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The Geo Interview with Prof. Adnan Naseemullah

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Professor Adnan Naseemullah, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London speaks with The Geostrata’s Stuti Agarwal about his second book - ‘Patchwork States- The Historical Roots of Subnational Conflict’ which talks about the perils and problems of our colonial legacy.

Stuti: Welcome viewers. In this edition of the Geo Interview, we have Professor Adnan Naseemullah who is currently a senior lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London. He had previously taught at Hopkins University and the London School of Economics. His research interests include the political economy of industrial development, state formation, political order, populism and comparative national development in relation to the Indian subcontinent. He has written two books- the first is ‘Development After Statism’ and the second ‘Patchwork States- The Historical Roots of Subnational Conflict’.

He also serves as a research ethics committee chair and research integrity advisor for the school of security studies. Today our discussion would be broadly based on his second book- Patchwork States- The Historical Roots of Subnational Conflict which talks about the perils and problems of our colonial legacy. We welcome you, professor!

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: Thank you very much.

Stuti: So professor, being a professor at King’s College London, why did you particularly choose this subject of South-Asian studies? So do you think that European Academia is doing enough in the domain of South-Asian studies given the rising geopolitical importance?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: It’s a good question. I have always been working on South Asian politics since my doctorate.

Many of those most important questions are, whether the politics in political economy are driven by sort of dynamics in the South Asian region including the dynamics of internal political violence, which is sort of the subject of the second book, as well as notions of comparative industrial development. So, not only south Asia is a key region, but it can also tell the rest of the world key lessons about this sort of dynamics broader than just South Asia. Also, I think that it is true that South Asia is sort of comparatively understudied, at least by European and North American academics.

So what I, my friends, and colleagues are trying to do is to make South Asia more legible but also emphasize the lessons that South Asia can provide for international politics.

Stuti: Great! So professor my next question is what are your thoughts behind the phrasing of the title ‘Patchwork States’? What have you intended to convey with that?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: So what the thing is or I will try to sort of tell you a little bit about the background of the book. It started in 2008 when I was doing fieldwork in Lahore in Pakistan, amongst the industrial, district and textile mills in central Punjab. This was at the moment in which a new Talibani insurgency was erupting in 2008 and you may not remember this but once upon a time there was this US president called George W. Bush and he likened the tribal areas, the federal administrative tribal areas, the tribal agencies of North West Pakistan like the Wild West of America and that really gave me… sort of… questions about what it means to have areas of the country that are called ‘wild’, what does it mean in terms of the relationship between state and society in different parts of not just Pakistan but also India and to some extent even in Bangladesh?

So what really this is about is like thinking about what historical roots of differences in the ways states function and what the states look like. For example in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, that belt of Maoist conflict in India versus Gujarat, versus Mumbai and Delhi as well as places like Kashmir and of course in Pakistan you have Balochistan, North West Frontier, well it used to be the North West Frontier Province now, which includes these tribal agencies that were only really integrated in 2018. We have Sind, Balochistan and Punjab as well.

So obviously these are all federal units but within those federal units, there are different notions of what governance looks like and how the people look at the state and how the state looks at the people in different areas. So what I was really interested in looking at is- a) the histories, that in sort of an integrated manner explaining those differentiations and then b) secondly, are those differentiations in governance helpful for us to understand some of the key points of geographical variations in outcomes of political interests in things like patterns of political violence, electoral coordination, electoral representation and development.

So that’s essentially about ‘Patchwork States’ came from the idea that these states were built from a patchwork of different forms of political authority that were established during colonial rule and that will change and revise but still the essence of Patchwork remains.

Stuti: Indeed a great idea to put it like that, Professor. So, Professor, my next question is like in your book you have mentioned that South Asian countries face multidimensional challenges to civic peace and stability from politically motivated actors. So, Professor, who are these actors and what role do they play?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: So, I will just give you a ray of different stories and different actors that we are talking about. The first and foremost mention is one of those major areas are of insurgent actors in South Asia, and probably the most well-known and famous cases of civil war in South Asia are Nepal and Sri Lanka. So, normally we talk about these but in both India and Pakistan and to some extent in Bangladesh, you have insurgent actors. So insurgent groups like one in India in the northeast are different sort of territorial separatist actors, then you have these Maoist groups, what used to a be a variety of different left-wing guerrilla movements, which are mobilized into Communist Party of India (Maoist), you have different insurgent groups that are based in Kashmir and others.

In Pakistan, for a long time, there was a tricky Taliban in Pakistan that has been fragmented now. Recently, we have seen more of the Islamic State as being more active. We see these people as groups that are challenging the authority and sovereignty of the state. But at the same time, there are lots of other political actors that use violence to accomplish acts. So these might be political parties. There is a huge amount of electoral violence that happens in South Asia around the elections between different political parties. Party cadres who scuffle with one another, clash with one another and eventually, you know especially in Bangladesh, engage in really serious violence.

There are also communitarian groups, so, you can imagine VHP being engaged in riots in Gujarat in 2002. You have different sects in Pakistan, you have Tehreek-E-Labbaik in Pakistan which is sort of a political party but it also quite violent against quotidian police forces and major cities over issues of Kashmir. So this is an array or variety of actors who are acting to either challenge the state fundamentally, to bring out proletarian revolution or to create separatism and that goes back all the way to independence of these countries or to start engaging in war quotidian action within the states. South Asia is a very violent place but it is violent in very different ways. Does that make sense?

Stuti: Yes. So professor my next question is like… you have focused on three nations- India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, in exemplifying the main theme of your book. So, would you like to share your rationale behind that, why did you choose these three countries?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: These are very obvious answers as these are the three countries that I know the best. But I think one of the things that are interesting is that all of them were under the same kind of broad government or kind of universal governance under colonial rule. So Pakistan was partitioned, east and West Pakistan were partitioned from India and then Bangladesh was partitioned from Pakistan. Before 1947, you would travel from the North West Frontier of federally administered tribal areas way to Burma, what is now Myanmar was included in that but then it separated into different colonial units.

We are all one complex geography of governance under the British Indian authorities and so when these three countries separate, they are separating from a kind of a cohesive patchwork that's internally complex but is one sort of the unit under colonial rule and so we can see some common themes in all of them, right! The relationship between them eventually defines the legal government and the princely states as well as the areas under their direct administration; we are all under the same hierarchies. Whereas that is not true in quite the same way with Sri Lanka or Ceylon which was their colony.

Nepal fairly early became an independent, sovereign and suzerain kingdom under the British that has a slightly different place within the consolation of who's in charge. So, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are comparable because they were under the same systems of governance that were as I say, very internally complex but weren't different from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India before 1947, say before the 1920s those names wouldn't even make any sense. So does that make sense?

Stuti: Makes sense, yes professor. So, professor, my next question is you have majorly focused on a diverse set of government arrangements that dated during the colonial times, so you have termed those things like 'as driven by fear, greed and frugality’ and which have played a very important role in determining the historical roots of today’s Patchwork States. So, do you want to throw some light on that?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: So, part of what I wanted to do was to explain the historical roots of differentiated or diverse governance within India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the contemporary era and to go back to the colonial rule because the state was really built, the modern states. There were previous states, there were suzerain noble empires and other sorts of forms like the Vijayanagar empire in South India. There were previous forms of governance, and this notion of kind of a modern, bureaucratic state is like an artefact of the 19th century almost anywhere in the world including the West.

So, that places it in the time of British conquest across India and so, what I was interested in it is thinking about how the British, specifically the East India Company which was slightly different from the British state, how they conquered India, right? This is a story that has been told by many many other people but also I wanted to take a particular angle on why they conquered India in different ways and in different places. India itself was a British authority spread from Bengal to the rest of the country over the course of the late 18th and early 19th century, so what I was looking at was just locally why were they governed in different ways, in different places and that comes out to the idea of colonial motivations.

Now, usually, when people talk about the motivations behind the colonial rule, it is very simple, it’s just extraction! They want to extract resources from India and send them back to Britain. And I think if you take a kind of a high elevation perspective like the bird’s eye view, then that isn’t what is happening. But the actual practice of what’s going on during this period is that the British authorities at the local level and provincial level are responding to particular opportunities and constraints right, and this comes down to this question of greed and fear.

Greed, very much about taxation and trade but then fear is about challenging the challenges from other European companies and powerful Indian polities like the Maratha Confederacy, Mysore, and eventually the Sikh Empire and these different motivations along with frugality. Frugality is very important because the essence of both the East India Company and the British state in relationship to colonial rule in India is not to spend any money right, and for everything to be based on costs and benefits because that’s not usually the way that people think about state building.

They think of state-building as an all-or-nothing enterprise whereas the British were very concerned, very obsessed with not spending money and of course, they created huge debts and those are the debts that India took on so, that’s on the government of India, that they created. If you read fear-frugality stand for the various motivations of these different actors in different periods which is one of the reasons why we get very different types of governance, why certain areas are integrated as districts rather than remain as princely states and why you have different forms of land tenures established in different places. And chapter 3 of the book goes into the dynamics of the creation of these variations of different places basically using the kind of rubric of greed, fear and frugality.

Stuti: Professor in continuation with that, how have these played a role in the formation of today’s Patchwork States? How colonial times have led to the formation of today’s Patchwork States and what all differences you can see in the new system and the old system?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: Well, the book in the chapter, talks about how independence in India and Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh are really fine to grab off the legacies of new countries that are built on foundations which are not very well integrated. So, there is a lot of politics around how those things change but the idea is that there are still legacies of differentiation because state and society relate to one another in a particular way. And, you can change those relationships but usually, it costs a lot of time, resources, money, blood and treasure to do that and that has happened in some places and then it has happened in other places.

So, essentially, as we move from chapter 3 story which states establishment in this variation to the chapter 5 story which is kind of a coalescing of these local variations and district level variations into a slightly more contracted but still present variation. That’s the story of essentially the second critical juncture. The major second critical juncture is the independent statehood and then how independent statehood over time shifts something, that doesn’t shift others. But that’s the reason why these countries are still ‘Patchwork States’ even though the post-colonial state builders are trying to redress these legacies.

Stuti: Professor, like my next question is, in your book you have dealt with various questions like the reason behind the existing patterns of conflict which occur within the same national boundary or the relationship between the authority of the state, citizens and the conflicts. So, how do you perceive all of this and are there any systematic solutions to this or are we destined to continuously face these problems? What do you think, professor?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: That’s a very good question. So, let me actually just address it with stuff that’s not in my book, so at least you will get value-added other than just hearing the account of what I am doing with the different sources in the book. I think that especially in terms of violence, it’s about understanding India especially but this is also true with Pakistan and Bangladesh in their own way. Bangladesh is a different story that we can get into because it’s much more homogenous right?

It was partitioned out of one-half of the united province of Bengal and so as a result it’s much more homogenous in terms of its governance traditions. While Pakistan was made up of five provinces that were very very different. Baluchistan and North West Frontier were quite different from Sindh and Punjab and Karachi itself has these metropolitan provinces very different. And as we know, India looks very different, if you are in Rajasthan, if you are in Orissa, or in Himalayan states or in the Center of the country or in Tamil Nadu, Kerala for example. So I mean, I think in some senses it's sort of to reflect that there is a lot of variation in the way the state relates to society.

That might change because we've got new technologies and things like that. There is a sort of nationalization of politics in India. There's basically been a sort of pushing forward in many different ways by the current government. So I would say that there is no one solution because this is about how the state engages with society and their own specific problems in different places. But at the same time, the logic of politics is that governments come in and then they govern at the union level for the entire country. So there's always a little bit of a disconnect.

And as a scholar, I think that what we need to do is to understand the specifics of each one of these conflicts to come up with solutions that are pragmatic and local rather than imposing one view on everything. But in some senses, this is more a book that tries to give you a different perspective of how the Indian state works, than what the Indian states should do, if that makes sense. I mean, that's a little bit unsatisfying, especially if you are young students and you want to change the world and I'm an old person and I just now know my time is sort of staring into the abyss of what has occurred. But that's essentially what it is, a sort of a plea for understanding. The roots of why the state looks different in different places.

Stuti: So professor my next question is, in the recent past I've seen that there has been political turmoil in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India. So professor, what do you think will bring up a change in this mechanism to the states?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: Well, I mean, as I was saying, I think that there are dynamics of nationalization and then there are dynamics of recognition of difference. And those two have always kind of been in tension in Indian and Pakistani politics. Bangladesh's a little bit more complicated, which we can get into if you're interested. But this was sort of formalized by Anatol Lieven in the book called ‘Pakistan a Hard Country’ by sort of the dynamics of centripetal versus centrifugal forces in politics, right? So the idea of centralizing and we understand certain leaders are centralized right?

Narendra Modi is a centralizer. Or Gandhi was a centralizer or Imran Khan is a centralizer. At the same time, of course, there are sort of bureaucratic apparatuses to it that the Indian administrative service, the military, these are sort of key forces that centralized Indian Pakistani society, the Pakistani military, that kind of thing. But then at the same time, you have these what we call what Anatol Lieven calls the central centrifugal forces, the forces that are decentralizing, that are trying to emphasize these sort of differences. And so in some senses, I understand your need to think about like how do we solve this problem? But it's more like using the Patchwork States as a lens to understand politics that centralize and doesn't centralize, if that makes sense.

Stuti: So my next question is, do you think as a rising democracy India lacks a rigorous approach towards doing comparative analysis?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: Yeah. No, I mean, I think that there's a rich tradition. It's a tradition that I would like to see coming from both India and from other places. Like, I'm sitting, I'm talking to you from London or places like the United States or other countries. There's a long tradition of scholarship and of exchange between Indian scholars and Western scholars and other scholars. The one thing, that I think is missing, is the conversation within South Asia between, say, scholars of politics in Pakistan and scholars of politics in India, and students who can actually talk across boundaries.

And one of the benefits is the sharing of languages, especially in terms of Bengali, between Bangladesh and East Bengal and Urdu and Hindi, which shares language, shares culture. And I think that the study of the comparative politics of South Asia, rather than just focusing on India in a comparative perspective, emphasizes the exceptional aspect of India, which exists in any country, can be exceptional and not exceptional. But the point of comparative politics is to think about what are there certain variables or certain key concepts that might not be the same in every country but help us understand what is similar and what is different.

And the book has a lot of more minor and tentative reflections about India and Pakistan, especially, and Bangladesh as countries coming from a subnational perspective. So even though the book is spending most of its time talking about these sorts of subnational outcomes. So at the district level, different patterns of violence, different forms of representation, do reflect on how we think about India Pakistan and Bangladesh as whole countries. And the implicit argument to make it explicit is to say that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not nearly as different as you think.

Stuti: So, this is my last question. This is something personal. As a Professor from King’s College London, how was your overall experience there? Would you like to suggest something to the viewers who are willing to pursue the same field?

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: So. I mean. I'm in a very interesting unit within King's College, London. The King's College is sort of a huge university in London. We have several units. The London School of Economics, the University College London, School of Oriental and African Affairs, Royal Holloway and Queen Mary. We have sort of consolation of different and very large universities in London and is a great place to come to study if you want to sort of, for example, do master's work and things like that. And it's very international.

So not to sort of talk about as an advertisement about studying in England and settling in London. I happen to be situated in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, which is a really interesting and fairly unique kind of collaboration among historians and sociologists and anthropologists, as well as international relations scholars. And I sort of sit somewhere in between all of these, which means that you can get sort of perspectives that are much more multidisciplinary but come from a military IR conflict sort of perspective or background. So that's been and I have to say that in absolute all honesty, I have learned so much.

This book wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't been teaching my students, many of them coming from Indian universities, some of them actually coming from the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service. Over the course of several years, I was able to hone a lot of these arguments in terms of the conversations I've had with my students that's been a true pleasure.

Stuti: It's great knowing all about this. So thank you so much, Professor. It was indeed great talking to you and knowing about the Patchwork States under which we are currently living. We feel honoured to host you, Professor. Have a great day, Professor.

Prof. Adnan Naseemullah: Thank you very much! Take care.

Stuti: Take care, Professor.

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page





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