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Once upon a citizen...

By Lawrence Liang

Even as globalisation erases the spatial and temporal constraints imposed by national boundaries, it chooses to do so only in the convenient spaces of call centres, malls and stock exchanges. The constraints remain vibrant and rejuvenated at the good old desk of the immigration counter, as this writer discovers

The officer raises his eyebrows, peers suspiciously at me and says: “Indian?” 

The nightmare always remains the same. Even after years of travelling, every time I am in a foreign country there is a moment when I break into a cold sweat and find myself nervously looking for the one thing that will prove my identity: my passport. In my mind, by then, I would have already enacted various Kafkaesque scenarios, most of which involve me trying to explain to a faceless authority how this Chinese-looking person has lost his Indian passport.  

Most people hate airports and the long process of waiting, going through security checks and then immigration control. I have gradually learnt to develop an ethnographic romance with this ubiquitous process of nation-states which filters citizens from non-citizens and the authorised from the unauthorised. The immigration check represents, for me, the liminal space in which all kinds of global anxieties converge, the control desk lying somewhere between the desire of finding a better opportunity in a foreign land and the desperate attempts to prevent unwelcome guests from coming in.  

The first time I left the country was to do my Masters and, as any average Indian will tell you, the two greatest fears that we have growing up in India is that we will die without going abroad, and that we will die virgins. Often, the two fears were also crucially linked to each other. So, I was returning with as much pride for the loss of my passport’s virginity as for mine. But instead of a dramatic welcome home to desh, I found myself being detained for questioning by the immigration authorities. It turned out that some Nepali men had been arrested for trying to get to Europe on fake Indian passports which had been supplied by an agent promising them jobs in the UK. Here I was, with my indeterminate oriental looks, claiming that I was an Indian citizen. After a series of endless and repetitive questions and a rapid test of my Hindi vocabulary, I said in exasperation: “Arrey bhaisaab, rehna tha to London mein rehta, vaapas kyun aata?” (“My dear sir, if I had wanted to stay I would have stayed in London! Why would I have come back?”) To which the officer replied: “Haan, woh bhi sahi hai!” (“Yes, that’s true too!”) and let me leave, a free citizen. 

It is no irony that the production of the passport is that which ultimately guarantees the production of the citizen, and that the passport is also the last stop for the citizen. From the 19th century onwards, there has been a consolidation of the passport as a document that establishes personal identity, but it is really in the post-World War II era that the passport also begins to get consolidated as a document proving nationality and citizenship. Dieter Hoffmann says that the paradigmatic scene of the modern era is that of the immigration officer examining a passport. For him, this is a scene which is both obvious and fathomless: obvious, because of the enforced obligation of having an identity as this or that person; fathomless, and therefore insidious, because of ‘the method proving that- which?-identity’. 

I have, in the course of the years, learnt the various skills required for a successful performance of citizenship. It is, of course, helpful that I live in Bangalore, the outsourcing hub of the world where, every night, thousands of young men and women discard their brown skins for white voices. The conversion of Rajesh to James and of workers learning to say ‘boddle of waader’ is indicative of the massive shifts that have taken place in the global division of material and immaterial labour. My neighbour, Wasim, who works in a call centre, is now seriously considering adopting the nickname Osama because of the frequency with which people call him that when they discover that he is speaking from Bangalore. After the city’s recent links to the attack in Glasgow, Wasim is also seriously considering the possibility of changing his name permanently to James: that will make his life in the call centre and in Bangalore slightly easier. 

The 19th century was marked by the simultaneous tensions of fixity and mobility, and the passport found itself floating, Sybil-like, between the demands of national identity and the freedom of movement. Our contemporary era is marked by similar tensions between the need for mobility of capital and labour and the intensification of border controls. Thus, even as globalisation erases the spatial and temporal constraints imposed by national boundaries, it chooses to do so only in the convenient spaces of call centres, malls and stock exchanges. They remain vibrant and rejuvenated at the good old desk of the immigration counter. And yet, one of the conditions that marks the contemporary is the hundreds of thousands of people who cross borders every day, not necessarily at immigration counters, but travelling in secret compartments, hiding under heaps of fruit, or often piled in a small little boat. For most of these migrants, the passport plays little or no role in their travel. 

The passport also needs to be understood as a conduit for much more paraphernalia that has to be carried and performed for the citizen to be produced. This is particularly true if you consider the gap that exists between the aspirations of modern citizenship (where people are erased of their markers of difference) and the material world of immigration and border controls where markers of difference alert the nervous system of the State. 

The Raqs media collective have argued that the passport and other ID documents can also be seen as a script, and the border as an audition, a screen test, an identification parade, or a drill that you practise and never quite get right. They state: 

    “The tension, however, between the image and its shadowy referent, between the identikit photo and the missing person remains. This tension between citizens and denizens, subjects and aliens, is historically resolved through the approximation of a person’s visage to an administrable image of the citizen. The passport, the identification card, the police record, the census datum and the portraits that these instruments build of personhood, are key to this. The frontal portrait makes a claim to be the distillate of truth. This reduction is all that is necessary for him or her to be known as a person with a valid claim to be in a place; all else is superfluous.” 

Just as the passport serves as the script that writes out the role of the citizen, citizenship itself can be seen as a particular performance. In the Indian context, the history of the citizen is clearly tied to the project of the nation, “the largest imagined space which claimed the nomenclature of the new, or at least with the Utopian projection of the ideal community, freed from colonial domination, and free to create a world untainted by inequalities of caste-class, community or gender. It was a community, however, only of those who were eligible to be citizens, and the question of how citizenship was conferred is, in many ways, the same question as how the nation was imaged. Nationalism was a marker of the readiness to enter the ‘modern’ age, and the modern person produced as ‘Indian’ was also the free, agentive, romantic subject of liberal humanism,” (Niranjana, 1993).  

We can also think of citizenship as the surplus value of nationalism. It is certainly not enough that you produce your identikit, because the production of citizenship also demands your participation in the ritual production of nationalism. Whether it is the American fetish for rallying under the Stars and Stripes, or the proxy wars that are fought on cricket fields, the secret history of your citizenship is written by your success at these rituals.  

I learnt rather early to be wary of any form of nationalism. In the sixth standard, I would be asked by my class teacher: “If India and China played a cricket match, who would you support?” It was a particularly stupid question, given that China did not play cricket, but what irked me more was the even more stupidly happy smile that flashed on her face when I answered: “Of course I would support India, Miss!” It’s a smile that I find resurrected in the faces of immigration officials around the world, the satisfied look of having been given the right answer when the details of your passport and the evidence written on your body seem not to match. 

Whereas for me the production of my passport is the greatest guarantor of my identity, for a large number of people the passport is the greatest threat. Immigrants will often tell you that the first thing you do if you want to have a shot at surviving as an illegal alien is to get rid of your passport. In the late-’80s and early-’90s, a large number of Indian Chinese left India for Canada, Taiwan and countries in Europe looking for better job opportunities. A very bright cousin of mine landed in Canada and worked in restaurants and factories, putting in extra hours at underpaid jobs. The law finally caught up with her, but, luckily, her lawyer advised her to pretend to be a Vietnamese boat woman who did not speak a word of English. So, she merely nodded whenever the prosecutor or the judge asked her anything. Years later, when she came to visit India as a Canadian citizen, she told us that the toughest part of her act was keeping a straight face when being questioned. She had replaced one identikit for another.  

Another friend was less lucky. After managing to work underground in Taiwan for eight years, he was finally arrested when he pulled over on the highway for a nap, exhausted after driving for 12 hours at a stretch. The performative demands of citizenship rarely allow rest and must be continuously worked.  

In order to ease the task of the overburdened official citizen-establishing apparatus, there are now a number of proposals for modernising the machinery to include biometric data in people’s passports. The challenge after all is not just to weed out the citizen from the alien but, more importantly, to weed out the terrorist from the citizen. As the recent Hindi film Fanaa informs us: “The present-day terrorist is a man who thinks. He is a planner. No one knows his name or his past. When and where does he come from? No one knows. He could be anyone or no one. He could be the one sitting beside you in a theatre or a local train, or a bank teller or a cigarette vendor. He is intelligent and dangerous. He has to be found.” 

The onerous task of performing one’s citizenship is already difficult enough, and soon, remaining silent to the demands of your identity may become equally so. The only way to inhabit this increasingly terrifying world where passports trespass into our dreams and convert them to nightmares is to flee momentarily into the world of fiction. I end with the magical circle that the young protagonist in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines discovers. 

    “When I turned back to my first circle I was struck with wonder that there had really been a time, not so long ago, when people, sensible people of good intention, had thought that all maps were the same, that there was a special enchantment in lines; I had to remind myself that they were not to be blamed for believing that there was something admirable in moving violence to the borders and dealing with it through science and factories, for that was the pattern of the world. They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that they had created not a separation, but a yet-undiscovered irony -- the irony that killed Tridib: the simple fact that there had never been a moment in the 4,000-year-old history of that map when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines -- so closely that I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free -- our looking-glass border.” 

(Lawrence Liang is a researcher at the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009