Nation-states, passports and the global pandemic

Nepali migrant workers returning to Nepal from India after Nepal enforced a nationwide lockdown to stem Covid. (Photo: RSS)

Ajapa Sharma

  • Read Time 6 min.

As waves and surges of the virus reemerge, Nepali migrant laborers across the world, and particularly in India, will scramble back to Nepal. The question of how the Nepali nation-state will rehabilitate and repatriate them will be very important in determining its trajectory.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the world in early 2020, the first step that nation-states took was to close their borders. The world became more fragmented and closed off than ever before. In evoking border closures and emergency measures, nation-states across the globe evoked the principle of national territorial sovereignty. Tighter governmental controls from across the world followed with migrant workers and expats rushing back to seek security in their home countries. The deep connection between security, nation-state and citizenship were further established as international bodies such as the EU and WHO struggled to implement transnational public health policies and standards against the pushback from nation-states.

The British conservative liberal philosopher, John Gray, in an article in the New Statesman in April 2020, explained that the post-pandemic world would accelerate processes of de-globalization and post-liberalism. The evidence has indeed pointed to the disintegration of internationalism and global connectedness and the greater intervention of the state in the daily lives of populations. The contemporary is, as John Gray calls it, a moment of historical rupture. Yet it also marks a continuation of historical processes set in motion much before the present and therefore the world changed by the virus is not entirely unrecognizable.

Nation-state and Nepal

Nepal is not immune to these global processes and understanding the longer history of Nepal within the shifting global order. While we may consider nation-states that we inhabit natural, timeless and essential, it is product of long historical global processes. Many in Nepal call it the first nation state in South Asia and when compared to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, whose political existence came into being in the middle of the twentieth century, this may be correct. However, the state of eighteenth century and the modern nation-state that we see in the world today are vastly different entities. Whatever political leaders and activists may say, the nation-state attributed with specific sovereign prerogatives such as participation in an international regime of immigration and border control is a very new phenomenon.

The standardization of global border control through immigration and customs check, a process that has seen and will continue to see further expansion with the COVID-19 pandemic—talk is underway of a vaccination passport—is a twentieth century phenomenon. While documents facilitating movement existed historically across time and space, passports such as the small green-cover passbook issued by the Government of Nepal, easily recognize today, marking our place in the global world, emerged in the twentieth century to naturalize nation-states. Two simultaneous processes were at the heart of the making of the modern passport demonstrate tell the story of the citizenship and the nation as we know it—refugee resettlement and restriction of migration to white settler countries in the 1920s. The Nansen passport, named after Norwegian humanitarian activist Fridtjof Nansen emerged in the post-World War context to ensure that Russian refugees who became stateless were not barred from moving across European borders. However, the internationalist push for measures to ensure the rehabilitation of refugees in the 1920s reverted the responsibility of rehabilitation to nation-states. The idea was that refugees too would find a permanent home, and citizenship. A conception of the nation-state as accountable for the welfare of populations displaced by global crisis emerged in this historical moment. While internationalist activism pushed for refugee rehabilitation, both the conception of the nation-state as an arbitrator of rights and displaced populations as to be rehabilitated within these formations, gave center-stage to the nation-state.

It was also in the 1920s, as historians such as Adam McKeown and Radhika Mongia remind us, that passports became integral ways of tying people to nation-states and consequently to racial hierarchies that restrict their mobility. When white settler colonies such as the US, Canada and South Africa began using passports as a way to restrict migrant Asians in the early twentieth century, they used the logic of national sovereignty. Even as part of an imperial framework, South Africa and Canada argued that implementation of passport regulations were a part of their right to determine for themselves who could and could not enter their territory. In this context, subjects of the British empire holding Indian passports and therefore categorized as Indian nationals became racially discriminated in the global migration regime. The story of Canada’s refusal to admit the Komagata Maru, a ship-full of Punjabi migrants who sought to work in the British Dominion in Canada is an important event in the racialization of the global migration regime. The documents carried by the Punjabi migrant workers in the Komagata Maru, as Renisa Mawani has shown, were deemed by the Canadian government legally inadequate for admission.

In post-World War II era, while international organizations like the UN emerged to safeguard vulnerable global populations, these organizations did little to challenge the primacy of nation-states in a global arena. Furthermore, the Cold War politics, in which postwar internationalism emerged, created hierarchies between smaller countries from the Global South and the Global North. The continuation of material inequalities between different parts of the world reproduced old colonial hierarchies. The neoliberal market economy, with the US at the top, ensured the segmentation of the labor market of the Global South and the explosion of economic migrants and refugees—the distinction between which has been blurred. Citizens of countries like Nepal are forced to migrate in search of livelihood and in regions such as the Arab Peninsula where they forfeit their passports to their employers under the Kafala system, and work in a precarious condition of statelessness.

The fault lines

Over the twentieth century, a global migration regime of visas and permits, border checks and customs has consolidated the territoriality of nation-states along hierarchies of race, ethnicity, religion and class that have become familiar to us today. When the pandemic raged across the world, these fault-lines citizenship within the global migration regime became stark. The pandemic in its initial phases saw the explosion of a racial discourse that branded Asians as the primary vectors for the spread of the virus. The labelling of COVID-19 as an Asian virus and the added measures for controlling movement from East Asia in the beginning of the pandemic in countries like the United States, intensified deep-seated historical racial fault-lines. The connections between racism and nationalism became evident as citizens across the world became deeply suspicious of outsiders. On the other hand, in the rush to repatriate citizens stranded across the world, the divisions between citizens and non-citizens or citizens of powerful nation-states and others became evident.

As Nepali migrant workers thronged at the western borders with India, Nepal got locked into a conflict with India over territories in Lipulekh and Limpiyadhuria. While the Nepali government claimed territorial sovereignty at a diplomatic level with India, it scrambled and failed to rehabilitate its citizens—migrant workers returning home from India. This marked a distinct iteration of the historical dramas of nation-state, citizenship and border-control. The twentieth century humanitarian ideal of nation-state sovereignty as entailing accountability to the protection of citizens in a global crisis took a backseat, against the high pitched high political dramas of map-making. At the same time, in the name of national development and progress, Nepali state’s policy measures began leaning more towards authoritarianism. Its claims of defending its territorial sovereignty in such a context where it has failed its other sovereign prerogative—to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens stranded at its borders—is therefore vacuous.

Testing times

As waves and surges of the virus reemerge, Nepali migrant laborers across the world, and particularly in India, will scramble back to Nepal. This process is well underway. The question of how the Nepali nation-state will rehabilitate and repatriate them will be very important in determining its trajectory. Will the nation-state be an authoritarian and disciplinary agency that will make claims of national sovereignty through high pitched nationalist polemic and attempts to curb political rights or will it retain its commitment to international humanitarian ideals of protecting the vulnerable. The fact that Nepal is one of the few countries that has vaccinated refugees is a welcome sign. Yet, the Nepali government will also have to ensure the continuation of vaccination programs that it has begun through the COVAX program led by bodies like CEPI, Gavi, the WHO and UNICEF. For this, it will have to actively engage in an internationalism that pushes against vaccine nationalism where powerful nations are attempting to make deals with pharmaceutical companies and distributors for greater access. In this moment of historical rupture, perhaps a redefinition of nationalism on Nepal’s part becomes pertinent.

There is a possibility for nationalism to mean something more than the polemical claims against neighbors and external aggressors and claims of difference from racial and ethnic others which the hill-dominated high caste political class of the Nepali nation-state has historically done. There is a possibility for the nationalism to mean an intense struggle from small countries to ensure international accountability for their mobile populations abroad and for citizens (such as those awaiting vaccination) at home. While the rise of nationalist tenor everywhere suggests that to expect the Nepali state to truly advocate for its citizens at home and abroad is perhaps too idealistic, historical ruptures call for sometimes radical and idealistic imaginations of possibilities.

Ajapa Sharma is a PhD student at the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research explores how Indo-Nepal legal agreements over extradition, surveillance and border control shaped Nepali political sovereignty and legal-political difference in South Asia in the period of British colonialism.