‘Indian Migration and Empire’: comment by Sanjay Seth

The third response in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is by Sanjay Seth, who is Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Marxist Theory and Nationalist Politics: The Case of Colonial India (Sage, 1995), Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India (Duke University Press, 2007 and Oxford University Press, 2008) and, most recently, Beyond Reason: Postcolonial Theory and the Social Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2020).


Radhika’s Indian Migration and Empire is subtitled ‘A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State’, and part of the book’s argument is that while it is assumed that control of migration ‘is a defining, definitive, unchanging, and unchangeable element of (state) sovereignty’ (p. 7), in fact control of migration within the British empire occurred late and helped to produce state sovereignty. In making this argument Radhika traces how, in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1834, the British empire played an active role in facilitating the movement of its Indian citizens into its ex-slave plantation colonies as much needed indentured labour, and developed elaborate governmental machinery to do so; by contrast, the movement of peoples other than indentured labourers within the British empire was largely unregulated and not constrained. It was in fact the white dominions of the empire that sought to restrict and regulate the entry of non-white imperial subjects, finally achieving their aim following the Komagata Maru incident in 1914. It was only after this that the freedom of British subjects to move from one part of the empire to another was abandoned, and a passport system allowing race-based restriction was introduced. Mongia concludes, ‘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 across the axis of the nation/race’ (p. 139, emphasis in original). The modern sovereign state thus has a colonial and imperial genealogy.

komagata maru

This book is a distinguished addition to a growing literature that requires us to recognise that the conventional picture of the sovereign state as the foundation of certain practices has things the wrong way around. Another recent example is Tarak Barkawi’s Soldiers of Empire (2017), which similarly challenges the assumption that modern wars between states have been fought by the armies of these states, such that we may assume a ‘sovereign territorial package of state, army, and society’. In fact, this has been the exception rather than the rule. The armies that fought in most of the colonial campaigns of the coloniser countries, and in the world wars, were imperial armies, most notably in the cases of France and Britain. The British Indian army numbered some one million men during World War I, and 10% of the soldiers who fought for the British Empire in this war were in the British Indian army; in World War II the Indian army comprised more than two million members and operated across three continents. The nation-state army is in significant measure an outcome of World War II, rather than the basis of it and the mode in which it was fought; it was only well after that war that national armies and sovereign states became isomorphous, and thus, as Barkawi colourfully expresses it, this war ‘consumed one world order and spat out another’.

Although her book crosses many disciplinary boundaries, Radhika writes, I think, above all as a historian (as do I, though interestingly, we are respectively in departments of sociology and politics), and part of the strength of the book is the varied and dispersed archive upon which it is able to draw. But the import of her argument, as she recognises and seeks to develop it, applies to all disciplines and forms of intellectual activity which take the sovereign, territorial state as a given – that is to say, almost all social science and humanities disciplines.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the subdiscipline of International Relations, one based upon the presumption that states, or state-like entities, are ontologically given, part of the very furniture of the world (Waltz) or that traces the emergence of the sovereign territorial state to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which is supposed to have brought state, territory and, later, people into one isomorphous package. The subsequent globalisation of the sovereign territorial state form is usually attributed to the ‘expansion of (European) international society’ – the local, International Relations version of the widespread ‘first the West, then the Rest’ narrative that has dominated the social sciences. I will devote some attention to discussing this, not because it is especially intellectually interesting or sophisticated – it is not – nor because this is my ‘field’ or area of work, for it is not – but rather because the teleology built into such accounts is one illustration of how colonialism and empire are all but effaced, and this helps to clarify what an alternative account might look like; and because I will end with some speculation about what the future of the sovereign state might be, especially in the Global South.

Hedley Bull and Adam Watson acknowledge that the European states which claimed sovereignty over a territory ‘at the same time established a number of empires’. This recognition leads them not, however, to an enquiry into the character of a world order in which colonialism and empire loomed so large, but rather to an account of how this initially European system of states, based upon absolute and undivided sovereignty and juridical equality, spread outwards beyond its European homeland. Once established in Europe, they argue, it ‘proved eminently exportable’, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the United States and the newly independent countries of Latin America became sovereign states and part of this system. The polities of Asia, Africa and elsewhere ‘presented greater problems’. These were thus subjected to the ‘standard of civilisation’ test, a test that ‘rested … on a need for reciprocity in dealings between European and non-European powers, which the latter in many cases were either not able or not willing to meet’. When they had reformed and modernised sufficiently, as Japan and the Ottoman Empire were first to do, they were ‘admitted’ to international society. Later, under the impact of western ideas and the homogenising effects of the ‘culture of modernity’, other subject polities were also to reform themselves and be admitted to, or force their way into, the club of sovereign states. All that contradicts or complicates this picture – Bull himself mentions, if only in passing, ‘spheres of influence, protected states, protectorates, subjection to imperial paramountcy’ – can be treated as simply ‘the survival, alongside the concept of a society of equally sovereign states, of the older and historically much more ubiquitous concept of international relations as the relations between suzerains and vassals’. There is, in short, a direct line from Westphalia to the present world order.

Lest you think I am cherry-picking my examples, let me give you two more. In International Systems in World History (2000), Barry Buzan and Richard Little acknowledge that until after World War II, ‘empires with modern states at their core were the dominant unit’. However, the logic or imperative unleashed by the emergence of the sovereign state form in Europe worked itself out inexorably; the European empires proved to be not an independent political form, but rather ‘the nursery, or mechanism, by which the political form of the modern state was transposed onto the rest of the world’. Daniel Philpott argues that it took two revolutions, not one, to globalise the sovereign state and thus produce the international system presumed and analysed by International Relations: one was Westphalia, and the other the process of decolonisation. He is aware that ‘these two revolutions, Westphalia and colonial independence, are separated by three centuries’, and during these centuries much of the globe and its people ‘was less than sovereign: partitioned, divided spheres of influence, colonised, or otherwise restricted in authority’. But here too, the teleology built into and driving the narrative consigns these to mere ‘anomalies’: he writes, ‘the exceptions, the violations … do not annul, the collective movement of the two revolutions, the movement by which the sovereign state system took over the globe’. Thus while Philpott complicates the narrative of a straight line from Westphalia to the current global order, this modifies the narrative, but it does not derail its teleology: ‘Westphalia began and colonial independence completed an unprecedented feat – the extension of the sovereign state to the entire land surface of the globe … The two revolutions in sovereignty, as diverse as they may be, form a common story, a single movement’.

The centuries of empire and colonialism that complicate, indeed in my view completely negate this account, are barely registered in the discipline of International Relations. Where they are registered, the fact that the sheer weight and historical duration of empire challenges the assumptions of the discipline is conjured away, by a teleology that treats the complications it introduces as mere ‘survivals’ or ‘anomalies’, destined to be swept away. Empire appears as a way-station to, or a nursery for, the sovereign state system that is its final destination. The exceptions to this are startlingly rare.

That is one reason why it is all the more important to offer alternative accounts. Radhika’s is one of a number of significant, mostly recent, works which have begun to do so (with reference to sovereignty – such challenges have been going on for longer in other areas, such as the ‘first the west and then the Rest’ with regard to the spread of capitalism and, more generally, modernity). David Armitage writes, ‘Perhaps the most momentous but least widely understood development in modern history is the long transition from a world of empires to a world of states. Until at least the late nineteenth century, and in many places for decades after, most of the world’s population lived in the territorially expansive, internally diverse, hierarchically organised political communities called empires’. These empires were not a mere interregnum or a mechanism for the transplantation of the territorial sovereign state. Nor were they simply ‘super-states’, sovereign states writ large. In this regard, the nineteenth and twentieth century maps in which the various European empires were portrayed as territorial entities – the largest, the British empire, usually in pink – are profoundly misleading representations of the political and legal order of the time. The map of empire with its neatly shaded territories did not, Lauren Benton shows, correspond to the exercise of power or the functioning of law, one of the modalities of that power: ‘Empires did not cover space evenly but composed a fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings. Even in the most paradigmatic cases, an empire’s spaces were politically fragmented; legally differentiated; and encased in irregular, porous and sometimes undefined borders’, including ‘areas of partial or shared sovereignty’. All this was not a mere series of anomalies or exceptions, not survivals of an earlier world, but were rather continually being created or produced as ‘a function of the routine operations of empire’, a political system which was constantly ‘generating new sources of spatial and legal differentiation’. In short, far from being a ‘nursery’ for the cultivation and spread of the sovereign territorial state, empire was a political system or form, possessed of its own logic(s); and these logics neither required nor consistently reproduced and spread an indivisible, undiluted sovereignty exercised over a clearly demarcated territory.

Of course, it is true, as Bull, Watson and others delight in pointing out, that by the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, in the course of decolonisation, the sovereign territorial state had become almost global, and moreover this occurred because the colonised avidly sought it. Why did the non-West desire to adopt the sovereign territorial state form? Because the assumption made was that while the nation-state may be a European form in its origin, as form it could be filled with any content, and was thus capable of being used to code and express and embody the specificity, that is, the cultural and other particularities, of non-western countries. This was a characteristically modern assumption, resting upon a characteristically modern separation of form and content, in which the form is universal while the content is particular and particularising. We see the same logic at work in discussions within liberal theory about the equality and rights of individuals. Thus, we are all individuals, and the universality of this phenomenon becomes the basis for claims to equal dignity and the like; yet we are all individuals, and now the accent on ‘individual’ provides the basis for valuing autonomy and liberty and allowing people to live life ‘from the inside out’. Similarly, the universality of the nation-state form indicates that all nations are entitled to respect, and must be equal in global forums, and so on; but each nation is also different, and exists to express and protect the unique characteristics of the people who constitute that nation.

By constituting themselves as independent and sovereign nations, non-European peoples, or their elites, sought to claim their place under the sun, without surrendering and losing that which made them ‘different’ and which underwrote their desire for independence in the first place. This was by no means an easy reconciliation – witness the ingenious and sometimes anguished debates of Chinese literati, Japanese intellectuals and bureaucrats and Indian nationalists to reconcile the adoption of western ways of statecraft with ‘traditional’ ways – but it was made possible by seeing in the state and the nation an institution which could transcend the parochialism of its origins, for as a ‘form’ it was not tied to any particular content, but could be used to express any content.

It is this project, not without its grandeur, that has been called into question in more recent times. For in fact the nation-state presupposes (and thus helps to create) certain relations between authority and the people, between custom and law, knowledge and practice; it presupposes certain forms of selfhood and community. This means that the nation-state cannot easily serve as the vehicle for expressing those aspirations which do not already accord with or ‘fit’ the frame of nation, state and modernity; and indeed may ill serve as the vehicle for recovering and expressing what is autochthonous, rather than Western and derivative, about a political community and culture. This privileging of nation and state has real-world consequences: it normalises and authorises certain expressions of particularity, and pathologises others. Forms of self and community which cannot be so coded – which exceed or are otherwise not homologous with the state – must be remade so that they can be so coded. Modernisation and nation-building, those vast and often violent projects of modernity of which the state has been both a means and an end, in fact involve a high degree of social engineering, the coercive component of which increases proportionately to the difficulty of fitting and forcing the particularity concerned into the mould of nationhood and statehood. Peasants have to be taught/forced to become Indian or Chinese; kinship, or caste, or the numerous other solidarities and forms of social organisation to be found in the world have to give way to (or be subsumed by) citizenship; old public arenas must give way to new ones, and old rituals and practices of identity to the rituals of citizenship and statehood.

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