Boats in a Storm
Law, Migration, and Decolonization in South and Southeast Asia, 1942–1962
Kalyani Ramnath




BOATS IN A STORM is a history of citizenship and decolonization set in South and Southeast Asia, narrated through seemingly banal encounters with law. When Japanese forces occupied Burma and Malaya in 1942 during the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of people—many of whom had migrated from India—had to flee their adopted homes and places of work. After the war, as they attempted to return, they became entangled in legal disputes. In the years following the end of imperial rule, they could not have known how new nation-states, eager to perform their newly won sovereignty, would judge wartime displacements. The implicit questions that government officials posed in these legal disputes were: Where were you in 1942? Did you abandon your adopted home or place of work? If so, why should we admit you to citizenship? Boats in a Storm explores responses to these questions, given in courts of law and before commissions and recounted through personal and familial histories that crisscrossed India, Burma/Myanmar, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, and Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore, while they tried to preserve what I will call the rhythms and patterns of migrant life around the Bay of Bengal / eastern Indian Ocean.

The seemingly unimportant legal disputes featured in Boats in a Storm have rarely been included in the postwar history of South and Southeast Asia, which is usually narrated from the perspective of those involved in political and diplomatic negotiations over the administrative aspects of decolonization. In contrast, it was in these seemingly inconsequential encounters—collecting on unpaid debts, paying income tax, remitting money to relatives, writing up a will—that people experienced the aftereffects of the war and witnessed decolonization. Migrant laborers who fled from Rangoon to South India during the Japanese occupation struggled to return to work when magistrates could not issue the right travel permits. Sayed Abdul Cader, a shopkeeper and trader in Colombo who had remitted a large sum of money to his family in India before fleeing across the Palk Strait, found himself the subject of a tax investigation in both countries. A similar assessment from income tax authorities sent Veerappa Chettiar, a partner in a moneylending firm that operated between Rangoon and Madras, into paroxysms of anxiety, convinced that he would lose all his carefully acquired wealth. Laborers like Kandaswamy Muthiah who worked on Ceylon’s tea plantations found that although they had stayed on the plantation and even contributed to wartime relief funds, their applications for naturalization in Ceylon were regarded with suspicion. Ramiah, a dockworker at Singapore Harbor whose parents had been indentured laborers on plantations in Malaya, regretted his decision to join a trade union strike for higher wages after the war when he was deported to India, a home he had never known. All of them narrated—or were compelled to narrate—personal and familial histories before the law as they struggled to explain lives lived around and across an ocean. These are individual accounts, but they are representative and offer glimpses into postwar South and Southeast Asia, (dis)connected in the age of decolonization. These postwar encounters with the law took place within a set of political discourses that framed wartime displacements as disloyalty. The contrast here is stark: on the one hand, new networks of solidarities were being forged between former colonies after the war. During the time period covered in this book, representatives of governments across Asia convened at the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 in New Delhi to consider the consequences of the war; leaders of governments across South and Southeast Asia gathered at Bandung for the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955; and many Afro-Asian states eventually joined the Non-Aligned Movement as an alternative way of navigating the rising tensions of the Cold War.1 On the other hand, beyond these highly visible events that took place on an international stage, the small, mundane, seemingly unimportant legal encounters between governments and migrants recharted the once-intertwined histories of South and Southeast Asia.

These wartime displacements and their aftermath also stand in contrast to the comparatively better-known events that marked decolonization and the beginning of the end of empires in South and Southeast Asia. Take, for example, the violence and displacement that accompanied the territorial partition of India into the new states of India and Pakistan in 1947 (“the Partition”) or the “resettlement” following counterinsurgency operations that accompanied the creation of the Federation of Malaya in 1948 (“the Emergency”). In India and Pakistan, between twelve and twenty million people suffered and were killed in Partition-related violence as they attempted to cross borders that had been capriciously drawn by a departing British administration in the provinces of Punjab, Bengal, Assam, and Kashmir and elsewhere on the subcontinent. Across the Bay of Bengal, British imperial forces in Malaya sought to purge those with communist sympathies, conducting counterinsurgency operations and “resettling” more than four hundred thousand people, many of them Indian and Chinese migrants. But the laborers, traders, moneylenders, and dockworkers whose postwar lives are chronicled in Boats in a Storm, often categorized in government records as “evacuees,” “repatriates,” or “migrants” rather than as “refugees” or “displaced people,” often sink beneath the surface of the histories of this time, their submerged presence in the archival records reflecting the comparatively minimal interest that they received from national governments or international institutions following their wartime displacements. Indeed, these “migrants”—the double quotes are used to indicate that by the time of the war this term was used to describe many long-term residents or second-or third-generation immigrants in Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya as well as more recently arrived immigrants—were painted in monochrome as either villains or victims as new nation-states in South and Southeast Asia emerged from the collapse of imperial rule.

Boats in a Storm is set against the historical backdrop of imperial labor, capital, and trade networks and the nearly twenty-eight million journeys that were charted between India, Burma, Ceylon, and the Straits Settlements between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.2 During the global economic depression of the 1930s, these journeys, often back and forth across the eastern Indian Ocean, which had been established for over 150 years, were slowed and even stilled: there were fewer circular migrations, and more people settled in their adopted homes and places of work. During the Second World War, as Japanese imperial forces overpowered British, American, and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and as territorial borders between colonies hardened, these migratory circuits of labor, capital, trade, and finance appear to have been severed.

Historical accounts of networks and connections between South and Southeast Asia often end with the Japanese occupation and accounts of the “long march” out of Burma. From these accounts, it might seem that the war ended any hopes people had of retaining the connections that had linked the two regions. But this interpretation, based on historical data on migration patterns, privileges the perspectives of the British and Dutch imperial forces that returned to former colonies at the end of the war. Following the end of the war, administrative decolonization proceeded along separate and divergent paths, took on different constitutional forms within the former British Empire, and had different timelines. India first acquired a Dominion status within the British Empire, then became a constitutional republic in 1950; Burma, a former British Indian province, became a Union of States in 1948; Ceylon, a former Crown colony separate from India, became a British Dominion and a constitutional republic in 1972; and what had been the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore formed a federation that included sultanates ruled by Malay rulers, known first as Malaya and after 1957 as Malaysia.3 In these places, new constitutions and citizenship legislation struggled to cope with the rising tides of postwar insurgencies, ethnic conflict, and civil wars—wars often forgotten, as historians Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper have shown—in the shimmering promise of postwar national sovereignty.4 To capture this unraveling along multiple and overlapping temporalities, Boats in a Storm invokes historian Sujit Sivasundaram’s discussion of “partitioning” as an ongoing process of separation through creating distinct forms of knowledge—here, that of law—alongside the violence of territorial partitions that took place at this time.5 So the book begins not only with the redrawing of land and river boundaries during the 1947 Partition but also with the unraveling of networks of labor, credit, capital, and trade in law and the creation of two separate regional identities of South and Southeast Asia, which I refer to as the “other partitions” of this time. To borrow the literary metaphor in the book’s title, the storms in the lives of migrants did not end with the end of wartime hostilities. On the contrary, they were only just beginning.

After the war ended, temporary displacements threatened to become permanent. As many discovered during legal disputes that followed, borders were as much jurisdictional as geopolitical, existing not only at checkpoints and quarantine camps but everywhere—a dense, complex, and ever-tightening net of laws that caught within it every aspect of postwar life.6 Legal definitions of “refugee” or “displaced person” in international legal conventions initially restricted the category to the immediate displacements following the war in Europe; they did not extend to wartime displacements in Asia.7> In Asia, categories of “refugee” and “displaced person” acquired their own meanings and gained traction during the partition of India into the new nation-states of India and Pakistan, but by then these categories were already an uneasy fit for those displaced by the war from Southeast Asia.8 As with the aftermath of the Partition, these wartime displacements began to have legal consequences in India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya, as ethnonationalist movements seized the opportunity of unraveling networks and ambiguous legal provisions to rid new nation-states of “foreigners” and “outsiders.” Moneylenders like Veerappa Chettiar faced the prospect of lost debts due to demonetized currency and the nationalization of landholdings in Burma, and traders like Sayed Abdul Cader faced unresolved double-taxation cases not only because of conflicting rules about tax residence but because of a growing distrust of Muslims in Sri Lanka. Plantation laborers struggled to explain to judges adjudicating an application for citizenship why their plans to visit relatives in their ancestral village were not at odds with their plans to settle in Ceylon permanently, or why signing off as a “temporary resident” on a foreign exchange remittance form did not indicate that they were only sojourners on the island. The decisions in ordinary exchanges involving states and officials—how migrants paid tax, changed immigration status, avoided deportation, got married, and willed away property—began to have profound consequences for lives that had once been lived across South and Southeast Asia.


At first glance, it might seem that questions of political belonging after the formal end of empires could be resolved through nationality and citizenship regimes that offered the possibility of a fixed legal status. But these regimes developed on varying timelines across South and Southeast Asia. In India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya, legislative frameworks for nationality and citizenship were brought into force at different times during decolonization—in Burma and Ceylon as early as 1948, soon after the end of imperial rule, but in India as late as 1955, more than eight years after it gained political independence, and in Malaya in 1957, after independence. Boats in a Storm shows that nationality and citizenship regimes did not resolve questions of political belonging; instead, debates over political belonging were initiated in ordinary legal disputes about the relationship between new nation-states and their sovereign right to shape their body politic, in cases about unfulfilled debt or a contested will, before citizenship became a possible resolution. As legal scholar Renisa Mawani writes, the promise and peril of (il)legalities traveled across the oceans. Former migrants—now putative minorities within new constitutional frameworks—quickly realized that nationality and citizenship regimes made it more difficult to recover the rhythms and patterns of migrant life that had existed before the war unraveled them.

Law—understood not only as doctrine or principle but as practice—is a rich archive from which one can reconstruct histories of decolonization in South and Southeast Asia, an archive sometimes characterized by accidental accretion rather than intentional organization.9 Migrant journeys across oceans intersected with law and legalities at multiple points, from procurement of travel documents to restrictions on the amount of money or personal belongings one could carry.10 But these lives were also lived in the shadow of the law—awaiting judges in small courtrooms over petty cases, scrambling for a stamp or a signature from officials on a remittance form or a renewal of permissions for work, staving off the possibility of deportation for overstaying a residence permit, or searching for ways to negotiate around the rigor of these documentary requirements.11 Within the archives of law, personal and familial histories provide glimpses of lives that cannot be captured in statistical tables of emigration and return. The archives built up from legal practice retain documentation of these encounters of migrants with law, for they are created not only as a record of constitutional reforms and legislative changes by national governments but also through the minutiae of legal disputes over taxation, immigration, and detention across new international borders. All of these underwent profound changes in the wake of wartime displacements. A peopled history, written from the archives of law, thus helps us understand decolonization in South and Southeast Asia in ways not captured by military, diplomatic, or administrative histories of this time, which often assume the fixity of territorial borders, instead of recognizing the fluidity of jurisdictional claims.12

These jurisdictional claims are central to the histories in this book. Here both migrants and governments make claims to jurisdiction, reflecting legal scholar Sundhya Pahuja’s formulation of jurisdiction as an encounter in international law.13 Typically, claims to jurisdiction are either an invocation of or a submission to legal authority; in international law, these claims assert that somebody or something is within a particular state’s territory, or alternatively within its legal purview, and determines who has the authority to say where and when disputes can be adjudicated. Historically, claims to jurisdiction were bound up with territorial conquest in settler colonies and European imperial hegemony over its Asian colonies; they were often used to erase or eclipse plural legal traditions, to demarcate communities from each other, and to separate insider from outsider.14 Historians of South and Southeast Asia have used the legal concept of jurisdiction to highlight the agency that indigenous peoples had in crafting their own legal identities within the structures of colonial law. In postwar South and Southeast Asia, these distinctions through multiple jurisdictions continued to be reinscribed, but circular migrations across oceans also occasioned a different set of jurisdictional claims because of new nationality and citizenship regimes. Consider, for example, how a trader like Mohammed Ibrahim Saibo explained to the judges at the Madras High Court why he remitted money from Ceylon to India during the war but still intended to make Ceylon his permanent home or “domicile” (see chapter 5), or how the proprietors of the Shanmugham Rubber Estate in Malaya who lived in Madras argued that income from the plantation lay outside the ambit of Indian income tax law (see chapter 3). In claims and counterclaims about nationality and territory, people demonstrated their understanding of new geopolitical realities, but they also sketched out how these had unexpectedly drifted away from the prewar labor, capital, and trade assemblages and the circuits of mobility, to their detriment.

These claims and counterclaims made in the context of cross-border legal disputes show that jurisdiction was not only territorial but also temporal. As this book will show, nationality and citizenship regimes often invoked the wartime displacements in 1942 as a marker, tying definitions of residence and settlement to that year; they effectively designated those who fled as “migrants,” limiting their access to full citizenship upon their return. Jurisdictional claims were a chronotope, as in legal scholar Mariana Valverde’s framing; these claims underscore law’s power to shape space and time, the scenes and rhythms of everyday life.15 As claiming jurisdiction became a means of situating oneself in both space and time, migrants from present-day India in present-day Southeast Asia—especially those displaced by the war—became vulnerable to charges of disloyalty, which in turn threatened their acquiring citizenship in those places. Jurisdictional claims thus show that the legal status of citizenship in adopted homes and places of work was not accessible to all former “migrants,” not only because of where they were born or where they lived, but also because of where they were at the height of the war in 1942 in South and Southeast Asia.

While lawyers and legal professionals often think of law in terms of areas of practice, such as family law or criminal law, the legal histories in this book span a range of areas of practice; in surveying cross-border legal encounters and in accordance with the time period covered in the book, the book blurs lawyerly distinctions between public and private law and between national and international law. The cases examined range from direct taxation (chapters 3 and 5), to contracts and remedies (chapter 2), to immigration (chapter 4), to property and inheritance (chapter 5), to constitutional law and criminal procedure (chapter 6). This range reflects how migrants encountered “the law,” a capacious understanding that often, but not always, conflated law with the state. Their experiences were markedly different from those of lawyers or judges of the time, who might have classified these disputes differently—in terms of cases and materials on constitutional, administrative, or international law.16 International law is key here, although these cross-border disputes take place in the shift from imperial to national rule during which the notion of “international” was itself being worked out. Where migrants and their lawyers themselves explicitly used the language of “international law”—as in the case of the All Malaya Nattukottai Chettiars’ Association in chapter 2—this language gestured to the fact that they recognized that in a postwar world, legal claims had to reckon with multiple emergent national regimes rather than appealing to an imperial law across a fast-dissolving British Empire.17 Taking these gestures seriously, I follow the migrants at the center of these cases across the jurisdictions where they lived, worked, and made their legal claims, from Rangoon to Devakkottai, from Madras to Malaya, or from Colombo to London and back again, for this circulation not only was a central feature of the social and economic life of migrants in the region before the war but intertwined with how “law” was practiced at the time.18 In Boats in a Storm, I read both along and against the grain of these archives of law.

To track the travels of law as jurisdictional claims and counterclaims, Boats in a Storm begins with and returns to disputes at the Madras High Court, the highest court of appeal in the province of Madras in British India. Madras, which included parts of the present-day Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra, had several important ports, including those in the city of Madras itself (Chennai), Vizagapatam (Visakhapatanam), and Tuticorin (Thoothukudi). Madras was thus a key point of departure for emigrants in the colonial period, and during and after the war it was an important locus of transit and return. For a study of law and migration, the focus on provinces—rather than the central government—is important because until 1954, provincial governments like the one in Madras, as opposed to the central government, issued permits and passports, administered quarantine measures, and set up relief and rehabilitation measures for evacuees and refugees; they also policed the coasts to prevent “illicit” immigration. Madras was also an important node in colonial legal networks: as law circulated—in the form of doctrine and precedent; as paperwork in the hands of traders, laborers, and lawyers; as invocation in speeches of political leaders, activists, and intellectuals—we can see Madras receding and reappearing on the horizon. The legal disputes woven through the chapters that follow reflect how law travels. These travels are nonlinear, not necessarily flowing up and down from one level of judicial hierarchy to another—from trial courts to appellate courts—but more like the migrant journeys across the oceans, moving back and forth, sometimes disappearing from official law reports and lawyers’ memoirs only to surface in family papers or personal recollections. Law’s travels are visible in the pronouncements of judges, in the assertions of legal representatives, in the carefully assembled pieces of evidence and proof clutched in the arms of a nervous litigant.19 “Law” is thus valuable beyond its role as judicial precedent, especially because we have only scanty official and unofficial statistics on those displaced during the war in Asia; law leaves stories of migration and return in its wake. The book is also organized not by groups of claimants such as traders or laborers but by type of legal regime—taxation, immigration, detention, and so forth, and within it, by legal issues to emphasize jurisdictional claims themselves. The narrative thus shifts between different groups—from traders to laborers to professionals—not only because they were connected to each other within assemblages of labor, capital, credit, and trade, but also because of how they were made visible in legal records (for example, Chettiar litigants are prominent in taxation disputes and are thus the focus of the chapters on the taxation regimes, but they were by no means the only ones who were affected by those regimes). Finally, not all forums discussed in Boats in a Storm—including the Advisory Council under the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act of 1949 (chapter 6) and the Commission for the Registration of Indian and Pakistani Residents (chapter 4)—kept comprehensive statistics of cases admitted, dismissed, or adjudicated. Nor was every dismissed or decided case formally reported in a legal magazine or a law reporter. In the context of migrations, this makes the emphasis on the travels of law, rather than principles laid down in an individual judicial ruling or a quantitative analysis of cases adjudicated, even more important.

Boats in a Storm reconstructs personal and familial histories from a historian’s treasure trove of legal and administrative records, previously unexplored and scattered across multiple repositories in what are now multiple countries (India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Singapore). These include disputed income tax assessments, unfulfilled promissory notes, discarded foreign exchange remittance forms, and dismissed immigration appeals that crisscrossed new national regimes. Some—such as the archives of the Madras High Court in India (see figure 0.1 for the Writ Appeal Record Room where I worked) and the Commission for the Registration of Indian and Pakistani Residents in Sri Lanka—were at the time unassembled and uncatalogued, but I worked with and across these documents to frame the arguments in this book. I tracked down law offices in Chennai in India and consular offices in Kandy in Sri Lanka, to which people turned in a time of crisis. I used memoirs, community histories, and oral history transcripts in English, Tamil, and Malayalam to supplement official records. I traveled to ports of emigration along the coast of present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India. Piecing together documentary fragments and exploring the present-day remnants of this legal past are crucial for research into postwar legal and geopolitical changes, for government archives were often destroyed or disappeared during the war. Law is thus a dispersed archive of decolonization rather than an orderly accounting in terms of doctrine or principles of nationality and citizenship in newly created nation-states.


Boats in a Storm shows that citizenship as a legal status did not resolve question of political belonging. People put forward their own claims in the minutiae of legal disputes over taxes, inheritance, remittances, and wages. Indeed, in shifting attention from legal status to legal practice, from citizenship claims to jurisdictional claims, and from the territorial to the temporal dimensions of citizenship, Boats in a Storm shows that people who lived and worked in more than one place did not see themselves as limited to opposing legal categories of citizenship or statelessness. Political belonging in postwar South and Southeast Asia was, as it continues to be today, a spectrum, on which citizenship and statelessness were but two points.20 In a world that demanded proof of political loyalty, those whose stories figure in these chapters—Seethalakshmi Achi, Kandaswamy Muthiah, Umbichi Haji and Katheesa Bi, Ramiah and many others—negotiated and navigated this spectrum, attempting to revive the rhythms and patterns of prewar migrant life.

FIGURE 0.1: Madras High Court Record Room. Photograph by author.

There is a growing community of scholars who study the twentieth-century struggle for citizenship rights of global and diasporic South Asians in settler colonies in Europe and the Americas.21 These scholars trace how, in the early twentieth century, the descendants of Indian indentured laborers and others who had been transported to settler colonies and penal settlements in Asia, Africa, and Caribbean demanded their rights, as literary scholar Sukanya Banerjee notes, not only as British subjects, but indeed as imperial citizens.22 Others who formed part of the many trading diasporas from West and South India, from present-day states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, also fought to secure political rights in new homes.23 More often than not, the focus is on the role of political leaders, diplomats, or envoys from India who traveled there.24 In relation to this body of scholarship, historian Alison Bashford identifies decolonization in Asia and Africa as the “missing political moment,” one that slips through the cracks between, on the one hand, this vibrant scholarship on colonial-era immigration histories of exclusion in settler colonies that comes to an end with the Second World War and, on the other, scholarship that details the contemporary exclusion of formerly colonized peoples.25

Historians of South Asia have addressed this “missing” moment in multiple ways, linking it to South Asia’s many partitions. Charting the shift from imperial to national citizenship in South Asia, scholars of citizenship have shown how it was shaped by the violence and displacement following the establishment of nation-states in India and Pakistan. Niraja Gopal Jayal and Anupama Roy show that the displacements following the Partition and the ensuing debates over political belonging were central to how citizenship was wrought. Jayal traces how a jus soli conception of citizenship—one that was grounded in territory and enmeshed in the politics of the Partition—gave way to a jus sanguinis model in contemporary India, one in which bloodlines and familial descent determine access.26 Tracing these shifts through amendments to citizenship legislation in India, Roy shows that exceptions were created first for Assam during the Partition; later, following the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, to address the demographic shifts that had resulted in large numbers of migrants and refugees in India’s “Northeast”; and finally, in 2003, to establish a deterritorialized notion of citizenship through the creation of a new status, “overseas citizen of India,” that encompassed India’s far-flung diasporas.27 Historians of the 1947 Partition and of liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 have also traced how any understanding of the category of citizenship is thus incomplete without exploring how refugees displaced by newly drawn territorial borders in the subcontinent were incorporated into the developmentalist logic of new nation-states.28 Beyond the context of the Partition involving India, Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh, Valli Kanapathipillai shows how the disenfranchisement of laborers on plantations in Sri Lanka—the malayaika thamilar recruited during British rule from India—was central to the making of the categories of citizenship and statelessness in Sri Lanka.29 Complementing this rich body of work on migration, displacement, and partitions but shifting the scope and scale of these explorations to adopt the perspective of unraveling circular migrations within Asia and across the oceans following the war helps us rethink citizenship and decolonization.

The co-constitution of migration and citizenship during decolonization is also often explored from the perspective of metropolitan Britain itself, not from the perspective of those who attempted to retain the rhythms and patterns of migrant life between its former colonies in South and Southeast Asia.30 Although postwar amendments to the Nationality and Status of Aliens Act in 1948 did offer former British subjects a legal means of emigrating to Britain, they were not expected to result in a huge wave of migration. Defying these expectations, nearly five hundred thousand former British subjects emigrated between 1948 and 1971.31 More significantly, in the immediate years following political independence, former British colonies were expected to work out their own principles of national legal citizenship. For people who traveled between South and Southeast Asia, many of whom were now recast as minorities under the national citizenship schemes in their adopted homes and places of work, access to the rights and privileges of citizenship involved navigating legal encounters within new national regimes, where national loyalties were measured out by one’s presence or absence from the new country at specific moments, such as during the war, or for specific lengths of time that often overlapped with wartime displacement. The legal encounters I describe here—those of migrants who once traveled between South and Southeast Asia—reveal that decolonization as a process was not only a negotiation between imperial metropoles and colonies: these disputes also unfolded between and among the national legal regimes of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore. In other words, decolonization was also intercolonial: national geographies were constructed not only from the debris of shipwrecked empires and the residues of imperial collapse but also from competing nationalisms between colonies. Even as national myths were being created against colonial constructions of origins and beginnings, community legends, myths, and imaginations that cut across emergent boundaries jostled for space.32

A comparison might be drawn here with the alternative political possibilities to the nation-state and national citizenship imagined by anticolonial leaders in French West Africa between 1945 and 1960 that historian Frederick Cooper describes.33 This transregional perspective on legal citizenship has been explored in the scholarship on other geographic regions; outside of South Asia, partitions and minority citizenship are discussed using global, transnational, and comparative methods. Scholars have documented how, in interwar Europe and the Middle East, national legal regimes surrounding citizenship transformed migrants into minorities and, simultaneously, minorities into perpetual migrants—the same “array of legal tactics” designed to effect partitions and population transfers that would be implemented in South and Southeast Asia during decolonization. In interwar Europe, as Mark Mazower has written, the League of Nations and its Minorities Treaties used the terms minority and minority protection in the context of the creation of nation-states that emerged from the collapse of the Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg Empires.34 As Mira Siegelberg shows in her intellectual history of the legal category of “statelessness,” minorities were made dependent on nation-states for their legal status, which they were stripped of during the Second World War; this historic background is what would lead philosopher Hannah Arendt to describe postwar citizenship as “the right to have rights.”35 The other side of minority protection was forced deportations in the British and French mandates set up by the League.36 Laura Robson has described a similar situation in the interwar Middle East, where population transfers between Greece and Turkey took place in the context of partition of territories in Cyprus and Palestine.37 The translation of ethnic identities into and through legal identities that, according to Robson, characterized the interwar period in Europe was a feature of colonial rule in South Asia from its very first days. For example, it is reflected in the ways that what is known as “personal law” (different laws for different groups, such as “Islamic law” and “Hindu law”) legally set different groups apart from each other in South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the legal practices employed by emergent nation-states in South and Southeast Asia appear to be a continuation of, and coterminous with, colonial legal regimes that were already in place. They are similar to the legal tactics that Robson describes as employed by the League of Nations in British and French mandates in the interwar period, but they have longer, murkier histories. Postimperial sovereignty in South Asia was firmly yoked to the political form of the nation-state, not least because of the demands of international law, as legal scholars Luis Eslava and Sundhya Pahuja note. So in this book, the alternative political possibilities that decenter the territorial limits of the nation-state, and which we might envision in migrant histories, are linked to jurisdictional claims.38 If these projects of “worldmaking,” to use scholar Adom Getachew’s phrase, that consider the transition from empire to nation-states often focus on how anticolonial political leaders reimagined a postwar world order, Boats in a Storm reimagines what worldmaking might have looked like from the perspective of ordinary migrants, attempting to recreate prewar circuits of mobility across the eastern Indian Ocean.39 By following legal struggles between South and Southeast Asia—between former colonies, as an intercolonial process, rather than between the metropole in London and colonies in Asia—this book offers a lesser-known perspective of how migrants sought to reimagine their worlds in the aftermath of war, partitions, and displacement.

Boats in a Storm is therefore not an account of the political or diplomatic events following the end of the war. Decolonization, seen from migrant perspectives, is not only the triumphant final chapter in the history of revolutionary struggles or anticolonial activism. Scholarship on India’s international relations that has emphasized political and diplomatic negotiations, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, and has discussed India, Burma, and Malaya within the same frame has also emphasized the role of migration, particularly labor migration.40 Historians of the Indian Ocean have also shown that migrant lives were caught up in, and often shaped, transnational political currents.41 But even as prominent political leaders—for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aung San, Subhash Chandra Bose, or U Nu and the ideals that they espoused—certainly figured in people’s imaginations, the aspirations of political leaders receded into the background in the harsh light of migrants’ immediate attempts to navigate a world of new nation-states through taxation, immigration, and detention regimes after the war ended. Most of the migrants in the chapters that follow proposed no political or constitutional alternative to nation-states in the legal claims that they put forward; they were not revolutionaries or radicals who sought, in the aftermath of and because of the war, to craft a new political solution to the rapidly unraveling of the ties that had once connected South and Southeast Asia. Instead, they told their stories, which show how their lives were once lived within a connected world of land, labor, capital, and credit across South and Southeast Asia. In the postwar period, these stories were also narrated by journalists and writers who traveled with their work across new national borders. In the years leading up to and immediately following independence, many invoked the language of “greater” diasporas and their homelands—as in the case of Greater India, which projected a shared “Indian” civilizational influence over present-day Southeast Asia from ancient times.42 Scholars of international law and international affairs keen on reviving India’s place on a new world stage put forth revised versions of this “history” as well.43 But there were other less grand narratives being spun as well across the oceans; as historian Lakshmi Subramanian shows, through a reading of Chettiar-sponsored Tamil periodicals in India, Malaya, and Burma, there was also a growth of newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets characterized by narrow concerns about thriving materially in adopted homes rather than forging a shared political future between India, Burma, and Malaya.44 Political organizing did take place around a shared linguistic identity, slipping uneasily into a conflation of linguistic and racial identities and suggesting that claims to being “authentic” citizens could be established because of the language that one spoke.45 So while migrants from South India to the Straits Settlements did organize around and leverage a Tamil identity that was often used to describe them in colonial-era government documents, Tamil-speaking migrants in Malaya existed in an uneasy relationship with political movements in India; as Darinee Alagirisamy shows, Tamil nationalisms in India and Malaya were linked but took on different forms.46 Simultaneously, on the other shore of the Bay of Bengal, in the first decade following independence, the demands for reorganizing the provinces of independent India, including the present-day state of Kerala, on the basis of majority language spoken in each district—the linguistic reorganization of states—was built on a shared diasporic identity of being Malayali but was articulated differently in Singapore than in India.47 Reflecting these possibilities, what follows is not an attempt to explore these vernaculars of political belonging, as reflected in literary, religious, or political texts; rather, it seeks to show how language—when pressed into service as a political and juridical marker—helped disrupt the teleological narrative of anticolonial struggles that ended with decolonization. In other words, it offers an account of how migrant futures were marked by imaginaries of a shared linguistic identity and how this found expression in legal disputes.48 These imaginaries and their materializations in legal documents circulated both within and beyond migrant networks, and were often marginalized within political and diplomatic circles. These legal struggles, many still ongoing, are the unfinished business of the end of empires in South and Southeast Asia.

While a straight line cannot—and arguably, should not—be drawn from 1942 to the present, these insights in Boats in a Storm inform debates on migration, citizenship, refugeedom and statelessness today. India alone, leaving aside the other countries in South Asia, has the world’s largest diaspora at 17.9 million people as of 2020, and Indian migrants remit $89 billion as of 2021, making up a significant component of the global South Asian diaspora.49> At the same time, however, about 78 percent of the global South Asian and nearly 66 percent of the Southeast Asian diaspora are located within South and Southeast Asia respectively, not in Europe or the Americas.50 However, the “long shadow” of the end of empire continues to cast a pall over those who wish to reside or seek the citizenship of a country other than that of their origin. In 2019, India’s citizenship legislation was amended to provide a quicker path to citizenship by naturalization for non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Bangladesh who entered India before December 31, 2014; these amendments were strongly condemned as discriminatory in nationwide protests and continue to be challenged in courts.51 Although it was widely touted as a replacement for a refugee law, Lankan Tamils who sought refuge in India following the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983 and the Tibetan refugees who fled to India in 1959 found no mention in the act and continue to face challenges in naturalizing as Indian citizens.52 About 40 percent of the world’s 4.2 million stateless persons live in Southeast Asia, many because of borders arbitrarily drawn and mobilities ignored during decolonization.53 News cycles highlight “crises” such as the forced expulsion of ethnic and religious minorities from Myanmar and the creation of citizens’ registers in South Asian borderlands that demand documentary proof of citizenship.54 Boats in a Storm reveals parallels and continuities in global conversations about displacement, dispossession, belonging, loyalty, and citizenship that cut across national borders: how the phantasmic fear of the “illegal” immigrant fuels ethnonationalisms, how the violence of bureaucratic procedures that determine citizenship results in lost lives, and how the stamp of authenticity is accorded only to those with personal histories that align with state-sanctioned political histories.


In 1942, following military occupation by Japanese forces in Burma and Malaya and fearing attacks on the Indian subcontinent, people abandoned coastal towns and cities around the Bay of Bengal or the eastern Indian Ocean for the relative safety of villages in the hinterland. The affluent bought tickets to board ships, steamers, and trains; those who were unable to do so trekked hundreds of miles across mountains and jungles on the India-Burma borderlands. They arrived at ports, railway stations, and rehabilitation camps that dotted India’s eastern coastline and waited for the war to end. Ongoing negotiations on immigration control between India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya had been abandoned because of the war. When the war officially ended in 1945, there were no agreements in place, only a patchwork of rules for movement, travel, and residence between colonies. Taking advantage of this uncertainty, political leaders in Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya, many of whom had long portrayed migrants as outsiders stealing jobs, market shares, and land from locals, argued that migrant laborers, traders, and financiers who had fled during the war should not be allowed to return. These governments imposed jurisdictional borders in the form of remittance limits, double taxation, and rapid land nationalization that reinscribed new territorial borders between nation-states. Chapter 1 recounts this story through oral histories, memoirs, and newspaper reports, describing wartime displacements and the migrants’ thwarted plans for postwar return.

In chapter 2, I trace what happened as these migrants struggled to return to war-devastated economies; the wartime displacements of these migrants formed the context and presumption for the legal encounters that they were being forced to navigate after the war. Struggling to recover from galloping inflation during the war, postwar economies in South and Southeast Asia teetered on the brink of collapse. Business communities in Burma and Malaya, notably the politically prominent Nattukottai Chettiars, who lent money and owned mills, mines, and plantations, claimed that any repayments of debts in “banana money”—currency circulated by the Japanese occupation government—were invalid, affecting debt recoveries, property transactions, and land ownership. This roused the suspicion and resentment of governments that were already skeptical about the place of foreign-owned business in postwar national economies: these businesses’ claims of wartime loss and collapse did not ring true. Even as ordinary people, laborers, small shopkeepers, and plantation workers, whose meager earnings or small plots of land might have been pledged as collateral to these moneylenders, governments claimed that wartime profits were being siphoned out of the country through the flight of “refugee capital.” This chapter offers an alternative view of postwar economic reconstruction: through legislative debates, petitions, and pamphlets from India, Burma, and Malaya, it shows how businessmen, traders, and financiers battled to remain part of the postwar economy, fighting not only restrictive foreign exchange regulations and land nationalization but also nativist stereotypes that portrayed them as having profited disproportionately off the land and labor of their adopted homes.

As chapter 3 shows, the allegations of the flight of “refugee capital” were not wholly untrue. In the years leading up to their displacement from Burma, moneylenders and financiers—including the Nattukottai Chettiars, who had lived in Burma and Malaya for over a century and a half but had retained ties to their ancestral villages in India—remitted nearly $1.3 billion from Burma. This chapter shows how the Chettiars’ money was fought over by emerging nations with competing claims to their wealth. The legal battles over these fortunes give us a glimpse of how the Chettiars’ business practices (including circular migration, family and kinship structures, and customary business practices) were disrupted by the growing separations within emerging nation-states. After many Chettiar firms ended operations in Burma during the war, restrictions on travel and land ownership made it difficult for them to return to claim the rest of their fortunes. At the same time, India redesigned its income tax regimes and definitions of tax residence to claim that their remittances to India from Burma were subject to Indian income tax. Using tax advisory opinions written by judges of the Madras High Court, chapter 3 shows how Chettiar financiers responded to these jurisdictional claims. Although the income had indeed been earned outside India in Southeast Asia, customary Chettiar familial and commercial practices had kept their transactions tied to India, and they argued that these customary ties did not mean that the money should be subject to Indian taxation. At the same time, the Chettiar communities were fighting on another front: just as they were being treated by India as Indian businesses and made to pay income tax on income from Burma, they were also lobbying to persuade Burmese and Malayan governments that they were integral to postwar economies and should be allowed to return. Their wartime displacements were held against them, and in the end many were judged to be foreigners and noncitizens: their landholdings were nationalized, in some places their fortunes were confiscated or taxed heavily, and their businesses were closed or interrupted. The Chettiars were left holding worthless paper—title deeds, contracts, remittance forms—that had once represented their fortunes in Burma and Ceylon.

The Chettiars’ property deeds and documents are but one example of how bits of paper possessed by migrants could become suddenly worthless—or suddenly valuable. Chapter 4 focuses on the fluctuations in the nature and value of paperwork for migrants, particularly the application forms for the permits, passes, certificates, and passports that would enable migrants to continue traveling between India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Singapore after the war ended, and the documentation that would prove their presence in (or absence from) their adopted homes. Postwar governments wielded paperwork as a threat, with citizenship held out as the prize for compliance with documentation regimes. The demand for paperwork to establish ties to adopted homes was an enormous burden, particularly on plantation laborers. In chapter 4, I examine naturalization applications made by laborers who worked on tea plantations in Sri Lanka to show how remittance forms, property deeds, letters to loved ones, and travel tickets were used as adverse evidence in legal claims about political belonging. While political leaders in Ceylon claimed that these plantation laborers had never intended to permanently settle there, those in India claimed that their long absence implied they had abandoned any claims to Indian citizenship: as these pieces of paper crossed the border between India and Ceylon, their value changed, posing different types of threats in the two new nation-states of India and Ceylon. These fragile pieces of paper, seemingly unimportant, would separate families who had once lived across India and Ceylon.

In chapter 5, bringing strands of the argument in the previous chapters together, I focus on intertwined cases of immigration and taxation between India and Ceylon, where familial attachments were translated into political attachments. In 1942, many migrant traders fled from Ceylon to their hometowns in South India, fearing Japanese air attacks on the island. After the end of the war, they found themselves having to answer the question “Where were you in 1942?,” some in the context of income tax assessments, others in the context of a citizenship application. They were asked to show why the fact that their wives and children lived in India should not be construed as loyalty to that country. These encounters took place in a political climate that conflated race, religion, and ethnicity with territory. In the courts, migrant traders sought to prove that these sojourns were customary, but their now cross-national familial, marital, and kinship ties were used to exclude those who lived and worked in both India and Ceylon. The chapter ends with the story of Katheesa Bi and Umbichi Haji, which upturns ideas of “women who wait, while men migrate,” as well as the themes of family, loyalty, and migration that undergird notions of national citizenship.

These ordinary encounters went largely unnoticed, even as new nation-states in South and Southeast Asia began to forge postcolonial solidarities along political and diplomatic lines. In chapter 6, I show that in India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya, major political parties leading movements for independence saw no place for labor migrants in the country’s postwar future and sought to use the postwar circumstances—including charges of communist sympathies in certain groups—to push them out. They found common cause with ethnonationalist movements that demanded that homelands be reserved for “original” inhabitants and sought to exclude newer settlers. In response, I show how left-wing trade unionists, writers, and journalists with leftist sympathies became advocates for migrant rights—both for those on plantations and for those waiting in port cities to return to their adopted homes. These advocates included prominent labor leaders and lawyers such as S. P. Amarasingam and S. Nadesan in Ceylon and journalists and writers including G. Sarangapany and R. Ramanathan in Malaya. As I show here, postwar nation-states mobilized legal regimes of banishment and deportation against migrants by labeling them communists and insurgents, setting a precedent for similar actions in a rapidly escalating Cold War in Asia. This chapter follows the legal encounters of six dockworkers banished from Singapore and detained on arrival in India. These descendants of Indian indentured laborers had been born in Malaya and sent back to a “home” that they had never seen or been to. The chapter draws on habeas corpus applications that these workers filed in the Madras High Court as well as letters that they wrote to their families and leaders of various political parties to show how they navigated being at the risk of statelessness caused by deportation, justified by the suspicions surrounding their political affiliations.

The final chapter, chapter 7, returns to Burma in 1962, twenty years after the Japanese occupation. In 1962, General Ne Win took over the civilian government in Burma with the help of military forces under his command and implemented measures that resulted in a second wave of displacement. These legislative measures were adopted to restrict migrant remittances, raise rates of income tax, and subject “foreigners” to increased surveillance and documentary requirements. From this vantage point, the chapter surveys the twenty years that had elapsed after wartime displacements in 1942 and the outcomes of disputes involving taxation, immigration, and detention regimes, noting how the invocations of wartime displacement in ongoing legal disputes mirrored the rhythms and patterns of circular migration and return, and illustrating how legal temporalities reshaped the official chronology of postwar events that moved linearly from the end of the war to the Partition to independence and economic reconstruction. Following the military coup in Burma, the execution of repatriation schemes for plantation laborers from Ceylon to India following diplomatic negotiations between India and Ceylon, the dwindling number of legal migration schemes that were not predicated on citizenship choices, and the growing number of opportunities to migrate to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, legal claims attempting to revive the rhythms and patterns of migrant life seemed increasingly unviable. The unraveling of labor, trade, capital, and credit networks appeared to be complete, and claims to jurisdiction that crisscrossed borders were swept aside by claims to citizenships. With the choice of citizenship recognized as the primary marker of political belonging, the government in India sought to incorporate refugees and repatriates into nation-building projects that focused on development and the potential for economic contributions.

In the Conclusion, I recall how 1942 became a juridical marker in nationality, immigration, and citizenship regimes in South and Southeast Asia and how the territorial and temporal dimensions of jurisdictional claims and counterclaims reshape our understanding of the first two decades of decolonization. In legal disputes around debt recovery, income tax, immigration, and detention that took place across new national borders, wartime displacements loomed large and were reframed in political discourse as disloyalty. In response to these disputes that followed the unraveling of migrant trade, capital, and labor networks, people attempted to narrate personal and familial histories that showed why these charges were unfounded, but in a postwar world where choices around citizenship were framed as political attachments, these narrations were rendered insignificant. Here decolonization unfolded not only as a political or diplomatic process but as a legal process that continually invoked wartime displacements in people’s everyday lives. These processes generated legal temporalities that altered how decolonization was experienced in, and continues to mark, the lives of former migrants.


1. See contributions to Luis Eslava, Michael Fakhri, and Vasuki Nesiah, eds., Bandung, Global History, and International Law: Critical Pasts and Pending Futures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Christopher Lee, Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010); Carolien Stolte and Su Lin Lewis, eds., The Lives of Cold War Afro-Asianism (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2022). See also Gyan Prakash, Michael Laffan, and Nikhil Menon, eds., introduction to The Postcolonial Moment in South and Southeast Asia, ed. Gyan Prakash, Michael Laffan, and Nikhil Menon, 1–10 (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

2. See Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). On connected histories of South and Southeast Asia that chart circuits of commodities, penal labor, religion, and trade between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, see, for example, Eric Tagliocozzo, Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865–1915 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Terenjit Sevea, Islamic Connections: Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009); Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Diana Kim, Empires of Vice: The Rise of Opium Prohibition across Southeast Asia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020); and Anand Yang, Empire of Convicts: Indian Penal Labor in Colonial Southeast Asia (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), as well as essays in Michael Laffan, ed., Belonging across the Bay of Bengal: Religious Rites, Colonial Migrations, National Rights (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

3. Harshan Kumarasingham, “The ‘Tropical Dominions’: The Appeal of Dominion Status in the Decolonisation of India, Pakistan and Ceylon,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 23 (December 2013): 223–45.

4. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

5. Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

6. Sundhya Pahuja, “Letters from Bandung: Encounters with Another International Law,” in Eslava, Fakhri, and Nesiah, Bandung, Global History, 552–73. See also B. S. Chimni, “The International Law of Jurisdiction: A TWAIL Perspective.” Leiden Journal of International Law 35, no. 1 (2022): 29–54 (for a discussion on placing “territory” and “jurisdiction” within their historical and social context).

7. Glen Peterson, “Sovereignty, International Law, and the Uneven Development of the International Refugee Regime,” Modern Asian Studies 49, no. 2 (2015): 439–68; Ria Kapoor, “Removing the International from the Refugee: India in the 1940s,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 12, no. 1 (2021): 1–19. Much of the scholarship on refugee history, such as Gerard Daniel Cohen, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), or Pamela Ballinger, The World Refugees Made: Decolonization and the Foundation of Postwar Italy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020), focuses on Europe, to which the international legal definition of “refugee” was initially restricted. Vazira Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), Haimanti Roy, Partitioned Lives: Migrants, Refugees, Citizens in India and Pakistan, 1947–1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Antara Datta, Refugees and Borders in South Asia: The Great Exodus of 1971 (London: Routledge, 2013), Uditi Sen, Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation after Partition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Joya Chatterji, “From Imperial Subjects to National Citizens,” in Routledge Handbook of the South Asian Diaspora, ed. Joya Chatterji and David Washbrook, 183–97 (London: Routledge, 2013), among others, have highlighted this exclusion in the context of South Asian history. Lauren Madokoro, Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), and Taomo Zhou, Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), also focus on how postwar refugee regimes in Asia played out against the background of escalating Cold War tensions, but with a focus on Chinese migrations in Southeast Asia.

8. On bureaucracy, citizenship, and the Partition, see Zamindar, Long Partition, and H. Roy, Partitioned Lives.

9. Renisa Mawani, “Law’s Archive,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 8, no. 1 (2012): 337–65. See also Anjali Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), Bhavani Raman, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), Fahad Bishara, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), and Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020), for monographs that theorize the role of law’s archive but also view the law as archive. See also Danna Agmon, “Historical Gaps and Non-existent Sources: The Case of the Chaudrie Court in French India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 63, no. 4 (2021): 979–1006, for reflections on the limits of law’s archive.

10. Sunil Amrith, “Indians Overseas? Governing Tamil Migration to Malaya, 1870–1941,” Past and Present 208, no. 1 (2010): 231–61.

11. Kamal Sadiq, Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

12. Yahaya, Fluid Jurisdictions.

13. Sundhya Pahuja, “Laws of Encounter: A Jurisdictional Account of International Law,” London Review of International Law 1, no. 1 (2013): 63–98.

14. Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Nurfadzilah Yahaya, “The Concept of European Jurisdiction in the Colonies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Jurisdiction in International Law, ed. Steve Allen et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 59–80.

15. Mariana Valverde, Chronotopes of Law: Jurisdiction, Scale, and Governance (London: Routledge, 2015).

16. Martti Koskenniemi, “Expanding Histories of International Law,” American Journal of Legal History 56, no. 1 (2016): 104–12; Eslava, Fakhri, and Nesiah, Bandung, Global History.

17. Kalyani Ramnath, “Intertwined Itineraries: Debt, Decolonization and International Law in Post-WWII South Asia,” Law and History Review 38, no. 1 (2020): 1–24.

18. Renisa Mawani and Iza Hussin, “The Travels of Law: Indian Ocean Itineraries,” Law and History Review 32, no. 4 (2014): 733–47.

19. Julia Stephens, “An Uncertain Inheritance: The Imperial Travels of Legal Migrants, from British India to Ottoman Iraq,” Law and History Review 32, no. 4 (2014): 749–72; Engseng Ho, “Afterword: Mobile Law and Thick Transregionalism,” Law and History Review 32, no. 4 (2014): 883–89; Fahad Bishara, “The Sailing Scribes: Circulating Law in the Twentieth-Century Indian Ocean,” prepublished August 30, 2022, 1–18,

20. On citizenship in India, see Anupama Roy, Mapping Citizenship in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), and Niraja Gopal Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents: An Indian History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). For a survey of the scholarship on histories of Indian citizenship, see Kalyani Ramnath, “Histories of Indian Citizenship in the Age of Decolonisation,” Itinerario 45, no. 1 (2021): 152–73.

21. Radhika Singha, “The Great War and a ‘Proper’ Passport for the Colony: Border-Crossing in British India, c. 1882–1922,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 50, no. 3 (2013): 289–315; Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); Renisa Mawani, Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); Neilesh Bose, ed., South Asian Migrations in Global History: Labor, Law, and Wayward Lives (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).

22. Sukanya Banerjee, Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) (focusing on the writings and speeches of civil servants and lawyers who traveled between India and South Africa). See also Mark R. Frost, “Imperial Citizenship or Else: Liberal Ideals and the India Unmaking of Empire, 1890–1919,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 46, no. 5 (2018): 845–73.

23. Rachel Sturman, “Indian Indentured Labor and the History of International Rights Regimes,” American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (2014): 1439–65; Mrinalini Sinha, “Premonitions of the Past,” Journal of Asian Studies 74, no. 4 (2015): 821–41; Sana Aiyar, Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

24. See, for example, Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi before India (London: Penguin, 2013) (chronicling Gandhi’s career as a lawyer in South Africa before he led India’s freedom struggle against the British), or Vineet Thakur, India’s First Diplomat: V. S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021). For an exception, see Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

25. Alison Bashford, “Immigration Restriction: Rethinking Period and Place from Settler Colonies to Postcolonial Nations,” Journal of Global History 9, no. 1 (2014): 26–48.

26. Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents.

27. A. Roy, Mapping Citizenship in India; see also Sanjib Baruah, In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).

28. See also Taylor Sherman, William Gould, and Sarah Ansari, eds., From Subjects to Citizens: Society and the Everyday State in India and Pakistan, 1947–1970 (Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Clare Alexander, Joya Chatterji, and Annu Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (London: Routledge, 2015); Malini Sur, Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

29. Valli Kanapathipillai, Citizenship and Statelessness in Sri Lanka: The Case of the Tamil Estate Workers (London: Anthem Press, 2009).

30. Jordanna Bailkinn, The Afterlife of Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Ian Sanjay Patel, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire (London: Verso, 2021); Sarah Ansari, “Subjects or Citizens? India, Pakistan and the 1948 British Nationality Act,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 2 (2013): 285–312. In the context of the end of French imperial rule, Gary Wilder terms this the “dyadic mode.” Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

31. Patel, We’re Here.

32. Bhavani Raman, “Calling the Other Shore: Tamil Studies and Decolonization,” in Laffan, Belonging across the Bay, 161–80.

33. Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); on Indian princely states and sovereignty, see Eric Beverly, “Introduction: Rethinking Sovereignty, Colonial Empires, and Nation-States in South Asia and Beyond,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 40 (2020): 407–20; Sunil Purushotham, From Raj to Republic: Sovereignty, Violence and Democracy in India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021).

34. Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Natasha Wheatley, “Spectral Legal Personality in Interwar International Law: On New Ways of Not Being a State,” Law and History Review 35, no. 3 (2017): 753–87.

35. Mira Siegelberg, Statelessness: A Modern History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).

36. Eric D. Weitz, “From Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions,” American Historical Review 113, no. 5 (2008): 1313–43.

37. Laura Robson, States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); see also comparative history of partitions in South Asia and the Middle East in Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson, Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

38. Luis Eslava and Sundhya Pahuja, “The State and International Law: A Reading from the Global South,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 11, no. 1 (2020): 118–38; see also Priyasha Saksena, “Building the Nation: Sovereignty and International Law in the Decolonisation of South Asia,” Journal of the History of International Law 23, no. 1 (2020): 52–79.

39. Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

40. See, for example, Usha Mahajani, The Role of Indian Minorities in Burma and Malaya (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1960); N. R. Chakravarthi, The Indian Minority in Burma: The Rise and Decline of an Immigrant Community (London: Oxford University Press, 1971). See also, in this vein, Taylor Sherman and Raphaëlle Khan, “India and Overseas Indians in Ceylon and Burma, 1946–1965: Experiments in Post-imperial Sovereignty,” Modern Asian Studies 56, no. 4 (2022): 1153–82.

41. Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Thomas Metcalf, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Aiyar, Indians in Kenya.

42. Susan Bayly, “Imagining Greater India: French and Indian Visions of Colonialism in the Indic Mode,” Modern Asian Studies 38, no. 3 (2004): 703–44; Carolien Stolte and Harald Fischer-Tine, “Imagining Asia in India: Nationalism and Internationalism (ca. 1905–40),” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, no. 1 (2012): 65–92.

43. Kalyani Ramnath, “Intertwined Itineraries: Debt, Decolonization and International Law in Post-WWII South Asia,” Law and History Review 38 no. 1 (2020): 1–24.

44. Lakshmi Subramanian, “Tamils and Greater India: Some Issues of Connected Histories,” Cultural Dynamics 24, nos. 2–3 (2012): 159–74.

45. Oliver Godsmark, Citizenship, Community, and Democracy in India: From Bombay to Maharashtra, c. 1930–1960 (London: Routledge, 2018); Rama Mantena and Karuna Mantena, “Political Imaginaries at the End of Empire,” Ab Imperio 2018, no. 3 (2018): 31–35; Uttara Shahani, “Language without a Land: Partition, Sindhi Refugees, and the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 2 (2022): 336–62.

46. Darinee Alagirisamy, “The Self-Respect Movement and Tamil Politics of Belonging in Interwar British Malaya, 1929–1939,” Modern Asian Studies 50, no. 5 (2016): 1547–75; see also John Solomon, “The Decline of Pan-Indian Identity and the Development of Tamil Cultural Separatism in Singapore 1856–1965,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 35, no. 2 (2012): 257–81.

47. Kalyani Ramnath, “Other Partitions: Migrant Geographies, Disconnected Histories between India and Malaya, 1945–1965,” forthcoming in South Asia Unbound: New International Histories of the Subcontinent, ed. Bérénice Guyot-Réchard and Elisabeth Leake (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2023).

48. Frederick Cooper, “The Politics of Decolonization in French and British West Africa,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, Oxford University Press Online, January 2018,

49. Pew Research Center, “Key Facts about Recent Trends in Global Migration,” Fact Tank, December 16, 2022,

50. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs data from 2020, 10.9 million out of 13.9 million international migrants from South Asia reside in the region (which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka); 7.1 million out of the 10.6 million migrants stay within Southeast Asia. See “Migration Data in South-Eastern Asia,” Migration Data Portal, last updated February 15, 2022,, and “Migration Data in Southern Asia,” Migration Data Portal, last updated June 14, 2021, See also Sunil Amrith, Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 16–17 (for reflections on the use of “Asian” migration).

51. Manav Kapur, “India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act,” Statelessness and Citizenship Review 3, no. 1 (2021): 208–35.

52. Abirami v. Union of India, W.P. No. 12361 of 2022, Madras High Court (stating that the principles of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act may apply to Lankan Tamil refugees); see also Partha S. Ghosh, Migrants, Refugees, and the Stateless in South Asia (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2016), 1–57.

53. Christoph Sperfeldt, “Statelessness in Southeast Asia: Causes and Responses,” Global Citizenship Observatory (blog), March 9, 2021,

54. See the contributions to Asian Affairs’ special issue on citizenship, belonging, and the Partition by Antara Datta (“Bordering Assam through Affective Closure: 1971 and the Road to the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019”) and Uttara Shahani (“Language without a Land”), and the introduction by Neeti Nair, providing a historical perspective on the amendments to the Indian Citizenship Act in 2019: Neeti Nair, “Introduction to Special Issue: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Partition of India,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 2 (2022): 293–97. See also Anupama Roy, Citizenship, Law, and Belonging: The CAA and the NRC (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).