The Public Eye | Columns

The state of statelessness

It is frightfully disturbing to learn that 40 lakh people, currently living in Assam, find no place in the draft of the National Register of Citizens. Therefore, they could be deprived of their Indian citizenship and become stateless. Can those of us secure in our nationality ever put ourselves in the shoes of such disenfranchised people? What is it to be deprived of citizenship, to experience the horror of statelessness?

Citizenship and belonging

Citizenship is frequently associated with political rights but it is linked, first and foremost, to belonging. To be a citizen is to belong to a particular politically organised community — the state, in the widest sense. True, it is not the only form of belonging. One can belong to a village, to a language-, religion- or occupation-based community. But particularly under modern conditions, belonging to a politically organised community has become more important than other belongings. Our identity as citizens is more basic than other identities. Why?

This is because everything we need or desire, and any reasonable goal we pursue, depends today on our membership of a state. We may have moral rights as human beings but they are ineffective or meaningless without social-political recognition within a legal regime supported by the state. Thus, our life, family life, basic liberties, employment, education, mobility, even everyday security depends on the overall protection and support of the state. If we do not belong to a state, and carry no proof of it (ration card, driving license, Aadhaar card or passport), we have nothing. These passive citizenship rights cannot exist without authoritative, juridical backing. Nor can active citizenship rights that enable us to participate in the making and the remaking of our political community. In short, it is only as a member of a particular state (India, Bangladesh, the U.S.) that we are able to live well, indeed to live at all.

It follows that to not be a citizen — to be stateless — is to experience the worst imaginable nightmare, worse than long-term confinement in jails, worse than a politically alienated life, worse even than living as an oppressed minority. In fact, the right to vote or be political is far from the mind of those threatened with statelessness. For such people are not covered by any law. They can be detained merely on the ground that they are stateless. They can be separated from their family. If their possessions are taken away, they can’t report the matter to anyone. If they have no job, there’s no one to appeal to. If they are hungry, no public distribution system can help them. They can be denied access to basic health services, even as they suffer from life-threatening diseases. They are homeless outsiders who can be deported any time with no one having an idea where they must go. Their whole social and political existence is illegal. Socially and politically dead, they barely exist. A deep existential insecurity is bred by statelessness.

Statelessness invariably begets an irreversible dehumanisation: criminalisation is common among stateless people; as is involvement in abusive relationships and ‘survival sex’; as also is invisiblisation — every act must remain hidden from the state and the public. Stateless persons live in perpetual disguise, submerged in complete anonymity. They are truly the wretched of the earth. Worse still, statelessness often paves the way for genocidal violence. Can one forget what happened to German Jews after the revocation of their citizenship? Divested of political belonging and social identity, they became sub-human. Wanted nowhere, they were rounded up and despatched to extermination camps.

This atrocious state of statelessness usually occurs when political persecution, declaration of war on certain ethnic groups or economic destitution forces people out of their homeland but the state where asylum is sought or where they have been managed to temporarily find work doesn’t eventually recognise them as citizens. Statelessness can also occur when new ethnically based borders are born. The creation of Bangladesh rendered thousands of Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims stateless in their homeland. Bangladesh stripped them of their citizenship but Pakistan refused to accept them. Living on either side of the border but without the requisite ethnicities, suddenly, for no fault of theirs, they found themselves stateless. This has also been the fate of pastoral groups, who have no real idea of settled existence, no permanent home, who once travelled freely in a region but are now confronted with borders they can’t easily cross. And because they thought of the entire region as their own, and never belonged anywhere in particular, new borders liquidated their multiple belongings, rendering them stateless.

Nowhere to go

Imagine what might have happened to Ugandans of Indian origin if, after expulsion by the brutal regime of Idi Amin, they were also denied entry into the U.K., despite holding British passports? The much maligned but truly hapless Rohingya, with neither passport nor identity card, are denied effective citizenship in their homeland, and subjected to various forms of extortion, land confiscation, forced eviction, marriage restrictions and forced labour on roads and military camps. Yet, they have nowhere else to go. Many therefore experience the nightmare of statelessness.

Statelessness is not a natural disaster but a man-made malaise, a consequence of recently formed nation states obsessed with borders. True, this is an international humanitarian issue, but don’t contiguous states (Myanmar, Bangladesh, India) have a special obligation to those groups who not long ago lived as one people in a borderless territory? Can a newly erected virtual barrier completely erase centuries-old practice of habitation and mobility?

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 5:37:53 AM |

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