by Vipasha Bansal 

A Dutch passport containing an Indian name and a photograph of an Indian looking person invokes a paradox. A message of mobility and citizenship at an airport customs counter becomes simultaneously blended with othering and minority status. We – “immigrants” – traverse the public spaces of our (new) nation-states, adopt phrases and fashions, assimilate and integrate. Privately with our families, we switch to our mother tongues, eat our exotic food, read the news and watch cricket from “home”. We long for a home, only to realise that we are at home.

Hannah Arendt’s prophetic essay, The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man was first published in 1951. Arendt wrote this in the post-war period, drawing from the pre-war experience of migration and citizenship. She had not yet encountered the migrations that would take place from former colonies to Europe, neither did she know of the looming displacements of Gastarbeiter or guest-workers who would be invited to rebuild post-war Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet Arendt offered an astute insight, which still holds 70 years later.

Arendt reminds us that modern nation-states often insist on ethnic homogeneity because they hope to eliminate the natural differences which “arouse dumb hatred, mistrust, and discrimination”[1]. She describes how certain differentiating characteristics of people, imposed by nature, enter “the political scene as the alien”[2]. These attributes offer themselves up for easy demarcations of otherness, thereby limiting the organized achievement of equality. Arendt recognizes this political equality as something necessary for the exercise of citizenship, but at the same time knows its limits. The upshot is that for those who are immigrants, or children of immigrants, legal citizenship alone does not equate or lead to political equality.

Historically, citizenship has been granted on the basis of birth in a territory, i.e. by soil or jus soli, or on the basis of the nationality of the parents, i.e. by blood or jus sanguini. This worked as generally, people were born, lived and died in the same place.[3] However, with increasing migrations and settlements of people across – what became – national boundaries, increasing pressures were placed on the meaning and granting of citizenship. The possibility of attaining citizenship was extended to immigrants, the processes and requirements varying per state. One such method is “naturalization”, a legal process by which a non-citizen can become a citizen of a nation-state.

For most countries in Europe, citizenship is based on blood ties or jus sanguini rather than birth. Citizenship can also be awarded (for it as award rather than a right) to certain people who meet the criteria through a naturalization procedure or be ‘recovered’ by those who had some claim to citizenship as subjects of former colonies.

Taking the Netherlands as an example:

(1) Not everyone born in the Netherlands has a claim to being Dutch – citizenship is not granted by place of birth;

(2) An individual who is not born in the Netherlands can be Dutch if one of their parents is Dutch – citizenship is passed on through blood;

(3) An individual who does not have a Dutch parent-related-by-blood can nevertheless seek Dutch citizenship by virtue of adoption by Dutch parents or naturalization.

“Naturalization” has at its root the Latin natus, which means birth, and natura, which is by birth, or innate. Benedict Anderson, who recently passed away, was one of the most important thinkers on the idea of the nation. In Imagined Communities he wrote, “In everything ‘natural’ there is always something unchosen”.[4] There is something fateful and out of human control about that which comes with birth.

In the realm of legal citizenship, birth matters in two ways: where one is born, and to whom one is born. Countries, which recognize jus soli citizenship, such as the United States, attach more value to the land upon which a baby is born, rather than the parents to whom it is born. On the other hand, countries like the Netherlands, which grant jus sanguini citizenship, go further. Here, it is the element of the transfer of blood in birth that matters, not where the birth takes place. The claim is not to the land, but membership of the family of that land, which is knotted together by blood. In this fateful beginning of belonging, Anderson finds “the beauty of gemeinschaft[5], or community.

Tied though as it may be by blood, the nation now and then welcomes outsiders. Citing the example of Quechua-speaking Indians baptised by San Martin as ‘Peruvians’, Anderson proceeds to find that “from the start the nation was conceived in language, not in blood, but that one could be ‘invited into’ the imagined community.”[6] This invitation and its acceptance is the idea of naturalization, a “wonderful word!” exclaims Anderson.[7]

If nature is a quality of birth, then the verb “to naturalize” is to impart that quality of birth. To be naturalized then, is to be permeated with the birth-like quality, to be born again. In fact, despite its reference to the “natural”, naturalization has little to do with Anderson’s idea of the natural as unchosen. The element of destiny present in the moment of (the first) birth is replaced with a controlled legal ritual, which leads to being born again.

The possibility of naturalization acts as an invitation, if certain requirements of residency, language, civic and cultural integration are met. Once these requirements are met and evidenced through the requisite documentation, an individual can offer themselves as a citizen-to-be to the state. The state may or may not accept. Naturalized citizenship thus resembles a contractual arrangement rather than a birth or blood right, and can usually be revoked with more ease than a citizenship based on birth or blood.

Anderson identifies language as the key to the idea of a nation and indeed, the mastery of language is important both in the naturalization process as well as a measure of integration within most countries. The importance of language was reiterated in no uncertain terms in a 2014 political campaign by the main conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD). Campaign posters around the multilingual city of Rotterdam asserted, “We speak Dutch in Rotterdam” (In Rotterdam spreken wij Nederlands).

This statement claims more than a requirement to speak Dutch. It is claiming that “we” who belong in the city, speak Dutch in it. It is a plea to transform the public spaces from spaces of linguistic freedom to spaces of Dutch-speaking. The campaign received some pushback, with certain posters being altered, “We speak a 100 languages in Rotterdam” or “We speak Rotterdams in Rotterdam”. The rationale behind the posters is interesting, as if speaking Chinese or Swahili makes Rotterdam less of a city in the Netherlands.

Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak consider a similar question: In the context of former US President George Bush’s statement that the American national anthem can only be sung in English, they ask whether the anthem being sung in Spanish is “still an anthem to the nation and can it actually help undo nationalism?”[8] They do not provide answers, except Spivak’s suggestion that the singing of the anthem in Spanish is a claim to the abstract structures of the state, keeping it “clean of nationalisms and fascisms.”[9] A national anthem is likely to have more symbolic value to the identity of the nation than public spaces in Rotterdam. But something from Spivak’s statement can be applied in this context, namely, that certain ideas of the nation may be challenged through language. Now the fear of the VVD presents itself in clearer light. Speaking other languages in Rotterdam may disrupt their idea of the nation. Thus, the conservatives plaster the city with their own linguistic reiteration of nationalism, and (some) citizens reject it, reclaiming their public space.

More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.

They are indispensable, singular, worthy of tomorrow.

My name is someone and anyone.


– Extract from the Boast of Quietness, Jorge Luis Borges

A 2010 report titled Prefer Mark to Mohammed? (Liever Mark dan Mohammed?) by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau – SCP) found that job applications with non-Western sounding names were less likely to be successful. That discrimination against “non-Western migrants” continues in the fields of education, employment, and the public sphere was confirmed in the SCP’s 2014 report “Discrimination Experienced in the Netherlands” (Ervaren Discriminatie in Nederland). A recent OECD report titled “Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In” compiles datasets that aim to explain the immigrant experience in OECD countries, in numbers. Again the Netherlands fares poorly. For example, among the target countries, the number of young people from an immigrant background in the 15-34 age group who state that they have been discriminated against is highest in the Netherlands.

Naturalization is a legal baptism and a rebirth injecting a new identity into the Alien. This requires a certain effacement or reconstruction of genealogies. A complex site of belonging has to be negotiated with a giving and taking of components of identity, and a creation of hierarchies of allegiance. No headscarves but couscous is alright; salsa dancing but no Spanish in public places, give your children condoms not blessings. A perfect naturalized citizen can forget languages from past generations and flaunt a flawless new one, but what about a name or a face? Can the nation and its imagined community accept a citizen who may retain markers of belonging to another place? Arendt’s fear comes to life here, where individuals are judged by perceptions of their foreignness – given away in a name or skin colour – rather than their actions, their politics or their legal, civic personhood.

This is where the law falls short. The idea behind naturalization – of (legally) accepting others into our imagined community – is a sound one. But the legal ritual cannot exorcise spirits of history or the markings of a nature passed. The colour of a face or a dissonant sounding name perform on their own, wickedly blocking entry into a polity. There is a mishap in being born again, leaving conflated and confused identities of past, present and future, rather than a new self for this or future generations. Perhaps with human advancement, legal naturalization will be able to correct this aberration through technical face transplants and internalisations of correctly named alter-egos, allowing for a full and proper rebirth. Until then, the passport granting citizenship may in fact be a ticket to perpetual alienation.

I hate to end on a pessimistic note, so let us leave those last thoughts to the realm of science fiction. Below is an alternative ending.

Let’s go back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt was right in her observations, which philosophised the fear of the Other by the nation-state and why political equality is not forthcoming to those who are perceived as different. Arendt fled from Nazi Germany, and one can detect a certain fear of the state in her work. But neither the state, nor the nation are static. They are shaped by political participants. To achieve political equality, legal citizenship must be accompanied with some acknowledgement of changing notions of the nation. Those who can fully exercise and reap the benefits of their citizenship may not see the problem, or may not be willing to do anything about it. But we know – as women, as people of colour – that equality is not given, it is claimed. What does that mean for those of us who feel or announce ourselves as Dutch, English, French, Swedish and so on, but are told that we don’t look it, or feel discriminated against in our own homes? Maybe it simply means not letting go of these identities, claiming and redefining them by being just the way we are. Maybe the constant drumming of voices will succeed in slowly broadening the imagination of the nation and who belongs in it. Some cities have largely succeeded in doing this (think Londoner, New Yorker). I don’t see why larger communities can’t do the same.

This article is written within the limits imposed by the notion of citizenship, which relies on an idea of the nation-state. My aim has not been to suggest that we can only conceive of the world and human existence in terms of citizenship as linked to nation-states. On the contrary, the ideas presented here may be developed further to build a strong argument against the idea of the nation-state as the best method of organizing human political relations or guiding a historical understanding of one’s place in the world.

[1] Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, [1951] 2004) [hereinafter, Arendt] pp. 382-383

[2] Arendt. p. 382

[3] For a legal analysis, see Peter Spiro, “A New International Law of Citizenship”, The American Journal of International Law 105(4) (2011), 694-746

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso Books 1991), p. 143 [hereinafter, Anderson]

[5] Anderson, p. 143

[6] Anderson, p. 145

[7] Anderson, p. 145

[8] Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who sings the nation-state? (Calcutta: Seagull Books 2007), p 69.

[9] Spivak in Id., at 77

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Vipasha Bansal is an international lawyer and linguist. She graduated from SOAS and Columbia University. Vipasha currently lives in Tokyo. Find her on Twitter @vipashabansal

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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