4/3/10: Returned World War II veterans played an important role in propagating Partition violence in 1947 South Asia, according to Stephen Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies at Yale University. In a recent talk at Brown, Wilkinson examined variations in violence levels across space as a way of understanding the causes and mechanisms of Partition violence.
Four provinces – Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Delhi, and Bihar – experienced the worst violence, he said, whereas other provinces were significantly more peaceful. Previous attempts to understand these variations have resulted in four main explanations: people living in areas that were divided or that they expected might be divided felt a greater sense of uncertainty and insecurity; some areas were more politically polarized than others; the breakdown of state capacity in some regions was greater than in others; and the position of the Sikhs varied from place to place. Wilkinson argued that none of these explanations could accurately predict the variations in violence. With regard to the first explanation, for example, he pointed out that Bengal experienced less violence in 1947 than it had previously, despite the fact that Bengal was itself partitioned.
Over 2 million men from India were recruited to serve in the army in World War II. They were recruited unevenly across the country. Although Punjab was home to about 7 percent of India’s population in the 1940s, men from Punjab made up 31 percent of recruits. The North-West Frontier Province was 1 percent of the population, 5 percent of the recruits, and an even higher number of combatants. Over 50 percent of Pashtuns from the province who fit the army’s criteria were recruited.
Wilkinson showed that the uneven geographical distribution of recruits, and thus of veterans, correlated with the uneven distribution of violence. He further specified his analysis by explaining that it was the average number of months veterans had spent on the front line that seemed to make the most difference. Those who did not spend time on the front line were less likely to play a role in Partition violence. Wilkinson, whose analysis was largely statistical, did not fully explain how the experience of fighting in World War II translated into carrying out violent acts at the time of Partition, but he did suggest that veterans had the skills and networks necessary to carry out the violence. Some of the other questions about the nature of this violence, he said, would be better answered by history, anthropology, and literature.
Wilkinson’s talk, “Explaining Partition Violence,” was part of the ongoing Brown-Harvard-MIT South Asian Politics Seminar series.
By Year of India Coordinator Anastasia Aguiar ’09