Book Review: How Migration Shaped Our Nation States

Radhika Mongia's 'Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State' explores a world of volatile mobility and liberal regimes of ‘racism without races’.

It can hardly escape our collective imagination that women and men from the non-Western world have been on the move owing to war and war-like forms of precarity – the flushing out of Syrian refugees, Rohingya refugees from Burma, and those from Yemen have galvanised our visual memory of migration in recent times. Yet we spend little time thinking about how such waves of movement have also transformed the very states, bureaucracies and cultural landscapes of the countries receiving and impelling migration.

Radhika Mongia’s Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State is a book not on refugees, but on indentured labour, and elite and trader migrants, but the outcome is one which forces us to take note of colonial processes and regimes of migration as showcasing the creation of institutions, bureaus, borders and papers in the co-mingling sites of empire and nation-states. These state forms emerge through a tangle of continuous confrontation and co-production.

Mongia’s book is a methodological tour de force in migration studies and theories of the state. But the commendable feat of this book is that these accomplishments do not stand apart – her contribution to migration studies is enriched by the careful theorising of states, at once colonial, transcolonial and metropolitan.

What emerges is an ‘eventful’ story (p.6) of states across the 19th century that shape their borders through constant contestation, debate and complementarity with each other. Mongia is able to piece together this cross-continental and cross-colonial tale by trawling through an equally far-flung archive drawn from the repositories of London, Delhi, Coromandel (in Mauritius) and Pretoria.

Also read: ‘Like Ice Crunched Under a Boot’: Hamid Ismailov’s ‘The Devil’s Dance’

The drivers of colonial debates on migration, especially indentured migration, are the racialized, imperial-economic and cultural concerns about admitting, in terms of class, race, gender, and region vastly disparate groups of emigrants and immigrants. These classes are typified by the indentured labour travelling to colonies like Mauritius, British Guiana and South Africa, non-indentured Indians (mainly Hindus and Sikhs) travelling to Canada, and trading classes (Parsi and Gujarati) travelling to South Africa.

Movement, then and now

The present monopoly of states over free movement that a famous sociologist, John Torpey takes for a given in The Invention of the Passport requires a probing examination that only a blend of history and ethnography can achieve and one that empirically delineates an interconnected world.

In showing us how this can be done, Mongia chips away at the insularity of historical tales (of the kind that Torpey narrates) where nation-states in the West standardize restrictive passports simply to demarcate citizens and non-citizens, and resolve racial panics. She also argues convincingly that the replacement of a world of empire-states with one of nation-states is forged not through the inevitability of war and the implacable categories of citizens and aliens but through ‘chance occurrences, peculiar configurations, contingent forces’ in the movement of myriad people.

Radhika Mongia
Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State
Permanent Black, 2019

In popular imagination as well as historical writing, there are powerful analyses that point to indentured migration as being both free (because unlike slave labour, it was grounded in contract) and unfree – because it was supported by familiar images of gullible, economically imperilled labour seafaring at personal peril, predatory and manipulative recruiters and contractors, and abject features of work and life in the colony. But unlike other writings which merely pick a side on the free/unfree question, we get a deep immersion into how colonial authorities in India and Mauritius were intensely invested in the bureaucratic formalisation of consent.

The aftermath of the British abolition of the slave trade saw fevered exchanges of letters but also a flurry of committee reports, surveys, forms, parliamentary debates to ascertain the consent of the indentured labour on several fronts – the absence of duress, proper comprehension of the terms of the contract and whether the terms of such a contract were honoured, protection from disease at sea, work conditions upon reaching the destination. There is a two page long description of official note-sharing on the condition of privies or toilets in emigrant ships, underscoring the painstaking detail of care shown by colonial establishments across India, Mauritius and Britain on this subject.

But such a graphic presentation of bureaucratic virtue, far from ennobling the colonial establishment, underscores how dehumanising practices of labour often occurred owing to this elaborate paraphernalia and not despite it. This was because violations and breaches of authority, trust and rights could now take place by weaponising laws and rules. Besides, colonial rule-by-reports that tried to protect indentured labour from ruthless recruiters, agents and overseers only deepened stereotypes of ignorant, uneducated Indians or the duplicitous Indian middleman.

New insights

Especially if one is new to the arena of exploring non-Western historical writing on modern states, the book has in store for the reader certain startling revelations. Through the long 19th century, the state monitored closely only the movement of indentured labour, leaving alone for the most part, the comings and goings of the non-indentured classes. This lasted right up till the late 19th and early 20th century which witnessed the threatening manifestation of emigration of non-labouring Indians to white settler colonies and states like South Africa and Canada.

Some insights are precious even to historians, for seldom has such a rigorous correlation been established between the itineraries of migrants and the careers of nation-states in terms that are anything but axiomatic. What emerges is a crucible of nation-state formation which is cast from a combustive and astonishing mixture of various forms of control – colonial bureaucratic control over ex-slave plantation economies of indentured labour in Mauritius, nationalist agitations by satyagrahis in South Africa over the honour of Indian women, and a liberal net of restrictions that entrenched racialised gatekeeping in Canada.

If none of these trends played themselves out along anticipated lines, and if happenstance and disruptive events had everything to do with this history, perhaps, one of the most ironic ‘chance occurrences’ was the staunch opposition by the British Indian Association and Gandhian satyagrahis against laws that targeted Muslim women who wished to travel to South Africa to join their husbands.

Also read: The Chapters of History the Government Doesn’t Want Students to Read

The British denials of such women’s freedoms were staged in fierce contempt not just of specific polygamous arrangements; they were rooted in the conviction that the Muslim marriage was intrinsically non-monogamous. Back in India, the echoes of such intensely experienced colonial discrimination was coded in patriarchal terms such that the British were shown to be disrespecting Indian marriages. A nationalist consensus emerged over time that indentured migration at such heavy social costs could not go on. But as Mongia points out, neither the Indian agitators back in South Africa nor the nationalist elites in India cared about ‘the material disadvantages’ that were heaped on women, even as they fussed about the ‘symbolic impact’ of such racialised laws.

Indeed, the engineering of laws as well as the assertions of various Indian associations and stakeholders conjure an image and reality of the indentured labour as a de facto male. The narrative arrangement of these stories and arguments in the book is highly reminiscent of the writing around post-Partition male refugees who could be bureaucratically registered and rehabilitated in their own right, in contrast to the female refugees who could be rescued and officially accounted for only in relation to men.

Radhika Mongia. Credit: Twitter/Duke University Press

A discussion of caste has eluded this book: surely, bureaucracies must have debated the complexities of shipping indentured labour stratified across caste lines? Similarly, questions of how caste has filtered the official, nationalist, and labouring discourse around common living and working spaces remains unaddressed. It is puzzling that a work of such close detail does not also tell us the means through which caste entered emigration certificates, agreements, tickets and other documentary forms of indentured travel.

On another note, even though associations, defiant counter-moves, intelligent subversions of bureaucratic clauses and petitions do feature, the book leaves you feeling parched in places for popular instances of application-writing, and seldom do we hear about how migrants have parsed forms, and followed the paper trail only to be befuddled by it. How have they experienced control through form-writers and scribes, experienced literacy in the form of power, liability and its limiting conditions?

Where Mongia writes of how racialised bureaucracies such as the one in Canada can be disguised as liberal states seeking merely to institute gatekeeping rules such as climate compatibility, monetary and continuous journey tests, she does furnish a couple of examples of how Indians were able to read the fine print of poorly disguised discriminatory laws and fight against odds to secure their admission.

Though there is a deluge of official voices and a modest stream of people, popular collectives and agitators contesting laws especially in court, the overarching ambition of the book to show how migration shaped and transformed the hydra-headed state eclipses something quite vital. Popular knowledge, assertions and presences in migration regimes seem to be an aid to this overarching aim, and not worthy of critique in and of themselves. All this said, the book must be read for its illuminating detail in a world of volatile mobility and liberal regimes of ‘racism without races’.

Tarangini Sriraman teaches history and politics at Azim Premji University and is author of In Pursuit of Proof: A History of Identification Documents in India.