As a child, I was known as ammāvara maga, māmiya maga (any Tamil brahmin lady used to be called māmi in our neighborhood), so-and-so’s younger brother, nephew, etc. I was defined by blood relationship to specific other persons.

In school and college it was that Chandra Shekhar from that class.

The interesting part of the identity definition above was locale (geography) – neighborhood, school, college.

That was fine as far as it went. But then, I wanted to travel abroad to study.

This meant I had to get a passport that the Government of India issued affirming not only that I am who I claim to be, but also that I belonged to India.

This belonging can be of two kinds: (a) nationality, and (b) naturalization. Nationality depends on where you were born. Look up the origin of the word national in a good dictionary (I always use and you will see its relationship to birth.

Naturalization is the process by which a country grants certain rights and privileges (with responsibilities, of course) to a certain individual even though s/he was not born in that country.

Thus, technically, your nationality and your citizenship are not the same though often the two terms are used interchangeably.

The identity of an individual within India, for example, is based on a driver’s licence, Aadhaar number, PAN number, or some other document issued by their employer. You can have all of these, but they are recognized only within India. If you want to cross the borders of India and go to another country, you need to have a passport. [Explore: Some countries don’t require passports from certain other countries’ citizens … Find examples of these.]

Wherever you travel internationally, you have to be tied to some country or other. No matter what country issues you a passport, chances are that it mentions your country of birth or your nationality. There is always a trail of documents to show where you belong.

Difficult situations

Each country you enter may require you have a visa to do so. [Explore: Which countries allow Indian passport holders to enter without a visa?] The visa makes a documentary connection among you, your country of birth, and your country of naturalization (citizenship). If your passport is from the country where you were born, your nationality and citizenship are the same.

When you travel internationally, depending on where you are, the laws of that country apply. You have to abide by them. Saying, “I didn’t know the law” does not let you off the hook if you are caught doing something that is illegal there – “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it.”

What happens when you are traveling in another country and you are accused of breaking some law? How does geography enter the picture?


For example, if you are from India, traveling in Japan, accused of breaking the law, and are arrested by Japanese police, what happens? By international agreements which both countries have signed, the Japanese authorities have to inform the Indian embassy with details of your passport, visa, and other details. They have to tell the embassy what you are accused of doing. Then, they must provide what is called consular access – Indian embassy officials must be allowed to meet you, discuss your situation, and help to work out a way of getting you released and safely returned to India. This is part of the mission of the Ministry of Home Affairs. [Explore: in which countries does India not have an embassy?]

Recently …

Recently the Canadian government arrested Ms Men Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei. You might be familiar with some of their products – washing machines, cell phones, etc. Ms Men is also the daughter of the company’s founder.

Iran is currently under sanctions by the US for developing nuclear weapons. Well, the suspicion of doing so. [Explore: what are ‘sanctions’?] Under this, the USA will seek to punish any company or country dealing with Iran. The company, Huawei, was suspected of violating the anti-Iran sanctions (violation = dealing with Iran). For this reason, when Ms Men went to Canada on business, the USA requested the Canadian government to arrest her and extradite her to the USA so that the USA could then bring her to an American judge to argue her guilt. She could argue her innocence. The judge would then rule whether she is guilty or not.

Now, many countries have extradition treaties with each other. This is how Ms Men was arrested in Canada at the request of the American government. The story is here.

China and the USA are having a serious dispute right now over trade, military policies, and industrial espionage (spying on technological work). Among other things.

So, China arrested three Canadians. First the Chinese arrested ‘two Canadians – the former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and China-based businessman Michael Spavor – whom they accuse of engaging in activities that “endanger China’s security”.’  The story is here.

Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg during his retrial on drug trafficking charges in the court in Dalian in China's northeast Liaoning province where he was sentenced to death on drug trafficking charges, January 14, 2019.

Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg is sentenced to death on drug trafficking charges, 14 January, 2019. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Intermediate Peoples’ Court of Dalian [Source: Radio New Zealand. Accessed on 15 January 2019]

The third person was a teacher who was accused of violating visa restrictions and working illegally in China. She was released a few days ago, as I write this. The story is here.

Some are saying that poor Canada got caught up in the fight between the USA and China that I mentioned earlier. The Chinese protested very strongly in reaction to the arrest of Ms Men by Canada. But Canada is obliged by its treaty with the USA arrest Ms Men when it requested. China became furious and arrested three Canadians!

All the arrested individuals are in countries to which they don’t belong. Their respective countries have to find ways to get them all released and safely back home. That is what their respective foreign ministries have to work out.

Follow these stories and see how they develop.

Boundaries, their locations, and your location in relation to those boundaries … geography can make life quite complicated indeed.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 5 January 2019

Featured image: Ms Men Wanzhou at an investment forum. [Source: Accessed on 15 January 2019]


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