Citizenship rights

February 25, 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

IN 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May derided cosmopolitan elite as ‘citizens of nowhere’. Her government is now taking this phrase too literally in its attempts to strip Shamima Begum — a teenaged UK citizen of Bangladeshi heritage who joined the militant Islamic State (IS) group — of her citizenship. Shamima has never visited Bangladesh or held its nationality. But she is brown, and by turning to violent extremism, has betrayed British values and emphasised her otherness. So she must go back to where she does not come from.

Her family has challenged the decision. If their appeal fails, Shamima risks becoming stateless, a violation of international law. While the court battle to decide her fate will be prolonged, her predicament has highlighted how vulnerable the notion of citizenship is today.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has decried Home Secretary Sajid Javed’s decision to revoke Shamima’s citizenship, as it “risks creating a second class of citizenship”. Rather than centre the notion of citizenship on equal access to rights, justice and resources, the revocation reframes citizenship along ethnic, racial, religious, ideological and linguistic lines. In a post-colonial, multiethnic, mixed race world of migrant flows, Javed has tried to do the impossible: define here and there, us and them.

Shamima’s case is not unique. The family of Hoda Muthana, a young woman born in the US to Yemeni parents who also joined IS, is challenging the US government’s position that she is not a US citizen and cannot return to face criminal proceedings for her actions. In the UK, many long-term residents and British citizens of Caribbean descent have faced challenges to their right to live in the country.

The reality of uneven citizenship has created a sense of isolation.

The reality of uneven citizenship has created a sense of precariousness and isolation among minority communities, and hardened perceptions of divisiveness and hate. Indeed, the experience of uneven citizenship likely fuelled violent extremism in the first place. Confirming it as truth will only create more Shamima Begums.

But today’s crisis of citizenship extends beyond including non-dominant groups in a pact with the state to provide sustenance, security and justice. The modern realities of regional groupings, trade zones and hyper-connectivity have led to the existence of supra-states that are making the vulnerability of citizenship almost universal. Brexit can be reconceived as a crisis of citizenship as people have struggled to access their due rights and resources despite being citizens at the local (city or region), state and EU levels.

Nor is the issue of uneven citizenship a uniquely Western- or rich-state phenomenon. Internal migration, displacement, localised conflict, and refugee influxes have created similar tensions in the Global South. Pakistan must contend with its own versions of uneven citizenship. The government flagged this when it raised the issue of 1.5 million people of Afghan descent who have only known Pakistan as home but cannot claim citizenship of our country.

Similarly, the Fata merger and questions about rights and legal regimes in the post-FCR scenario are challenging the Pakistani conception of citizenship. An idea recently floated on social media that there be no requirement for arrest warrants for residents of the tribal areas is another example indicating that some Pakistanis are considered more Pakistani — in the sense of accessing their basic rights — than others.

The unevenness can be externally impo­sed too. India has been seeking to amend its citizenship laws to make it easier for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to apply for Indian citizenship. The idea that religious minorities can migrate with more facility across the eastern border risks fuelling the belief within Pakis­tan that these communities have divided loyalties, a more diffuse relationship with the state, and are thus less Pakistani than others.

Citizenship should not only be defined in terms of identity and travel documents and an individual’s relationship with the civilian justice system. It extends to all forms of rights — from free speech to access to resources and livelihood.

Indeed, much has been written about how rapid urbanisation creates uneven citizenship, as the nature of sprawling cities results in divergent levels of access to resources, rights and protections. This is not to be confused with inequality, which is centred on economic differences, but on the fundamental level of access to rights, basic service delivery and safety as provided by the state, and the extent to which people or communities can participate in governance.

However it is packaged, citizenship the world over is increasingly defined through exclusion, rather than inclusion. It has become a zero-sum conception which necessitates that for some to win, others must lose. Few can enjoy a sense of security as long as such thinking prevails.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2019