­tional negotiation. In Calcutta, following the proclamation by the Muslim League of 16 August 1946 as Direct Action Day, Muslim

mobs howling in a quasi-religious fervor came bursting from their slums, waving clubs, iron bars, shovels, any instrument capable of smashing in a human skull ... They savagely beat to a pulp any Hindu in their path and left the bodies in the city's open gutters ... Later, the Hindu mobs came storming out of their neigh­bourhoods, looking for defenseless Muslims to slaughter. Never, in all its violent history, had Calcutta known twenty-four hours as savage, as packed with human viciousness. Like water-soaked logs, scores of bloated cadavers bobbed down the Hooghly river toward the sea. Other corpses, savagely mutilated, littered the city's streets. Everywhere, the weak and helpless suffered most ... By the time the slaughter was over, Calcutta belonged to the vultures. In filthy grey packs they scudded across the sky, tumbling down to gorge themselves on the bodies of the city's six thousand dead.

And the Calcutta massacres triggered off other massacres not only in neigh­bouring areas, but across the continent in Bombay.

Relationships were particularly explosive in the Punjab. This was a Muslim majority province, but Muslims constituted only about 57 per cent of the population of over 34,000,000 enumerated in the 1941 census. In the west they were markedly predominant: in the east both their numbers and dominance fell away. Here lay the homelands of the Sikhs who had ruled over most of the province only some hundred years earlier, and of the Hindu Jats, a peasantry also with martial traditions. In the city of Lahore, almost equally balanced populations pressed their rival claims. The city of Amritsar, built around the Golden Temple, was the main religious and political centre of the Sikhs, who numbered some six million, concentrated mostly in the Punjab. And beyond these cities was the province's 'mosaic of communal pockets set haphazardly amongst one another'.

Inevitably, partition into a Muslim west and a Hindu east was highly disruptive. Lahore went to Pakistan, Amritsar to India. The Sikhs, split in two by partition, became the principal actors in the tragedy of the Punjab. Five million Sikhs and Hindus were left in Pakistan's half of the Punjab, over five million Muslims in India's half. It was an invitation to massacre.

Massacre in the Punjab had preceded partition. In the village of Kahuta, where 2,000 Hindus and Sikhs and 1,500 Muslims lived in peace, a Muslim horde had set fire to the houses in its Sikh and Hindu quarters with buckets of gasoline. Entire families were consumed by the flames. Those who escaped were caught, tied together, soaked with gasoline and burnt alive like torches. 'A few Hindu women, yanked from their beds to be raped and converted to Islam, had survived; others had broken away from their captors and hurled themselves back into the fire to perish with their families.' In Lahore, a tolerant city of some 500,000 Hindus, 100,000 Sikhs and 600,000 Muslims, a Sikh leader had precipitated violence by hacking down a Muslim League banner with a cry of death to Pakistan. In the riots which followed, more than 3,000 were killed, most of them Sikh. On the eve of independence, 15 August 1947, the city was a scene of desolation. 'Almost a hundred thousand Hindus and Sikhs were trapped inside Old Lahore's walled city, their water cut, fires raging around them, mobs of Muslims stalking the alleys outside their mahallas, waiting to pounce on anyone venturing out.' In Amritsar, 'murder was as routine an occurrence in its bazaars and alleyways as public defecation. The city's Hindus devised the cruel tactic of walking up to an unsuspecting Muslim and splashing his face with a vial of nitric or sulphuric acid. Arsonists were in action everywhere.' While the city authorities were performing the independence day rituals, 'an enraged horde of Sikhs was ravaging a Muslim neighbourhood less than a mile away. They slaughtered its male inhabitants without mercy or exception. The women were stripped, repeatedly raped, then paraded shaking and terrified through the city to the Golden Temple, where most had their throats cut.' In the countryside, Sikh bands attacked Muslim villages and neighbourhoods. 'A particular savagery characterized their killings. The circumcised penises of their Muslim male victims were hacked off and stuffed into their mouths or into the mouths of murdered Muslim women.'

Campbell-Johnson, Press Attaché to the last British Viceroy of India, wrote that perhaps the most horrifying feature of the communal insanity was the lust of the strong to seek out the weak for massacre: hospitals and refugee trains were the special targets of these crazed assassins. There were periods of four and five days at a stretch during which not a single train reached Lahore or Amritsar without its complement of dead and wounded. In some of the trains, almost all the passengers had been most horribly slaughtered. So too, the refugee columns on the roads became an easy target for loot and massacre.

Many of these genocidal massacres were carried out by mobs in murderous frenzy. They were not a centrally organized government-directed type of genocide. Hindu and Muslim leaders gave assurances of protection to min­ority communities, and on 22 July 1947, shortly before partition, spokesmen for the prospective governments of India and Pakistan in a joint statement solemnly guaranteed protection to all citizens. This guarantee, it was stated, 'implies that in no circumstances will violence be tolerated in any form in either territory. The two Governments wish to emphasize that they are united in this determination'. There was seemingly a remarkable faith in the effectiveness of the projected boundary force. But the leaders had greatly underestimated the extent and destructiveness of the communal passions unleashed by partition, and they were powerless to control the conflagration in the Punjab.

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