Race and the making of migration regimes

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Radhika Mongia.

Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (2018) is an investigation into the history of state control over migration. At the heart of the book are two main questions: first, what histories can we chart of the increasing and incremental state control over migration that culminate, by the early decades of the twentieth century, in a state monopoly over migration? Second, what can these histories tell us about state formation, inter-state relations, state sovereignty and modern subject constitution? The book considers colonial Indian migration from about 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its plantation colonies, up to about 1914, when, with the onset of World War I, the world confronted a new geopolitical reality. In less than a century, we see profound transformations in the logics, rationales, institutions and legal forms of state control over mobility.

My book shows that racial thinking was absolutely central to these logics and rationales. Traversing a diverse array of British colonial formations, including India, Britain, Mauritius, the Caribbean, Canada and South Africa, it examines the relational processes, across these varied sites, that produced a state monopoly over migration. This monopoly, accompanied by the ‘nationalisation’ of migration, is an integral part of a fundamental shift in the twentieth century from a world composed of empire-states to a world composed of nation-states.

To appreciate the kinds of shifts that occurred between approximately 1834 and 1914 we should note three important facets of the nineteenth-century system of Indian indenture, provoked by the abolition of slavery: first, that to meet the labour demands of the plantocracy state intervention to regulate Indian indenture was directed at facilitating, not prohibiting, the movement. Second, state intervention regulating indenture was authorised as a limited and temporary exception to the then-prevalent principle of free movement. Instituted to guard against charges of a second slave trade, this exception was justified by a racialised and paternalistic desire to ‘protect’ the Indians and the formerly enslaved Africans. Moreover, even as Indian migration to the plantation economies was regulated, other, far larger, streams of Indian migration occurred outside the ambit of state control. In other words, through most of the nineteenth century, the state oversaw and controlled Indian migration only in the exceptional case of the erstwhile slave colonies. Third, that this change, despite its exceptional status, nonetheless expanded the purview of state authority, or sovereignty, in terms of mobility. It thus constituted a remaking of the terms and limits of sovereign authority.

Each of these three facets would become points of contention in the twentieth century with regard to controlling Indian and, more broadly, Asian migration to white-settler colonies within and beyond the British empire – ranging from Canada, South Africa and Australia to Argentina and the United States. First, the overwhelming concern now was with restricting rather than facilitating migration, requiring a thorough revamping, indeed abandonment, of the principle of free movement. Second, in the new circumstances, the earlier rationale of protection justifying intervention was unavailable; new discourses of protection needed to be mobilised. And third, a completely new understanding of sovereignty, conceived in specifically racialised-national terms, emerged. This understanding would generate a decisive shift in the logics of migration control, from state regulation of migration in exceptional cases (like indenture) to state regulation in all cases. This shift yielded our current verity, of a (national) state monopoly over migration as an unquestioned element of state sovereignty.

Indian Migration and Empire shows that myriad varieties of racial thinking saturated and structured the making of migration regimes. For instance, the nineteenth-century transformations to the limits and purview of state sovereignty, impelled by the movement of indentured labour to the slave plantation colonies, were overtly subtended by notions of race understood in the temporal, developmentalist register of ‘stages of civilisation’. By contrast, in the early twentieth century, the ascendance of notions of liberal equality and of rights-bearing subjects would make a civilisational understanding of race less available and migration law would reflect and provoke new forms of racial thinking. Thus, we see in migration law and practice transmogrifications that displace race thinking to fashion novel understandings of liberal equality, through the conduits of culture, religion and nationality.

Racial discrimination in immigration was implemented through a host of mechanisms such as the imposition of a ‘head tax’; the prescription of education/literacy tests; specifications regarding identity documents; precise regulations regarding the trajectory of voyages; and ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ of compromises between states on imposing restrictions on emigration. The mechanisms deployed were occasioned by context-specific social, political and economic conditions that spoke to and utilized differing – sometimes conflicting – legal logics and justifications. Often, certain mechanisms, such as the education/literacy tests would, as Marilyn Lake has shown, circulate and be adopted and adapted at a range of disparate sites, from the US to South Africa to Australia.

But perhaps the most enduring technology of racial exclusion to emerge in this period – which was subsequently thoroughly standardized and globalized – was the modern passport. In analysing the decade-long debate over Indian migration to Canada in the early twentieth century (Chapter 4), I show how the seemingly neutral category of ‘nationality’ came to operate as a proxy for race and how this relation was enduringly encapsulated in the development of the modern passport. The emergence of the modern passport, as it took shape to resolve the conundrum of how to prohibit the migration of Indians to Canada, without naming race, would result in a profound remaking of state sovereignty and the inter-state system in specifically national terms. Such reconfigurations would apply an enormous pressure on the framework of empire and on the globe-spanning category of ‘British subject’, contributing to their fissuring, fragmentation and eventual dissolution. These reconfigurations would also dispense entirely with the principle of free movement and bring all migration under state control.

Nowadays, it is taken as an incontrovertible fact that a defining element of the modern (nation) state is the authority to control migration. A historical investigation reveals that this is a very recent aspect of the state and of state sovereignty; it also reveals that the regulation of colonial migrations played a critical part in bringing about the transformations that yielded this outcome. In other words, the book seeks to denaturalise the current dominant view that controlling migration, particularly by restricting entry, is an uncontested and immemorial aspect of the state. Instead, it details the myriad complex processes through which migration, race, nation and state have come to be so tightly intertwined.

Radhika Mongia is Associate Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Her current research concerns recent changes in Indian citizenship law. Radhika’s book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (2018) is available from Duke University Press.

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