BJP supporters in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, in 2019. Photo credit: Arun Sambhu Mishra /

Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press: 2020)

In February 2002, five months after Narendra Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, an anti-Muslim pogrom erupted in his state. In three months of violence, Hindu nationalist rioters raped and murdered hundreds of Muslim residents, injured thousands of others, and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, businesses, and places of worship.

Modi and the Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) were widely accused of complicity in the organized slaughter. Modi refused to provide relief to the Muslims driven from their homes, instead cruelly insulting the victims and their plight. He rejected relief camps as “child-making factories,” and insisted that “those who keep on multiplying” needed “to be taught a lesson.” A special court ultimately found that the “kingpin of the entire communal riot” was Modi’s confidante, Mayaben Kodnani, a BJP legislator who rose to senior minister in the wake of the massacre. Kodnani was convicted in 2012 of murder, arson, and conspiracy, along with thirty-one co-conspirators, but she was released just two years later, after a landslide BJP parliamentary victory elevated Modi to power as the prime minister of India. Four years later, with the BJP firmly in control of the state, the Gujarat high court overturned Kodnani’s conviction and acquitted the “kingpin” of the genocide.

Modi’s Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has aggressively asserted itself as the original and authentic ethnic and religious tradition of the nation, elevating “native” Hindus in India above the “migrant” followers of “foreign religions.” To employ the terminology of Nandita Sharma’s new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, Hindutva politicians seek to enshrine Hindus in India as the nation’s autochthons. This exclusive status is reserved for the purported “native” and “original” people of a place, the people who “belong there” and thus claim sovereignty over the territory. From the Greek words for “self” and “soil,” the autochthon literally springs from the earth. All others are allochthons — people from an “other land,” who do not belong where they reside and thus deserve no inherent right to rule.

During his 2014 election campaign, Modi condemned undocumented migrants as “infiltrators,” and vowed to send “illegal” Muslim migrants “back to Bangladesh.” Those who converted, he offered, would be “welcomed home as sons of Mother India.” Conversion to Hinduism is even referred to in Hindi as a “homecoming,” or ghar wapsi. Modi’s recent seizure of power and partition of Kashmir, the only predominantly Muslim region within India’s long-contested national domain, portends a wave of state-coerced migrations and further “homecomings” made under threat of exile.

Narendra Modi and his ruling coalition have made it clear in both rhetoric and policy that they see India as a home only for Hindus — all others are foreigners. This violent division of Indian identity is a bitter postpartum syndrome of the very birth of the nation of India. The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan led to the greatest mass migration in history, as tens of millions of people relocated across the new border in both directions, amid widespread violence that killed as many as two million people.

In Kashmir, Modi has now carved out a new partition at the embattled frontier of the old. And so, history repeats itself: Modi’s Hindu nationalism is largely a colonial inheritance, originally encouraged by officials of the British Raj, who supported the division of a Hindu-ruled India and a Muslim-ruled Pakistan in the exiting empire’s transition to what they called “home rule.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the phrase “home rule” first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to describe the governance of a colony or “dependent country” by “its own citizens.” Mohandas K. Gandhi adopted the phrase in the English title of his 1909 manifesto, Hind Swaraj, to make the moral case for Indian “self-government.” Sharma returns to this phrase in the title of her new book to remind us that the original dynamics of colonialism and dependence were inescapably prefigurative. Oppression and exploitation were the seed and soil from which the bitter fruit of national liberation movements grew. Racism has always framed the divisive questions of who is counted by a nation-state among “its own citizens,” who has the right to identify as “native,” and who is the “self” imagined in the phrase “self-government.”

Throughout the world, nationalist power struggles over autochthony have become bloody battlegrounds. Before Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist, the spiritual and political leader expressed opposition to the partition of India and Pakistan, arguing that Muslims and Hindus were all “sons of the same soil of India.” But Gandhi’s more inclusive claim was still authochthonous: It endorsed nationalist distinctions of purported birthright of the sort that have fueled Modi’s violent and racist assertion of state power. Gandhi might have preferred to draw the lines differently from Modi around who belonged to the “soil of India,” and he may have preferred nonviolence in maintaining the distinctions through the state. But his campaign for “home rule” did not challenge the nationalist project of drawing lines in the first place.

Sharma unequivocally rejects this line-drawing project in Home Rule, extending the critique of nationalist exclusion developed in her previous book, Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada. In this new book, she charts the reorganization of imperial systems into what she calls the “Postcolonial New World Order.” This new order emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with the nationalization of sovereign states in the Americas and culminated at the end of the Second World War in the establishment of the United Nations, which officially committed itself to the “self-determination of all peoples” and “a speedy and unconditional end [to] colonialism.” A wave of national liberation movements — from India, to “French Indochina,” to Algeria — largely dismantled the ruling structures of two centuries of European empire in the subsequent decades.

Despite the idealistic UN rhetoric of human rights and “universal respect,” exclusion has always been always a central feature of the state-making process. As former colonial states established home rule, they invariably constructed national identities by enacting new racist legal regimes of citizenship and border restriction, beginning as early as Peru’s 1853 ban on migrants arriving from China aboard boats with “illness, rebellions, or killings.” Costa Rica followed in 1862, banning Black and Chinese immigrants, then the United States in 1875, with the Page Act prohibiting “Chinese coolies” and “Chinese prostitutes.” In quick succession, nascent nation-states throughout the Americas established their claims to autochthony by excluding Chinese immigrants or other foreigners: Argentina in 1876, El Salvador in 1886, Colombia in 1887, Ecuador in 1889, Uruguay and Brazil in 1890, and on and on.

The Page Act, the first explicitly racist immigration exclusion enacted into U.S. law, followed decades of failed efforts by white politicians like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to establish a legal regime for expelling African Americans to the ad hoc colonial outpost of Liberia. Finally, with the Page Act’s racist restrictions against Chinese immigrants, the United States, “announced itself as a nation-state,” Sharma writes, “one whose nation-ness was defined by Whiteness.”

The principle at stake is the power of the nation-state to define “its own citizens” through the exclusion of people defined and classified as not “its own.” In addition to the bloody human cost, nationalism entails an extraordinary opportunity cost: its social and political divisions foreclose the possibility of collectively cultivating a global commons defined by mutual solidarity. Sharma proposes the vision of the commons hopefully and earnestly as a real viable alternative to the Postcolonial New World Order of nation-states.

Home Rule chronicles how the imperial expansionist “logic of facilitation” evolved into the exclusionist “logic of constraint” in the postcolonial order, following Radhika Mongia’s useful dichotomy of logics. Empires, which continually sought to bring more territories and subjects under their domain of exploitation, were replaced by nation-states, which sought to limit access to citizenship and its attendant privileges and protections, including its social identity of belonging. “In each of these varied historical processes, national sovereignty was premised on a separation of Nationals from Migrants,” Sharma observes. “The making of Nationals was a process not only of making a People, but making them a People of a place.” This entailed that all other people were not of that place.

These classifications and exclusions would have severe consequences, both for people’s social existence and for the entire apparatus of a world organized around enforcing exclusion. We now live within that vast, transnational regime of mobility control, which continues evolving in baroque complexity. As Sharma briefly outlines the web of systems at work:

Today we see ever more stringent criteria for authorized entry; reinforced border controls at the subnational, national, and international levels, including international police cooperation and government intelligence sharing on cross-border movements; the criminalization of unauthorized movements; armed intervention to prevent border crossings; “readmission” and “safe third country” agreements that facilitate faster deportations and larger numbers of them; economic cooperation agreements that are often preceded by the “cleansing” of sites used in the clandestine journeys of people on the move; carrier sanctions on transportation companies; the empowering of carrier and airport personnel to act as border police; and “short stop operations,” in which state employees are sent abroad to screen people setting off for their territories.

Drawing upon the tactics of “define and rule,” as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, postcolonial nation-states constructed migratory and resident classifications that simply reconfigured the extant imperial binaries of European/Native and its subsidiary, Indigenous-Native/Migrant-Native. The postcolonial enforcement of divisions between indigenous and migrant is thus a “part of the legacy of imperialism.”

The Migrant-Indigenous split was designed to disrupt “native” solidarity and divert two factions against each other instead of the imperial oppressors. Following this imperial legacy, nation-states classified new national autochthons and allochthons, arbitrarily including and excluding people through racialized categories. The great victory for the ruling class “was the fact that many people experiencing expropriation, exploitation, and oppression saw themselves through these ruling identifications instead of with other direct producers,” Sharma writes. Nationalists accepted, internalized, and intensified the imperial designations meant to “define and rule” them.

In fact, the narrow nationalist critiques of “neocolonialism” have given cover to the failures of “postcolonialism,” Sharma argues, by attributing the decay of “anticolonial” national liberation struggles to foreign corruption, exploitation, and capital extraction by transnational corporate and financial institutions. This line of critique has served as “a refuge for national liberation states” which were still “predicated on cutthroat competition between capital, between workers, and between states, along with the assured destruction of the planet’s ecology.” By directing critique toward “neocolonial” expropriation by foreigners — and “invasion” by migrants — nationalist discourses normalized the postcolonial expropriation of wealth and planetary resources by the state and “national capitalists.”

The fundamental insight of Home Rule is that Migrant and Native are not “natural, timeless categories,” as Sharma points out, “even if states and people act as if they are.” Indigeneity is socially constructed and contested, racialized, and politicized. Because nationality — and “nativeness” — confer status and power within the Postcolonial New World Order, “being a member of a nation in possession of territorial sovereignty is the thing to be(come).” Identities based on a story of “shared origins” in a certain place and an “imagined sameness” among members can be wielded as the basis for claims to sovereignty over land and people.

However, Sharma argues that claims to “native” group sovereignty over territory are only made plausible by both depoliticizing and de-historicizing National-Native identity as “originary” and “divorced from contingency, interpretation, or history.” Worse than divorced from history, “original people” become “a People without history” at all: unchanged, unmoving, and unpreceded by anything else. As people coming “from the land,” somehow preformed, Indigenous identities “come from” nowhere at all in history. After all, contrary to the roots of autochthony, people do not actually irrupt from the ground like stones — much less “peoples.” In geologic time, peoples hardly have a chance to emerge in solid form at all.

Autochthony makes a dual claim — to indigeneity and, therefore, to sovereignty — and both claims are political. In perhaps the most provocative argument in Home Rule, Sharma argues that any claim to National-Native sovereignty, regardless of who makes it, inevitably reinforces the state marginalization of Migrants and thus “further normalizes the postcolonial politics and social relations of nationalism.” Whether nativist claims are “articulated ‘from above’ or ‘from below,’” Sharma writes, whether they come from “far-right autochthonous politics” or the “metaphysical indigeneity in sovereign futures of ‘decolonial love,’” they reproduce a dangerous category error to be challenged. Autochthonous claims construct Migrants “as the negative others of National-Natives,” Sharma observes. By linking “‘Nativeness’ with ‘nationness’ and claiming that only National-Natives have rightful political claims to power, autochthonous discourses count on the subordination of Migrants.”

Home Rule presents a challenge to critical literature on settler colonialism which perhaps too often allows claims to indigeneity to go entirely unquestioned. However, Sharma makes clear that she is not writing against the claims of Indigenous people, “even if indigeneity is historicized and deconstructed (i.e., re-politicized).” Nor is she “pro-Migrant” in working to historicize and deconstruct the category of Migrants as “people out of place.” While Sharma finds important similarities among diverse nativist claims around the world, she also emphasizes that they are not all equivalent. It is important that each emerges in its own specific historical and social context and is “voiced by people very differently affected by imperialism, racism, and nationalism.”

However, advocating for a racialized sovereign state is never a coherent decolonial position, Sharma concludes, even as a defensive position against postcolonial domination. Despite some “radical, anticolonial discourse,” indigenous nationalism ends up reinforcing rather than disrupting the Postcolonial New World Order of “separate and national territorial sovereigns.” The alternative Sharma presents is a legitimately radical and anticolonial rejection the nation-state in favor of the cultivation of the “global commons.”

It is a central tragedy of our contemporary world that the “group with which one is identified shapes every aspect, great and small, of our world,” Sharma observes. We could call it the tragedy of no commons. Transcending our differences of identity to come together for a common cause has “become difficult to imagine and even harder to carry out.” But in spite of the painful histories chronicled in Home Rule, Sharma maintains optimism.

Instead of repeating the errors of the past, reinforcing the divisions and hierarchies of state citizenship and border regimes, Sharma proposes that we study, learn, and do better for the next political transformation. “While we have not yet been able to turn right-side up again a world where ideas of race, sex/gender, and nation fundamentally deform our ideas of society and self and allow capitalists to ‘prowl the globe,’ this book insists that we can,” Sharma writes. By transcending borders — of the state and the self — we might finally come together in a “collective struggle for our common, borderless world.”

Mat Cusick is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research, a Zolberg Fellow, and an Editor at Public Seminar.