With a grain of salt: How Do You Define A Citizen's Identity?

June 25, 2006
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

In the old certain days, it was clear what a citizen was. You are a member of a political community, which in turn presumably works with the state to better society. You get to be a citizen by birth or by virtue of naturalisation or by race/religious identity or ethnicity.

As is with these definitions, there are many exclusions and exceptions, but largely, getting nationality or being a citizen can be broadly defined to be because of these three reasons. So far so good! When we come to the last one, this is where we start having issues with identity, because it starts to violate the fundamental law of equality. Let us explore some facets of these issues relating to equality and citizenship.

As is often the case with these essays, four separate incidents came together.

The first was a book, and the three others were about minorities in Israel, Egypt and Pakistan. The book was the little book written by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Amartya Sen, entitled "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time". It is a rather thin book for such a complex topic, only 224 pages all in all, but overall it was a bit disappointing. While he takes a good and obvious line in talking about how multiple identities exist simultaneously, he says that trouble arises when a singular identity takes precedence over the others.

In a light analysis, he traces the troubles in the world ranging from Rwanda to Bosnia to this issue. He also takes some swipes at the Huntingtonian "clash of the civilisation" view of the world. According to Sen, the solution is the ability to switch to alternative identities that will help in avoiding unitary extremist identities, which lead to conflicts. I am afraid this is far too simplistic and I did not see a satisfactory example in the world, where this has been carried out successfully. If at all, this happens over a long period of time and you will still have exceptions, which can easily lead to conflicts, and then all the alternative identities soon are reduced to the original group-mind identity. We will see why this idea fails.

The second incident was that of a Christian woman in Pakistan who launched a court case against a whole bunch of defendants. What is the problem? Well, as it so happened, she got the same marks in the King Edwards Medical College admission test as a Muslim girl. But the Muslim woman got twenty more marks because she was a Hafiz--e-Qur'an (knowing the Qur'an by heart), so the Christian woman lost out. Mind you, the medical college did not state this requirement previously. As a commentator said, if the medical college had said, well, you are Christian, then if you can prove that you know the Bible by heart, then you also get twenty extra marks, then the problem will be resolved. The connection between being a Qur'an/Bible memoriser and a medical doctor escapes me. Mind you, Pakistan has issues around identity, a topic to which we will return to in a moment.

The third incident was when I was reading about Israeli Arabs are restricted from marrying foreigners and bringing them into the country and this was a tightly contested decision by the Israeli High Court. If you are anybody else, you are at liberty to marry and bring your spouse into Israel, but not if you are of Arab descent. A related aspect is that Israeli Arabs are not welcome into the armed forces. As it so happens, the reason given for both incidents is "national security". Whether true or false, this jars, as does the next one.

The final incident was when I was in Cairo reading the local English language newspaper about the Baha'i case. It is an interesting case that has so many layers on layers upon layers, that it is frankly difficult to get a good account of it (here is a typically confused local account http://tinyurl.com/g4acc). Briefly speaking, a Baha'i Alexandrian couple asked that their religion be noted on their identity papers and passports. Leaving aside for the moment the strange requirement to be religiously identified in a passport in the first place, in a lax moment, a lower court agreed to this. Egyptians are only allowed to have Christianity or Islam on their Egyptian identity papers. Since the Baha'is (who number only about a tiny three thousand in Egypt) are not supposed to lie, they requested the change. All hell broke loose and the lower court's decision was swiftly set aside. Accusations of the Baha'is being Israeli backed (their main place of pilgrimage is in Israel as the founder of the religion is buried there), of them being infidels (this from the grand Pooh-Bah's of Al Azhar University), blood-curdling threats from the Brotherhood, etc. etc.

Now I know a little about these Baha'is, as one of my closest friends was one, back when I was doing MBA. Their Lotus Temple in New Delhi is one of the most wonderful places of worship one can experience around the world.

You feel close to god there, something that I have only experienced at the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan, a tiny minute Greek orthodox church in Plaka, Athens and at Vivekananda Rock in India. However, I digress. The Baha'i are extremely peace loving, do not lie and are non-violent to a fault.

Therefore, to read about their trials and tribulations was shocking. Reading between the lines and sometimes the lines themselves, the main reason behind all this hoo-haa in Cairo is the Baha'i religion positions itself as a successor to the main religions of the world. It takes the essential good points from all major religions around the world, and viola, new religion emerges. However, since Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the people of the book, and the book is the foundation of the state religion of Egypt (as in Pakistan), any religion, which does not fall into these three categories, is automatically a threat and is to be rejected. I jokingly said to my companions in Cairo, since I am a Hindu, I should not entertain any ideas of becoming an Egyptian Citizen, because I will be called as an idolater or infidel or worse.

Now this is where Amartya Sen's solution of alternative identities falls apart, because there is simply no way that you can have a non-religious identity in countries such as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Even if you wanted to have a secular identity, there will be multifarious challenges and issues. Just because you have become a Jew from a Christian Arab does not mean that the doors in Israel automatically open to you, no Sir.

In many countries around the world, being a citizen is driven by religion, and in this case, one can change his religion to get citizenship or is forced to live a life of shadows and hiding just to have any chance of being a citizen, as well as have some form of self-identity. In Egypt, for example, if you are a Baha'i and by extension, Hindu, you are not a citizen until and unless you move into one of the permitted categories of Judaism, Islam or Christianity.

As a classical liberal (not the namby-pamby American version, mind you), I have an internal conflict between pushing for citizenship given to people who sign up to the constitution, shared values and culture, history of the country, versus the right of each country to define their own unique citizenship criteria. However, in this globalised world, where labour is starting to move as easily as ideas and capital, situations such as with the Christian girl in Pakistan, the Israeli Arabs in Israel and the Baha'is in Egypt are increasingly medieval and bizarre. For a nation to explicitly go against the right to equality, which is deeply embedded in our human civilisational values is repugnant to me.

If one looks at what the great thinkers of the world have said about citizenship, they range from the strictly functional and individualistic definition such as from Arnold Toynbee who said, "I regard the state of which I am a citizen as a public utility, like the organization that supplies me with water, gas, and electricity. I feel that it is my civic duty to pay my taxes as well as my other bills, and that it is my moral duty to make an honest declaration of my income to the income tax authorities. But I do not feel that I and my fellow citizens have a religious duty to sacrifice our lives in war on behalf of our own state, and, a fortiori, I do not feel that we have an obligation or a right to kill and maim citizens of other states or to devastate their land", to a completely 180 degrees view by Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, "The duty of the State toward the citizen is the duty of the servant to its master.... One of the duties of the State is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstances as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence without the aid of others.... To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by government--not as a matter of charity but as a matter of social duty".

Whether you belong to the first camp or the second or somewhere in between, the lesson is clear, until and unless the state is committed to treating all its citizens equally, it will end failing all.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

!t 0625/1524

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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With a grain of salt: How Do You Define A Citizen's Identity?


Author: Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta


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June 25, 2006
05:31 PM

Amartya Sen is a 3rd-rate commentator who was only plucked from obscurity for Nobel status because of India's nuclear tests. As you know, Sen was longstanding critic of India's defense spending, and that's why the Nobel committee picked him, coming as it did in the aftermath of India's Pokhran-II test. They did the same thing for VS Naipaul, a known critic of Islamism, in the aftermath of 9/11. It really shows the blatantly political partisanship of the Nobel committee, when it comes to the non-science categories. We even saw Arundhati Roy getting the Booker Prize.
Praful Bidwai, who has no credentials worthy of any mention, was also being paraded around in front of the cameras, post-Pokhran2, to disparage India. Now that the War on Terror is underway, and these leftist luminaries have immediately switched to making the US as their main target for ire, those who helped to elevate and publicize Sen, Roy, Bidwai, etc must now be regretting it.

June 26, 2006
01:17 AM

Well, while I am not that impressed by Amartya Sen's political soundings, his economic work is classic and world class. So, I am not really very sure that I would agree with your point that it was because of the opposition to defence spending. While the Nobel committee does try to make a point with its Peace Prizes, it usually doesnt do with the other science (although whether economics is a science is also debatable).

Same goes for Arundhati Roy. Mind you, I dont understand her political shrieks and find her a crashing bore who is a verbal fanatic, saying much but meaning little. But her book was good and worthy of the prize.

As for mr. bidwai, well, perhaps some of the older journalists around in delhi during the 1980's can tell you about mr. bidwai and the cia. I will say no more, but that is the reason why Mr. Bidwai's utterings are, lets say, suspect.



June 26, 2006
10:12 AM


more on your citizenship quest another time:)

for now i want to ask you this...some years back a disgruntled cia agent wrote a book....in that he mentioned names...names of cia moles all over the world...

did i miss praful in that list?

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