‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Bridget Anderson

The second response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is from Bridget Anderson, Professor of Mobilities, Migration and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of its Specialist Research Institute Migration Mobilities Bristol.  Her interests include citizenship, nationalism, immigration enforcement (including ‘trafficking’), and care labour. Her books include Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Controls (OUP, 2013). She has worked closely with migrants’ organisations, trades unions and legal practitioners at local, national and international levels.


This is a phenomenal book. At only 150 pages (minus the copious footnotes) it condenses detailed and meticulous archival and legal research into a ground-breaking analysis of the making of modern states. It offers a new critique of methodological nationalism that is, to quote Antoinette Burton’s blurb, ‘A corrective to facile transnational arguments’, but importantly it moves beyond critique to understanding how the production of difference lies at the heart of state-making. As Radhika puts it: ‘The histories presented … point, unmistakably, to the lineaments of a world produced through processes of relationality and coproduction, not autochthony’ (p. 147).

Like any good title, the title of Radhika’s book is the concentration of her argument. Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State analyses how the global organisation of the world into nation-states is not a consequence of the diffusion of Westphalian states over the globe, but rather was a co-production of contingency and muddle, a response to particular historical circumstances, not the simple application of doctrines and laws to already existing nations and territories. The book explores the key distinction between imperial states and the facilitation of movement and nation-states and the logic of constraint, arguing that it is not simply that these different state formations give rise to different kinds of responses to migration, but that attempts to control human movement are critical to the development of contemporary state forms, even as these contemporary state forms continue to be entangled in colonial logics.

People’s movements and the huge efforts to govern it are, quite literally, world-making, shaping how ‘migrants’ and ‘citizens’ alike are governed. In her chapter ‘The Migration of “Free” Labor: Contracting Freedom’ Radhika examines how the importance of being able to characterise the movement of indentured labourers as ‘free’, in contrast to the slave trade, gave rise to the emphasis on consent as the distinctive element of freedom in contract law. This is of huge significance to liberal ideas of freedom. Hagar Kotef has asked how it is that although the lack of ‘external impediments’ to physical mobility was foundational to liberal ideas of freedom in classical liberalism, in contemporary debates on freedom, physical movement is no longer central. Radhika demonstrates the key role of indentured workers in this. In the nineteenth century, state intervention in the regulation of the movement of indentured workers was, in line with this ideal of freedom, viewed as an exception to the assumption of freedom of movement. In order for it to be rendered acceptable including, crucially, to differentiate it from slavery, the control over movement claimed to protect not only the formerly enslaved and the general population but also the workers themselves. This has been fully integrated along with all its contradictions into contemporary understandings of immigration controls and enforcement. The distinction between forced and free movement is fundamental to global mobility controls as it structures the differentiation between asylum and economic migration. Significant restrictions are typically placed on economic migrants – they may be tied to employer, sector or region; they may not be allowed to marry, required to live in particular premises, deported if they do not comply with employer demands, subjected to inferior terms and conditions in comparison with citizens – yet still this is entirely un-ironically constructed as ‘free’. These restrictions can be so onerous that in some circumstances people avoid regularisation exercises or prefer undocumented crossings. Yet these restrictions may be cast as protection, not only protecting the labour market for citizen workers, but also protecting migrants from exploitation. More specifically, anti-trafficking laws typically represent border enforcement as a means of rescuing migrants and saving them from ‘modern slavery’. Processes of identifying this ‘slavery’ can stretch the notion of consent to breaking point and rely on state paternalism and migrant voluntarism. As state regulation of indenture was justified in terms of the ‘necessary ignorance’ of colonial subjects so anti-trafficking policies are justified in terms of the ‘vulnerability’ of migrant women. The entanglement of the colonial and the contemporary are clearly illustrated: the lived contradictions of freedom and contract are often pushed to their limits in immigration controls.

Radhika’s argument allows us to do important political work. This is most urgent in the connections that she allows us to make between the politics of race and migration. The contemporary ‘migrant’ is negatively racialised, and migration when it moves from the territorial border slips easily into ‘race’. There are some fantastic scholars who have been arguing this for a while – people like Gargi Bhattacharyya, Alana Lentin and Nira Yuval Davis. But frustratingly little attention has so far been paid to the role of ‘nationality’. Nationality can be read as both a legal status, consonant with citizenship, and as signifying belonging to the nation of the nation-state. This legal and social membership, both of which may be traced through ancestry sutures nationality to race. ‘A blurring of the vocabularies of nationality and race is a founding strategy of the modern nation-state that makes it impossible to inquire into the modern state without attending to its creation in a global context of colonialism and racism’ (p. 113). It is not simply that migration is wrongly imagined as disturbing a previous national homogeneity, but that migration precipitated the emergence of nationality as a territorial attachment. Thus migration is not an external challenge to state development and rule, but is central to it; and racism is not an unfortunate characteristic of immigration enforcement, but is baked into immigration controls. Radhika examines the efforts to control the movement of Indians to Canada in a climate of hostility to ‘Asiatics’ who nevertheless were British subjects. How to stop negatively racialised bodies from entering, without naming race? The answer was through mobilising nationality via the passport. This enabled a relation of pseudo-reciprocity and the appearance of equal treatment. It generates deep contradictions for liberal democratic states. In the UK, direct or indirect discrimination on the basis of nationality is lawful, and ethnicity and nationality are legally exempted from the public sector equality duty on the grounds that ‘race’ is not the same as ‘nationality’ – and so it continues.

Surveys have been asking the British public about their attitudes to immigration for over fifty years. In its monthly public opinion survey, the pollster Ipsos Mori asks respondents to name the most important issues facing the ‘nation’ and, until January 2015, ‘race relations’ was included as ‘immigration’. Yet at the same time, in political and media discourse, hostility to migrants has to be presented as very different from racism. To say that you think there are too many Black and Asian people in England is not acceptable; to say that there are too many migrants however is. The fact that hostility to migration included hostility to the migration of Europeans coded as white was taken to mean that this was a quite different matter from racism. ‘We don’t like migrants, these migrants are white, BME people don’t like migrants, therefore our antipathy is not racist.’ Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP, said a propos of immigration and Brexit that leaving the EU would allow more Black people to enter the UK and that he wanted ‘to ensure that highly skilled people from the Commonwealth – from India, Canada, New Zealand, and beyond – get a fair chance to get into Britain, unlike now, where we give precedence, via our open border with the European Union, to half a billion people from Europe and its former Communist countries’. Note that I am talking here about what is said in the press. On the streets, hostility to migrants does not observe these niceties. The 2016 Brexit vote was linked to a significant spike in recorded race hate crimes, even allowing for other factors.

The Brexit referendum is an example of how migration can become a lightning rod for grievances about austerity, poverty, lack of voice and many other issues. Migrants have become emblematic of centralised state power in hock to business, human rights and bureaucratic interests, and of mainstream politicians’ disengagement with everyday problems. But this doesn’t simply happen. In the UK it occurs in a context of what David Andress has described as ‘cultural dementia’ – the forgetting of the past or its half-remembering, resulting in a tremendous disconnect between the past, the present and the future. The contemporary figure of ‘the migrant’ and migration politics is a symptom of that cultural dementia. We see it in the ways that Brexit calls on the past of the golden age of the welfare state and a fantasy of a nation-state that was, on the one hand hermetically sealed, and on the other dominant and expansionist. However, while dementia is not yet curable, I think that there is a cure for cultural dementia. And it starts with a good dose of Radhika’s book. Radhika’s work offers us a glimpse of hope in an unjust world. In a contemporary migration context where states tend to be imagined and represented as unitary, all-seeing and tremendously powerful, her insight and appreciation of heterogeneity and exigency demonstrates that nothing should be taken for granted and that the world can be otherwise.

One thought on “‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Bridget Anderson

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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