In Memoriam: Nasser Hussain

CM joins our colleagues in remembering Nasser Hussain, legal theorist and scholar at Amherst, who passed away on November 9, 2015. Today, Amherst College is holding a memorial in Johnson Chapel. These are heavy times– Shahab Ahmed, Nasser Hussain, Barney Bate, the Rudolphs– for students of South Asia. Yet, they have all forged a path forward for scholarship to follow, and for ideas to flourish. Hussain’s book (as mentioned below by Professor Datla) remains a critical intervention in South Asian studies. One trenchant example is Hussain’s reading of Counter-Insurgency manual. Hussain’s critical acuity and engagement with imperial politics in that piece is fully recognizable to the readers of his scholarship. Our hearts and thoughts are with the family and colleagues of Nasser Hussain. Please find below remembrances by Professor Datla, Baxi and Lokaneeta.


Kavita Saraswathi Datla
Associate Professor of History
Mount Holyoke College

Nasser Hussain’s PhD dissertation and his first book, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (University of Michigan Press, 2003), begins with a description of Pakistan’s post-independence legal crises– more specifically, the 1955 Supreme Court case that considered the Governor General’s dissolution of the constituent assembly and rule by decree. In doing so, this work proclaimed the centrality of Pakistan’s historical experience to attempts to understand the conditions of modern law, and the relationship between the rule of law and state power. This was because of the importance of the British Empire to the legal history of large portions of the globe. But it was also the case because in the history of colonial India one could see, perhaps more starkly than other contexts, how and why emergency law came to be. This study analyzed the tension between sovereign emergency and the constraints of the rule of law in a colonial territory even as it traced the impact of that tension on the development of western legalities more broadly. In British India, this pioneering work showed us, a conquest state spoke the normative language of law in ways that are of continued significance. The postcolonial peoples and states were shaped by that specific history, as well, the various contexts in which ‘emergencies’ are managed by global powers.

No ordinary South Asianist and no ordinary scholar, Nasser Hussain will be deeply missed by his colleagues, students, and scholars across disciplines, institutions, and continents. Humble and generous, Nasser may have objected to us speaking too much about him as a person. But ferocious in his pursuit of ideas, he would have had a much harder time objecting to us making a first attempt to appreciate the influence of his contributions. In the months that follow, there will undoubtedly be more extended discussions and publications about the range of Nasser’s work and its continued relevance to discussions of history, law, the humanities, and politics in South Asia and beyond. Here we hope to offer an initial and diverse set of reflections on his profound contributions.


Upendra Baxi
Emeritus Professor of Law
University of Warwick and Delhi

The sad demise of Nasser Hussain, on November. 9, 2015, who taught in the Amherst Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought since 1996, signifies an immeasurable loss for the world of juristic learning. His outstanding work on the states of exception that stood for a ‘jurisprudence’ of constitutional emergency is still relevant to a deeply troubled world. So is his work (coedited with Austin Sarat) on forgiveness, mercy, and clemency. Close colleagues and students know him as a deeply committed teacher and as a pioneer in the field of law and colonialism.

I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally but am deeply influenced by Nasser’s works. In the global context today, his analyses of colonial law, the linkages between martial law and massacre, and the aporia of the rule of law remain abiding and poignant. No ideologue, he has bequeathed us a legacy of critical legal thought under conditions of colonialism that also speak (beyond South Asia) to contemporary neoliberal authoritarianism and the necessity of taking social and human suffering seriously. Nasser Hussain speaks for all subaltern scholars when he depicts how basic human freedoms are obstinately, even obscenely, denied everywhere by the triumphant market and state fundamentalisms.


Jinee Lokaneeta
Associate Professor of Political Science
Drew University

Nasser Hussain’s death on November 9, 2015 has felt like a deeply personal loss but has actually left a void in a much wider intellectual and political community—regardless of whether one knew him personally or not. I met Nasser during my graduate student days and was fortunate enough to have him engage with my work and remain a supportive figure over the years. His insightful and brilliant comments, gently but firmly articulated-— often with a beautiful smile—- had a way of staying with me long after our conversations ended, and influenced my work perhaps much more than he (or I) realized. His comments and his work have been so fundamentally transformative, above all, because his work while being disciplinarily rigorous as a legal historian could not be contained by disciplinary boundaries in ways that was quite intentional, making his iconic book Jurisprudence of Emergency a shared legacy for all.

As a political theorist, what inspired me the most was his ability to utilize theoretical concepts (that may have emerged in very specific contexts and were therefore necessarily embroiled in debates on their utility elsewhere) and brilliantly apply them to extremely complex historical events in ways that do justice both to explaining the particular event and further developing the concept theoretically. An excellent example is found in the chapter from his book titled “Martial Law and Massacre: Violence and the Limit.” He uses Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence to analyze the relationship between law and violence in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre committed by the British in colonial India. Rather than understand martial law as a way to enforce law and order, Nasser argues that it actually represents a performative and foundational violence required to recreate the (colonial) state’s authority. The problem for the colonial state in dealing with the excessive force used in this massacre is that the event might reveal the foundational violence that lies at the heart of the rule of law; this the state attempts to conceal but struggles to contain. Martial law and massacre become reflective of the ambivalent relationship of law and state to violence.

Being a theorist and historian of the rule of law and emergency, it was not surprising therefore to see him play a prominent role as an educator, public intellectual and as a theorist to make sense of Guantanamo Bay prison, Cuba in the post-9/11 context. Nasser was a member of the group of legal historians that wrote an amicus brief on the right to habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees in 2004 (in Rasul v. Bush); he was also a part of a related virtual teach-in that included more than 200 colleges and universities in 2006. It was his concept of hyperlegality (See “Beyond Norm and Exception”) that eloquently explained the ways that law could actually enable the existence of a space such as Guantanamo even as most theorists turned to Agamben and Schmitt to term it a State of Exception, and political critics resorted to defining it as a “lawless” space. The ability to recognize what “rule of law” could accommodate in the form of new laws, regulations, procedures (prompting a continued struggle with the tensions within the law) in both colonial and postcolonial times was what Nasser’s work and interventions taught us…Grateful for the support over the years; the conversations shall continue, dear Nasser.

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