‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Luke de Noronha

The first response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is from Luke de Noronha, who is an academic and writer working at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London (UCL). He is the author of Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica, and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs. He has written widely on the politics of immigration, racism and deportation for the Guardian, Verso blogs, VICERed Pepper, openDemocracy, The New Humanist, and Ceasefire Magazine. He lives in London and is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.


What I want to do in this short piece is to draw out some of the political implications of the arguments in Indian Migration and Empire, and to discuss how Mongia’s analysis of Indian migration from 1834 to the early twentieth century, resonates with and informs our present (or not).

Freedom and consent

The first chapter on indentured migration explores the emergence of the ‘contract’ as a guarantor of consent and freedom, particularly for indentured migrants whose movement had to be constructed as ‘free’. This was especially important because the system of indenture began in 1834, the year that Britain abolished slavery across the Empire. As Mongia puts it: ‘Since indentured labor was transported to replace slave labor, the primary concern animating these early regulations was to ensure that the migration was “free” and distinguishable from the slave trade’ (p. 16). She goes on: ‘the debates occasioned by Indian migration in the wake of abolition were one crucial site where we witness the rise of “consent” as a definitive element of freedom, which characterizes nineteenth-century transformations in contract law’ (p. 16). In short, if we sign a contract, we are free.

This distinction between freedom and unfreedom is central to liberalism: people should not be coerced or enslaved; they should be free to choose, even if that freedom amounts to little more than freedom to choose to be exploited by one boss or another. As Mongia explains, this means that slavery is simply the absence of contract, and with indenture, ‘freedom was merely the ritual of consent to a contract, severed from the material conditions it stipulated’ (p. 48, emphasis in original).

Today we see this freedom-coercion binary in the neat distinction made between refugees and migrants. Refugees are absolute victims, or they must appear to be if they are to acquire rights. They had no choice, they fled, they cannot return. In practice, very few people claiming asylum are recognised as ‘genuine refugees’ and adjudicating states instead construct the figure of the ‘bogus asylum seeker’. Often, such ‘bogus asylum seekers’ are described as people who are really economic migrants. People who freely choose to violate immigration laws, in pursuit of their own interests. Such binaries distort complex lives and motivations for migration, but the point is that even people sympathetic to migrant rights regularly reproduce this neat distinction between free and forced migrants, between refugees and migrants.

We also see this freedom-coercion binary play out in debates about smuggling and trafficking. If a person was forced to get on a boat, if they were duped, that is if they were trafficked, then they might become legible as deserving of asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection. But if they knew what they were doing, if they were willingly smuggled, then they become undeserving and illegal, and they should therefore be deported. The trick here though, is that even victims of trafficking should be deported and prevented from moving: to save you we have to send you home.

Mongia shows that with indenture, sugar planters needed labour, highly exploitable labour, but to ensure that the colonial project appeared noble and just, the labourers needed to freely choose their migration. Hence the contract. Today, the architects of immigration control want to restrict the unruly mobilities of the global poor, but for their project to appear noble and just, it must be for their own benefit. Hence, the practice of stopping boats to save lives. Hence, the practice of combatting trafficking to save its victims. The rationale might be inverted, because states are concerned with restricting rather than facilitating mobility, but the reliance on the freedom/coercion binary remains (in fact, it is an oversimplification to claim that contemporary states want to restrict migration, instead they attempt to filter, slow, make temporary, and illegalise). Importantly, what Mongia does in this first chapter is to historicise the relationship between consent and the ordering of movement.

The relation between race and nation – or racism and nationalism

Chapter 4 focuses on debates about Indian migration to Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Canadian government and population were not happy about the prospect of Indians arriving and settling in Canada, which was their right as British subjects, but the Canadian authorities could not easily restrict their movement under existing legislation. Despite the racist motivations for restriction, discriminating explicitly on grounds of race was not an option.

So, the Canadian government tried to restrict Indian immigration in a number of ways. First, they emphasised that Indians would struggle with the climate, and that there were not enough jobs (which was patently untrue). When this did not work, they made it a requirement that migrants must arrive directly from their country of citizenship, which was impossible for Indians given that there were no direct steam liners from Calcutta (here we see the acrobatics required to achieve racism racelessly; postracial racism is not new). In the end, none of these excuses would hold and it was at this point that the Canadian authorities developed arguments about the inherent right of each nation to control immigration and define the limits of membership. In effect, these claims about the autonomy and sovereignty of each nation worked to mask and thereby legitimate the racial resentments of a white population seeking to exclude Indian migrants.

This chapter resonates with the history of postwar migration to Britain. From 1948 onwards, successive British governments were concerned about ‘coloured migration’ – about disease, crime, black and brown men partnering with white women and broadly about the ‘racial stock’ – but the so-called coloured migrants were British subjects, so racist immigration and nationality laws had to be made racelessly, without reference to race.

What Mongia shows us is that ideas about Canadian nationality – as a territorial attachment which determined that the Canadian people had the sovereign right to decide who could enter and stay – simply did not exist before the arrival of Indian migrants in the early twentieth century. Instead, claims about a distinctive Canadian nation were formulated to justify controls on unwanted racialised migrants. The demand for racist exclusion was masked in the language of Canadian nationalism and the newly discovered right of the nation to regulate migration as a principle of sovereignty was articulated. As Mongia puts it, ‘control over mobility does not occur after the formation of the nation-state … the very development of the nation-state occurred, in part, to control mobility along the axis of the nation/race’ (p. 139, emphasis in original). Importantly, claims about nationality operated so well in liberal terms because they were reciprocal: Indians too were a nation, and they too deserved the right to control who entered and stayed. In this way, the national right to exclude foreigners is configured as equalising and fair.

This chapter shows us that racist concerns about Indians precipitated nationalism. But it seems to me that this works the other way around too. It is not only that references to nationality mask and obscure racist concerns; it is also true that, as Balibar puts it, ‘racism is constantly emerging out of nationalism’. Put another way, we might not know who the racialised outsider is until we subject them to bordering. In contemporary Britain, especially since 2004, Eastern Europeans have been racialised through processes of illegalisation, for example. As Fox, Morosanu and Szilassy argue in their paper on the racialisation of Eastern Europeans, whiteness (and we might suggest ‘race’, in general) is ‘the contingent outcome of immigration policy, practices, and processes’.

The point is that the legal demarcation of political membership (of who is a citizen and who is an excluded migrant) is always in dialogue with racist culture. Think of when ‘asylum seekers’ are hailed as ‘asylum seekers’ in the street, before being violently attacked (see this story for example). The juridical category – the ‘asylum seeker’ – becomes the rallying call for mob violence.  Racialised outsiders, then, are produced and negotiated at the border.

Put another way, it is not only that immigration controls respond to pre-existing racist ideas (e.g., excluding Indians from Canada in the early twentieth century, or excluding Muslims from Europe in the twenty-first), but perhaps that the more nebulous desire to protect the nation from ethno-racial outsiders and to control immigration then gets coloured in and fleshed out and new racialised folk devils emerge through legal exclusion. In effect, race is a product of immigration control, as much as immigration controls respond to pre-existing racial concerns (I am working with a broad definition of race here, following Nicholas De Genova’s framing, where race is not necessarily biological/ancestral but is better thought of as a ‘sociopolitical fact of domination’).

This is important politically. Because it is not simply as it always was. It is not simply that the same people (i.e., former colonial subjects, or black and brown people) are being discriminated against for the same old reasons (although it is partly that too). Recognising that race is produced at the border helps us to be more agile about new targets of state violence (e.g., Albanians, Poles, Romanians) – and helps us to complicate the claim that immigration controls are racist, which they are, but not simply because they discriminate against people on the basis of skin colour.

To understand what might happen in the UK post-Brexit, for example, we need to think about how immigration controls are productive of meanings around race. This book helps us to see that nationality and race play a game of hide and seek, and that nationality works to justify the exclusion of racially denigrated groups. But we should also remember that the terms of racial denigration are on the move, and that the border is a good place to look to observe this motion and change.

Where are we now? What kind of state and what kind of immigration control do we have?

Throughout this book, Mongia argues that the institution of sovereignty and the modern state itself are forged through migration and its control. Today, we might ask: how are migration and bordering practices producing states? What kinds of states, state practices and logics are being forged through contemporary forms of bordering? In my view, the border is the place to look for the emergence of new forms of state power and control – just as it was in early twentieth century Canada through the production of passports and meanings of nationalism. We see this with the use of biometrics, facial recognition and the development of large interoperable databases – the need to identify, monitor and surveil migrants justifies emergent state practices and new technologies. If ‘the regulation of migration is one of the primary mechanisms for the production of the state and of sovereignty’ (Mongia, p. 13), then today this means that regulating migration produces the abandoning state, the punitive state and the biometric, datafied, all-surveilling, algorithmic state. How does this relate to Mongia’s arguments about the colonial genealogy of the modern state?

Mongia’s book is not about any one nation-state; it is about the colonial ordering of the world and how that ordering produced the modern state form. Importantly, she shows us that in the nineteenth century, the regulation of migration operated by a logic of facilitation because Indian labour was required in the plantations. She then shows how by the twentieth century, the regulation of migration operated by a logic of constraint. It seems that this logic of constraint remains the predominant one today, but perhaps there are also other related and emergent logics.

In some ways, the logic of constraint looks more like a logic of containment and expulsion today, the biopolitical increasingly becoming necropolitical. Controls on the movement of the global poor are now more total than before, as powerful states fund so-called ‘host’ and ‘transit’ countries to better identify, surveil and contain populations before they even move across borders. Increasingly, fantasies of survival and flourishing in the West/North rely on lifeboat ethics, the idea that to save ourselves, many others must die. Whether this is stated or not, it appears that the logic of borders now is one of letting die on unthinkable scales, even as smart tech and humanitarian design promise to help the global poor to help themselves, where they are. The logic of constraint was based on nativist closure and the right of states to exclude, but it was not necessarily marked by an overall logic of scarcity. Constraint, like facilitation, says that powerful states know where people belong and where their labour is needed, but scarcity says that most people will be surplus to requirements altogether. And so, the global poor must be resilient, their development sustainable, and they must try their luck in the informal economy (what else is there?). It can no longer be assumed that the global poor will be included and their labour exploited. The dreams of modernist development are over. This suggests new logics for the global management of population and mobility.

This might not be a total break with the earlier logics of facilitation and constraint; these logics overlap. Indeed, the movement of (rightless) labour to the Gulf states is still marked by a logic of facilitation (à la indenture), while the attempts to ‘manage migration’ in liberal democracies are still marked by a logic of constraint. But the logic of scarcity hangs over contemporary migration regimes, which seek ever greater vision and control over the movement of everyone, everywhere. The challenge for this century is to better theorise how these various logics interact and how borders acquire greater salience and force in a world of multiplying crises. How do we make sense of a world in which spaces of highly technological surveillance, identification and predictive analytics are proliferating along with greater zones of social abandonment, waste and ruin? This is surely something other and more than constraint.       

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