Wednesday, July 2, 2014

When nationality becomes a burden


However detached we may be from the state – its policies, politics, objectives, deeds, elites etc. – we are often defined by what our states are, what they represent and what they do, even if we have nothing to do with them. Clearly, we can’t exist without them, not only because sometimes states are our last refuge, but also because, as political scientist RBJ Walker so rightly reminds us, modern states have monopolized our political imagination. We simply are incapable of imagining ourselves, as political entities, outside the confines of the modern state. By defining our politics, states define who we are. Of course, we identify ourselves with states, more often than not, for a variety of reasons ranging from our upbringing and socialization to instrumental ones. 

But there are times even when we do not want to have anything to do with what a state does – due to lack of interest, living on the periphery, or want to actively disassociate with the state – and yet what the state does on our behalf continues to haunt us. In other words, whether or not we like it, we get identified with what our states do because the state acts on our behalf in whatever it does. I often get that feeling when I visit Kashmir – when I am asked to explain and atone for what the Indian state has done to Kashmir. Often, my explanation, that I have nothing to do with it, has no impact on my listeners. That’s because others’ political imagination of us does not extend beyond the state we come from. 

Innocent civilians are often persecuted for what their states do or assumed to be doing in the political imagination of others. This is the tragic dilemma of modern statehood and citizenship: while on the one hand we are politically condemned to identify with the state (as we really don’t have a choice), our states’ misdeeds (or perceived misdeeds) have far reaching implications for our daily existence because the state acts on our behalf, and others politically identify us with our states. 

I was reminded of this dilemma when I was traveling from Thailand to the US via Hong Kong last week. My Cathay Pacific flight from Bangkok, which was supposed to depart in the morning, was rescheduled to the previous night leaving me with a stopover time of about 14 hours in Hong Kong.  The Cathay flight had originated from Karachi and there were a number of Pakistanis on the flight some of whom were transiting via Hong Kong to other destinations and had similar layovers like me. I went to the Cathay counter along with some of the Pakistanis who I had befriended on the flight and requested to be accommodated in the airport lounge or a hotel outside the airport given that the layover time was very long.  The staff at the counter called up the lounge but were informed that the lounge was full. When the Pakistanis insisted that they be given the night’s accommodation outside the airport, they were told that Pakistani citizens did not have the privilege of visa on arrival in Hong Kong (even though Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China which is an “all-weather friend” of Pakistan) and hence they could not stay in a hotel outside the airport even if the airline provided it. A large number of Pakistanis, including women, young kids and elderly, were told to stay in the airport for 10 to 14 hours. I was told that Hong Kong gives Indians visa on arrival (even though China is not India’s friend or ally!) and was given visa assistance, hotel accommodation in Hong Kong and cab fare by the airline. 

Most of the Pakistanis who spent the long, probably sleepless, night at the Hong Kong airport were denied the services they were entitled to, one could argue, just because they belonged to a state whose polices have been disapproved of by a number of other countries even though the hapless Pakistani travellers had nothing to do with those policies.  They were caught in the politics among nations and the burden of their identities (I am not suggesting that the national identity per se is a burden but that it certainly was in this case). The Cathy Pacific staff in Hong Kong airport could not look beyond the nationality of those passengers whose comfort they were paid to look after. 
I was reminded of it again when I saw a tweet from Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, two days ago: “North Koreans can travel to 9 more countries visa free than ones travelling on #Pakistan passport”. Haqqani was referring to the recent index on visa restrictions published by “The Henley & Partners” ( that ranks Pakistan below North Korea. 

A friend of mine here in the US tells me that many Pakistanis in the US often introduce themselves as Indians given that Indians are seen in better light than Pakistanis. This confirmed a Times Of India story that I saw a few years ago ‘Pakistanis are posing as Indians to escape discrimination' ( I have also heard of stories of Pakistanis in Europe and America naming their restaurants “Indian Restaurant”. 

Clearly, such experiences are not a preserve of the Pakistanis alone. Many of us face this in one form or another at some point of time in our interactions with the ‘others’. This is perhaps one very good reason why we should, at least from time to time, think beyond the state, why our political imaginations should be able to break out of the narrow confines imposed by the state and why, as citizens, should call into question what our states do on our behalf for if we don’t we will suffer on their behalf.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, 29 June, 2014. URL: 

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