‘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.

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‘Indian Migration and Empire:’ comment by Nadine El-Enany

The fourth post in our symposium on Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is by Nadine El-Enany, who is Reader in Law at Birkbeck School of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law. She is author of(B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (Manchester University Press, 2020), co-author of Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State (Pluto, 2021) and co-editor of After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response (Pluto, 2019).

It is a pleasure to be part of this symposium, especially because Radhika’s work has been such an inspiration to me. Unfortunately for me, her book came out just as I was finishing my own book, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire. Though I managed to include some engagement with her work, I wished I’d had her book when writing my own. I have learned so much from it and can see various exciting links and possibilities for conversations with my own. For that reason, I’m particularly glad to have a chance to be part of this symposium. 

Radhika’s book takes the apparent ‘unremarkability’ of the monopoly states exercise over the movement of people and shows how, in actual fact, there is much to be said about this status quo that might lead us to rethinking and rearticulating scholarly and, indeed, activist approaches towards migration in a context of violently protected national boundaries. For me, one of the most salient contributions of the book is the revelation of the relationship between the metropolitan or modern state and the colonial state – in particular, the way in which the former has been shaped by the latter. The contours of Anglo-European nation-states, which once had empires ranging in scope and size, are historically contingent, having been moulded in the course of the formation and implementation of colonial migration regulations. In tracing the transition ‘from a world dominated by empire-states into a world dominated by nation-states’ (p. 1), Radhika thus points to a ‘fundamental colonial genealogy of the modern (nation-)state, in both the metropoles and the colonies’ (p. 3).

Radhika and I share an interest in drawing out and subjecting to analysis ‘the formation of key techniques and technologies for regulating migration’ (p. 3). For Radhika, such a focus enables the illumination of the relation between ‘patterns of migration’ which would otherwise be ‘held distinct’ (p. 3). Crucially, this approach allows for the undoing of ‘methodological nationalism’, which, as Radhika writes, ‘sees the national as the privileged site and scale for investigating migration, and, thereby, misunderstands how definitions of the “national” are necessarily implicated in, and emerge from, non-national, cross-statal, transcolonial, and inter- and intra-imperial forces’ (p. 3).

To my mind, this is a crucial project – to begin to unsettle the methodological nationalism which pervades mainstream scholarship on migration. Those of us who teach migration law from a critical perspective, will be familiar with the wide-eyed looks from students who are asked to question the legitimacy of the supposedly sovereign states they have come to take for granted, both as having always existed, or always destined to somehow come into existence, and crucially, as the only way of organising human life politically and geographically. However, when we begin to chisel away at this seemingly unshakeable status quo, as Radhika’s book does so powerfully, the geographical and political remnants of empire begin to surface, and like re-found jigsaw puzzle pieces, create a much clearer picture of seemingly separate sovereign nation-states as, in fact, embedded in their colonial pasts, and I would argue, suffering from a crisis of legitimacy.

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‘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.

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‘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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‘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).

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