Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Nandita Sharma

Luke de Noronha: Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre here at UCL and I’m very happy to have Nandita Sharma on the podcast today. Nandita Sharma is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is an activist scholar, whose research is shaped by the social movements that she is active in, including No Borders movements and those movements struggling towards a planetary commons. Nandita is the author of Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada, which was published in 2006 and then more recently, last year the wonderful book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, which was published by Duke. Thanks so much, Nandita, for talking with me today.
Nandita Sharma: Thank you, Luke, for inviting me, I’m really glad to be here.
Luke: So, I first wanted to ask what you’ve been working on and thinking about since the publication of Home Rule and, here, I’m particularly interested in how your thinking on borders, migration and citizenship has been shaped by the pandemic, or whether anything surprised you, or forced you to think in new ways about these core themes in your work.
Nandita: What I have been working on is really examining the idea of 'the people'. It’s very difficult to read on any subject, actually, without having the term 'people' attached to some or another category; we have the English people or the Indian people or the Rohingya people or the Mohawk people, and I’m really curious about investigating the history of that. When did people start becoming abstracted into group identities of a people or the people? And I know, of course, nationalism has a great deal to do with that, but it long predates nationalism, and I’m curious about how much that is connected to the imposition of state rule over peoples’ lives. So, I’m trying to figure out how to research that at the moment; I haven’t quite figured out how to do that.
But in regards to the pandemic, I think this idea of the people, most currently manifested in ideas of 'the nation', has been, unfortunately, the pivot around which responses to the Covid pandemic have been formulated. So, we have all sorts of border restrictions being put into place in the name of public health; and so the 'public' in public health has come to mean not just the people whose health we should be concerned about - which is, of course, everybody on the planet - but the public is once again nothing more than the nation or the citizens or the residents, like some kind of bizarre imagination that imagines that in each political space on the planet, there only exists a people.
So, it kind of reinforces what I argue in Home Rule, which is this particularly nationalist imagination that thinks that there is a place for each people on the planet, and that the mixing of people is inherently dangerous, and that has been kind of reinforced by the pandemic. So, we get nonsensical things like people with Chinese nationality cannot enter the United States, but people with American nationality can enter the United States from China; okay, so, obviously the issue is not having been in China and been exposed to a virus, it is your nationality. So, somehow the Chinese national is dangerous and the American national is just ‘coming home’, and somehow we can quarantine the American national but somehow that would not be sufficient for a Chinese national. So, it kind of reinforces, unfortunately it seems that every crisis, real or manufactured, that we enter, border controls comes to be seen as the solution.
Luke: I’ve found that so helpful in your work. I think you critique all forms of naturalised association between peoples and places and make a much more radical critique, I think, of nationalism than a lot of accounts. So, where many progressives are very willing to critique white nationalisms, they often maintain that colonised and oppressed peoples necessarily have a right to self-determination, and I think Home Rule, and your earlier work, really urges caution and you critique in the book the limited notion of decolonisation as replacing colonial rule with home rule, hence the title. So, I wanted to get onto the book and its title and maybe you could tell us, if it’s not too much, how you came to write it and what its main arguments are?
Nandita: I came to write the book, actually, having encountered Hawaii, where I now live and teach. I came here first in 2002 and encountered a special issue of a journal called Amerasia, on Asian settler colonialism and I was like, what? What is Asian settler colonialism in Hawaii, or in general in the United States? And I was very disturbed and upset by the idea that either the people who were contracted to work on plantations in Hawaii as indentured labourers could be recategorised, a century and more later, as colonisers and that their descendants, who are US citizens, are also colonisers. I was like, what is going on here? To me, it represented a dangerous hardening of nationalisms, a dangerous legitimisation of anti-immigration politics, and a conflation between processes of human mobility and human migration, in whatever form it takes, whether it is under direct state coercion, or economic coercion, or it’s not; a conflation between human mobility, or migration, and colonisation. I was like, really? Is all human mobility colonisation? And what is the kind of logics behind that and what kind of politics does that kind of logics produce?
So, I was really concerned that decolonisation efforts in Hawaii were being framed around this notion that this land, or more aptly territory, belongs to a particular nation, and if you are not part of that nation, you are, by definition, a coloniser. I just thought that was incredibly dangerous. And then I came to realise that it’s not just in Hawaii and we started hearing more and more about ‘settler colonialism’. Now there’s entire journals devoted to the topic of settler colonialism. It’s part of the lexicon of progressive politics, particularly in the former British, white settler colonies like the United States, Canada, Australia, etc. But the 'white' has been dropped. The white of white settler colonialism has been dropped and now, if you’re not native, you’re a settler colonist.
And I was really just interested in that and then realising that this was actually a worldwide phenomena, and that it traversed the political spectrum from left to right. Because I started off thinking what are progressive or left movements doing taking on board this kind of territorialised, racialised, nationalist politics as somehow progressive? And then, secondly, do they not see that actually the right is also taking up a similar politic? And so, I really wanted to examine that.
Luke: I read your book and then read Mahmood Mamdani’s more recent book, Neither Settler Nor Native. I think I read them because I was thinking about questions of political community, questions of nationalism, nation state, and I saw you had an interesting debate partly about this question, about the definition, both theoretically and politically, and its uses or misuses of the immigrant / the settler, colonialism versus racism, and these questions. How did you find that conversation and engaging with that book?
Nandita: In many respects it’s a brilliant book and it has lots of important things to offer, and Mahmood Mamdani’s work has been absolutely critical to my thinking about this topic, about the political categories of native and migrant, as is evident in Home Rule, I cite him quite a lot, particularly in the historical formation of the category of native or indigenous and migrant and the bifurcation between the two. So, I was actually quite surprised in reading Neither Native Nor Settler, which I was like, wow, fantastic, he’s got a new book, this is going to be so wonderful. And then I read the first chapter on the United States and I just thought, why is he not applying his own argument that he has done so interestingly and brilliantly when analysing, for instance, Rwanda or Darfur, or Sudan, or Uganda? Why is he accepting the idea, in some respects, that, for example, black people in the United States are settlers? That, to me, makes no sense.
So, he was making this, what I felt, was a false dichotomy, which is actually very prevalent in the discourse and literature on 'settler colonialism'; these false dichotomies between the colonisation of land and the exploitation of labour. My question was, how on earth do you actually disentangle those things in the project of colonialism? What use is land without labour? And, of course, we can’t live without land. So, I just felt this is a bizarre dichotomy. And then there was another false dichotomy between colonialism and racism. Mamdani was arguing that native people in the United States were primarily affected by colonialism and no-one else was in the United States, and everyone else who was subjugated in the United States is governed through racism. I just thought, again, can we ever disentangle colonialism from racism? To me, the main difference between our arguments is, what do we mean by colonisation? Because if we have unhelpful ways of analysing colonialism, that’s going to produce very unhelpful ways of acting towards decolonisation.
So, I think for me, just to take this one example of the experience of black people in the United States and the experience of those people who have been categorised as native / Indians in the United States, is that both of them, actually, were governed by imperialist States, both of them, particularly in the United States, were governed by the British Empire. The slave trade, that brought many black people to the United States as enslaved persons, was primarily under the operation of the British Empire; at least if the ships weren’t themselves part of the empire, then they were protected by the British Navy. And then you have a colonisation of land and people in what is now the United States by the same empire. So, how do we separate out the experience of black people and the experience of native people as somehow absolutely fundamentally disconnected, we can put up a wall and one is colonised and the other is exploited for their labour?
And Paul Gilroy’s work is so central to this, to show that actually we all came into being in our kind of present, modern understandings of ourselves through these shared imperial spaces. So, how do we then now say we’re going to separate ourselves as native people are engaged in an anti-colonial struggle and other people are engaged in an anti-racist struggle - it’s just bizarre. I was just kind of flumped by the whole debate.
Luke: I suppose one thing I feel like with a lot of people - whether it’s Mamdani or Patrick Wolf, who I know you’ve had debates around his work, or many of the other people actually who write, broadly, about the nation state, racism, post-colonialism - don’t always put their theorisations to work in relation to the figure of the migrant. And I don’t just mean the person on the move, I mean, more specifically, the non-member who is rendered temporary / disposable / illegal.
I enjoyed reading these books together and, disagreements aside, I think they’re both really important texts of the last couple of years, with huge historical breadth and scope for a broad argument that’s really useful for people trying to get to grips with the problems of the nation state and the history of the nation state formation. What do you think is the importance about thinking of these fundamental questions, which we can all agree matter to the study of the contemporary world, from the perspective of the migrant, because I think that is what you do that others don’t?
Nandita: It’s really interesting that the far-right is fundamentally animated by anti-immigrant politics and, on the flipside of that, by nationalist politics. So, to not pay attention to that and to think about what a left or even progressive politics around human mobility is, is fundamental to thinking about freedom today; what does the freedom movement of today look like? And I think that, for many people, unfortunately the freedom movement of today looks not unlike the freedom movements of a century ago, when people primarily lived under the domination of imperial states, and the world was carved up into imperial metropoles and imperial colonies. And, therefore, for some people, definitely not all people, who were fighting colonialism, for some people, and certainly the people who won out, the political position that won out, the struggle was for national sovereignty; for our own people to rule their own home, that this was this kind of political vision, that we are the rulers of our land. And, of course, not every anti-colonial politics followed that, and many people very clearly understood that this was going to be a way for the ruling classes, that could reformulate themselves as the rulers of the nation, to take power, as they did.
But that was part of the politics about how do we end imperialism. Today we live, primarily, in a world of nation states and I think, oddly, that is the fundamental fact that is ignored, that we actually live in a world of nation states. Even the kind of political vocabulary of the left is still talking about imperialism. When we want to talk about something that is really, really exploitative and violent and destructive, we talk about imperialism, and I wanted to shift the focus onto nationalism and to nation states, and to say that we’re actually living in a global world of nation states, and that is fundamentally different than a world of imperial states. There’s many continuities, the foremost being that land is still expropriated and labour is still exploited under both of these systems and, indeed, capitalist, social relationships have expanded enormously since the transformation of the world from empires to nation states. Those are the kinds of facts on the ground that I feel so much of us ignore, so much of the left ignores.

And so, they’re still fighting for national sovereignty. And I think the reason that people still talk about imperialism, rather than trying to identify this current system of rule, is because it replays the national sovereignty battle - we don’t have enough sovereignty and this is why we are still suffering; this is why we’re still impoverished; this is why we’re still run over by militaries, etc. For instance, the concept of neo-colonialism, or neo-imperialism, just replays the same battle for national sovereignty and that is, of course, incredibly useful for contemporary nation states. So, every nation state in the world is currently fighting against colonialism and the colonisers have largely become the migrants.
So just one step back, which is a key difference between a world ruled by imperial states and a world ruled by nation states, is immigration controls. There were really no immigration controls to speak of during the age of empires. Empires were really mostly uninterested in preventing people from entering their territories. In fact, empires moved a lot of people into their territories; the transatlantic slave trade, the so-called trade in 'coolie' labour, penal transport, all kinds of transportation systems to bring people into empires. They were very concerned that people not leave the empire, but weren’t concerned about people entering the empire.

Nation states flip that on its head. For the most part, nation states are not that interested in preventing people from leaving but they are incredibly, and increasingly, interested in preventing people from entering. So, the regulation and restriction on human mobility into state territories is what distinguishes nation states from imperial states, and if we don’t pay attention to that fundamental fact, then we are missing out on how the right is organising against us. And if we actually take up their strategies and think that we’re going to counter their anti-immigration politics with the left anti-immigration politics and border control politics, we are seriously kidding ourselves, and we are contributing to a system of global apartheid that is only intensifying and becoming more violent.
Luke: That’s really interesting. I suppose lots of people might think that the reason to use the terms of neo-imperialism / neo-colonialism would be to point to the kind of continuation of the most obvious forms of racialised global disparity, continuities with ideas of development, war; but I suppose what I think you do in the book, and what you’ve explained just there, is that by emphasising what’s different about the nation state form is to see the predominance and the proliferation of borders and walls. In other words – and I’ve noticed this in my own conversations with people – what do progressives, people on the left, people who consider themselves to be against imperialism and global inequality, for example, say about the bordering of post-colonial nation states? What do they say about nationalisms that might seem kind of progressive when in waiting but then, when seize state power, tend to have the same kinds of exclusionary, majoritarian projects?
And I think you trace that history really well of, look what these states did to make themselves nation states in independence, what did they do to mark their sovereignty, and often it was expulsions, immigration controls, nationality, citizenship laws. It’s easy to see how, in a world of nation states, each state enters the international realm and initiates a serious of exclusionary policies around membership.
Nandita: Yeah, and I suppose that many people on the left, and progressives, imagine border controls as something like the rich world is preventing people from the poor world from entering; but they’re not paying attention, actually, to how each and every nation state, in both the rich and the poor world, have put up immigration and citizenship controls to create these nations that they then purport to be ruling on behalf of. For example, if we care about people from the poor world, which is 80% of the world’s people, then we should also be concerned about immigration controls; they are also being used against those people inside the poor world.
For example, look at India and the new citizenship and anti-immigration laws and the new border walls that are being erected in India, largely aimed at further demonising and stripping Muslims of their rights within the Indian nation state, which is part of the whole Indian nation state project from the very moment of its inception. So, maybe that’s one of the reasons why, it’s that we don’t pay attention to anti-immigrant politics in the poor world, we see it somehow as a strategy only of ‘the West’.
Luke: Yeah, and I think actually, most people now – we’re considering some general group of progressive and leftist people or anti-racists – that they see through the Hindutva kind of Modi project which does invoke the reclaiming of a Hindu nation that was sullied by British colonialism, it has an anti-colonial narrative to it. But I think most people can see through that and Modi gets lumped in with the Bolsonaros and the Trumps of the world. That is obviously more difficult, and perhaps even more fraught, in the context of the questions about settler colonialism that you started with, but you do see a common thread of a kind of progressive, anti-colonial nationalism?
Nandita: Yeah and I think that hanging onto the idea, or the linkage, between national sovereignty and decolonisation is something that continues within left and progressive circles. The idea that freedom comes with national sovereignty, that idea is wholly dependent upon ignoring the work done by national sovereignty around the world. If national sovereignty is the solution to Hawaiian subjugation, if it’s the solution to Palestinian subjugation, if it’s the solution to Kurdish subjugation, then why was it not the solution to Indian subjugation or Jamaican subjugation or Vietnamese subjugation?
So, it’s almost like why are we failing to take the side of those people who have been harmed by the national sovereigns that rule over them? It’s this kind of weird, anti-imperialism, where we imagine that anti-imperialism means fighting the United States, fighting the European Union, fighting Great Britain - which of course it does mean that - but somehow not fighting all of those other nation states, and somehow all of the people that live under the rule of those nation states are not any of our concern. Does that make sense?
Luke: Yeah, it does, it does. With all of these conversations, I’m keen to end by thinking about No Borders and what are the frames, what are the concepts that you think under when you’re imagining what you want to affirm, or where the world might be different - No Borders is one of them but, otherwise, what are the concepts that you reach for and find hope in?
Nandita: Definitely my political horizon is defined by the demand for a planetary commons, to live in a worldly space and place in which the fundamental political foundation is freedom from exclusion, freedom from dispossession, freedom from displacement. Like, how do we live together on this planet when we can’t simply get rid of one another through deportation policies, or immigration restrictions, or prisons and cages of all sorts, or extermination or death penalties? How do we live in a world together that is actually in common, and its political as well as economic and social and cultural aspects are profoundly about non-exclusion?
So, when I think about the No Borders movement, yes, definitely its political formation came out of the Migrant Justice movement, but I think it’s moving on from there. I really see the No Borders movement and No Borders politics, and the philosophy of No Borders, as a lens through which to understand other things that have been seen as disconnected from migration. If we saw No Borders as a freedom project - a freedom from state and class constraints on our mobility - how would we evaluate projects to take land back? How would we rethink whose land this is and how are we going to live on it together? Because nationalist projects on land back are incredibly exclusionary, they rest on the idea that a particular group of people, usually forming themselves as a nation or a people, it’s their land and they get to decide what happens to it; that’s what we mean by self-determination. Is that possible in this world? Is that kind of argument going to create freedom? And for who?
So, I’m kind of increasingly looking at No Borders movement as a lens through which to look at labour movements, land movements, feminist movements, queer movements. How do we actually see ourselves living together in a world, especially when we have mobility, and the mobility is not constrained? How do we imagine ourselves in terms of individuals, in terms of communities, in terms of economic actors, how do we imagine ourselves at a planetary level of political community?
Luke: Yeah, and I think reading your work was one of the things that got me onto reading Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and conversations with Bridget Anderson, our shared friend. So, there’s going back, and I was thinking, when you were talking about the people, about whether an alternative might be the mob, or the motley crowd. So, there’s histories of The Revolutionary Atlantic, for example, that always prove hopeful, but then I was thinking about there are new urgencies, precisely which is what you point to by saying we’re not where we were 100 years ago, and this is a world dominated by the nation state. It’s also a world in which apocalypse feels near and in which people are increasingly aware, especially young people, about climate catastrophe. I was wondering, do you, in your thinking, in your work, link into or try and make sense of the urgencies around No Borders in relation to what’s called the Anthropocene, or any other -ocene?
Nandita: It’s impossible to imagine any response to climate catastrophe that doesn’t include revolutionary politics. We are seeing the response by nation states, we’re seeing the response by capital, and it’s shit. It’s not going to change shit. So, how are we going to put up with this? Are we going to put up with this? How on earth do we imagine that we’re going to maintain a politics of national sovereignty, national self-determination, border controls, immigration controls, nationhood, in a world where people are going to be moving for their lives at a scale and level that is absolutely unprecedented, and if they are not allowed to move, they will die in the hundreds of millions? How are we going to deal with this? And if we don’t centre mobility in our politics for freedom, and we kind of still imagine ourselves as contained within national territories that everyone needs permission to enter, we are consigning ourselves, we are consigning most of the planet to death.
I think we need to be really clear on that, that anti-immigrant politics is killing people now and if we don’t respond to it with a politics for a freedom of mobility, I just shudder to think about what the next decades will look like- just decades, like next year, what will next year look like if we continue to go down this route? We already in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, we can see that states have totally abandoned people on the move to those waters. So, to me, what can we do? We need to organise safe passage. We need to organise safe passage. That is, to me, one of the most urgent things we need to do. We need to organise our communities, our political / economic structures to allow for everyone to participate in them. We just need a radical politics of non-exclusion, non-disposability. All of the things that make anti-immigrant politics what they are - we need to exclude you, you’re disposable, you’re temporary, you need my permission to be here, this is my homeland - all of that needs to be rubbished.
And it’s not just on a benevolent project, like let’s help the poor migrants. What we’ve also learned from No Borders movements, and I’m thinking particularly the work of Bridget Anderson here, is that if we think that anti-immigrant politics only harms migrants, we’re also kidding ourselves. The same kinds of mobility controls that are enacted upon migrants are often enacted against citizens under different legal guises, whether that’s about housing restrictions or the prison industrial complex. There is a great deal of work to be done in our political imagination, linking mobility controls and not just associating them with the state category of migrant but also the state category of citizen.
Luke: I think that is a really powerful way to end and a reminder really, to me at least, that what your work has done is to fasten on a kind of anti-racist / anti-national politics to a set of reminders, that freedom requires freedom of mobility for everyone. So, thank you so much for sharing this space with us and having a conversation with me. I’ve really enjoyed it and I hope we get to meet in person and have you in London, whenever such things seem possible.
Nandita: I would love that and thank you very much, Luke. I really enjoyed this conversation, thank you.
Luke: Thanks so much.