‘Indian Migration and Empire’: response from Radhika Mongia

This is the final post in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State, in which Radhika responds to her interlocutors.

Each of my interlocutors foregrounds and engages with different aspects of my book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State. In this response, I want to dwell on four interrelated elements they stress: namely, (1) the distinction between free and forced migration, their differential management in migration regimes and the current incarnations of this distinction; (2) the place of processes of racialisation with regard to migration regimes, to understandings of citizenship and to the contours of nationhood; (3) the enduring Eurocentrism of certain disciplinary presuppositions; and, lastly, (4) the relationship between the colonial state and the modern state, that lies at the heart of the book.

One of the central concerns of the book, as I noted in my introductory post, is to interrogate the remaking of ‘freedom’ in the nineteenth century though a consideration of the distinction between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’/‘forced’ migration and their differential regulation. I unpack this distinction in relation to the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British empire and the state-supervised movement of Indian indentured labour that followed in its wake. Slavery and the memory of the slave trade (the latter abolished in 1807) were at the heart of the contentious legal debates on how, and whether, to regulate Indian migration. Animating these debates was an abiding concern with how to legally distinguish slavery from freedom, violation from volition, coercion from consent, and thereby not only enable, but facilitate, a movement that could be coded as ‘free’. At the centre of the regime that regulated indenture was the appearance of a renovated ‘free labour contract’ that elevated the metaphysical notion of ‘consent’ (a variant of ‘intension’ or of ‘will’), diminished concerns with ‘fairness’ and radically transformed understandings of ‘freedom’. Both Luke and Bridget draw out aspects of this theme and how it endures in our present, by directing our attention to how current migration regimes are also structured around the notions of ‘free’ or ‘forced’ movements. But now, as they point out, we see a twist. If, in the nineteenth century, the concern was to facilitate ‘free’ movement (to avoid charges of a second slave trade), the rationale of our prevailing dispensation is to prohibit ‘free’ movement. Currently, in many national-state spaces, it is only those who according to always-shrinking governmental criteria can be characterised as ‘forced’ or, in the new parlance, as ‘refugees’, who are allowed to move. Others, many more, understood as ‘economic migrants’, who attempt intentionally (and, thus, ‘freely’ and ‘willingly’) to escape the depredations of their circumstances are illegalised, rendered interlopers. Reading Luke and Bridget’s engagements alongside my argument concerning ‘historicising freedom’, it is evident that we have seen yet another profound remaking of freedom in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—one committed to a sedentary bias that demands that ‘freedom’ is best practiced in your ‘assigned’ place. Or, as Nandita Sharma puts it, increasingly, migrants are conceived as ‘people out of place’. Moreover, as both Luke and Bridget point out, a discourse of ‘protection’ underlies and makes possible the current distinction between ‘free’ (economic) and ‘forced’ (refugee) migration. It was precisely a discourse of protection of, on the one hand, Indian indentured migrants and, on the other, the formerly enslaved in the colonies of Mauritius and the Caribbean, that enabled state regulation of Indian indentured migration. Thus, returning to the details of how this regime was put in place (as I do in my book), serves as an important lesson in thinking about current articulations.

Regarding the racialisation of migration regimes and their entanglements with nationalism, it has been deeply affirming to see that Luke, Bridget and Nadine – all scholars with an enviably detailed knowledge of current policies, particularly with regard to the UK – found merit in my analyses and resonances with prevailing regimes. In my analysis, Britain does not feature as a site central to thinking of the articulation between people and territory and the making of migration regimes; however, Britain, as the seat of imperial power, was an indispensable node in shaping wider migration regimes – spanning a web of sites ranging across India, Mauritius, the Caribbean, Fiji, South Africa, Canada, Australia, and so on. From the perceptive engagements of my interlocutors, we not only learn how aspects of restrictive regimes that emerged predominantly with regard to white-settler colonies would find their way, if belatedly, to Britain, the very heart of the metropole; we also learn that modalities of racialisation, much like modalities of freedom, have undergone thorough redefinitions. We often think of ‘race’ as physiognomy and skin colour. In different racial regimes this characteristic is tied to, or serves as a proxy for, notions of ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ or ‘nationality’. While these understandings of race and racism are alive and well in the present, we also see, as Luke and Bridget point out, the emergence of new forms of restriction and prohibition, for instance with regard to Central or Eastern European migrants to Britain. How should we understand these new formations, that scramble the understanding of ‘race’ as physiognomy and skin colour? What do we make of a regime that undermines, even defies, the scopic or visual register as the chief modality of exclusion? Some might lend the name ‘racialisation’ to these new formations, since they frequently work and operate in similar ways, often reactivating similar tropes and similar techniques of exclusion. Alternatively, we can do as Luke suggests and expand our thinking on the chief modalities that structure migration regimes, to inquire into the discontinuities, the changes that, alongside and in addition to processes of racialisation, are simultaneously embodied in and productive of new forms of exclusion.

The control of human movement is a constantly changing field. Thus, Luke is entirely correct to observe how the field of mobility control (and its study) is morphing along new trajectories – of, for instance, securitisation, biometrics and practices of bordering. I agree with Luke that, along with such morphing, the field of practice is one that rarely forfeits former registers and rationales of exclusion. Rather, it is one that accrues, like a palimpsest, ever more vectors of exclusion, of surveillance, all the while mobilising ‘the law’ in its service, executed via an ever-widening bureaucracy. Here, Nadine’s insight regarding the violence of the law is critical: the law is not (chiefly) that which seeks to ‘protect’. It is, more importantly, a ‘world-producing’ discourse. One which, as Nadine points out, generates categories and demands, indeed decrees, that we unambiguously either inhabit, or not, these categories, each of which come with enormous consequences. The attribution of what category one fits is often decided by bureaucratic methods: by meeting (or failing to meet) telescoped criteria; by completing (or neglecting to complete) standardised forms; by being the target of forms of bureaucratic discretion, in ways that could be beneficial or deleterious. Detailing the emergence and formation of an elaborate migration bureaucracy and the proliferation of categories it engendered is an important part of the argument advanced in Indian Migration and Empire.

In addition to the making of a migration bureaucracy, describing the place of law, in particular, the making of global legal regimes and charting the genesis of the so-called ‘principles’ of international law and international relations, is a central concern of Indian Migration and Empire. As Sanjay notes in his remarks, numerous scholars have now challenged the presuppositions of fields such as international relations and international law. Sanjay’s survey of a range of texts shows that the dominant narrative in circulation in these fields situates colonialism and empire as epiphenomenal to the formation of the ‘real world’ of international law and international relations and, thus, as also peripheral to the disciplinary fields engaged in studying them. Despite the mounting and – to my mind – incontrovertible empirical evidence across a range of domains, that decisively asks for inquiries better attuned to relational world-making processes, the disciplinary protocols overwhelmingly follow a ‘first in the West, then in the Rest’ teleology, embodying an intractable Eurocentrism. The upshot of this Eurocentric teleology with regard to migration control is the erroneous understanding that pre-made (national) states exercise their ‘inherent’, ‘God-given’ sovereignty to prohibit the entry of ‘migrants’. The characteristics that comprise state sovereignty, thus, are dehistoricised and rendered ‘natural’. A non-Eurocentric, empirically grounded assessment of the legal debates and legal outcomes attendant on historical forms of movement, reveals vastly different genealogies – one where colonialism was central to how states came to control mobility, to how definitions of sovereignty changed, to how the (liberal) principle of free movement was realigned and, thus, to how the meanings and practices of liberalism themselves were radically altered. Echoing Sanjay, I note here that the problem of Eurocentrism goes well beyond fields such as international law and international relations, particularly when considering the state. Indeed, it infects and inflects all disciplines of the human sciences, that are largely comfortable with a state-centrism in their inquiries (including inquiries claiming to be ‘transnational’). Though a daunting task, we must continue to work at undoing this powerful legacy, where Eurocentrism meets nationalism and state-centrism. Nadine’s book, (B)ordering Britain, is one such bold attempt at undoing the deeply held and deeply felt idea that Britain, as such, both precedes and follows empire, rather than being shaped and radically transformed by its imperial ventures.

Yet another way to chip away at this enduring legacy is to reassess the relationship between the colonial state and the modern state. I provide such a reassessment in Indian Migration and Empire, one I seek to capture in the formulation of ‘a colonial genealogy of the modern state’, the subtitle of the book. Influential scholarly accounts of the colonial state, such as those by Partha Chatterjee or George Steinmetz, emphasise its distinctions from the modern/metropolitan state and assume an analytic spatial-territorial closure. Departing from such paradigms, my analysis focuses, instead, on the relational elements of state (trans)formation that are particularly salient and necessary to understanding migration regimes. This analysis not only points to the continuing coloniality of metropolitan/modern state forms – as Nadine’s analyses of Britain in her book and her commentary make so clear. It also points to the enduring colonial relations that characterise postcolonial state forms, not merely as a difficult-to-excise legacy, but as actively produced and sustained. In other words (to turn to the point with which I closed my introductory post), what we must contemplate is the generalised coloniality that characterises our world – in both the metropole and the postcolony. Let me briefly turn to two such instances with regard to India, that have come to the foreground in recent months. In the closing paragraphs of Indian Migration and Empire I point to how, the world over, we now see concerted efforts at distinguishing ‘migrants’ from ‘citizens’, with those conceived as ‘migrants’, whether international or internal, as subject to unique vulnerabilities. Nowhere, perhaps, were such vulnerabilities more evident than in the ill-planned decision of 24 March 2020, which, with less than four hours’ notice, announced a ‘lockdown’ on all movement and all business activity across India, in an attempt to contain and thwart the spread of the Coronavirus. Going for the spectacular – as opposed to the carefully considered and meticulously planned – as Narendra Modi, the current Indian Prime Minister, is repeatedly wont to do, the announcement had catastrophic consequences for the millions of internal migrants in India. With all economic activity (save some ‘essential services’) suspended, migrant workers found themselves jobless and unable to survive in hostile, overpriced urban environments. Due to convoluted domicile criteria and other reasons, access to poorly-financed state welfare schemes were also unavailable. Remittances to family in the villages thus also dried up. Unable to take any form of public transportation to return to their villages, and in open defiance of the lockdown measures, many migrants embarked on journeys of hundreds of kilometres, often on foot, in searing heat, to walk to their villages. Even as the fate of international migrants and their families and communities the world over was similar, particularly in terms of survival and remittances, there are, in my view, important lessons to be learned from the case of ‘internal migrants’ in India for migration scholarship. The distinctive feature of colonial formations is the legal differentiation and differential entitlements of subjects. Such thinking, Indian Migration and Empire argues, now subtends all state forms – in the erstwhile metropolis and the erstwhile colony alike – with the citizen/migrant distinction as one of the most important nodes in the parsing of people into legal categories that determine entitlement. Barring some important exceptions, migration scholarship explores ‘international’ and ‘internal’ migration as distinct and unrelated fields. From my brief recounting of the situation of ‘internal’ migrants in India, we learn that such divisions, in terms of analysis, obscure apprehending important continuities and disjunctures. We need to build models of analysis that refuse the methodological nationalism that subtends the distinctions between ‘internal’ and ‘international’ migrants. I offer this suggestion in the overarching spirit of employing analytic frames of co-constitution and coproduction (rather than of comparison) that inform Indian Migration and Empire. Such approaches could, I think, be productively combined both with Luke’s insight regarding the logic of scarcity that frames current migration regimes and with Bridget’s call to attend to the practices that are productive of ‘illegality’. In this way, we could attend to the multiple processes, including the violence of the law that Nadine highlights, that cohere to produce the variegated subjectivity of the ‘migrant’.

Thinking about the practices of illegalisation that generate migrancy as precarity brings me to the second instance of events in India that ask for an analysis of what I am calling a generalised coloniality (or, alternatively, an analysis that jettisons the formulation of coloniality altogether). This concerns the recent ratification, in December 2019, of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), that outlines the criteria by which Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian (but, notably, not Muslim) refugees from three neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can be eligible for Indian citizenship. Those resident in India prior to 2014 can apply for citizenship on the grounds of religious persecution in these three neighbouring, Muslim-majority countries (but not those from other neighbouring countries). Before turning to the many critiques of the Act, I want to quickly flag that executing such legislation is, naturally, dependent on bureaucratic measures, an aspect that is profoundly significant: In addition to the CAA, in 2019 India completed a fraught bureaucratic exercise, in the northeastern state of Assam, to compile a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to determine who qualified as Indian citizens in Assam. The exercise, with its multiple flaws, has rendered some two million people stateless, with many in detention camps. Were it not for the obstacles posed by the pandemic, this exercise, with its many flaws, was slated to be extended pan-nationally and completed in 2021. When we place this bureaucratic exercise alongside the CAA, new causes for concern come to the fore. Bureaucratic discretion (a theme extensively explored in Indian Migration and Empire) and bureaucratic indifference, if not corruption, are evident in the NRC exercise. The perils for those identifying as – or bureaucratically identified as – Muslim are grave, since the CAA does not offer an avenue for citizenship to Muslims refugees. Thus, even those Muslims long resident in and citizens of India, could be rendered stateless and ‘illegal’ by bureaucratic fiat, working in conjunction with a religiously-defined, majoritarian nationalism. In contrast, those who identify as Hindu (or with other non-Muslim religions) have an avenue to citizenship.

The rationales for the CAA have been critiqued on a number of grounds, including that other religious minorities (e.g., the Muslim Ahmadiyya in Pakistan) are also persecuted minorities in the three neighbouring countries specified, but are not offered protection in the Act; that religious persecution is alive and well in other neighbouring countries (most notably, the Rohingya in Myanmar or Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka) though the targets of these persecutions are not included in the Act; that the 2014 ‘cut-off’ date is arbitrary, mysteriously assuming no persecution beyond that date; that rather than advancing a piecemeal refugee policy, India would be better served with signing the Refugee Convention (to which it is not a signatory, making refugees – ranging from Tibetans to Bangladeshis – vulnerable to the whims of the ruling dispensation). Each of these critiques is logically sound and wishes the legal criteria to operate in an even and rational manner, worthy of the appellation of ‘the rule of law’. However, as with the numerous ad hoc legislative measures I detail in Indian Migration and Empire, that emerged from and spoke to the contingencies of the situation, that dispensed with logical frames that might ground a smooth legal order, and that produced entirely new formations of key notions like the principle of free movement or state sovereignty, we see here a fundamental reworking of Indian citizenship along lines of religion, not by an amendment to the Constitution, but by legislative and bureaucratic fiat. In other words, there is a strong continuity between colonial/imperial and postcolonial state forms that points, as I indicated earlier, to a generalised coloniality.


art credit: Anirban Ghosh

The CAA (understood in conjunction with the NRC) instigated protests across the country, though different sets of protestors had very different rationales. Some, frequently led by women, were mobilised by critiques such as the ones I have listed above. Others, particularly in border states such as Assam, Mizoram and Tripura, protested on the grounds that the Act opened the floodgates to refugees, and threatened the fragile cultural and linguistic balance in these states. Protests came to a halt with the ‘lockdown’ due to the pandemic. Under cover of the pandemic, when widespread public protest was less possible in India, the state has been actively engaged in bringing criminal charges against protestors voicing the former set of critiques, those directed at wanting the legislation to make sense and be in conformity with the secular underpinnings of the Indian Constitution. The challenges mounted by British Indian subjects in the early twentieth century to various restrictive legislations across empire were, at the time, similarly criminalised. Some hundred years later, their resistance has, at least symbolically, been vindicated as rightly challenging policies that were ethically suspect and legally unsound. One can only hope that the challenge mounted today by protesters in India does not take a century to be vindicated.


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