Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Becoming Indonesian Citizens: Subjects, Citizens, and Land Ownership in the Netherlands Indies, 1930-37

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Becoming Indonesian Citizens: Subjects, Citizens, and Land Ownership in the Netherlands Indies, 1930-37

Article excerpt

'If [Indo-Europeans] are willing to become Indonesische staatsburgers, then we are obliged to take their claims into serious consideration.'

Tabrani, Revue Politik, 23 August 1930

Colonial citizenship is a contradictio in terminis, some scholars have argued, because subjects who comprised the bulk of colonial societies had very limited civic rights. As a result, studies on citizenship in the Netherlands East Indies have focused their attention on its cultural aspects. An emerging literature on citizenship that privileges substantive practices over formal legal aspects, however, has paved a way to re-examine 'acts of citizenship' beyond the boundaries of the cultural realm into the realm of rights.

In the 1930s a social organisation for Eurasians, the Indo-European Association (Indo-Europeesche Verbond, IEV), launched a campaign to gain rights to own land for Europeans of mixed blood. This article examines the contentious campaign and the vehement rejection by Indonesians from diverse ethnic, geographic, and religious backgrounds. Categorised as Europeans and citizens of the Netherlands, the increasingly impoverished Indo-European population, who made up 85 per cent of the Europeans in the Indies, had no rights to own land. Such rights were apportioned exclusively for the autochthonous (1) population. Their demand for a form of land ownership led to protracted debates with Indonesians in various civic outlets. Drawing on newspaper articles, organisational bulletin reports, records of Volksraad (People's Council) debates, official reports of government commissions, and other material in the colonial archives, I trace the process by which citizens and subjects alike came to imagine themselves as legal persons in relation to one another and to the colonial state. I argue that by challenging state categories of entitlement, race, and belonging, the debates on rights to own land defined more sharply notions of citizenship among the Indies population. In so doing, I offer an insight into the genealogy of exclusion, which has haunted the idea of citizenship in postcolonial Indonesia.

I begin my article with recounting the new literature on citizenship, specifically acts of citizenship, in conversation with existing research on colonial citizenship in the Indies. Afterwards, I present key moments in the trajectory of the debates on land rights that confronted IEV and Indonesian leaders--and, to a limited extent, the Chinese communities--with what it meant to be citizens and subjects under colonialism. I conclude by reflecting on how land rights and citizenship remain an unresolved debate in postcolonial Indonesia.

From cultural citizenship to acts of citizenship

A cursory glance at colonial citizenship gives one an impression of an ambiguous, if not oxymoronic, concept. This ambiguity hinges on the diverse thickness of colonial subjects' rights and entitlements across varied colonial experiences: from a virtual void on the one end to a certain degree of presence on the other. Two cases in the French Caribbean and East Asia illustrate how colonial citizenship--when it was possible at all--was always partial, continually deferred, and a facade for camouflaging the civilising project. (2) In another case, that of nineteenth-century Sierra Leone and twentieth-century South Africa, the creoles who were eligible for citizenship received 'paradigmatic citizenship', i.e. legalised citizenship that legitimised and reproduced inequality. (3) In the Indies, in contrast, members of the native population were never citizens; by law they were only subjects (onderdanen) of the Netherlands. (4)

Colonial citizenship in the Indies, thus, tends to be seen as an oxymoron, resolved only by focusing analysis on citizenship's cultural aspect. (5) Indonesian women's aspiration to suffrage rights (6) and the desire to emulate a certain lifestyle (7) are examples of cultural citizenship, which refers to an explicit invitation to educated, upper-middle class Indonesians, 'through educational programmes and commercial advertisements . …

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