Patchwork States

Cambridge University Press, 2022.

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How can we account for the preponderance of different forms of political violence within the borders of national states in South Asia? In India, ethnic riots have long coexisted with separatist insurgencies. In Pakistan, a decade-long territorial insurgency in the Northwest has overshadowed serious and sustained forms of social violence, from electoral clashes to targeted sectarian killings. Both terrorist attacks and riots are characteristic of violence in Bangladesh. Extant approaches provide us with only partial answers to the nature, scope and variety of violence within South Asian states. Research in security studies either focuses on predicting the incidence of civil war or examines the strategies and practices of armed actors. A long tradition of enquiry into political order in comparative politics, by contrast, has held that the decline of postwar institutional frameworks has led to endemic conflict. Yet the rise and fall of postwar institutions cannot account for the spatial diversity of violence, embedded within the politics of conflict and competition, we see in South Asian countries today.


Patchwork States locates the roots of the spatially differentiated politics of conflict and competition in the construction of diverse institutions in the course of colonial conquest and domination. I argue that state formation in colonial India followed a set of mandates – fear, greed and frugality – that led agents of the colonial state to establish very different types of governance arrangements and state-society relations across the Indian subcontinent, both within and across directly ruled provinces and princely states under indirect rule. Post-colonial governments sought to reverse colonial governance differentiation, but they were only partially successful, yielding “patchwork states” in contemporary South Asia.


The persistent nature of patchwork governance helps us explain the different forms of conflict within and across South Asian countries. The relative incidence of sovereignty-neutral and sovereignty-contesting violence in different locations is associated with different kinds of post-colonial governance arrangements and levels of interpenetration between state and society. This differentiation also impacts differences in electoral competition, with the possibilities for electoral coordination around a small number of candidates – as predicted by party systems theory – circumscribed by governance variation. And the patchwork state has important implications for the analysis of subnational development outcomes, including per capita income, literacy and infant mortality at the district level. The manuscript finally places the patchwork states of South Asia in broader comparative perspective, in relation to a set of East and Southeast Asian countries, as well as in contrast to settler-colonial rule.

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