The people of nowhere

In 1943, Hannah Arendt began a narrative that had the potential to confer a sense of identify on millions of people who faced the misfortune of not only having lost a home, but also the impossibility of having to find a new one. She challenged the framework that made access to citizenship the sole prerogative of the state. Through this framework, the ideas of ethnical and racial homogeneity were propagated. This subsequently linked the idea of being a rights-bearing individual to the concept of citizenship. More specifically, the narrative of citizenship being the sole prerogative of the nation state linked the idea of a rights-bearing individual to the idea of belongingness to a particular formalised political community.

Inclusion, a precondition

The predicaments that such an idea brought with itself were acknowledged by Arendt, when she recognised the inefficacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She said that in order to be entitled even to basic human rights, a person is required to be something more than just a human being. The person is required to be a member of a political community which can enforce her other civil, economic and political rights. Arendt emphasised on this right to inclusion in a political community which precedes even the most basic of human rights and phrased it as the “right to have rights”. This premise stemmed from the fact that a right without a corresponding remedy or means of enforcement is practically meaningless. Against this backdrop, she apprised the world of the plight of the stateless who have been denationalised or denaturalised, and whose very need for a validating community or the right of inclusion has inclusion as its precondition.

Also read | 19 lakh NRC-excluded stuck in limbo

With respect to India, this concept of being regarded as a rights-bearing individual only when one belongs to a particular formalised political community has become so well entrenched in the socio-legal ethos that hardly anyone has raised questions about its soundness in the last seven decades. This has been fundamentally because the assumptions about the access to citizenship have always seemed so settled that we have forgotten that such assumptions were once instituted through a narrative, and can be revised as such.

No citizenship, no belonging

The exclusion of 19 lakh people from the National Register of Citizens in Assam stripped them not only of their citizenship, but also their bare status as human beings. They are left with no forum whatsoever to even assert their “right to have rights.” This is essentially because once the Foreigners Tribunal decides that an individual is a foreigner, she is sent to a detention camp where she is to be kept until she can be sent back to her country of origin.

This is problematic as it reinforces Arendt’s argument that it is possible for humans to exist in a place called nowhere. This is due to the twin effects of the lack of a validating community which will accept these individuals (unless there is an agreement to the effect with the alleged country of origin) and the sheer impracticality of the rightless laying claim to a community from which they have been wilfully excluded. To add on to this, the flawed determination procedures of the Foreigners Tribunal have also ensured that such individuals are also precluded from the ostensible protection of a social order.

Also read | Don’t send children excluded from Assam NRC to detention camps: Supreme Court

Natural rights theorists assert that basic rights should be available even if only a single human being remains on earth, but history demonstrates that resistance and political mobilisation are the first steps towards asserting such rights. This asymmetry is neither new nor unprecedented. It is just a constant reminder of the world order we live in, where the “rightlessness of the stateless is assumed, rather than asserted, let alone argued.”

Tanishk Goyal is a student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. Email:

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 14, 2021 1:25:14 PM |

Next Story