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Political Theory at Large

How Migrants Shaped the Discourse and Practice of Colonial States

Mithilesh Kumar ( is with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Patna centre.

Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State by Radhika Mongia, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2019; pp ix+ 230, ₹ 695.


At the foundation of classical Western political theory lies the assumption of the polis; a fairly stable, neatly outlined territory demarcated by borders or walls, within which statecraft is practised by privileged citizens over peoples and things. In the career of Western political theory, the need for a bounded and well-defined territory is supreme for any politics to be practised. With the establishment of the Westphalian system of nation states, modern political theory and its orthodoxies of sovereignty, borders, and citizenship were established too. Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is a major intervention in the historiography of making of Western political theory that runs contrary to the above settled assumptions, and puts colonialism and labour migration firmly at the centre of how state and sovereignty were imagined by the imperial powers. The book also demonstrates with great perspicuity, the ways in which migration and colonial subjects who moved constantly, came to be the core of how nation was imagined by the early nationalists, including Gandhi. In four succinct and brilliantly argued chapters with complete control of sources at hand, Mongia traces the discontents within the liberal theory of freedom vis-à-vis labour and empire, lays bare the mechanism of bureaucratic control over migrants’ bodies, charts how colonial power intervenes in the public–private divide, and unearths the deeply racial profiling that is at the foundation of the making of the passport and visa regime and, ultimately, the nation state.

Many-headed Hydra of Migrants

Mongia begins her narrative with the abolition of slavery and the emergence of indentured labour exported from India to British colonies in the Caribbean and Mauritius. The unique theoretical gambit is to bring out the fault lines of British liberal political theory through a study of the evolution of contract law and the debates between the colonial officials as to what it meant to be free and how far state power can restrict or facilitate movement of putatively free labour and in what conditions. It is between the logic of facilitation and the logic of restriction that state sovereignty is defined and exercised over migrant labour in a manner which is more contingent than it is informed by some great principle of political philosophy. Sovereignty was defined and redefined almost on a case by case basis depending on sometimes contrarian and at other converging interests of planters, company-state, officials, migrants, and lawmakers.

Mongia relates the chequered history of indentured labour and how the question of mobility, freedom, and state threatened the paternalistic liberal order on which the empire was built. The puzzle at hand for the colonial authorities to solve was how to maintain the liberal principle of freedom and consent to get into a contract when the colonial subject is too uncivilised and gullible to enter freely into a contract on their own. The problem was to make contract a tool of governmentality instead of a doctrine based on consent and equality in political philosophy. It was in ensuring that contract became a tool of governmentality that the sovereign could use the power of exception to restrict or facilitate the movement of the colonial subject as it deemed fit. The puzzle was solved, Mongia shows, through a massive, micro-managed, and state-controlled enterprise defined by several apparatuses of the empire often working on cross-purposes. Chapter 2 shows the intricacies of the exercise of bureaucratic power over
migrant workers.

Chapter 2 is a vivid description of the rules and regulations that migrant workers had to go through; both as individuals as well as collectively. In its will to put in place a perfect bureaucratic process of migration, which could take into account the minutest details of movement of workers, their bodily functions, and could also fulfil the imperatives of imperial surveillance, the workings of the empire produced a messy process that varied from colony to colony and even at various ports of embarkation. What is remarkable in this account is the centrality of the “well-being” (p 72) of the emigrant that was purportedly why the intricate bureaucratic mechanism was developed in the first place.

This preoccupation with the well-being of the emigrant is expressed in the excessive management of the body of the migrant, paying minutest attention to all its intimate details. The body of the emigrant was worked through the categories of health, disease, and mortality. One of the consequences of giving such importance to intimate details and the will to disciplinary power through bureaucracy was a plethora of government records that the whole exercise generated. In a way, the disciplinary power made legible on the human labouring body got its transcription in the bureaucratic documents of the empire. However, what strikes the reader is how the body of the migrant worker is never considered a part of the body politic of the empire even though the body of the former is ravaged with decay and disease and the empire has to stretch its paternal care to the utmost to keep it healthy for work. It may be because, as Mongia points out at the end of the chapter, most important patterns of mobility remained outside the jurisdiction of sovereign authority. Also, the fact was that the body of the migrant was a racialised body that created deep anxieties in the colonial authorities.

In Chapter 3, Mongia traces the gendered discourses on family and kinship, which led to the transformation of empire state into nation states with a deep structure of race-based migration regulations underlying this transformation. In this chapter, Mongia provides a history of Indian settlers in South Africa and the several discriminatory legislation that the four white settler colonies in Southern Africa—Natal, Transvaal, the Cape, and the Free State—had instituted against the Asiatics which included Indians as well as the Chinese. If in the previous chapter, the site of regulation was the body of the worker, in the case of Southern Africa the site becomes the “home” and the ability of the migrants to start a family and “increase the possibility of a settler population” (p 88). In a way, the colonial power wanted to control the sexual and the reproductive body of the migrants through an intervention in kinship relations defined by marriage. In other words, one of the ways in which the body of the migrant was prevented from becoming part of the body politic of the state was to create this divide between the labouring body and the reproductive body. In multiple judgments, the South African authorities stopped recognising wives of Indian settlers among whom polygamy was prevalent. This came on the back of earlier ordinances that required fingerprinting women. This was in contravention to the understanding of the colonial subjects, who thought that there was a policy of non-interference by the state on religious customs and laws. This led to an immediate framing of the cause of satyagraha around the notion of honour of Indian women. According to Mongia, the trope of the honour of Indian women coalesced with the trope of honour of the Indian nation and increased the numbers of people participating in the satyagraha. Also, the experiences of the Indian emigrants found articulation in the anti-colonial nationalist arguments and paved the way from swaraj to purna swaraj. In a sense, this was an emergence of a national identity that was racial as well as gendered.

The final chapter on the history of passport gives an account of how the system of passport was used by Canada to put impossible conditions on travel by Indians. In order not to be seen as discriminating on racial grounds, the Canadian authorities imposed the condition of direct travel from India to Canada which did not exist at the time. Mongia demonstrates convincingly that the “racist state developed in cognisance of its racism” (p 129) and the dilemma of such a nation state revolved around how not to name race as its constitutive element. It is in order to un-name race that the sovereignty of states were based on imaginary national grounds. It is in this analysis where Mongia makes her most important claim that it is migration that precipitates the emergence of nationality that grounds itself in the notion of attachment to a territory. In other words, nationality and national citizens are the other of the migrant that has to be controlled, governed, and restricted or facilitated as the need may arise. Looked from this point of view, it is the migrant that moves within the territory of the empire that creates those spatial, temporal, and racial anxieties that propels the transformation of a disjointed empire state spread over discrete parts of the globe into various nation states each with their unique ways of racial control over migration.

Contemporary Relevance

Mongia has covered a wide expanse both geographical as well as in terms of time period in her analysis of migration and emergence of nation states. Doing so, she challenges the foundations of political theory where the only legitimate political subject is the territorially embedded citizen. In the current debates, where it is the refugee who is refashioning the debates around the citizen anew, this study gains even more importance and relevance. Perhaps, Mongia could also have weaved in the debates around the notion of territory, freedom, and mobility in the context of international law that emerged in the early period of empire just as a background. Although Locke and Thomas Hobbes make a quick appearance, a mention of the likes of Hugo Grotius would have made the contrast between the political theories that emerge in these works as those that emerge in the files of the bureaucrats. However, this is just a minor point. Last few years have been exemplary in terms of historiography around migration. Sunil Amrith’s (2015) Crossing the Bay of Bengal brought to fore the relatively lesser-known labour migration networks in South and South East Asia thereby providing a fresh line of inquiry away from the prominent Atlantic labour migration networks. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson (2013) in their Border as Method put the question of border, their proliferation, and border-crossing and migration firmly as the central problem of contemporary problem of political theory and practice. Ashutosh Kumar (2017) in Coolies of Empire gave new evidences from the life world of indentured migrant workers. Indian Migration and Empire cautions us in the epilogue that the project of modern nation state and who belongs in such a nation state is a project still incomplete and can inflict terrible oppressions and restrictions as in the example of Iroquois/Haudenosaunee of North America. For this caution alone, this book is a must-read for all who are interested in historiography of migration and political theory.


Amrith, Sunil S (2015): Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Kumar, Ashutosh (2017): Coolies of the Empire: Indentured Indians in the Sugar Colonies, 1830–1920, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mezzadra, Sandro and Brett Neilson (2013): Borders as Method, or the Multiplication of Labor, Durham: Duke University Press.

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019


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