Does climate change pose a crisis for the concept of nation-state sovereignty? This article explores how contemporary debates about climate and sovereignty are connected to deeper histories of empire and capitalism in the global South. Arguing against recent critical appraisals of sovereignty that emphasize the elision of nature from formal political and legal theory, the article reconstructs a genealogy of sovereign power in the major fossil fuel-producing territories of India spanning the nineteenth century to the present day. It brings to light three historical articulations of sovereignty that undergird contemporary modes of extractive dispossession enforced by the Indian state: the discovery of fossil fuels as subjects of sovereign power during an early colonial project to build prison complexes in Indian coal mines; the juridical remaking of “land” under Benthamite-inspired laws of “real property;” and the politicization of fossil fuels as an underground commons belonging to the abstract entity of the postcolonial nation.

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