Containing anti-colonialism by turning people into ‘the people’


NATIONALISTS of all political persuasions – not only those on the far right – claim that ‘The People’ are the basis and origin of political power. Such ideologies are central to the rationale and legitimation of national forms of state sovereignty with their obfuscation of capitalist social relations. Within each category of ‘the people’ is an historical articulation between ideas of ‘race’ and ‘nation’. The racialization of ideas of ‘national soil’ and the territorialization of racist ideas of ‘blood’ result in a politics in which each ‘nation’ is imagined as having ‘its own’ place on our planet. Those regarded as nationals come to see themselves as the ‘people of a place’. Concomitantly, those excluded from the criteria of national belonging are re-presented as foreign bodies contaminating the national body politic. They are made into the ‘people out of place.’

From its inception 75 years ago, the nation-state of India has under-gone a continuous process of re-defining which people are a part of its national People. A hardening of nationalism has taken place during that time, wherein criteria for membership in the national political community has become further limited.

Increasingly, the discourse of autochthony is deployed to limit national membership. Autochthonous discourses restrict ideas of ‘the people’ to those who can show they are ‘native’ to the nation. Thus, even though the imperial-state category of native – marking the status of colonial subjects – was thought to have disappeared when colonized natives become independent nationals, ideas of national sovereignty have deeply embedded within them, the idea that ‘true’ nationals are those who are natives of its territory.

Such discursive practices have long been at play in India. Hindu nationalism shapes both official and popular criteria for belonging to the ‘Indian nation’ and has done so even before the formation of the Indian Republic. Its sway on politics has intensified since the 1980s, as Hindutva has become a powerful electoral movement.

The electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 relied in no small part on claims that Hinduism is an indigenous part of India. The BJP separates the Indian nation-state’s polity into two groups. Those regarded as National-Natives, currently composed primarily of Hindus (but also, for now, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs), are separated from the followers of so-called foreign religions, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Parsis. Some of those people who come to be defined  as ‘foreign’ have been further redefined as ‘migrants’. For Hindutva supporters, Muslims are regarded as followers of  a ‘foreign religion’ and, as evident in Prime Minister Modi’s growing rhetoric, as ‘illegal’ Migrants in India.

In this paper, I discuss the ideological significance of Hindutva autochthonous discourses to clarify the ideological work that is done by nationalist references to ‘the people’. Such discourses, I argue, have proven to be useful in concealing the failure of national sovereigns to achieve anything resembling decolonization (i.e., the end of expropriative, extractive, and exploitative practices). By producing new ‘foreigners’ threatening the ‘nation’, Hindutva discourses of autochthony help nationalists (and the nation-state) keep the project of ‘national liberation’ alive in the eyes of people who, otherwise, have been ill-served by national sovereigns in the service of global capital.

It is important to start by recognizing the crucial colonial genealogy for the transformation of some people as ‘the people of a ‘nation’ and other people as ‘foreigners’ or in increasingly common framings, as ‘migrants’. Pursuant to this, I am going to discuss three of the foundational acts for the modern Indian ‘nation’ and the Indian nation-state. These three acts are: (i) Indirect Rule Colonialism as a way to maintain British imperial power following the 1857 Indian Rebellion; (ii) The implementation of immigration controls in the British Empire in British Mauritius in 1835 targeting people recruited through the ‘coolie’ trade from British India; and (iii) The partitions taking place in British India and the formation of the communal basis of Indian nationhood.

In discussing these three acts, which have generally been studied separately and regarded as disconnected, I hope to uncover how divide and rule tactics are no less important for nation-states than they are for the imperial-states they replaced – both from their inception as well as through their various and inevitable permutations.

Act I: In the mid-19th century, the British Empire significantly changed the way it governed its natives. Instead of continuing to rely upon native elites to secure its rule over all other natives, the British imperial-state employed enhanced technologies of biopower.  As Mahmood Mamdani
has shown, imperial attention began differentiating, defining, and positioning each colonized native within the colonies. Some natives were fixed in place as indigenous-natives and were the only ones regarded in imperial law as being of the colony.
1 Other natives were redefined as migrant-natives and, as such, out of place in the places they lived and worked. This affected people’s sense of themselves and of others.

The bifurcation of colonized natives was not only an extension of  the classic imperial policy of divide et impera (or divide and rule) but was part of a new policy of what Mamdani calls ‘define and rule’. Together the new biopolitical categories of indigenous-natives and migrant-natives further territorialized imperial identity, ushering in a new style of governmentality in the process. By naturalizing the link between rights, territory, and identity, indirect-rule colonialism became part of the genealogy of ideas about nationalized sovereignty.

Indirect-rule colonialism was a dramatic shift ushered in by a dramatic event: the 1857 Indian Rebellion. In May 1857, soldiers of the Bengal army shot their British officers and marched on Delhi. Their mutiny spurred rebellion by civilians across the northern and central parts of the subcontinent. As Mamdani documents, it was considered one of the greatest challenges made to any European power in the 19th century and lasting well over a year, the rebellion generated fear that colonized natives not only in British India but in other parts of the empire would overthrow imperial rule. This was neither an exaggerated nor a fleeting worry, and its effects were felt beyond the British Empire. In the United States, for example, the so-called British Mutiny played into ‘an anxiety toward slave revolts in the late 1850s and into the Civil War.2

After putting down the Indian Rebellion, the British parliament passed the 1858 Government of India Act and the British imperial-state took control from the East India Company. Direct British imperial-state control was accompanied by an ‘indirect’ style of rule. The East India Company had expanded its control over much of the Asian subcontinent by relying on existing ruling classes to extract wealth from native workers and to brutally suppress their dissent. Ignoring the day-to-day organization of their lives, the company applied a strategy of ‘civilizing’ the native ruling class and native members of its military by coercing them into adopting British laws, technology, and even Christianity.

As Mamdani has discussed, the British imperial state believed that the revolt had been sparked by native resentment at such intrusions. After its suppression, British rule came to be informed by the belief that native unruliness could be quelled by recognizing – and codifying – how the natives were ‘different’, not only from the British but also from each other.3 People categorized as indigenous-natives were enclosed temporally within ‘custom’ and represented as living in stasis. They came to be spatially identified with particular places, ostensibly to protect their supposedly traditional, land-based way of life. Migrant-natives, declared by imperial administrators as more ‘modern’ and market-oriented were defined by their lack of claims to land. Thus did ‘protection’ become the governmentality of indirect-rule colonialism.

Methods of population data collection allowed the British empire to categorize natives into separate, supposedly incommensurable, bio-political groups. Ideas of the ‘sameness’ of one group of natives materialized ‘differences’ between them so that, in true racist fashion, each was constructed as comprising a distinct type of people. Under indirect-rule colonialism, then, the strategy of separating accelerated. Not only were Europeans seen as separate types of being than were natives, but now the natives became separated from one another.



Over time, biopolitical technologies, initially used to define juridical categories, established long-lasting social and political boundaries between separated natives. The British Raj institutionalized such ideas in unprecedented ways by empowering the supposed guardians of tradition – princes, priests, and landholders. This ‘invention of tradition’ was accompanied by the invention of genealogies and histories.4 The passing of separate ‘personal codes’ or ‘personal laws’ was part of this.5 The British thus actively constructed new identities of peoplehood. John Morley, secretary of state for India, encouraged such a view by speaking about the separate ‘nations who inhabit India’ as a timeless feature of native life.6 

The production of differences between colonized natives through the construction of separate legal systems and political constituencies fuelled antagonism between them. This was precisely the point. As the anticolonial movement grew – not all of it nationalist by any means – the British partitioned the province of Bengal in 1905 into a ‘Hindu’ western region (Bengal) and a ‘Muslim’ eastern region (East Bengal and Assam). The 1909 Morley-Minto reforms created separate electorates for Muslims. As Hindus vied for the ‘Hindu vote’ and Muslims for the ‘Muslim vote’, the need to make appeals to voters across now-communal lines was nullified. Indeed, communalism was institutionalized into electoral politics and led to increased demands for further partitions.7

With ‘community’ membership becoming key to the making of political claims, these communities were regarded by many to be self-chosen and self-enacted. From here it was not a huge leap for each to demand for ‘home rule’. Such demands – whether from the left or the right – institutionalized the territorialization of identity. Late-imperial territorial-ities not only emplaced Indigenous-natives, but they also displaced those categorized as migrant-natives. They were portrayed as people native to someplace else.

The differences between the two biopolitical groups of colonized natives hinged upon the idea of autochthony. Indigenous-natives were defined by imperial-states as autochthons, while their opposite, migrant-natives, became allochthons. Derived from the Greek autos (self) and khthon (earth), an autochthon was one (originally in the plural) who had literally ‘sprung from the earth’; the term referred to ‘an original or indigenous inhabitant of a place’ (OED, ‘autochthony [n.]’). The term indigenous is also from classical Greece. To be indigenous was to be ‘born inside, with the class connotation of being born “inside the house”.’8 Like autochthon, indigenous denoted someone (or something) ‘born or produced naturally in a land or region; native or belonging naturally to (the soil, region, etc.)’ (OED, ‘indigenous [adj.]’).


The counterpart to autochthonous or indigenous people were those people defined as allochthons. Predicated on the Greek allo, referring to that which is other or different, and the Indo-European allo, referring to someone (or something) ‘else’, and first used as a geological reference, allochthonous referred to something from someplace other than where it is currently found (OED, ‘allochthonous [adj.]’). Notably, the term allochthonous emerged in the period of indirect-rule colonialism thus marking the relational character of claims to autochthony or indigeneity (OED, ‘allochthon [n.]’), Saying that indigenous-natives were from a place was to metaphysically locate them as being of that place. Ideas of indigeneity as a manifestation of racialized temporalities intensified already racialized geographies. Defining any individual as an indigenous-native was based not on where the person was born, but upon the birthplace of their ‘race’. Indirect-rule colonialism thus manifested racialized ideas of essentialist origins in territorialized form.

Indirect-rule colonialism bifurcated the colonized natives into two separate groups – indigenous-natives and migrant-natives. But why migrant-natives? The answer lies, at least in part, in the fact that by 1857, some colonized native subjects of British India had already been categorized as migrants.

Act II: The parliamentary victories of the slavery abolition movement in the earlier part of the 19th century, and especially the 1833 British Slavery Abolition Act9 led to a desperate search by both imperial-states and capitalist investors for new ways to secure and to discipline the workforce, something essential to the continued profitability of colonial ventures, especially plantations. Categorizing some people as migrants, someone subject to state controls on entry, was hit upon as a signal solution. Thus, it is at the beginning of the end of slavery in the British Empire when the category of migrant first appeared on the world stage. And from our vantage point almost 200 years later, the British empire’s categorization of some natives as migrants in the 1830s proved to have world-historic ramifications.

As Radhika Mongia’s work shows, the first controls placed on the movement of co-British subjects from one part of the Empire to another was enacted on people recruited through the coolie labour trade ‘coolies’ from British India to British Mauritius in 1835.10 While not imagined at the time, these controls were highly influential for future immigration controls. By the end of the coolie trade in the early 20th century, categorizing people as migrants would be a well established method of both labour control and nation-state formation across the world.



Under coolieism, negatively racial-ized people – mostly men and mostly from British-controlled China and British India – were moved across the territories of the British empire (and beyond) to work under conditions of contracted, indentured servitude. From approximately 1830 when slave labour relations were coming to an end in the British Empire to the 1920s when immigration controls expanded enormously after WWI (many of which expressly barred the entry of ‘coolies’), coolieism replaced slavery to become the dominant system of obtaining workers for imperial ventures.11 People categorized as coolies were moved by the millions across the empire, often on the same ships that had previously carried enslaved Africans.12 The chains had been removed and ‘coolies’ were called ‘free’ workers but this was not an accurate reflection of the labour relations they found themselves in. ‘Coolies’ undoubtedly laboured within unfree employment relations. ‘Coolies’ became a key labour force on plantations as well as in the building of the capitalist infrastructure of roads, canals, and railroads. Although there is no definitive number on the scale of coolieism – some estimate a low of twelve million, while Lydia Potts argues that even ‘an estimate of 37 million or more would not be entirely without foundation’ – the scale and significance of the coolie system was, even at the lower estimates, comparable to the slave trade.13 Indeed, the coolie system surpassed African slavery in its intensity, as millions of coolies were moved within the span of less than a hundred years.14

While the impending abolition of slave labour relations on Mauritius on 1 February 1835, caused local British colonial officials grave concern over how best to maintain the productivity of the plantations and the profits of the planters, the planters’ intention to recruit coolie workers from British India also worried Mauritian officials. They feared that in the absence of slave labour relations, coolie workers might turn out to be too unruly or set a dangerous example for those black workers recently freed from slavery. Local officials addressed these concerns through two related re-sponses: immigration controls and contracts of indenture.

In 1835, the local British Council of Mauritius passed two ordinances regulating the entry of labourers from British India.15 Workers recruited as coolies needed to demonstrate that they had permission to move from British India to British Mauritius and they would only be granted such permission if they produced a contract of indenture tying them to work for a specified amount of time. These ordinances thus introduced new limits on the hitherto free mobility of imperial subjects within the British Empire. Indeed, they marked a dramatic shift from imperial concerns about the exit of British subjects to new concerns about their entry into other parts of imperial territory.

Significantly, the Mauritius Ordinances diverted from the imperial principle that no subject would be denied entry into any other part of the empire. Indeed, the formal, juridical equality of all British subjects was not an insignificant part of how the empire quelled dissent. Hence, a great deal of justificatory rhetoric was marshalled when implementing immigration controls against workers moving as ‘coolies’ from British India to British Mauritius, including the notion that they were ‘free’.

In addition to the novel immigration restrictions imposed by the Mauritius Ordinances, the government of British India (which was at this time the East India Company) also implemented new emigration controls against coolies – and against them alone. People recruited as coolies along with their emigration agents were required to provide written statements outlining the terms of their labour contracts of indenture before an official of British India. The labour contract thus became a key technology for controlling and disciplining coolie labour by also controlling their mobility. Contracts ideologically distanced the coolie labour trade from the institution of slavery it was designed to replace. Often written in English, these contracts, which coolies signed or, most often, marked with an X (and with their fingerprint after the launch of fingerprinting technology in British India in 1858), provided documentary proof that coolies were not slaves.16

At the time, such proof was politically necessary. As soon as the new trade in coolie labour became known, a campaign arose in both the British metropole and British India to ‘protect’ coolie workers from a system that was regarded by abolitionists as a new slave trade. With their pressure, a special committee was established in 1838 to inquire into the movement of labourers from British India. The committee concerned itself with the coerced character of the migration of coolies. Both slavery abolitionists and this committee shared the assumption that coolies were ‘ignorant and unwary’.17 Indeed, relying on autochthonous tropes valuing stasis, abolitionists went so far as to argue that mobility itself was anathema to people in British India.

Significantly, by focusing on the coerced character of moving, such views ignored the existing colonial conditions in India, precisely the conditions that might make moving preferable to staying for coolies. While acknowledging the ‘helplessness’ caused by poverty, they nevertheless avoided identifying the source of the poverty of colonial subjects – as well as ways to end it. Instead of challenging the capitalist underpinnings of British imperialism or, more specifically, the labour relations under which coolies were exploited, abolitionists instead argued that workers in British India should not be allowed to move to other colonies in the empire.18 An early form of the ‘relations of rescue’, abolitionists thus argued that mobility controls were necessary for the coolies’ own protection.19 As with indirect rule colonialism, protection was the governmentality of early immigration controls (and arguably still is).



Initially, antislavery campaigners were successful in their efforts. On 29 May 1839, the governors of the East India Company prohibited the emigration of workers engaged in manual labour, effectively halting the movement of workers from British India to other parts of the empire. Unsurprisingly, the planters in Mauritius (and, by now, also in the British Caribbean) worked hard to overturn the ban. In the end, the planters prevailed, and on 2 December 1842, the governors of the East India Company reversed their earlier decision. The emigration of coolies was again permitted, resulting in the movement of millions of people throughout the British Empire. That year alone, almost 35,000 coolies were shipped from British India to British Mauritius.

To avoid further comparisons with slavery, however, newly minted agents with the title of Protector of Emigrants were appointed at each departure point. Likewise, an office of the Protector of Immigrants was established in Mauritius (and else-where in the Empire). Operating on both ends of this labour recruitment system, emigration and immigration agents were in place to certify that the movement of coolie workers was ‘voluntary’ and their labour ‘free’. Thus began the now well entrenched dichotomy between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration. The decision to depict the movement of coolie workers as ‘voluntary’ negated the structural conditions precipitating either their movement or the benefits of their movement to those who would exploit their labour power. It should come as no surprise of course that neither emigration nor immigration controls actually worked to protect coolie workers. Yet, they are the foundation stones for our current national government of mobility.

Act III: The belief that nation-states ought to be composed of and exist for those whose nationality matches that of the state has ensured a continuous stream of enormously violent practices. The practices of indirect rule colonialism and new controls on immigration acted as fuel on the fire of nationalism. With nationalists everywhere arguing that their ‘nations’ had an ‘eternal’ and essential sovereignty over certain territories (and, of course, all living and non-living things on it), autochthony was given a new, national lease on life.

As nationals autochthonized themselves into national-natives, those defined as outsiders to the nation were made allochthons. Nationalist origin stories not only narrated the timeless and territorial nation but also narrated a story of foreign-ness for the others. For this reason, each act of exclusion and expulsion, each act of partition and forced population transfer was portrayed as a return, a sending ‘home’ of those allochthons to ‘their own’ eternal and essential national territory.

It is well known that the formation of national communities, each imagined as static, unleashed enormous violence. The genocide against Armenians by the new nation-state of Turkey to ‘Turkify’ the ‘people’ can be seen as beginning the process. Such acts continue to this day across the world and across the Left-Right political spectrum, as is evident in attacks against Rohingya in Myanmar and even in the current Russian invasion of Ukraine as part of Putin’s ‘Greater Russia’ programme.

To deal with the fact that in every ‘nation’ there existed people who were excluded from national membership, the new state category of ‘minorities’ was institutionalized. Minorities are those people outside of the mainstream of nationhood. The state category of minorities is what allows nation-states to reckon with the fact that the world is not naturally organized along the idea of national styles of self-rule. Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of WWII, recognized that national minorities were easily susceptible to being denied – or stripped – of their citizenship, thus ceasing to have the ‘right to have rights’ within the nation-state.20 And so it continues into our present.

In the ensuing violence and unease, another new state category of people was constructed: Refugees – people persecuted by states and national populations, often because they were regarded as ‘minorities’ and portrayed as threats to the security of new national societies. The state category of refugee reflects and regulates people’s flight from certain forms of national violence. They too are part of the collateral damage of a world composed of separate and distinct nation-states.

We live in a world where it is utterly accepted that one’s identity emanates from one’s state-issued identity documents. If identity documents grant someone their identity, then as Miriam Rürup has pointed out, ‘the reverse [is]also true: The lack of valid papers expresses one’s lost link to human society.’21 This is the materiality of the work that ideas of ‘peoplehood’ or ‘nationness’ do.

While divide and rule practices are mostly associated with empires, they are no less important for nation-states. The key binary of nation-states is that between national/migrant is predicated on the long history of racist ideas of ‘community’ or ‘peoplehood’. The territorialization of identity through ideas of autochthony; the implementation of immigration controls as key exercises of class and state power over workers; and the violent creation of national ‘selves’ demanding sovereignty are key aspects of power in India today.

With the victory of the nationalist versions of anti-colonial movements, ideas of a shared world and a shared social condition have been largely eclipsed by nationalisms declaring their own, distinct place in the world.

Far from dissipating, this territorialization of self-identification only intensifies as national sovereignty is achieved by those identifying them-selves as national subjects. Unsurprisingly, then, 75 years after its nominal ‘independence’, nationalisms are hardening in India and they are hardening on the basis of the three Acts I have discussed: nationalist renditions of autochthony; intensification of immigration controls; and exclusions, expulsions, and even death.



1. Mamdani, Mahmood, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012.

2. Nikhil Bilwakesh, ‘“Their Faces Were Like So Many of the Same Sort at Home”: American Responses to the Indian Rebellion of 1857’, American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 21(1), 2011, pp. 1-23.

3. Mamdani 2012, p. 45, 48.

4. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983.

5. Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1996.

6. Albert Frederick Madden, ‘“Not for export”: The Westminster Model of Government and British Colonial Practice’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 8(1), 1979, pp. 10-29.

7. Mamdani 2012, p. 28, 30.

8. Bambi Ceuppens and Peter Geschiere, ‘Autochthony: Local or Global? New Modes in the Struggle over Citizenship and Belonging in Africa and Europe’, Annual Review of Anthropology 34, 2005, pp. 385-407, 385.

9. U.K. (United Kingdom), Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73.

10. Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2018.

11. Lydia Potts, The World Market for Labour Power: A History of Migration. Zed Books, London, 1990, p. 69.

12. Lisa Lowe, ‘The Intimacies of Four Continents’, in Ann Laura Stoler (ed.), Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2006.

13. Potts 1990, p. 71.

14. Ibid., p. 73.

15. Mongia 2007, p. 394.

16. Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920. Oxford University Press, London, 1974.

17. British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (London), Emigration from India, the Export of Coolies, and Other Labourers, to Mauritius. Cambridge University Press, New York, [1842] 2014, p. 50.

18. Ibid.

19. Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939. Oxford University Press, New York, 1990.

20. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1973 [1951].

21. Miriam Rürup, ‘Lives in Limbo: Statelessness after Two World Wars’, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 49, 2011, pp. 113-134, p. 113.