What it means to be a citizen
What does it mean to be a 'citizen'? Does being a citizen simply mean having the right to live in one's birthplace, having the right to vote, and being accorded the formal recognition of basic rights and liberties?
The concept of 'citizenship' as we understand it today is synonymous with, first and foremost, belonging to a nation-state, attaining legal status, and having fundamental equal rights. But this predominant notion of citizenship is one which is simplistic and incomplete, and fails to capture the many facets of what citizenship entails in practice.
Citizenship is necessarily linked to the very idea of 'nationhood', which itself is based on an essentialist category of birthplace, and dictates who is included and more importantly, who is not. There can be no citizen without a nation, and no nation without citizens. The very logic of birthright citizenship means that immigrants who seek to be citizens of a country must be 'naturalised' or made 'normal', and must prove themselves to be deserving of the title of 'citizen'.
With its genesis in nationhood, citizenship is a powerful exclusionary tool that imposes the homogenising identity of 'nationality' and serves to weaken all other forms of identity such as ethnicity, language, religion, etc.
The intersectionality of race, ethnicity, birthplace, sex, age, class, etc., makes citizenship a site of contested identities. What does being a 'Bangladeshi citizen' mean for someone from the minority Hindu community? Does the tag of 'Bangladeshi' make the Hindu citizen belong any less to his/her homeland where the majority of Muslim Bengalis have become the sole proprietors of the term 'Bangladeshi' in the public imagination? What about the Urdu-speaking Bihari or the Buddhist Chakma?
While the idea of citizenship has taken on a universal definition (i.e. owning a passport of a certain country), its meanings and outcomes are far from the same. 'Citizenship' encompasses an extremely broad sociological perspective and any attempt to simplify it would result in a reductive definition, ignoring the multitude of complexities the term has accumulated since it first began as a subject of study of democratic governance and Western philosophy.
Starting from its earliest form in the ancient city-states of Greece where citizenship implied being freed from the private sphere of household (oikos) into the public sphere of political life (polis), to Imperial Rome where a two-tiered system of citizenship reserved 'active citizenship' only for the patricians, leaving out the plebeians, citizenship has always been by default selective and exclusive in nature.
The modern notion of citizenship first emerged in the ideas of the Enlightenment. In particular, the social contract theory – according to which persons' moral and political obligations are dependent upon a 'contract' to live together and form a society under common laws – was extremely influential in the conceptualisation of citizenship through the assertion of free will and rethinking of the individual's relation with the state. The French Revolution and Magna Carta further propelled the cause of 'individual rights' in the struggle to establish the concept of citizenship. The decline of feudalism and dissolution of landed privilege along with the rise of private property led to people's demands for civil and political recognition, giving 'citizenship' universal status. In the context of emerging civilisations and a shifting sociopolitical landscape, the idea of citizenship has evolved and expanded over time.
In the present day, amidst an atmosphere of rising xenophobia and hateful political rhetoric against refugees, migrants, or the 'threatening brown body', the reevaluation of citizenship is not only pertinent, but also a moral obligation. From the recent U.S. travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries to the outright denial of citizenship to Rohingyas in Myanmar, the politics of inclusion and exclusion of citizenship is very real as a potent tool of political strategy leading to the persistent marginalisation of those deemed to be 'outsiders'.
President Donald Trump's executive order that sought to close America's borders to legal workers, students, visitors and residents from entering the U.S. simply because of their citizenship is, in recent memory, one of the most blatant examples of how the State weaponises citizenship to exclude a selected few. The order cloaked under the disguise of 'national security' is an extension of the rising tide of xenophobia and fear of foreign-born individuals who never quite live up to the high expectations of the 'ideal citizen' in the eyes of the white majority.
In America, exclusion laws are not new. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese labourers from entering the U.S. and required non-labourers to obtain certification from the Chinese government to be able to immigrate to the U.S. This discriminatory Act was finally repealed sixty-one years after it was passed.
At home, the story of stranded Biharis, who are largely consigned to camps throughout Bangladesh, reflects a different kind of narrative of exclusion through the denial of passports and other facilities, and social stigma. In 2008, thanks to a landmark High Court decision around 150,000 Biharis who were minors during the Liberation War in 1971 were given citizenship rights. But Bihari refugees who were adults at the time of the war remain out of the purview of citizenship. The lack of economic rehabilitation coupled with discriminatory policies and bureaucratic procedures to obtain a passport mean that they are unable to enter the job market or acquire an education, remaining in a vicious cycle of poverty and misery. Moreover, the issue of repatriation of Biharis to Pakistan makes the topic of citizenship even more complex and contentious.
Whether it is the Rohingya fleeing state-sanctioned violence in Myanmar, the Syrian refugee escaping a civil war that sees no end in sight, or the Bihari trapped in a squalid camp in Bangladesh, citizenship makes for a powerful mechanism for the State to delineate both the internal and external borders of political community and belonging through exclusion from within and without.
Founded on the idea of excluding non-members, citizenship has been, throughout history, a terrain of fractured identity and a device for the denial of basic rights and resources, alienation and ostracisation of those we deem foreign. If history has taught us anything, it is that inclusion and exclusion are two sides of the same coin.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.