People, Non-People, Citizens: A Feminist Perspective

Nivedita Menon is Professor, Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This essay is developed from two earlier versions – a) Paul de la Gueriviere Memorial lecture, Indian Social Institute, Delhi; Jan 31, 2020 b) “Citizenship in Terminal Crisis? Thinking beyond twentieth century verities” in Richard Falk, Manoranjan Mohanty, Victor Faessel eds. Exploring Emergent Global Thresholds (Orient Blackswan 2017). A shorter Hindi version of this lecture was delivered at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi on January 26, 2020.

This essay considers four interrelated questions.

First, are citizenship and citizenship rights unambiguously empowering? 

Second, why is citizenship a feminist issue?

Third, should we not cast citizenship rights within the frame of place of work, rather than place of birth?

Fourth, what about the place of the non-human in a just and ecologically aligned society?


Are citizenship and citizenship rights unambiguously empowering?

On the contrary, the very idea of ‘citizen’ produces simultaneously, as its shadow, the ‘non-citizen’ in the form of the Refugee and the Migrant.

The shadow cast by the idea of citizenship has been long recognised. This darkness arises from the location of citizenship rights in the nation state. As Ranabir Samaddar points out, a nation-state is made up of citizens, but it is the nation-state which defines who its citizens can be. Not everyone who is willing to be a citizen, not all those willing to participate in nationhood, can do so. The rights of citizenship are powerful precisely because they are available only to the community delimited by the discursive practices of the nation-state.[1] The point is that however inclusivist they may be, citizenship rights within nation-states are necessarily exclusionary. The resources of the nation, it is assumed, should be used for the benefit of citizens, thus creating a zone of privilege for them.

Thus, as Samaddar points out, the nation-state always has two subjects, the Citizen and the non-Citizen – the latter in the forms of the migrant and the refugee.

The refugee, according to Hannah Arendt, is the paradigm of a new historical consciousness – ‘Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.’[2] Giorgio Agamben, in an intense reflection on this essay fifty years later, notes that the appearance of refugees as a mass phenomenon comes into being with the emergence of the modern nation-state system that began to be put into place after World War I. Only a world of sovereign states that had categories of people called ‘citizens’ and that were intent on regulating population flows across/s ‘borders’ could produce the legal category of ‘refugees’. The collapse of multi-national, multi-ethnic empires (the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires) and the creation of new, ethnically defined states forced minorities to flee, but with few places to go to because of the new, increasingly restrictive immigration laws. It is in response to this development that the High Commission of Refugees was formed in 1921, to deal with the enormous problem without impinging on the sovereignty of nation-states. After World War II this became a permanent international institution in the form of the UNHCR.

The UNHCR was clearly limited in the way in which ‘refugee’ was defined by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees  – only displaced people on the other side of the territorial border were to be considered refugees, not internally displaced people, and only those who could prove ‘persecution’ by national governments – not those fleeing their countries because of economic hardship, ecological disasters, famines. The refugee law was also very clearly worded in order not to recognize Palestinians (Israel had been formed in 1948) as refugees.

‘In the best of cases’, writes Agamben, ‘the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalisation or repatriation. A permanent status of man in himself is inconceivable for the law of the nation-state’.[3]

The migrant represents the phenomenon of movement of populations that has been widespread and common over the globe for several hundreds of years. This movement has been both voluntary (seafaring traders, pastoral nomads, invading armies that end up settling the lands they conquer) and forced (slave trade, indentured labour to run plantations). Thus what is called ‘migration’ is actually a continuation of natural human flows through the centuries, suddenly rendered illegal by new national borders. What now require to be called new rights, Samaddar says, such as the right to move across national borders for trade, work, or for grazing of animals for example, are not new privileges, but simply the re-legitimation of old practices.[4]

However, once the nation-state system was put firmly in place, such movements themselves came under scrutiny from the new ‘homelands.’ From this point onwards, (approximately the early 20th century), migration began to be closely linked to the issue of the security of nation-states. Migration is no longer simply an issue of demography or labour economics, it is now perceived as an issue that concerns a nation’s very survival.

But the other side of this is that not all immigrants want to become citizens in the country where they work. With reference to Bangladeshi workers in India, for example, Samaddar says, ‘in their own minds they are only temporary shelter seekers since they are still Bangladeshis to their own selves’.[5] Migration, thus, is accompanied often by a sense of desolation, loss, and nostalgia.

Across India, Adivasi migrant labour, for example, travels, driven by violent appropriation of their jal, jangal and jameen. Nirmala Putul, Adivasi poet, writes to “Maya”, an Adivasi woman she invokes, who has migrated to Delhi:


नहीं है हम जैसे लोगों के लिए

क्या तुम्हें ऐसा नहीं लगता माया

कि वह ऐसा शमशान है जहाँ

जिंदा दफ़न होने के लिए भी लोग लाईन

में खड़े है ?

झारखण्ड की धरती संताल

परगना की माटी

दुमका के पहाड़

और काठीकुंड के उजड़ते

जंगल पुकार रहे हैं तुम्हें,

तुम जहाँ भी हो लौट आओ माया !

लौट आओ !!

All of this should lead us to question the nation as the space of liberation and emancipation, the natural home of the citizen – challenging this assumption requires us to recognise that nation states are formed by the unceasing, relentless drive to erase heterogeneity.

Take Europe, where the birth of nation states took place. Étienne Balibar points out that the construction of European nations involved the constitution of a ‘fictive ethnicity’ through the nationalisation of cultures, languages and genealogies with different histories, leading to ‘permanent rivalry’ from the inside.[6] Similarly, Crispin Bates points out that the English believe their own history to be continuous, but the so-called “English” culture is a mélange of ‘Celtic, Pict, Angle, Saxon, Viking, Norman, Asian, Caribbean, Polish, Italian, Huguenot, French, East European and of course, American cultures’.[7] By selecting from this mélange however, a set of ideas is upheld that somehow enshrines one ‘English’ identity.

The Indian project of ‘nation-building’ has been similarly beleaguered, whether we consider flash points like the North-East and Kashmir, or day-to-day politics among the state units of India’s federal polity, which in instances like river-sharing and linguistic reorganisation, take on the language of exclusive nationalism vis-à-vis one another. We have no option but to recognise such instances as illustrating the historical impossibility of attaining one kind of final nationhood. The ‘homelandist imagination’ is ever-limiting, and its ties to notions of shared historical culture can only be disempowering for those defined as the Other.[8] For example, within the North Eastern struggles for self determination vis-à-vis the Indian state are present also, internecine violence and rival claims to territory between different tribal and religious groups – between Bodos and Muslims, between Manipuris and Nagas.

Michael Mann has pointed out that murderous ethnic cleansing is quintessentially modern, it is ‘the dark side of democracy’. Democracy means rule by the people, but in modern times, ‘people’ has come to mean not just the masses but also nation, or particular ethnic groups, a people that share ‘a common heritage and culture.’ What happens, Mann asks, when ‘people’ is defined in ethnic terms, outweighing the diversity that is central to democracy? ‘If such a people is to rule (in its own nation state), what is to happen to those of a different ethnicity?’ Answers to this question, he adds, ‘have often been unpleasant’.[9]  

But if we remember that migration as human flows predate nation states, then we recognise yet another aspect of migration – migration as empowering. This aspect of migration leads us to our second question.


Why is citizenship a feminist issue?

Because citizenship is primarily based on proof of birth in a heterosexual patriarchal family, an institution that structurally undergirds caste, class, and gender injustice.

The structure and ideology of the patriarchal family is best illustrated by the reactions to the growing feminization of migration flows, both internal and external, and increasing flows of ‘single’ women migrating abroad as independent labourers in search of better lives for themselves and ‘their’ families.

One response has been to frame such movement in terms of ‘trafficking’. But an intensely destabilising perspective on citizenship and migration is provided by feminist critiques of anti-trafficking initiatives. The notion of ‘trafficking in persons’ has become closely linked to the abolitionist position on sex work, and has acquired great clout and visibility internationally, with feminists from the first world leading anti-trafficking campaigns. In their definition, trafficking is linked to migration, with trafficking being understood as ‘forced migration.’

Many other feminists on the other hand, are critical of anti-trafficking initiatives, particularly of the US Anti-Trafficking Act 2000.[10] They show how these initiatives collapse the distinction between (voluntary) sex-work and (coerced) trafficking, treating all cross-border movements of women as coerced; thus excluding these women from legal recognition, and casting their families as criminals. There has been pressure on the U.S. government from international groups working on public health and human rights to rethink current U.S. law that makes funds for HIV/AIDS-prevention programmes conditional on opposing prostitution. Such a requirement, it is argued by feminist critics of anti-trafficking campaigns, vitiates health programmes among sex-workers and fails to protect the most vulnerable sections. There is also militant opposition from sex-workers themselves to anti-trafficking policies being promoted by Western and South Asian countries and some feminists and human rights groups.[11]

Feminist legal scholar and activist Flavia Agnes has suggested a conceptual move away from the notion of a vulnerable subject to that of the risk-taking subject. She argues that migrants, including those in sex work, exercise agency and demonstrate decision-making abilities, which seek to maximise their own survival as well as the survival of their families. For example, many women negotiate the terms of their own movement and utilise technological networks to plan their migration and keep in contact with others in their country of origin. Women’s perceptions of themselves and of their ‘exploiters’ provide a further challenge to the traditional and stereotypical images of victim and perpetrator. For example while the dominant image of women in the sex industry is that of subjugated, dominated, objectified and abused persons who are preyed upon by conniving men, studies of women in the sex tourism industry in various countries reveal that women view it as an arena of negotiations to improve their own economic situation.

In addition, Agnes points out, as do many other feminists, that the trafficking agenda has come to be increasingly influenced by a conservative sexual morality, which casts ‘good’ women as modest, chaste, and innocent. Challenges to this understanding are seen as posing a dual threat – to women themselves and to the security of society. This produces a ‘protectionist agenda’, within which no distinction is drawn between willed and coerced movement. All movement of women is seen as coerced, thus reinforcing assumptions of third world women as victims, infantile and incapable of decision-making.[12]

From this feminist perspective, we can see migration not just as loss, but also as empowering, as producing new subjectivities.

But there is yet another layer here, when we consider the phenomenon of migration from the point of view of the transformations within these relocated communities. For instance, Naila Kabeer’s book on Bangladeshi women workers addressed the apparent paradox that while women garment workers in Dhaka entered garment factories and worked unveiled, Bangladeshi women in the garment industry in London were almost entirely confined to home-working. One of Kabeer’s main explanations for this is that women in Dhaka come from diverse geographical backgrounds into a relatively anonymous urban setting while the women in London came mostly from one province, Sylhet, where society is extremely conservative, even by Bangladeshi standards. In London, they tend to settle in one part of East London because of community networks drawing new migrants into that area where Bangladeshis have become concentrated. This concentration and regrouping of the community is of course, set within a context of growing racist hostility which leads to the familiar phenomenon of minority communities drawing “their” women “inside”. Men then, work in the factories and women at home – with the additional labelling of women’s labour as unskilled, and men’s as skilled. Kabeer argues that the processes of globalisation by which garment factory sweatshops get located in countries like Bangladesh empower women who, despite exploitative conditions of work, find their options increased. She suggests that the agency of women is enhanced by the effects of globalisation in the South.[13]

Many scholars and activists have suggested therefore that we need a political practice that questions the very legitimacy of sealed national borders that we have come to take for granted over the last century. National border regimes must be opened up as well as the labour markets organised through them. There must be an end to discrimination based on one’s nationality. These are the demands of the growing group of ‘No Borders’ activists across the world. A radical political practice is called for, ‘struggles for a decolonized commons’, that challenges the barbed-wire borders of nation-states.[14]

We need to question citizenship by birth also from the perspective of the biological, familial foundation of citizenship that we outlined at the beginning of this section.

This foundation remains un-thought and unquestioned in progressivist narratives of citizenship. Compulsory heterosexuality undergirds most forms of identity – caste, race and community identity are produced through birth. But what we fail to note and criticise adequately is that birth in a particular kind of family determines too the quintessentially modern identity of citizenship. The purity of these identities, of these social formations and of existing regimes of property relations is protected by the strict policing and controlling of sexuality, and by the institutions of compulsory heterosexuality. Thus, the family as it exists, the only form in which it is allowed to exist – the heterosexual patriarchal family based on marriage and the sexual division of labour – is key to maintaining nation, state and community. The imperative need is to restructure institutional and public spaces in a manner that will enable the breaking down of this division of labour as well as the normativity of this particular form of the family.

What then would be the basis of citizenship if the naturalised notion of ‘birth’ is deconstructed in this way? We would be forced to think of alternative sources of citizenship rights – through claims to ‘family’ ties by heterogeneous and fluid forms of intimacy that refuse to be legible to the state, and equally importantly, as located in place of labour, not birth.

And this brings us to our third question.


Should we not cast citizenship rights within the frame of place of work, not place of birth?

Mahmood Mamdani argues in the context of Africa, that the notion of citizens’ rights as attached to place of birth has increasingly anti-democratic consequences because of the history of large-scale migration on the continent, which means that at any given time, hundreds of thousands of people are not living in the land of their birth. They thus have no citizens’ rights for the large part of their lifetime. Mamdani rejects the post-colonial assumption that cultural and political boundaries should coincide, and that the natural boundaries of a state are those of a common cultural community. This assumption makes indigeneity the litmus test for rights under the postcolonial state.

Mamdani argues, contrary to nationalist wisdom, that cultural communities rooted in a common past do not necessarily have a common future. Political communities rather, are to be defined not by a common past but by the resolve to forge a common future ‘under a single political roof’. He believes therefore, that citizens’ rights should be attached to place of labour, not place of birth.[15]

Consider the supporters of Hindutva politics in India, who live in the USA and UK, and unquestioningly take advantage of citizenship rights that protect immigrants and minorities. They publicly celebrate the Prime Minister of their erstwhile country, publicly observe their festivals; build their temples, even direct the foreign policy of political parties in the countries in which they live and work – for instance, UK’s Labour party back-tracked on its Kashmir resolution[16] criticising the lockdown of the state, under pressure from multiple British-Indian bodies.[17] They demand full citizenship rights for themselves in their country of residence, while financially supporting the policies of Hindutva that disenfranchise minorities and immigrants in the country they have left.

The poet Rahat Indori’s famous words – sabhi ka khoon shaamil hai is mitti mein (‘the blood of each one of us is mingled in this soil’) –indicate, in my reading, not just the shared blood of birth and martyrdom. We can derive a different sense of ownership of “India” from Indori’s stirring words. I read khoon as used in the common term khoon pasina – the blood and sweat of toil. If our blood and sweat is fused with this soil, then that far exceeds the mere accident of birth.

In other words we take seriously the implications of the fact that the Preamble of the Indian constitution is in the name of hum bharat ke log, not hum bharat ke nagrik.

How will everyone be looked after? Resources are not lacking. Distribution is the point. In Kerala, for instance, the children of immigrants from Bihar and UP get free education and everything else that residents of Kerala get, not just those born in Kerala, or those who bear a “Malayali” identity.

We recently learnt that the total income of 63 crorepatis was greater than India’s annual budget for 2018- 2019.[18] Where did that income come from? Subsidies for the poor is vote-bank politics, subsidies for the rich is development?

What was the cost of the now rejected NRC in Assam? 1220 crores![19] A complete waste of public money especially as it will be repeated, if the Home Minister has his way. In December 2019, the Union cabinet sanctioned Rs 4000 crores[20] for the National Population Register, an exercise that overlaps with the Census and is therefore redundant, but which has the only feature the Census does not have – the category of the doubtful citizen.

Clearly there is no shortage of resources in India to ensure state funding for basic human rights for all residents – healthcare, education, food.


Finally, can we speak about citizenship in a radically transformative way without considering the non-human?

What happens if we take seriously the idea that the separation of the world into the natural and the social-political is the founding mythology of modern thought, as Bruno Latour insists. The formative idea of Latour is that the natural and social orders are ‘co-produced’, produced together. Latour uses the word ‘collective’ to describe the association of humans and nonhumans, and the word ‘society’ to designate ‘one part only of our collectives, the divide invented by the social sciences’.[21]

If citizenship must be re-considered in terms of recognising the non-human world, then pre/non-modern cultural formulations and knowledge systems, both western and non-western, have much more to give us than Enlightenment thought. For instance, it is under conditions of modernity that the age-old domestication of animals has evolved into what Barbara Noske calls the ‘animal-industrial system’, which forces animals to specialise in one skill. The animal’s life-time ‘has truly been converted into working time, into round-the-clock production’.[22]

With regard to nature, Thomas Lemke has pointed out that even the discourse of ‘sustainable development’ is central to ‘the government of new domains of regulation and intervention’:

One important aspect of the ‘new world order’ is the reconceptualisation of external nature in terms of an ‘ecosystem’. Nature, which once meant an independent space clearly demarcated from the social with an independent power to act, and regulated by autonomous laws, is increasingly becoming the ‘environment’ of the capitalist system…In an age of ‘sustainable development’, previously untapped areas are being opened in the interests of capitalization and chances for commercial exploitation. Nature and life itself are being drawn into the economic discourse of efficient resource management. [23]

Or as Arturo Escobar puts it: ‘the key to the survival of the rainforest is seen as lying in the genes of the species, the usefulness of which could be released for profit through genetic engineering and biotechnology in the production of commercially valuable products, such as pharmaceuticals. Capital thus develops a conservationist tendency, significantly different from its usual reckless, destructive form’.[24]

The key idea here is ‘regulation’ – the environment is to be regulated in the interests of long-term extraction. Within this perspective, even renewable sources of energy are envisaged as necessary only to ensure endless consumption. There is no sense here that assumptions about consumption, urbanization, and endless growth will have to be drastically rethought.

Bolivia’s Law of Rights of Mother Earth (2010), which establishes seven rights of Mother Earth, including the right to life, biodiversity, pure water, clean air, and freedom from genetic modification and contamination, is potentially revolutionary.[25] However, who is to protect these rights? If local communities were the guarantors of these rights, this would mean a significant break from the nation-state paradigm. However, this law too, appears to be designed to enable the state to facilitate resource extraction and industrial development while protecting ‘Mother Earth’. Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera stated at the law’s promulgation ceremony: ‘If we have to extract some mineral, we have to extract it, but finding equilibrium between the satisfaction of needs and protecting Mother Earth.’[26]

So is that all it is – “sustainable” development, once again?

If the agency of the non-human is to be acknowledged, this has implications for the very idea of citizenship. This is because any attempt to deal with the looming ecological crisis in centralised ways at the level of states is bound to fail. The only way out is through secession into decentralised, local ways of life, a replenishing of the commons, and rejecting the idea of growth altogether, as the Degrowth Movement boldly states:

Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions… The primacy of efficiency will be substituted by a focus on sufficiency, and innovation will no longer focus on technology for technology’s sake but will concentrate on new social and technical arrangements that will enable us to live convivially and frugally. Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems.[27]

Such a retreat is not a benign, apolitical act, but a deeply political blow to the continuing violence of corporate capital and the state systems that sustain it. Citizenship cannot but be radically rethought – perhaps even rejected – within such a framework, which insists on ‘societies’ rather than ‘states’, rejects the very idea of the national GDP as an indicator of the good life, and redefines good living in terms of conviviality and frugality. The Citizen grounded in the Nation-State imaginary is rendered utterly irrelevant.

We arrive therefore, at citizenship oriented towards the future, not based on a past.

Let me conclude by saying that Shaheen Bagh and all the other vibrant, massive anti-CAA protests all over India, can lead us to a more inclusive idea of citizenship. Not the narrow one that says who should be excluded, but one that embraces heterogeneous religions, political and other cultures and sexualities, and which challenges patriarchy and caste injustice. An idea of citizenship that claims solidarities based not on fictive histories of the past, but on hopeful narratives of the future.

[1] Ranabir Samaddar , The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (Sage Publications 1999).

[2] Hannah Arendt (1943) quoted in Giorgio Agamben, ‘We refugees’ (1995) Symposium No 49 (2).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, ‘We refugees’ (1995) Symposium No 49 (2), p. 117.

[4] Ranabir Samaddar , The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (Sage Publications 1999), p. 40.

[5] Ranabir Samaddar , The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (Sage Publications 1999), p. 107.

[6] Étienne Balibar, We the People of Europe? (Princeton University Press 2004), p. 8.

[7] Crispin Bates, ‘Introduction: Community and Identity among South Asians in Diaspora’ in Crispin Batesed. Community, Empire and Migration South Asians in Diaspora, (Palgrave 2001), p. 22.

[8] Sanjib Baruah, ‘Nations within nation-states’ (Hindustan Times, October 13 2005).

[9] Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge University Press 2005), p. 3.


[11] Ratna Kapur, Erotic Justice: Law and the New Politics of Postcolonialism (Permanent Black 2005).

[12] Flavia Agnes, ‘The Bar Dancer and the Trafficked Migrant Globalisation and Subaltern Existence’ (30 December 2007) Refugee Watch, Issue No. 30.

[13] Naila Kabeer, The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi women and labour market decisions in London and Dhaka (Sage Publications 2001).

[14] Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National sovereignty and the separation of natives and migrants (Duke University Press 2020).

[15] Mahmood Mamdani, (1992) ‘Africa Democratic Theory and Democratic Struggles’ (October 10 1992) Economic and Political Weekly,Vol – XXVII No. 41.






[21] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Catherine Porter tr., Harvard University Press 1993), p. 4.

[22] Donna J. Haraway, ‘Otherwordly Conversations, Terran Topics, Local Terms’ in Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (eds.) Material Feminisms (Indiana University Press 2008), p. 177.

[23] Thomas Lemke, ‘Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique’ (2002) Rethinking Marxism 14(3), p. 55.

[24] Arturo Escobar quoted by Lemke, ‘Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique’ (2002) Rethinking Marxism 14(3), p. 56.