India’s migrant crisis: the sovereign injunction that was not

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Ira Raja (Delhi)

On 24 March 2020, relatively early in the Indian trajectory of Covid-19, the Government of India ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown to contain the pandemic. Comparing the fight against coronavirus to the epic battle of the Mahabharata, a foundational Indian Sanskrit text of commensurate importance to the Bible, Prime Minister Modi claimed that while the Mahabharata was won in 18 days, the war against the virus would need three more to clinch (Pandey 2020). The lockdown, amongst the most stringent in the world, however, had to be extended thrice, with the country starting to re-open only in early June. A week into the lockdown, shocking visuals of large crowds scrambling to flee the cities started to flood social media. These were the people whose cheap labour had been fuelling the economy but who had remained invisible until the day they suddenly erupted on our screens. As Chinmay Tumbe notes, the sub-continental phenomenon of regional migration constitutes one of the largest and longest voluntary streams of migration for work in documented history, accounting for roughly 200 million people, but which has been obscured by the better documented fact of transnational flows (2018, p. 40).[i] It was these workers whose jobs the unplanned lockdown, introduced in a performance of sovereignty at four hours’ notice, had caused to disappear overnight. They were now forced, in the absence of all public transport, to walk hundreds of kilometres home.

Covid-19 provided governments around the world with an unprecedented opportunity to practice biopolitics, or what Foucault defines as a modality of power aimed at turning citizens into docile and disciplined bodies. The ultimate objective of biopolitics, however, was the wellbeing of the population, entailed in its preoccupation with the power ‘to make live and to let die’, as against the ancient right of sovereignty ‘to take life or let live’ (Foucault 2003 p. 241). While Foucault had said little about the means of achieving the objectives of biopolitics, by all accounts these were mostly non-violent. Indeed, states everywhere had encouraged citizens to stay indoors, mainly by invoking the fear of fines and penalties, the moralizing discourse of ‘responsible behaviour’, and the reassurance that these restrictions were only temporary. Others since have, however, struck a direr note. Giorgio Agamben, for instance, recently offered a darker view of epidemiological governance in his warning that the pandemic would provide states with the perfect excuse to impose a permanent state of exception. If Foucault thought sovereign power had been marginalized since the late 18th century, Agamben’s intervention amounted to a reassertion of its continued importance.

In the weeks that followed the announcement of the lockdown, the Government of India, not unlike governments elsewhere, issued several rules and decrees, all purportedly aimed at containing the contagion through non-violent measures or what the Indian PM called ‘the people’s curfew’. But the biopolitical measure of the lockdown, meant to illustrate the mechanism of making (rather than letting) live, was beset from the beginning by a range of contradictions. For the migrant population in the cities, which typically lived in crowded, confined conditions, now stripped even of the means to pay for food and rent, the state directive to stay at home or practise social distancing was potentially deadly. And yet, being out on the streets was to invite the additional trauma of vilification as a biological threat to the nation’s body. What the characterization of the privileged few who had secured their lives behind the barricades of self-discipline, as ‘responsible citizens’, hid from view was that they did so at the cost of expelling millions of others onto the streets, outsourcing to them as it were an intensified and accelerated risk of infection. The Foucauldian injunction that translated as ‘making live’ for some, in short, simultaneously translated as ‘making die’ for others across the class divide.

This brings me to my second issue with Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, namely its theorisation of violence. As must be clear from the above account, there was nothing inevitable about the hunger and homelessness suddenly staring so many in the face. To the extent that the self-discipline of some was directly responsible for exposing others to the risk of death, violence emerged as endemic and not extraneous to the biopolitical project. Is it possible to ask then, as Akhil Gupta does, in his analysis of India’s chronic poverty, that in taking a managerial approach to the population, Foucault had neglected to address the question of violence in biopower? (2012, p. 16) After all, by what logic does one not categorize the death of 600 people from hunger, thirst and exhaustion as ‘a direct and culpable form of killing’ enabled by specific state policies and practices rather than as an unavoidable situation in which these people were simply ‘allowed to die’ or exposed to death (Gupta, 2012, pp. 5-6)?

For some, Agamben’s warning about the ‘political instrumentalisation’ of the pandemic was alarmist (Delanty 2020). Yet, we have already seen how political regimes in Hungary, Turkey, Brazil and Israel have sought to weaponize the pandemic for their own ends. India presents a more complex story because of its scale and federal governance structure, but even in the Indian case Agamben was not far off the mark. The Indian government, which repeatedly congratulated itself for the alacrity with which it had imposed the lockdown, was at the time under considerable pressure from mass protests against the recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which had, in an unprecedented move, made religion a criterion of citizenship to the singular disadvantage of Indian Muslims. The state’s pursuit of students and activists who had protested the CAA continued right through the lockdown, and indeed was made easier by it as it afforded those who now stood falsely charged with ‘sedition’ little opportunity for mobilizing a defence.

Especially instructive here is an important distinction between Agamben’s reference to ‘being killed’ as against Foucault’s passive formulation of ‘being allowed to die’. As such Agamben offers a more persuasive account of both the way the state handled political dissidents and migrant labourers on the one hand and the forms of violence that it unleashed upon its own people, on the other. As someone placed outside the protection of the law and who can therefore be killed with impunity, Agamben’s homo sacer reminds us of the political opponents, civil rights activists, Muslims and migrants of India. These groups were rendered vulnerable in different ways (economic, political, and social) by the new laws and public health imperatives designed to ensure order, while as homo sacer their suffering did not constitute violation and no one was finally held accountable for having caused it.

And yet, its insights in relation to the domestic migrants of India notwithstanding, the cross-cultural journey of the concept of bare life is not easy. Whereas Agamben’s thesis depends on ‘a strong theory of sovereignty and a powerfully unified state apparatus’ (Gupta 2012, p. 17), India’s handling of the migrant crisis has revealed the state to be not just ‘pluricentered, multileveled, and decentralised’, as Gupta calls it (2012, p. 17), but also incoherent, confused and dysfunctional. According to PRS Legislative Research, nearly 4,130 executive orders were issued by the government in the first two months of the lockdown, many of those being corrections of the ones issued earlier.[ii] Some suggest the execution of the March lockdown was itself responsible for the surge in cases as soon as the country re-opened in June. Far from being ‘a unitary organisation acting with a singular intention’ (Gupta 2012, p. 46), its management of the pandemic, shows the Indian state to be pulling in multiple directions. Further, Agamben’s focus is perhaps too juridical. The migrants suffered not because they had been denied the protection of law. They were not so much victims of pointed exclusion as they were of oversight and criminal neglect. And turning finally to the question of bare life, it is important to note that most migrants did make it home, for what it was worth, with no help from the state, surviving on glucose biscuits, which have curiously emerged as the iconic Indian comfort food, and the intermittent kindness of strangers. They clearly needed no lessons from the PM on the virtues of self-reliance, which he nonetheless proceeded to deliver with studied gravitas, and which might have been comical were it not also macabre. That the migrants left in defiance of the best efforts of the state to stop them, finally called the bluff on the state’s claim to sovereignty. Simultaneously, it exposed the conceptual limitations of bare life which, by Agamben’s own definition, is produced by the Sovereign. If the state is no Sovereign, in other words, the migrant is not bare life. The point is not to demonstrate that theories of biopolitics and sovereignty don’t always travel well but rather to examine exactly where and why they stumble. This is at once an invitation to probe the particularities of the Indian case, as it is to recalibrate the social and historical assumptions of the theories themselves.


Ira Raja teaches at the University of Delhi.

Feature image: Nalini Malani, Examination Table I, 2013

[i] According to the 2011 Census, India has 454 million migrants, 54 million of whom are internal/interstate workers. But this data accounts for only a fraction of the workers in circulation. Priya Deshingkar, Professor of Migration and Development at the University of Sussex, contends the number of internal migrants in India to be closer to 243 million and would be higher if we were to include other significant sub-sectors, including fisheries, footwear, ceramics and leatherwork. See Priya Deshingkar, ‘Faceless and dispossessed: India’s circular migrants in the times of COVID-19’, Down to Earth 16 June 2020.

[ii]See Banyan; The Print Team; Kaushik Basu.


Delanty, G (May, 2020) ‘Six political philosophies in search of a virus: Critical perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic.’ LEQS Paper no. 156.

Foucault, M. (2003), ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976. Trans. David Macey. New York, Picador.

Gupta, A. (2012), Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan.

Tumbe, C (2018), India Moving: A History of Migration. Gurgaon, Penguin Random House India.

One thought on “India’s migrant crisis: the sovereign injunction that was not

  1. Reading the national lockdown within the theoretical framework of these thinkers, philosophers, academicians and reformers (mentioned in the article) is very insightful. Through the unplanned national lockdown, it has reaffirmed how vulnerable the
    migrants and less previledged sections of our country are.


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