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Debating citizenship

History shows your blood, religion, colour of skin and language has always mattered, says Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Mar 11, 2006 19:55 IST

What do I have to do around here to be a citizen?

Recently, there has been a spate of news reports talking about how many European countries have been trying to define what it means by a citizen.

This could be driven by attempts to develop a national identity or to keep out the riff-raff or to try to recover from the scourge of excessive multi-culturalism or to have strong tests for giving citizenship. I got more interested in the last angle, just what qualifies you to be a citizen?

A few months ago, there was a national debate in England, where the question was asked, just what does it mean to be English? Needless to say, there is neither a clear-cut answer nor any consensus. It could be belief in the Queen, or the ability to speak English, or trust in law and order. It could be fish and chips or belief in the Parliament. The flag? (besides in football matches, nobody really bothers with it.)

If one looks across the pond to the USA, one sees a difference! Questions of national identity are really not even asked and if somebody does ask, then the majority will point to the US constitution, individual liberty and pursuit of happiness as their defining characteristic. So if you wanted to become an American citizen, you would have to take a test. If you pass and have patience, you become one.

If you were born there, even if your parents were not Americans, you can be a citizen by virtue of your birth. The United Kingdom has taken a leaf out of the American book and has established citizenship tests, where one is supposed to know about British history, culture, traditions, principles, way of life, language, etc. Pass it and you are in. In addition, the UK also had citizenship by birth some years ago, but they stopped it after they started seeing birth tourism (people coming to the UK for the avowed intention to give birth, and be able to settle down).

And the recent proposals are to implement a points-based system for allowing people into the country.

Just north of the US border, you have a similar situation to that of the UK, but at least, they usually end up defining, in a very round about way, that their definition of being a Canadian is, ummm, 'Not American'.

Confusion or what? But if you wanted to become a Canadian citizen, you have a mathematical equation, where your skills, ability to speak English, experience, etc. are plugged into it. If you score above a certain amount, viola, welcome on board. It's a rather straightforward if a bit mercenary way of defining citizenship. Australia also has a similar system.

Back on this side of the pond, the question is moot. France's national identity is very clear, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. It is dinned into each and every Frenchman and woman (well, most of them), the flag is well known and questions of identity do not arise. Any person who subscribes to this philosophy will be a Frenchman (of course, you need to speak French and
like baguettes).

On the other hand, Germany, till not so long ago, was very strict. You only become a German if you have German blood in you. So while hundreds of thousands of people from Eastern Europe could become German citizens because they had German blood, the Turks, who lived and worked
in Germany for so long could not.

So somebody in your family must be German. Recently, they decided to relax the requirements, so that the great bunch of Turkish guest workers can also become citizens. But after 9/11 and the generalised rise of Islamophobia, they have decided to put in a citizenship test. Some of the questions and qualifications are seriously bizarre, so much so that the joke which is
doing the rounds of the media and the internet is that even the Pope (who is German by the way) would not be able to become a German citizen. Go figure.

Nipping down to Egypt, you notice another strange aspect behind identity. I noticed this with regard to a rather distressing situation. You see, you have all these rich tourists (mainly from the gulf) who come over to Cairo for a spot of fun. Well, you know how it is, old man marries young girl, girl falls pregnant, old man goes back home, girl has kid. So far so good.

But in Egypt, citizenship devolves down from the father, whose name has to be written in the birth certificate, and guess what? There is no way in hell that the father is going to come back and own up to having a child. So what happens? Unfortunately, nothing much, these children are stateless, they do not exist in the eyes of the father nor the Egyptian state. So no can do, young lad/laddie, you will live in a passport nirvana. Recently a law has been passed to allow citizenship to pass on to the children through their mother, but it still has a long way to go until all those stateless children can claim to be Egyptians.

Across the border, the Israelis are very open. If you are a Jew, you are eligible for citizenship. I can understand the historical and political imperatives behind this requirement. A state, which is explicitly founded as a Jewish homeland, cannot really start admitting people from other religions willy nilly now, can they? Which gives rise to fascinating episodes such as the long lost tribe in India who have been investigated about their Jewishness and they have been allowed to emigrate from India to Israel and take up Israeli citizenship. But heaven help you if you were a non-Jew.

Actually make that more specific, if you were Muslim/Arab. It is extremely difficult if not impossible for an Arab Muslim to become an Israeli citizen, whether by marriage, adoption, or what have you. Even if the Prophet flew in like he did the last time, he would have a very tough time indeed. So being an oft-stated liberal democracy sits very uneasily besides these absolutely bizarre situations around nationality. This conundrum will exist till the national identity is based upon the Jewish character and not any other identifier.

Saudi Arabia is another country which is very strict about its citizenship requirements. I have heard about people living there for generations but unable to get Saudi citizenship. I am not talking about the hoi-polloi and the great unwashed herd of labourers (just kidding, this is just how they are seen), but also professionals such as surgeons, architects, bankers, engineers and the like. It is virtually impossible for anybody to get citizenship, although they have opened the door just a wee bit. It is indeed so bad that Saudi citizens are mortally scared of losing their passports. If you lose your passport, you are in so much trouble with the authorities that it is unbelievable.

Another country, which makes it virtually impossible to get citizenship, is Japan. Immigration is strictly frowned upon, and even if you manage to get hold of the citizenship papers (extremely difficult by all accounts), it will be a miracle if you can submit them and an even a bigger miracle if you are accepted as a citizen. Just like Germany, you have to have Japanese blood in you and that too recent. You just cannot go up and say that a Japanese soldier in Korea raped my grandmother and expect to get citizenship (a bitter joke here). The population of Japan is now slowly and inexorably going down. There is no other Japanese nation. To keep on providing for young blood to take care of the increasingly elderly population and keep the economy humming, immigration is one easy way, but nope, sorry, immigration is not allowed, and even if it is allowed, you can forget about citizenship.

This whole issue of what qualifies one to be a citizen goes deep into the concept of national identity. People kill and go to wars over this, but given the ever-increasing mobility of humans around the world, these questions will keep on emerging. Plus the pursuit of happiness and economic well being is ever increasingly tied to the quality of human resources and the skills of the population. In most of these countries, if you have a million bucks or quid to invest, they welcome you in with open arms. We are generally seeing an ever-increasing reliance on explicit factors, such as qualifications, skills, ability, etc. as the main aspect behind the decision to grant citizenship. Efforts to keep undesirable elements (with reference to ethnicity, language, colour of skin, religion or what have you) are ultimately doomed to failure and in the fullness of time, immaterial.

What will matter is what you can do, rather than your blood, religion, colour of skin, language or whatever. On the other hand, Alexis de Tocqueville'sobservation that, "However energetically society in general may strive to make all the citizens equal and alike, the personal pride of each individual will always make him try to escape from the common level, and he will form some inequality somewhere to his own profit" still stands tall.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!