Identity, Belonging and Citizenship

By Sudha Kumar

Proposed changes to the Citizenship law is settled, for the moment.

Earlier this week Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP, Premier of New South Wales, Hon. Ray Williams MP, Minister of Multiculturalism, and Mr. Vanlalvawna, Counsul General for India, along with a host of MPs from both sides of the Parliament, and representatives of the diverse Indian community came together at the Museum of Contemporary Art to celebrate the ”˜Festival of lights’. The celebration was marked by lighting up of the Sydney Opera House with the warm hues of yellow and orange by the NSW Premier.

Sydney and her icon were alight for Diwali! It was a breathtaking moment.

Sydney siders identifying with the festival of lights lit themselves up with all that marks the spirit of the festival ”“ lights, colours, sweets and joy.

And in the days that followed, social media was inundated with images and messages from across the globe that portrayed the universalness of this Hindu festival, the celebration of the triumph of ”˜good over evil’, transcending all differences.

Theresa May, Prime Minister of United Kingdom to the Indian community in UK, “As Prime Minister, I want to take this opportunity to say a special thank you ”” on behalf of the whole country ”” for the immense contributions you all make to every sphere of life in the United Kingdom,” read the message released by the Downing Street.

Our own Prime Minister Mr. Malcolm Turnbull also had a message for us. Wishing us all a Happy and Joyous Diwali, he went on to add that Australia is “the most successful multicultural nation on earth,” which “shines brightly as a beacon”, in a world ravaged by divisions and conflict.

But getting back to Diwali celebrations atop the Museum of Contemporary Art, after lighting up the Sydney icon, Premier Gladys Berejiklian spoke from her heart, of what a proud yet humbling moment it was for her.

Proud because here she was holding an Office that represented the multicultural and diverse people that make up the fabric of Sydney and NSW, celebrating a festival that they brought with them from another land.

Humbling because her parents came to this country as immigrants all those years ago, and her father had worked on the highest sail of the Opera House.   And his daughter now held the position that gave her the opportunity to flick on the switch that could light up that icon. Proud and humbling indeed.

As she continued to convince the small select crowd about the hand of friendship that Australia extends and intends to hold fast with India, and how much she looked forward to her impending official visit to the world’s biggest Democracy, I felt proud seeing a woman stand there and speak as Ms.Berejiklian did. Being an immigrant woman, perhaps I was a bit biased in my feeling of pride. So be it!

That said, I also could not help but wonder, again, about the changes that were proposed, (and have since been thrown out, for now) to the Citizenship law.

Gladys Berejiklian was born in  Sydney, the eldest of three daughters born to  Armenian immigrant parents, Krikor and Arsha.  Berejiklian spoke only  Armenian until she was five years old, when she began learning English. Right there was a shining example of the grit, perseverance and success of an immigrant child! Just one of thousands!   Would Krikor and Arsha Berejiklian (parents of the Premier) have met the proposed criteria for Citizenship? Surely not. And what a loss it would have been to this country.

The proposed changes were riddled with inconsistencies. Though used to assess the level of English for prospective University students, I say from experience and with conviction, that most Australian HSC students poised for University education would not pass this test. So then what is its purpose?   Was the proposed English Test in its very design intended to exclude? Is the English language, the most important criteria that ensures contribution of an individual to Australian society and economy? Why is it applied only to people coming from some countries and not others?

As Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia elucidated very clearly at the FECCA (Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia) Conference, Darwin, earlier this month – Citizenship is about that deep and permanent sense of belonging. It begins with welcoming.

One is born into an identity without much choice – of race, colour, geographical origin, heritage and even religion. But a sense of belonging, that is to be made and nurtured. It defines one’s place in the society that one is living in. It is the bedrock of a thriving society. And as such it becomes the moral responsibility of the Government to enable and ensure that all its citizens specially immigrants have the opportunity to assimilate and belong.

Modern Australia and Multicultural Australia are one and the same. You cannot have one without the other.

In a country where every official gathering commences with paying tribute to the original custodians of the land, where it is stated with conviction that ”˜Australia has two stories only, the indigenous and the migrant’, why is it that we are now in a situation that demands changes to the citizenship law? The response offered is national security, but that is not convincing, not at all.

Brett Stephens (The New York Times) on a recent ABC Q&A programme had this to say about domestic terrorism ”“ ”˜it is vital that we include and assimilate the children of immigrants who do not feel quite at home. Immigrants want a good life that much more, are happy to work, and so work that much harder. The poor immigrants who arrive in this country, trying to make ends meet, the hungry and tired, their children are our future – our innovators, our entrepreneurs, our politicians’ (The Hon. Gladys Berejiklian case in point.)

”˜Countries that understand that principle thrive, countries that reject that principle decline’.

Let us hope that Australia is poised to understand and thrive.


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