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Postcolonial Citizenship and Its Discontents

On October 6, 2019, the Georgetown South Asian Society hosted a panel on the topic of “Postcolonial Citizenship and its Discontents” at Georgetown University in Qatar. The participating panelists were Shaheen Ahmed from Monash University, Melbourne, who spoke over Skype, Professor Uday Chandra from Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), and Professor Hasan Mahmud, professor of international migration and global ethnography, from Northwestern University, Qatar (NU-Q).

Professor Mahmud describes Georgetown as “a cosmopolis based on the logic that all are welcome, or at least it should be.” That is, as he argued, the basic understanding of modern citizenship. Most states have multi-ethnic boundaries with varying rules of membership across different modern nation-states. 

Despite that, both Mahmud and Chandra acknowledged another complicated and difficult reality to modern citizenship. Professor Chandra compares postcolonial citizenship to a “spatial incarceration” as within modern nation-states, mobility is restricted, there is a dynamic of the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. The existence of passports adds to the limitations. 

The issue of citizens’ identity further complicates the criteria of citizenship. Professor Mahmud explains that ‘nation’ is meant to have a homogeneous identity, but the meaning of homogeneity changes over time. The conflict in India went from one of religion (which led to the creation of a separate Muslim state, Pakistan) to one of ethnicity. Mahmud mentioned how now, there is some form of ‘extra-political dimension’ to inclusion: citizenship is not enough, there needs to be an ethnic and religious membership as well.

The discussion of the boundaries of citizenship sheds light on the situation in Assam, India. An official registration of Indian citizens happened in August 2019 that stripped nearly 2 million in Assam of their Indian citizenship. 

Shaheen Ahmed, who is an Assamese Muslim, explained the historical context of the National Register of Citizens of India (NRC), and how that led to the situation in Assam. The issues are deep-rooted and begun a long time before the Indian Subcontinent gained independence from the British. Assam was an arable region where British colonialists brought in Bengali immigrants, who and whose descendants are now being categorized by the NRC as undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants. 

The panel also discussed how Islamophobia can exacerbate the issue of postcolonial citizenship and can be used by nations to marginalize people. As evident, events in Assam have been suspected as India’s move to discriminate Bengali-speaking Muslims. 

The panelists also came to the conclusion that the regions where people are being persecuted are regions where natural resources have not been fully exploited. This is, then, a productive resource for the nation-state, creating tension as the result of the state’s desire to extract resources and eliminate Bengali speaking Muslim workers.

The panel highlighted the problems that something as taken for granted as citizenship could bring up. Religious and ethnic heterogeneity is a point of tension in all modern nation-states and the panelists’ have brought critical questions

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