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Civil Wartime

Ever since the publication of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, the phrase “empty, homogenous time” (borrowed from Walter Benjamin), has become synonymous with the historical imagination of nationalism.[1] For Anderson, the time of the nation is that of historicism: progressive, additive, and one whose present is the culmination of the past.[2] Étienne Balibar describes this in narratological terms, wherein “the history of nations . . . is always already presented to us in the form of a narrative which attributes to these entities the continuity of a subject. The formation of the nation thus appears to us as the fulfillment of a ‘project’ stretching over centuries.”[3] For Balibar, nations come to be because they are historicized as having always been and will always be. Such is the temporal imagination of national unity.[4]

But what is the temporality of national disunity, such as in civil war? If the narratological phenomena of “meanwhile” (which according to Anderson is unique to modernity, and realized most fully in the newspaper and realist novel) is a key formal feature of nationalism’s narrative mode, then what temporal experience creates the conditions of possibility of national disunity, internal antagonism, and fratricide? Is a nation in civil war still a “social organism,” and if so, what kind of time does such an internally split sociological unit inhabit or move through? Does the nation’s time stand still in civil war, or does it multiply into heterogeneous time? What, ultimately, is civil wartime?

I have noted elsewhere that the category of civil war within the West today is predominantly understood through the discourse of development and humanitarian aid.[5] Beginning in the 1990s, the idea of civil war was in many ways reinvented and institutionalized in the political sciences as a crisis of development unique to the Global South.[6] According to this familiar Orientalist worldview, civil war is a “problem of development” (underdevelopment) and a “problem for development” (it hinders economic progress). Because of the former, civil war has been unique to the Global South (or at the very least, the peripheries of Europe and beyond—Ireland and Cyprus, for example) since the Second World War; because of the latter, civil war is the occasion for the West’s intervention into civil-war-torn countries under the banner of humanitarianism. Civil war today names nothing other than a crisis of historical progress in the formerly colonized world. If the nation fills empty homogenous time, then according to this predominantly social scientific discourse, civil war halts the nation’s progress, stalls history, as it were, and paves the way for benevolent outside actors to free such failed states into the domain of modernity.

The explicit solution to such endless underdevelopment/civil war, according to scholars in this subfield as well as institutions like the World Bank, is international intervention.[7] And such intervention takes a variety of predictable forms: bombs, banks, dams, and debt, to name a few. Less predictable, though arguably as widespread, is partition. As one influential essay explains quite bluntly, “Stable resolutions of ethnic civil wars are possible, but only when the opposing groups are demographically separated into defensible enclaves. Separation reduces both incentives and opportunity for further combat, and largely eliminates both reasons and chances for ethnic cleansing of civilians.”[8] Situated in the milieu of liberal humanitarian interventionism, partition very quickly emerges as a technology of empire. Given the present-day conjuncture of civil war and the latest incarnations of Orientalism, it is crucial to follow Edward Said himself when he notes that “without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.”[9] “What we must respect and try to grasp,” Said elaborates, “is the sheer knitted-together strength of Orientalist discourse, its very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and its redoubtable durability” (Orientalism, 6). In other words, civil-war-as-crisis of history must be understood as knitted-together with the West’s ability to produce the Global South as such.

Given how, especially from the vantage point of the West, civil war names a crisis of historical progress and the justification for the civilizing mission in the age of decolonization (neocolonialism), it is striking how the term “civil war” is typically understood to be a discrete historical episode. So while the term “war” is quite plastic, taking on the varied shapes of “war on poverty,” “war on drugs,” “race war,” “war on coronavirus,” all of which describe both violent and non-violent events and processes, “civil war” is typically only associated with start and end dates, such as the Russian Civil War (1919-1922), the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), or the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). Why this rigidity in understanding civil war as merely durational? And what might it mean to understand civil war as a more plastic or elastic category, and yet not collapse it into the universal framework that institutions like the World Bank relies upon? To put this another way, if civil war is said to stall history, what does it mean to historicize it?

In what follows, I look back to British India in the mid-century, specifically to B. R. Ambedkar’s pamphlet on the merits of an Indian partition along the lines of religion. Ambedkar is today synonymous with the Dalit caste’s struggle for equality India, and the majority of scholarship on his work and legacy have focused on this aspect of his work and activism. But in Pakistan, or the Partition of India (1940)—a pamphlet that escapes most studies of his work—Ambedkar conceives of civil war as a metaphor rather than a violent episode. These metaphors, moreover, figure civil war as an extended, near-permanent condition of India’s postcolonial horizon rather than a periodic rupture. Civil wartime is at once understood to be an indefinite period of national decay, while at the same time as the rational act of partition.

A Posteriore Colonia

In the prologue to his pamphlet Pakistan, or the Partition of India, Ambedkar, student of John Dewey, leading figure of the Dalit struggle for equal rights, thorn in the Indian nationalist movement, and framer of the Indian constitution, makes an odd detour to Thomas Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845). Carlyle’s book is a pastiche of writings by Cromwell interspersed with his own commentary. The passage Ambedkar quotes is from one of the concluding chapters of Carlyle’s five-volume work, which laments the death of Cromwell:

Oliver is gone . . . The Genius of England no longer soars Sunward, world-defiant, like an Eagle through the storms, ‘mewing her mighty youth,’ as John Milton saw her do: the Genius of England, much like a greedy Ostrich intent on provender and a whole skin mainly, stands with its other extremity Sunward; with its Ostrich-head stuck into the readiest bush . . . No Ostrich, intent on gross terrene provender, and sticking its head into Fallacies, but will be awakened one day,—in a terrible à-posteriori manner, if not otherwise!— —Awake before it come to that; gods and men bid us awake! The Voices of our Fathers, with thousandfold stern monition to one and all, bid us awake.[10]

Milton’s England, aided by the leadership of its Lord Protector, “soared like an Eagle” towards the sun. But Victorian England does the opposite: flightless and oblivious to the world, it turns its “posterior” towards the heavens because it is “without its King, is kingless, anarchic; falls into dislocation, self-collision; staggers, plunges into ever deeper anarchy; King, Defender of the Puritan Faith there can now none be found” (Carlyle, Oliver, 5:156, emphasis in original). Lacking the heroism of someone like Cromwell, Victorian England—united only by the “nexus” of “Cash Payment”—does not soar into history, but “falls,” “staggers” into ever-more anarchy.[11] If England found a way to exit the Interregnum in Milton’s time, no such exit appears on the horizon of industrial England. Ostrich-like, England is incapable of the flights of Cromwell and, with its head in the sand, is incapable of grasping the “storms” of history. The Interregnum is therefore both a period of impasse and blindness.

Writing almost a century after the publication of Oliver Cromwell, Ambedkar insists that Carlyle’s wake-up call is as timely in India in 1940 as it was for England in 1845. Ambedkar’s text is a systematic rebuttal of the All-India Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution of 1940, the first resolution by the League to partition India along religious lines. The pamphlet, published mere months after the Resolution, is an outlier amongst Ambedkar’s writings in that it is his only sustained and extended engagement with the question of Muslim minorities in India, with the vast majority of his other major works concerning the Dalit question.[12] India, Ambedkar warns the reader, must also “mew its mighty youth” and embrace its future in the present, or else devolve into the horrors of England in the “hungry forties.” While Carlyle’s polemic is to lament the need for a Victorian Cromwell to reform England’s class divisions before they erupt into revolution, then Ambedkar’s intervention is to address India’s own “national question” before it too is “awakened one day . . . in a terrible a posteriori manner”—or perhaps more precisely, in an “a posteriore colonia manner.”[13] If for Carlyle the transition into industrial modernity is akin to the Interregnum—a species of civil war—then for Ambedkar India’s transition into postcolonial modernity hinges on the partition of British India—also a species of civil war.

Civil War as Metaphor

Indeed, Ambedkar appears to have had civil war on his mind when he speculates on India’s postcolonial future. In an extended chapter on Indian unity, he provides a history of communal unrest, concluding that it “would not be much exaggeration to say that it is a record of twenty years of civil war between Hindus and Muslims in India, interrupted by brief intervals of armed peace.”[14] Ambedkar’s use of the term “civil war” here is catachrestic, for given that India was a colony of Britain, and thus contained no citizens, a “civil war” would be technically impossible. Furthermore, by Ambedkar’s account, civil war is not a particular event, nor is it an episodic rupture, but is a prolonged condition saturating Indian civil society for two decades. And this extended civic conflict is one that threatens to define Indian society rather than recede into the past after independence from British rule: “I do not think the demand for Pakistan is the result of mere political distemper, which will pass away with the efflux of time. As I read the situation, it seems to me that it is a characteristic in the biological sense of the term, which the Muslim body politic has developed in the same manner as an organism develops a characteristic. Whether it will survive or not, in the process of natural selection, must depend upon the forces that may become operative in the struggle for existence between Hindus and Musalmans” (Pakistan, 1). The minority question, which Ambedkar casts in a vitalist key, is not a passing illness but a condition endemic to India’s national identity. Or to put it differently, civil war is integral to Indian civil society in the age of anticolonial nationalism, not a temporary or episodic rupture to it.

“Political distemper,” “biological [characteristic],” “natural selection,” and the entire Carlyle passage attest to the centrality of metaphor to how Ambedkar’s articulates the notion of civil war (1).[15] It is worth pointing out, however, that Ambedkar is highly critical of the use of metaphor in understanding the national question. At the outset of the text, he takes issue with how critics treat the problem “as a trifle and try to destroy it by shooting into it similies [sic] and metaphors. ‘You don’t cut your head to cure your headache,’ ‘you don’t cut a baby into two because two women are engaged in fighting out a claim as to who its mother is,’ are some of the metaphors which are used to prove the absurdity of Pakistan” (1). The significance of the idea of Partition rests on its representation in terms of life and death: the decapitation and vivisection of the body (politic). Metaphoric vitalism falls short in fully dealing with the issue because Partition resists being entirely “destroyed” or treated as a “trifle.” Ambedkar explains this rather ironically:

I am not staggered by Pakistan; I am not indignant about it; nor do I believe that it can be smashed by shooting into it similies [sic] and metaphors. Those who believe in shooting it by similies [sic] should remember that nonsense is nonetheless nonsense because it is in rhyme, and that a metaphor is no argument though it be sometimes the gunpowder to drive one home and imbed it in the memory. . . . I have no doubt that the only proper attitude to Pakistan is to study it in all its aspects, to understand its implications and to form an intelligent judgement about it. (2)

Metaphoric projectiles violently “shot” with “gunpowder” cannot change the meaning of Pakistan, but only produce paradigmatic connections that look like “nonsense”: decapitations to cure headaches, or halving babies to solve custody battles.

And yet, Ambedkar’s “intelligent judgement” in fact relies on metaphor, particularly those concerning the division of India, be it through civic conflict or partition. Being a constitutional lawyer with complete faith in the rationality of the state to protect its citizens, Ambedkar fears that Partition might happen after India had formed a postcolonial constitution. He explains, by way of metaphor no less,

Indians must decide, before preparing the plans and laying the foundations, for whom the constitutional structure is to be raised . . . After the structure is built as one whole, on one single foundation, with girders running through from one end to the other and if thereafter a part is to be severed from the rest, the knocking out of the rivets will shake the whole building and produce cracks in other parts of the structure which are intended to remain as one whole. The danger of cracks is greater if the cement which binds them is, as in the case of India, of a poor quality. (8–9)

Ambedkar’s architectural metaphor recalls Louis Althusser’s in his discussion of ideological state apparatuses: “Like every metaphor, this metaphor [of a building with an economic base and ideological superstructure] makes something visible. What? Precisely this: that the upper floors could not ‘stay up’ (in the air) alone, if they did not rest precisely on their base. . . . The effect of this spatial metaphor is to endow the base with an index of effectivity known by the famous terms: the determination in the last instance of what happens in the upper ‘floors’ (of the superstructure) by what happens in the economic base.”[16] What does Ambedkar’s metaphor make visible? His liberal constitutionalism, realized in the image of a modernist concrete edifice. Rather than the superstructure being determined from the economic base below, Ambedkar’s concern is with ensuring that the framework of the state (“structure” and “girders”) correlate to the people (“foundation” and “cement”). That is to say, his fictive polity is one in which the constitution must be built on the foundations of the nation, which in turn acts as the cement that envelopes constitutional “girders” which frame the political body. Both constitution and nation, frame and cement (form and content, perhaps) must have as much correspondence to each other to avoid structural instability. Should there be irregularities in the constitution’s reflection of the nation, or if the cement that constitutes the building’s content be poor, then the entire structure becomes unstable. If India is to heed Carlyle’s warning in this moment of transition, it must ensure consistency between the state and civil society.

Failure to do so, Ambedkar explains, would result in indefinite civil war. In the conclusion of his polemic, he imagines what a postcolonial India would look like if it were not partitioned into two states:

if India remained as one integral whole it will never be an organic whole. India may in name be continued to be known as one country but in reality it will be two separate countries—Pakistan and Hindustan—joined together by a forced and artificial union. . . . The spread of that virus of dualism in the body politic must some day create a mentality which is sure to call for a life and death struggle for the dissolution of this forced union. If by reason of some superior force the dissolution does not take place, one thing is sure to happen to India— . . . [it] will be an anaemic and sickly state, ineffective, a living corpse, dead though not buried. (Pakistan, 342)

Ambedkar’s constitutional architectonics give way to a biopolitics of nation-statehood, which in turn is premised on the temporality of an interminable death. For his vitalist metaphor foresees India as having to choose between a “forced union” on the one hand and a partition of the country into two parts on the other. In the case of the former, India would never be an “organic whole” because while the postcolonial polity would be unified at the level of the state, its civil society would be antagonistically split (with poor foundations and weak cement). Ambedkar’s passage describes two possible outcomes of such a “forced union.” In the first scenario, the “virus of dualism” creates a “life and death struggle” that violently tears apart the unity of the body politic. His second scenario is much harder to put into architectural, political and biological terms, for the “virus of dualism” reduces the body politic into an “anaemic, ineffective living corpse,” implying an interminable and incomplete death. Rather than a violent episode, this mode of strife unravels over an extended period of time with no conceivable conclusion.

What kind of modernity does Ambedkar describe here? What does it mean for a nation-state to exist as a “living corpse”? How is such a “virus” sustained with no conceivable end, sickly and anaemic, yet not terminally ill? Part of what is difficult to understand about the postcolonial future of a divided India united only by the force of law is that Ambedkar envisions civil war as a protracted and irresolvable condition, not an episodic rupture.

Sanctioning Civil War

Ambedkar was not alone in meditating on the crisis of historical transition. Writing a decade earlier, Antonio Gramsci’s evokes a similar temporality and biopolitical image of the state and civil society when he discusses impasses produced by ideological crises, specifically those that took place in the aftermath of the First World War in Italy. During such crises, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[17] The interregnum is a crisis whose “historically normal solution is blocked” by the obsolescence of the old regime and the nascency of the new regime that has yet to see light (Selections, 276). Gramsci doesn’t elaborate what he means by “morbid symptoms,” but we might place his note in conversation with Ambedkar’s own reflection on the historical debilitating character of protracted civil wars, where “morbid symptoms” become the norm for an indefinite period of time.

Neither Gramsci nor Ambedkar look to Carlylean heroes to guide the masses out of the interregnum. Gramsci is clear that such ideological vacuums, in fact, result in the rise of charismatic individuals (by which he means Mussolini), while Ambedkar makes no mention of an Indian Cromwell. Instead, both see interregnums as occasions for a radical organization of society. For Gramsci, while interregnums can result in the rise of reactionists, they can also create “the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture” (276). For Ambedkar, however, India’s only savior is the state. For if unity is the only path to postcolonial modernity and out of the impasse of communal discord, then such cohesion can ironically only be achieved via a species of the “virus of dualism”: partition. That is to say, if the “virus of dualism” paralyzes history by creating a sickly body politic, then partition becomes the only way to ensure India and Pakistan to maintain correspondence between the nation and the state, constitutional girders and national cement. Ambedkar’s vitalist language, cut through with Spencerian metaphorics of social organicism, presents partition as a historically progressive alternative to civil war. Rather than let the “virus of dualism” slowly sap the life of the body politic, Ambedkar envisions partition as the relocation of the civil war from civil society to the state. Rather than civilians rending apart Indian society, the state gains a monopoly over the violence of civil war, executing it in a rational, non-violent manner along geographic lines. If civil war rends apart a nation, then partition in Ambedkar’s account does so with none of the fratricide and all the force of law. Partition is therefore figured as a kind of sanctioned civil war—a civil war by other means. The civil war between Indian Hindus and Muslims can be made to continue by the other means of “demographic separation.” The historical irony of Ambedkar’s logic is, of course, that the Partition of British India in 1947 did in fact produce the very violence it sought to avoid, and the protracted civil war denoted by the “virus of dualism” has thrived in the age of postcolonial modernity.

Far from a historical episode with a discrete beginning and ending, civil war for Ambedkar saturates the national question. Ambedkar’s text proliferates the figure of civil war in a number of ways. It is a Carlylean symbol of impasse and interregnum. It characterizes communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims (from the 1920s onwards). It defines the postcolonial future, where a “virus of dualism” slowly saps the vitality of the nation-state during times of assumed peace. And it constitutes the very transition between the colonial and postcolonial: the partition of India. While Ambedkar certainly anticipates the interventionist conception of civil war of the latter half of the twentieth century—and is to a large degree complicit with it also—his proliferation of civil-war-as-metaphor widens our sense of what civil war means in the mid-century, specifically in the context of India’s entry into the age of decolonization. Civil wartime comes to describe the confluence of and friction between a range of historical sensibilities: communal violence, anticolonial nationalism and futurity, the crisis of development, and neocolonial interventionism.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, 1969), 261.

[2] See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006), 26.

[3] Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1991), 86.

[4] I don’t mean to present Anderson’s model as an unproblematic one. For what is perhaps the most important critiques of the universal quality of the idea of “imagined communities,” see “Whose Imagined Community?” in Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3–13.

[5] See Nasser Mufti, Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 3–5.

[6] For a critical overview of this field of study, see Jacob Mundy, “Deconstructing civil wars: Beyond the new wars debate,” Security Dialogue 42, no. 3 (2011): 279–95.

[7] See Paul Collier, V. L. Elliott, Håvard Hegre, Anke Hoeffler, Marta Reynal-Querol, and Nicholas Sambanis, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2003).

[8] Chaim Kaufmann, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars,” International Security 20, no. 4 (Spring, 1996): 136–175, 137.

[9] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 3.

[10] Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations (New York: Scribner, Welford, and Company, 1872), 5:156, emphasis in original.

[11] Thomas Carlyle, “Chartism” and “Past and Present” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1870), 36.

[12] In addition to his most well-known intervention into the question of caste, Annihilation of Caste (1936), Ambedkar published two histories of caste in India in the 1940s, the same period in which he published his pamphlet on Pakistan: Who Were the Shudras? (1940) and The Untouchables (1948). While it may seem that Pakistan is an outlier within his work, Partha Chatterjee points out that Ambedkar’s strategy is actually more concerned with limiting the power of a Hindu ruling class, so as to maximize access to the state for those most disenfranchised from it, namely Dalits. See Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 21–22.

[13] I’m grateful to Ben Garceau for helping me with this Latin phrase.

[14] B. R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India (Bombay: Thacker, 1941), 180.

[15] Carlyle, too, turned to vitalist metaphors in his writings on Chartism and the national question. See Carlyle, “Chartism” and “Past and Present,4.

[16] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 135.

[17] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 276.