Exceptional enemies, exceptional violence

A brief analysis about the use of “justified violence” in times of colonial crisis.

The British colonizers justified their occupation of other regions, such as India and Australia, as altruist missions that, contradictorily, based on physical and psychological violence. For these methods to be acceptable, the colonizers reshaped those foreign territories into an “exception” which, opposite to the empires, required special coercive frameworks in the hands of the English settlers. Their success also depended in the construction of the subaltern’s identity through legal codes and “natural histories.”[1] In this context, peasants, natives, and insurgents became antagonistic figures whose weakness, barbarism, and resistance justified the implementation of forceful mechanisms in the quotidian and the peripheral space, in order to maintain the colonial hierarchies.

The colonial power has developed philosophical reflections to exercise power, but the praxis of their authority also required the codification of law in order to provide the acceptance and legality of violence. Albert Mbembe, who develops the concept of “necropolitics,” explores the trajectories on which “the state of exception and the relation of enmity have become the normative basis of the right to kill.”[2] This political imagery perceives “the other” as a threat, whose biophysical elimination would strength the potential of life and security of the modern and late-modern states. Moreover, the warlike politics defined the colonized in an opposite relation with the powerful settler. “In the eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying experience, something beyond imagination or comprehension.”[3] Hence, due to their nature and the threat they posed, the colonial system submitted the subalterns to practices of violence, terror, and death. For Mbembe, this is an exercise of power that remained outside the law “where “peace is more likely to take on the face of a war without end.”[4] These schemes are not fortuity, the forms of colonial violence do not derive solely from outlaw violence over a strange and unknown native. This is a matter of anxiety for the colonizers that required the scrutiny of the colonized to justify their “cultural inferiority,” a way of antagonize with them and validate their control. These strategies strength the power relations and the social limits of the colonial structure, they make violence rightful and acceptable.


The case of India constitutes a complex example that unveils the articulation of law, knowledge, and racial violence. In Colonial Justice in British India, Elizabeth Kolsky, for example, observes how the presence of non-official whites created a problem for the colony’s integrity.[5] The lack of control over the misconduct of non-official Europeans produced legal, political, and moral challenges that intensified the efforts to codify a common law.[6] Nonetheless, racial discrimination and the security of the colonial relations required “special conditions” “that differed from those implemented at home.”[7] The creation of the Code of Criminal Procedures (1861) and further Anglo-Indian statutes enhanced racial inequality in the judicial system, while provided British subjects exclusive privileges.[8] Even though in terms of common violence, the white peril was a threat of the empire’s integrity, colonial justice played in the advantage of the colonizers and ratified the unequal treatment between settlers and natives.

In her most recent article, “The Colonial Rule of Law and the Legal Regime of Exception,” Kolsky also shows another mechanism in which the colonial rule in India created particular legal codes and forms of racial violence in the Indian northwest frontier.[9] The rhetoric of the frontier’s control based on an extreme necessity for “special circumstances” in order to proceed over the “barbarous” space.[10] Legal instruments such as the Murderous Outrages Act (MOA) determined sanctions for the colonized and defined a new category for the subaltern’s identity based on extreme forms of racial discrimination. In this case, the notion of “fanatic” framed the tribal communities of the frontier which under the new terms, was a lethal threat for the servants of the Queen. [11] Since the general law was not adequate to suppress this danger, it was necessary to create a new language of contention based on terror and violence, and provided immunity to the European officers in extra-judicial procedures.[12] The creation of a “state of exception” in the colonial borders reshaped the tribal communities of the frontier under the discourse of “fanaticism.” It also permitted British officials to exercise tactics of terror and coercion in order reassert their domination. Kolsky’s shows how racial violence in India “was not a repository of shifting ideas about selves and others, civilizers and savages.” [13] These categories were enduring positions of status that required cultural and legal grounds. They also came hand-in-hand with the development of scientific and historical narratives that strengthen the notion of “extreme measures” as necessary and justifiable.

Late-nineteenth century knowledge created by the British colonizers, grounded in intellectual rationales and empiric proofs, highlighted the subaltern’s savage nature, their retrograde conditions, and their reluctance to accept civilization. Ranajit Guha, who analyses European narratives about of the peasants’ insurgences in India, shows how the Indians’ identities based on metaphors that related their character to natural phenomena. As Guha sustains, “when the proverbial clod of earth runs, this is a matter to be explained in terms of natural history,” and even the most reasonable explanation grounded on evidence to prove the barbarian condition of the colonized.[14] These representations were crucial for the historiographic discourses about British India. Official records for policy and administrations, as well as latter accounts written by witnesses and historians are an attempt to explain the past through insightful explanations about the insurgents.[15] Nonetheless, the rulers developed “a counter-code of counter insurgency” that diminished and antagonized the peasants’ motives, actions, and mentalities as irrational and unjustified attacks against the colonial system.[16] Moreover, “the antagonism between the two [was] irreducible,” which made the counter attacks of the empire justifiable and necessary.[17]

While Guha observes how these narratives functioned in the aftermath of the British occupation, Henry Reynolds and Elizabeth Kolsky show how these representations of “natural history” operated in the colonial spaces to validate the systems of violence in Australia and India. In The Forgotten War, Henry Reynolds examines the definition of the subalterns through imperial schemes, as necessary mechanisms to prove the hostile character of the Aborigines.[18] Reynolds argues that the scientific knowledge of the late-nineteenth century played a significant role to avail the common understanding of “the other.” The defiance of the “besieged frontiersmen” created a “state of alarm” among the British settlers, who considered the Aborigines as “irrational, impulsive and inherently violent.” [19] For Reynolds, the characterization of the aborigines as savages filled the vacuum of information regarding the new colonial space. Furthermore, this knowledge provided intellectual value to common prejudices over the Australian Aborigines, especially in the frontier spaces where the resistance was greater and required extreme warlike responses.[20]

Meanwhile, in India, Kolsky observes that the “truth” in the body “measure[d] the men to condemn the superstition and barbarity of colonized people.”[21] In terms of common violence, these narratives gave leverage to the white peril by mitigating their culpability and by acknowledging the physical weakness of the Indians.[22] In the frontier space, the use of medical terms defined political dissents and threats in a similar way as the Australian context. British officers used “disease metaphors to describe these phenomena and legitimized the “special treatment” applied to them,” and highlighted Indian’s insurgency as “a contagious illness,” which could only be cured by “a legal cordon sanitaire.” [23] The threat of the “fanatic” justified extreme measures, which maximized the punishments and terror in the borders. This was a constant process of reinvention of the laws, the tactics, and the discourses.

The colonial imposition came hand-in-hand with the construction of political and cultural representations, grounded on codes and empiric proofs that created new identities for non-European societies. These notions also strength the idea of a colonial enemy who, opposed to the European settler, defied and threat modern and late-modern civilizations. This antagonism reshaped continuously the methods for the British imposition in Australia and India, and created “special contexts” and “exceptional enemies” that justified extreme methods of violence.


Screenshot 2017-05-26 20.08.29
Front page of the official decree that continues the “State of Exception and Economic Emergency” in Venezuela. May 13, 2017. Courtesy of Finanzas Digital. See the whole document here.

In May 13th 2017, the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro extended, for the seventh time, the “state of exception and economic emergency” in the country. This decree gives Maduro the faculty “to design and execute plans for the public security that confronts the destabilizing action threatening the peace of the nation, personal integrity and the safeguarding of the private and public property.” With this decree, Maduro can bypass other branches of government, such as the National Assembly, and make decisions according to his own interests. This kind of decree also helps him justify the use of excessive violence armed forces are applying to mitigate the protests in the country.

Maduro, who calls himself a “pacifist,” considers the protesters in the streets are violent, the terrorists and the enemies of the Bolivarian patria. So far, the non-profit organization PROVEA has registered  59 deaths since the beginning of the protests in early April. The number of wounded persons and political prisoners is also increasing.


[1] Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Subaltern Studies II, Ranajit Guha ed., 2-40 (Delhi, 1983), 2.

[2] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 1 15 (2003): 11-40, 16.

[3] Idem, 24.

[4] Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 18.

[5] Elizabeth Kolsky, Colonial Justice in British India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[6] Idem, 28.

[7] Idem, 72-73.

[8] Kolsky, Colonial Justice, 78.

[9] Elizabeth Kolsky, “The Colonial Rule of Law and the Legal Regime of Exception: Frontier “Fanaticism” and State of Violence in British India,” American Historical Review 120 4 (2015): 1218-1246.

[10] Idem, 1219.

[11] Idem, 1221.

[12] Idem, 1223.

[13] Kolsky, Colonial Justice, 103.

[14] Guha, “Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” 2.

[15] Guha identifies these narratives as the primary and secondary levels of the prose of counter-insurgency. Idem, 3-7; 14-15.

[16] Idem, 19.

[17] Idem, 15.

[18] Henry Reynolds, Forgotten War (South Wales: NewSouth Publishing, 2013), 102.

[19] Reynolds, Forgotten War, 91; 92; 102.

[20] Idem, 102-103.

[21] Kolsky, Colonial Justice¸120; 132.

[22] Idem, 135-136.

[23] Kolsky, “Colonial Rule,” 1236.



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