Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Citizenship and the Right to move…

“God did not create boundaries. He gave us the world to live our lives on. He did not create boundaries to marginalize us.” I was watching “Assaulted Dream”, a film documenting the desperate attempts made by men from the Central American republics, who unable to find decent employment in their own countries, embark on perilous journeys in search of work in the United States. These words rushed out at me, and I was aware instantly of the singular truth and power of the words “God did not create boundaries”. Ecological readings of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, emphasize the fact that God gave us dominion over the earth; he did not give us ownership of it. Indeed, God did not create boundaries. He gave us the world to satisfy our needs. It was man who erected the borders that operate to marginalize us.

It was perhaps the acknowledgment of this basic fact that caused me to recoil when I read the following in a column two weeks ago. Speaking about the Goans who apply for Portuguese passports, the author argued that “Surely, those Goans’ sudden love for ex-Estado da India's 'Patria' and clamour for Portuguese passports is but an undisguised attempt to infiltrate the European Union job market for low-end positions which have no native takers”. “Most of those 'patriotas'” he continued, “know nothing about Portugal, and do not intend to live in Portugal. Many of them are ready to beg, borrow, bribe and cheat to achieve their ends”.

The statement is a clear example of the many boundaries that men have built in order to marginalize each other. The boundaries in operation in the sentences are the boundaries of race, nationality, caste and class. God created no boundaries, and this was the way the colonizer found the world, a world populated by individuals bearing multiple identities and moving easily from one space to another. The colonizer to a large extent allowed that world to continue as such; indeed they actively encouraged the migration of populations from one part of the colonized world to the other, until the beginning of the 20th century, as the era of decolonization began. It was when the colonized started changing the direction of movement and arriving in large numbers on hitherto white shores, that this world came to an end. It was at this moment that the restrictive international regime that we take for granted today came into operation. International travel would no longer be a simple matter of jumping into a boat and seeking your fortune elsewhere. International travel now follows definite rules. Capital and citizens of the former colonial world travel with practically no difficulty. Those from among the formerly colonized, like Goa, the Central American republics and North Africa have severe restrictions placed on them. When they do travel, they are seen as infiltrators, defilers of paradise and treated as terrorists.

Regardless of the legitimacy of every human being to free movement across the globe however, can this Goan applicant for the Portuguese passport in fact be seen as the infiltrator? The Goan travels to Portugal not through any favour extended by the Government of Portugal but by a right that dates from before the Liberation of Goa, from a time when all Goans were citizens of Portugal, and who lost the right to Portuguese citizenship as a result of the Indian action. The Goan applicant is in fact not applying for Portuguese citizenship; but merely initiating a process to reassert their eclipsed right to Portuguese citizenship. To brand them as infiltrators is not merely a grave misrepresentation, but belies a sinister agenda. Labeling as illegal those who migrate by right to Portugal serves not only to delegitimize their presence in Portugal and Europe, but goes further to delegitimize the very process through which they go to Portugal.

What is baffling however is that it is not a European or a Portuguese who is branding the Goan as infiltrator, but a Goan himself. The puzzle falls in place when we realize that the author is implying that only those who know about Portugal, intend to live there, and who do not have to beg, borrow, bribe or steal, have a natural right to get Portuguese citizenship. In Portuguese-Goa, this meant the upper-caste and upper-class Goan (across religions) who spoke Portuguese and knew about Portugal. While from 1910 all Goans regardless of religion were Portuguese citizens, the same was effectively realized only by this small group of ‘assimilated’ folk. They were members of a coterie that incarnated the Empire in Africa and considered Portugal another home. The veiled thrust of this argument is that it is this class alone that must benefit from Portuguese citizenship. What this argument is doing, however, is to also employ the logic of nationalism. The logic of nationalism turns the logic of citizenship on its head. It is not the state that exists for you, but you who must exist for the state. Thus, you must love your country, know all about it – and yes, promise to never leave it. A perfect case of man being made for the Sabbath. The logic of nationalism however, is also the logic that is used by the internal elite to control the masses of the state. Thus, you have this argument: “Don’t let all of them go to Portugal, restrict this ‘benefit’ to only those who know Portugal.” That is to say, allow the freedom of travel to those of us who are one of you – the elite who matter. Colonialism did not end with decolonization, it merely opened up another, more subtle front of exploitation. An external elite left, to allow the space for a local elite to work in tandem with the former. This was the compromise of decolonization. We’ll leave, and as long as you control your teeming huddled masses, we’ll recognize your right to travel freely when you want to. And clearly, this is exactly what is happening.

The Goan leaves Goa for a plethora of reasons. She leaves because there is no work to be found in a nepotistic banana republic governed by a few families. She leaves to take any menial job abroad because there is no respect for labour in Goa-India, and you don’t have to suffer casteist humiliation on a daily basis. That they would beg, borrow or steal is testament to their desperation to get out. That we would condemn their desperation speaks for the callousness of our regime. And at the end of the day, is it a sin to want a better life?

God did not create a world with boundaries. He created it so for a reason, so that we could go forth and satisfy our wants, enrich ourselves, share it with others and hand it over to others when their time comes. The boundaries have been erected by man. And boundaries fall. They fell in Jericho, they fell in Berlin, they will fall in Palestine, and through the movement of Goans and other emigrants across the world, they will inshallah fall all over God’s earth. And I know that I will live to see the day. Amen.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 30 July 2008)

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