For most of my life, I had one, troublesome passport. It was green, for one thing, even though the leather cover was titled “People’s Republic of Bangladesh.” My green passport made me nervous at airports; every time I handed it over to an immigration officer, I braced myself for the frown, the close inspection, the questions about how long I was staying and how much money I had with me.
I was always that person who held up the line while people behind me shuffled impatiently. I carried a file of documents with me whenever I traveled — my student ID, bank statements, even college transcripts. It was impossible to go anywhere on a moment’s notice: Once, to get a visa for a family trip to Barcelona, I camped out overnight in front of the Spanish Embassy in Dhaka, where I watched the sun rise with South Africans, Jordanians, Pakistanis and Indonesians — all bearers of problem passports like mine.
But the passport was precious because it was hard-won. My grandparents were born in colonial India, my parents in East Pakistan. Bangladesh didn’t gain its independence until 1971, and the memory of this struggle was raw throughout my childhood. I was frequently reminded of how close we had come to being second-class citizens of Pakistan and how fortunate I was to have been born in a country that guaranteed my rights at birth.
It now appears that those rights are not inalienable. In February, Bangladesh’s cabinet approved a draft of the Citizenship Act, 2016, a law that proposes to create two tiers of citizenship. At the heart of the new law is a distinction that many countries make between resident citizens and dual citizens.
Bangladesh has, in the past, placed no restrictions on dual citizens. The new law changes that. People with dual citizenship won’t be able to join political organizations, work in the Civil Service or stand for office. Worse, their children will be subject to a bizarre and bureaucratic set of rules that, if not adhered to, will deny them citizenship altogether.
The most sinister aspect of the law is the state’s power to annul citizenship in certain cases. The draft law states that people can be stripped of their citizenship on a variety of grounds: if they are dual citizens of Bangladesh and any country at war with Bangladesh; if they’ve expressed “disobedience towards the sovereignty or the Constitution”; or if their parents are “alien enemies.” These conditions are both ominous and vague: What does “disobedience towards the sovereignty or the Constitution” mean?
To answer this question, the government proposes to empower a group of unnamed officials (we don’t know whether they will come from the Civil Service or the army, or whether they will simply be random government appointees) to make decisions in individual cases. These officials’ decisions will be final, and no court will be able to overturn them. This confirms what can already be inferred from the language of the proposed law: that creating tiers of citizenship opens the door for the state to pick and choose which rights to confer on its subjects, making citizenship conditional and at the discretion of the state.
Ultimately, this law is not about dual citizens; it is about the assertion and consolidation of state power in determining what makes a worthy citizen and what acts will result in the denial, or annulment, of citizenship.
There is a deep irony here. The Bangladeshi state wants to restrict the rights of those who are already citizens and place limits on those who can claim citizenship in the future. But this belies a basic fact, which is that many millions of us have left our country of birth for economic, social and political reasons. We have knocked on the doors of other countries; we have married and had children in distant lands; we have worked as peacekeepers, builders, housemaids and cabdrivers. We have been the refugees and the immigrants.
There are thought to be about 1.5 million Bangladeshi émigrés like me. The remittances many of them send home are worth more than $15 billion (by World Bank figures for 2015); that is nearly 8 percent of Bangladesh’s economy. They do not expect gratitude from the government, just their natural rights.
Bangladesh’s government should make a frank admission that a country that gives its citizens limited opportunities to thrive will have a large exodus of its population. The response shouldn’t be to punish dual citizens or to create different tiers of citizenship, but to try to harness the power of this migration; to buttress, rather than stifle, what the historian and writer Benedict Anderson called the “deep horizontal comradeship” that comes with citizenship. I don’t know a single Bangladeshi abroad who doesn’t yearn, in one form or another, for home.
In 2010, I married an American. The year after that, I became a British citizen, in a ceremony in Camden Town Hall in London. Our children were born in hospitals in East London. With their British passports, perhaps they will never have to stand in line for a visa or feel that gnawing anxiety when approaching an immigration desk. Yet I still want them to have those green passports, if only so that I can remind them that their identities are multiple, that they have a claim to a country that was earned by the generations that came before them. I hope sincerely that the Bangladesh government does not deny me that.
Tahmima Anam is the author, most recently, of the novel The Bones of Grace and a contributing opinion writer.