The Critical Classroom – “Sovereign Atonement: (Non)citizenship, Territory, and State‐Making in Post‐Colonial South Asia”

Md Azmeary Ferdoush, Geography Research Unit, University of Oulu

Forthcoming in Antipode 53(2) in March 2021, and available online now, my article, “Sovereign Atonement: (Non)citizenship, Territory, and State‐Making in Post‐Colonial South Asia”, focuses on a group of de facto stateless people living along the border of Bangladesh and India for the last seven decades. The small, geographically unique spaces they lived in were known as enclaves – literally pieces of one state surrounded by another sovereign state. These enclaves existed since the decolonization of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 until 2015, when they were exchanged and merged with the hosting state territories.

Drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s reading of exclusion, sovereign violence, and state of exception, scholars understood the enclaves as spaces of permanent exception which contained bare lives. However, I argue that after the exchange of enclaves in 2015, the situation changed dramatically as the state assumed an active role in incorporating new lands and citizens. Such an active role resulted in unique privileges exclusively for the former enclave residents, which I term here as sovereign atonement. Further, I contend that it would be misleading to capture sovereign atonement as an effort to correct the past violence of extraterritorial exclusion; instead, it must be understood through the primacy of territory in state‐ and nation-making in post‐colonial South Asia.

To accompany this piece, this educational resource is designed to offer an easy entrée to the study of the state, the sovereign, governance, political geography, citizenship, borders, and adjacent areas of study. Courses offered at advanced undergraduate and graduate levels, focused on political geography, theories of the state, borders and migration studies, and identity, exclusion and citizenship could benefit from the discussion.

The debate or discussion I would imagine students engaging in with this paper is whether the creation of exception and sovereign violence is only possible with a suspension of law, or is it also possible to create an exception within the purview of law by using selective techniques?

Engaging with this article and the discussion, students can learn to (re)think Agamben’s influential works Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998) and State of Exception (University of Chicago Press, 2004) as well as Agamben’s starting point of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (University of Chicago Press, 1996) and Michel Foucault’s works on the sovereign and biopolitics.


Video abstract – “Sovereign Atonement: (Non)citizenship, Territory, and State‐Making in Post‐Colonial South Asia”. 18 November 2020

Agamben G (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press

Dunn E C and Cons J (2014) Aleatory sovereignty and the rule of sensitive spaces. Antipode 46(1):92-109

Gupta A (2012) Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham: Duke University Press

Jones R (2009) Agents of exception: Border security and the marginalization of Muslims in India. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27(5):879-897

Shewly H J (2013) Abandoned spaces and bare life in the enclaves of the India–Bangladesh border. Political Geography 32:23-31