This piece intends to discuss a specific rhetoric of death and killings in academic commentary on social movements, some of which emerged in popular scholarship following the publication and subsequent retraction of a controversial article by Bruce Gilly. Senior scholars have already issued reasoned critiques of the original article itself.

In October 2017, an article hailing the benefits of colonialism appeared in the Third World Quarterly garnering significant media attention and sparking a swift backlash from numerous academics. Eventually, the piece was retracted and several members of the journal’s editorial team resigned.

Critics of the article argued Bruce Gilly’s claims were rife with obvious political anachronisms and contained hegemonic dispositions. On the other hand, although some agreed with the critique that it was “politically incorrect”, they also suggested there was some empirical accuracy in the arguments that merited debate. Opponents of the retraction invoked the right to freedom of speech, citing the inefficiency of retraction to redress factual contentions and opposed censorship as a mechanism to monitor academic work.

As the debate unfolded in the public intellectual discourse, what caught my attention was the use of death figures to justify arguments on all sides. The author called to reclaim colonisation by arguing that local anticolonial advocates caused more death and destruction as they ‘mobilised illiterates’ to fight colonialists than the colonialists themselves who were harbingers of rationalised policy and progress. Critics demanding retraction dismissed such arguments as morally and empirically invalid due to the complete disregard for violent mass murders caused by imperialist invasions. Finally, scholarly gatekeepers also rested on comparative assessments of the number of deaths under different regimes and freedom movements to argue their case. Throughout, the barometer of harm and historical injustice seemed to be records of quantified death.

It is important to recall two key points. Firstly, death has been a part of civic protests and social movements throughout history. Secondly, no struggle for national freedom was a homogeneous movement guided by a single leader or ideology. Forms of retaliation against colonial masters ranged from violent engagements by armed civilians and soldiers to peaceful assemblies of protesting people. Yet, if these armed rebellions involved killings, so did peaceful protests. Whilst resistance waged by Indian freedom revolutionaries, the black panthers in the United States, and the Zulu uprising in South Africa saw a loss of many lives, so did arguably peaceful movements led by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela.

It is thus crucial to ask if death statistics alone can lead us to retrospectively declare peaceful protests as a more suitable alternative to armed rebellions in resisting colonial powers? Estimating the likelihood of death before joining a movement was difficult if not impossible and was rarely, if ever, the sole reason for why people joined a social movement. Moreover, peace-favouring leaders never promised a reduced risk of death to galvanise members. For instance, even as Gandhi advocated for non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he warned that millions must prepare to die, according to George Orwell’s reflections. Then can we look back and judge one anticolonial movement to be better than the other based simply on how many died in each?

If not, then is it valid to judge armed anticolonial rebellion as historically equivalent to imperialist invasion if it led to a similar number of deaths? Wars, revolutions, and mass movements that shaped the world as we know it cannot be reduced to a match between two numbers. Popular discourses on social movements need to take stock of death in terms of experiences of the people that lived and died, who joined movements despite knowledge of the grave risks involved, and who sacrificed for their leaders’ geo-political incentives and stakes. Here, I am not calling for death figures to be underestimated. Instead, these should be highlighted along with other circumstantial and post-circumstantial factors that enable a glimpse into the politics underlying the repeated oppression of marginalised people across the world. It takes much more than the lure of heroic martyrdom for an ordinary people with lives and jobs and families to become breathing bodies prepared for bloody battle. Ask any freedom fighter, war veteran, or serving officer in the military forces who shows up for duty even when they believe their nation is on the wrong side of history. Threats of personal violence are imminent in all organised oppression and all organised dissent, irrespective of whether they are violent or peaceful, on the streets or online, on national borders or in diplomatic offices. It is the conflict between different politics in these movements that needs to be fully explored. And this conflict cannot be studied in isolation from experiences of both the people that drove its politics and those who were caught amidst it.

Death continues to be endemic in today’s crises as these range from terrorism to the plight of Syrian refugees and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to gun violence and mass shootings in the United States. One would think that the loss of a large number of lives would call for urgency of issues. However, in this era of new political leaders, a focus on death figures alone has not instigated sufficient political action, let alone trust it to be done fast enough. Maybe a simple quantification of loss of lives and resources then is not enough. Whose life is at risk continues to be more important than how many are at risk. Perhaps social scientists need to build an analytical artillery that allows varying degrees of temporal and contextual adaptability to illustrate the clash between political classes across historical events. We need to use critical distance to draw lessons spanning time and cultural space, but with caution for limits of generalisability. These are necessary to revisit the past in useful ways as we approach a conflict-ridden future with a generation of students and researchers who want to be more aware of our collective global history.

Tania Jain is a doctoral candidate at the Said Business School, University of Oxford. She works on topics of gender and diversity in organisations, critical theory, postcolonial and organisational studies. Her most recent work discusses the ethnographic and ethical dilemmas faced by critical feminist researchers whilst conducting gender research. She draws extensively on her fieldwork experiences in India for both research and teaching