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Pravasi Bharatiya or true Brit?

For many U.K.-based NRIs, the Indian Government's recent offer of dual citizenship may turn out to be more of a liability than a blessing, writes KALPANA WILSON.


Britain today looks at the issue of "integration".

WITH war in Iraq dominating the headlines here, there was little coverage in the media when new laws which came into force this month quietly transformed the very nature of British citizenship. Overnight, being "British" has become a matter of political allegiance and cultural affiliation, in a move which is inextricably bound to the needs of 21st Century Anglo-American imperialism. And as a result, for many British-based NRIs, Vajpayee's recent offer of dual nationality may turn out to be more of a liability than a blessing.

Under Britain's new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, as Home Secretary David Blunkett stated, anyone holding dual nationality whom he considers to be "abusing the privilege of ... citizenship by acting against the U.K.'s vital interests" can be summarily stripped of his/her British citizenship. In the past, loyalty to British interests was not a condition of holding a British passport. Citizenship, though often a long struggle to obtain if you were not white, was irrevocable, a right as opposed to a "privilege", no matter what crimes you might subsequently commit. However, as political commentator Nick Cohen points out, "11 September began the collapse in judicial principles". The Blair Government, opting out of the European Convention on Human Rights, started interning foreign nationals living in Britain, mainly people from the Middle East and North Africa. This has meant not only imprisonment without trial, but secret detention, in which not even their relatives or their lawyers are allowed to know where the prisoners are being held or the reasons for their imprisonment.

Until this month, British citizens could not be subjected to this treatment. Today, however, any British citizen holding dual nationality, (as do many who originate from Britain's ex-colonies in South Asia and the Caribbean) can be potentially interned or summarily deported. The ostensible and immediate target of this new law on citizenship is Abu Hamza, a London-based Muslim cleric whose extreme and inflammatory statements have long made him a focus for anti-Muslim hysteria in the media. A holder of both British and Egyptian passports, Abu Hamza is well-suited to be a test case for the new legislation. Almost too well-suited in fact — some observers are asking why, if he poses such a threat, action was not taken against him earlier, (particularly when existing legislation relating to incitement to racial or religious hatred is perfectly adequate to make a case against him), and suggesting that he was allowed to continue in order to provide a suitable cover for what is in fact a major attack on civil rights.

The new legislation was preceded in recent months by a series of provocative statements by Blunkett which signalled a new approach to "Britishness". This combined a U.S.-style preoccupation with allegiance — those "aspiring" to citizenship, we were told, would have to attend compulsory citizenship classes — with undiluted colonial-style paternalism: these classes would teach uniquely British skills such as "how to queue"! More offensive to Britain's South Asian communities was Blunkett's assertion that Asian families must speak English at home in order to fully "integrate" and avoid a "generation gap".

Ironically, given this emphasis on integration, the same piece of legislation also contains plans to prevent the children of asylum seekers from attending mainstream British schools. This proposal had drawn some of the fiercest criticism during the passage of the Act, with organised opposition ranging from members of the House of Lords to the young classmates of refugee children. However, the main obstacle to its implementation is now the fact that the prison-like "Accommodation Centres", where the government proposes to house asylum seekers and educate their children during the long months and years they await decisions on their cases, have not yet been built.

Meanwhile, in response to the suggestion that the government should "put its money where its mouth is" and provide free English classes for those adults who need them, New Labour has come up with a characteristically "privatised" solution: leave it to employers to teach English! Among those employers keen to take this opportunity to cast off the stigma of exploiting the cheap labour of refugee and migrant workers is Indian businessman Ghulam Noon, whose company Noon Products, which supplies pre-cooked "Indian meals" to supermarkets, has seen protests by underpaid Indian workers in the past.

As for citizenship itself, the governmnent's focus on the "duties" of citizenship come at a time of unprecedented civic participation and engagement as a result of Britain's broad-based anti-war movement. Even as Blair and Blunkett and their captive media continue to project explicitly racist views of "Muslim" youth as alienated from "democratic" political processes and potentially violent, large numbers of young people from Muslim backgrounds are participating in the organised protests against the war, and as a spokesperson for Birmingham's influential Central Mosque recently commented, barriers between communities are actually being broken down by a common opposition to Blair and Bush's war on Iraq, entered into without the support of the majority of the British people.

At one level, Blunkett's remarks and the legislation itself can be seen as yet another attempt to "play the race card", whipping up popular racism with images of Britain being "swamped" by "alien" immigrants. But underlying this is a recasting and intensifying of British state racism which began at least a decade before September 11, 2001. Essentially, in this period of accelerating globalisation, it is global relationships of economic and political power which have increasingly come to shape racist ideology within Britain. Most obviously, there is the demonisation of "Islam", which in line with the needs of U.S. foreign policy, is viewed as a homogeneous global entity, fundamentally opposed to the interests of "Western civilisation". Second, Britain is heavily involved in supporting a variety of pro-globalisation governments from Turkey to Uganda. Of the many who are forced to flee such regimes, a minority end up seeking asylum in Britain. It is these refugees who currently face some of the most acute racism, from institutionalised discrimination to vicious attacks on the streets. They are defined as not only "scroungers" and "bogus asylum seekers" but as potential "terrorists", particularly if they have links with movements in their countries of origin which may be challenging regimes supported by the British Government. As a result of all this, the British Government has increasingly defined the links between many ethnic minority communities — whether refugees such as Kurds or Sri Lankan Tamils, or longer established communities such as Punjabi Sikhs and Kashmiris — and the politics of their countries of origin as inherently threatening to British interests (even as it continues to support — and in many cases fund — the most reactionary self-styled "community leaders", within South Asian and other minority communities). This is the origin of the demand that those who become citizens must prove both their political allegiance and their cultural identification with "Britishness", and of the draconian measures to strip citizenship from those who dissent.

With India closely aligned with the U.S. and the U.K., and Britain already working closely with the Indian authorities over the extradition of Indian citizens back to India, it is clearly those British NRIs who come into conflict with the Indian state who are most likely to be targeted by the new legislation and stripped of their British citizenship. But with the sections of the population defined as "anti-national" by Sangh Parivar leaders growing wider every day, there is reason for all NRIs who do not (or cannot) identify with the goals of Hindutva to fear that they too may be identified as "enemies" of the Indian state at some time in the future, and to think twice about the benefits of dual nationality.

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