Symposium On Radhika Mongia’s ‘Indian Migration And Empire: A Colonial Genealogy Of The Modern State’

The Disorder of Things is pleased to host a symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (Duke University Press, 2018 and Permanent Black Press, 2019), the introduction to which can be read here. Radhika Mongia is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Her current research examines recent transformations in the citizenship regime in India. In this introductory post, she outlines some of the key arguments of the book.


This set of blog posts on my book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State, is the result of a panel held at Birkbeck, University of London, in the halcyon days before the Covid-19 pandemic. My very sincere thanks to Sarah Keenan and, especially, Nadine El-Enany, co-directors of the Centre for Race and Law at Birkbeck, for organising the panel, to the panelists, Bridget Anderson, Luke de Noronha, Nadine El-Enany and Sanjay Seth, for their generous and generative readings of the book, and to the audience for their astute engagements. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to capture the warmth and conviviality of the evening in these remarks. My thanks also to the forum provided by The Disorder of Things, to respond in more depth, and with more care, to the panel’s provocations, which I do in the closing post. In this introductory post, I briefly outline some of the chief arguments of the book.

Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is an investigation into the history of state control over migration. At the heart of the book are two main questions: First what histories can we chart of the increasing and incremental state control over migration that culminate, by the early decades of the twentieth century, in a state monopoly over migration? Second, what can these histories tell us about state formation, inter-state relations, state sovereignty and modern subject constitution? The book considers colonial Indian migration from about 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its plantation colonies, up to about 1914, when, with the onset of World War I, the world confronted a new geopolitical reality. In the course of less than a century, we see profound transformations in the logics, rationales, institutions and legal forms of state control over mobility. My analysis argues that the formation of colonial migration regulations was dependent upon, accompanied by and generative of profound changes in normative understandings of the modern state. Traversing a diverse array of British colonial formations, including Mauritius, the Caribbean, India, Canada and South Africa, the book foregrounds the analytical modality of co-production to inquire into the relational processes, across these varied sites, that produced a state monopoly over migration. This monopoly, accompanied by the ‘nationalisation’ of migration, is an integral part of a fundamental shift, in the twentieth century, from a world composed of empire-states to a world composed of nation-states.

Mongia Cover Small

Studies of Indian indentured migration note that the system followed the abolition of slavery. However, with rare exceptions, the scholarship has simply seen abolition as a mere backdrop and not adequately examined what the regulation of indenture can tell us about state (trans)formation or how indenture was implicated in redrawing the contours of the central antinomy that haunted and shaped the nineteenth century: the distinction between freedom and slavery. By tracking how slavery was at the heart of the contentious legal debates on how to facilitate Indian migration in the aftermath of abolition, the book shows how various features of ‘freedom’ were thoroughly recalibrated. In particular, we see a decidedly profound change in what constituted a valid ‘free labour’ contract, where the nebulous, metaphysical notion of ‘consent’ becomes the most significant characteristic of the contract and of freedom—dispensing with notions of ‘fairness’ or ‘equality-in-exchange’, as minor elements. In other words, the regulation of Indian indentured migration that followed in the wake of abolition would irrevocably transform both the meaning of freedom and the extent of state authority in regulating migration.

To appreciate the kinds of shifts that occurred between approximately 1834 and 1914, there are three important facets of the nineteenth-century system of Indian indenture, provoked by the abolition of slavery, that we should note: first, that to meet the labour demands of the plantocracy, state intervention to regulate Indian indenture was directed at facilitating, not prohibiting, movement. Second, that such state intervention was authorised as a temporary exception to the then-prevalent ‘principle of free movement’, justified by a paternalistic desire to ‘protect’ the ‘natives’ to guard against charges of a second slave trade. Put otherwise, the state intervened in ‘free’ migration precisely to ensure that it was ‘free’. Third, that this change, despite its exceptional status, nonetheless expanded the purview of state authority in terms of mobility. It thus constituted a remaking of the terms and limits of sovereign authority. Each of these three facets would become points of contention in the twentieth century with regard to controlling Indian migration to white-settler colonies of the British empire. First, the overwhelming concern now was with restricting rather than facilitating migration, requiring a thorough revamping, indeed abandonment, of the principle of free movement. Second, in the new circumstances, the earlier rationale of protection justifying intervention was unavailable; new discourses of protection needed to be mobilised. And, third, a completely new understanding of sovereignty, conceived in specifically racialised-national terms, emerged. This understanding would generate a decisive shift in the logics of migration control, from state regulation of migration in exceptional cases (like indenture) to state regulation in all cases. This shift yielded our current verity, of a (national) state monopoly over migration as an unquestioned element of state sovereignty.

For a book that investigates migration in/and empire, it should come as no surprise that the articulation of race with migration regimes is central to the analysis. As Indian Migration and Empire shows, myriad varieties of racial thinking saturated and structured the making of migration regimes. For instance, the nineteenth-century transformations to the limits and purview of state sovereignty, impelled by the movement of indentured labour to the slave plantation colonies, were overtly subtended by notions of race understood in the temporal, developmentalist register of ‘stages of civilisation’. By contrast, in the early twentieth century, the ascendance of notions of liberal equality and of rights-bearing subjects, would make a civilisational understanding of race less available and migration law would reflect and provoke new forms of racial thinking. Thus, we see in migration law and practice transmogrifications that displace race thinking to fashion novel understandings of liberal equality, through the conduits of culture, religion and nationality.

For instance, in analysing the debates over Indian migration to Canada in the early twentieth century, I show how the seemingly neutral category of ‘nationality’ came to operate as a proxy for race and how this relation was enduringly encapsulated in the modern passport. The emergence of the modern passport, as it took shape to resolve the conundrum of how to prohibit the migration of Indians to Canada, without naming race, would result in a profound remaking of state sovereignty and the inter-state system in specifically national terms. Such reconfigurations would apply an enormous pressure on the framework of empire and the globe-spanning category of ‘British subject’, contributing to their fissuring, fragmentation and eventual dissolution. Even as the ‘nationalising’ events in relation to Indian migration to Canada were unfolding, contemporaneously we see a different mobilisation of nationality in the white-settler colony of South Africa to prohibit Indian migration. Here, it was kinship relations, specifically the legal delegitimation of Hindu and Muslim marriages, which served as the surrogate for racial thinking. Moreover, in South Africa national identity was most successfully activated by Indian protests around the ‘marriage question’ in profoundly gendered terms, notably by Gandhi (then resident there) and elites participating in the famous 1913 satyagraha movement. Though the general view is inclined to view these events as iterations of anti-colonial—and thus, implicitly, anti-racist—struggles, they were of a piece with racialised-national thinking. Indeed, the trajectory of events was one where gendered tropes of national identity that framed the protests did not succeed in mounting a radical challenge to the racist aims of the state that were, in fact, achieved. As a consequence, Indian migration to South Africa was significantly curtailed.

In this way, the book discloses the details of how two very different modes of establishing a racialised regime of migration were pursued at two different sites (namely, Canada and South Africa) and shows how the abolition of slavery and the regulation of indentured Indian migration were intimately entwined. The debates and histories I present vividly illustrate that the techniques and technologies of migration regulation did not develop autochthonously in spatial-territorial isolation. Rather, they developed as responses to historically specific conjunctures, through densely relational processes, and through practices of circulation and adaptation across a range of sites. An attention to such relations and circulations reveals that colonial formations were a critical aspect of the processes that produced the specific form of the modern state. Nowadays, it is taken as an incontrovertible fact that a defining element of the modern (nation) state is the authority to control migration. A historical investigation reveals that this is a very recent aspect of the state and of state sovereignty; it also reveals that the regulation of colonial migrations played a critical part in bringing about the transformations that yielded this outcome. Thus, one main objective of the book is to denaturalise the current dominant view that controlling migration, particularly by restricting entry, is an uncontested and immemorial aspect of the state. Another, larger objective, is to work against the view that the colonial state and the modern state are distinct formations and, instead, to draw attention to their historical and continuing entanglements. In settler societies such as Canada—where I live and work—if one considers the legal and other regimes that govern Indigenous communities, this relationality of the colonial and the modern is quite clear. But the kind of argument I make goes deeper, to suggest that colonial dimensions are now embedded in modern state forms, globally. If, as various scholars have argued, a chief characteristic of colonial rule is a set of legal differentiations that demarcate the distinction between the coloniser and colonised and entail differential entitlements and differential treatment for different subjects, then today all states embody a historically produced colonial dimension, with the citizen/migrant distinction as one of the primary axes of such differentiation. I will return to a consideration of this generalised coloniality in the concluding post, in response to my interlocutors.

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