‘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.

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