Citizenship debates

Print edition : August 12, 2011

Exploring the issue of Indian citizenship and the debates surrounding it.

A PARADIGM shift has taken place in the understanding of citizenship in India, ironically without many people in the country even noticing it. For about 40 years, citizenship in India had a philosophical and ideological basis. Everyone born in the territory of India after Independence had the right to become a citizen. The basis for granting this right was associational: the founders of the Constitution wanted to adopt a concept of citizenship that was large enough to accommodate everyone (without any distinction) who was born on Indian territory. Indeed, citizenship in many republican countries is guaranteed to persons merely on the grounds of having been born within their territories after independence.

Apart from this, those who claimed Indian citizenship could do so by virtue of either of their parents having been born in the territory of India or their having been ordinarily a resident in the territory of India for not less than five years immediately preceding the adoption of the Constitution in 1950.

However, India began gradually to shift its commitment to this ideal meaning of citizenship. While the Citizenship Act of 1955 laid down that every person born in India on or after January 26, 1950, was to be a citizen of India by birth, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1986, provided that every person born in India would be a citizen of India only if either of his/her parents was a citizen of India at the time of his/her birth, prioritising, thereby, Indian parentage. The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003 made citizenship by birth conditional, restricting it to a person born in India, where both of his/her parents are citizens of India; or one of his/her parents is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his birth. If the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government can be blamed for the 1986 amendment, in 2003, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government introduced a notion of citizenship that went against the constitutional ethos.

The state was no longer bound by a definition of citizenship which sought to give full meaning and significance to the other rights, namely, substantive equality and justice. In Mapping Citizenship in India, Anupama Roy, Associate Professor in the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, brilliantly maps this shift and its consequent changes in the way the Indian state fought the enemy within whether in Jammu and Kashmir or in the north-eastern States. She asserts that the state's battle with the Maoists or minorities seeking to assert their rights was also influenced by this largely unnoticed shift in the understanding of citizenship.

Anupama Roy calls this conflation of the boundaries between descent/blood ties and civic and political membership (citizenship), which have led to great terrors historically and in our own times. While the cultural concept of nation was the basis of sovereignty and political identity of citizenship, this fusion, according to her, also resulted in the culturalisation of the idea of citizenship. The universalist frameworks of citizenship espoused by the politics of Hindu nationalism effaces the manner in which citizenship is differentially experienced along axes of class, caste, gender and language. Moreover, it manifests itself in unabashed and unapologetic violence against sections of the population with tacit or overt complicity of the state. Lessons from the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, she says, show how this fusion can be easily mutated into denial, destruction and elimination of difference through violent means.

Arguing that social movements have struggled to weave difference into the notion of equality that informs the abstract notion of citizenship, Anupama Roy suggests that the universalism of citizenship can be made effective by taking into account the specific needs of people belonging to groups that are disadvantaged by the generalised application of common or uniform frameworks/standards of citizenship. Her constant theme is that the Constitution recognises differentiated citizenship so that members of specific ethnic, linguistic, racial and religious groups are incorporated into citizenship not only as individuals but also through their groups so that their rights depend upon their group membership.

This clear enunciation of her stand helps her to take unambiguous positions on two debates. On the issue of the citizenship of Sonia Gandhi, Congress president and the United Progressive Alliance chairperson, the author believes that the Supreme Court rightly carved out a civic and cosmopolitan understanding of citizenship, counterpoised to the ethnic natural' citizenship model based on the principle of descent and blood ties advanced by the petitioner, who challenged her acquisition of Indian citizenship through registration.

The same conviction makes her disagree with the Supreme Court's August 12, 2005, judgment holding unconstitutional the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983. (The Act laid down the procedures to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and expel them from Assam. It was pushed through mainly on the grounds that it provided special protection against harassment to the minorities that were affected by the Assam agitation. It was applicable to the State of Assam.) The court had described the migration (from Bangladesh) not only as illegal' entry into foreign territory but also as an act of aggression. This judgment, according to her, makes for a bounded notion of citizenship, with the policing of boundaries and the determination of citizenship construed as a significant manifestation of state sovereignty.

Anupama Roy is concerned about the implications of this judgment for political rights and the vicious cycle of violence, continual relocation, dispossession and disenfranchisement experienced by migrants. She also deals with the paradox of the category called migrant being associated only with the working class poor, who are subjected to discrimination and violence at the hands of both state agencies and society. The movement for work and education of the rest of the city dwellers is assumed to be normal and not characterised as migration, she suggests. She argues that instead of looking at migrants as people who belong to the city and have a right to claim access to its resources, especially a dwelling place, the courts have moved to a position where they are viewed as unwanted encroachers and a burden on the city's resources. Anupama Roy's discussion of differentiated citizenship and how migration is viewed as a crisis in citizenship debates is taken up in detail by the authors of the other books under review.

Identity politics

In Debating Difference, Rochana Bajpai, lecturer in Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, seeks to demolish the myth that the resurgence of identity politics and the expansion of group-differentiated rights mark a break with the Nehruvian left-liberal consensus, although she admits that it involves a renegotiation of its terms. In the debate on reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) recommended in the Mandal Commission Report, she laments that the advocates of quotas failed to articulate how a more just society (as a result of the implementation of quotas for the OBCs) would benefit all citizens or realise a common good.

Materials for such articulation existed but were ignored, she says. As a result, the advocacy of OBC quotas remained susceptible to the charge that it was a sectional interest seeking power, and its appeal to social justice was largely rhetorical.

With meticulous effort, she seeks to unravel how the Congress, in the Shah Bano debate, by its defence of Muslim personal law, downgraded the criterion that had been central to the elaboration of secularism in the Constituent Assembly, that is, equal citizenship rights for individuals. Opposition parties, however, described the government policy as anti-secular by invoking this very criterion and portraying the Congress as abandoning its previous, principled position. This discursive shift of the Congress, she argues, created a favourable ideological climate for the growth of the Hindu Right. Within the terms of its own position, the Congress was susceptible to the criticism that it was conciliating minorities at the cost of the nation. The Bharatiya Janata Party was the chief advocate of the pre-eminence of national unity over all other values as well as the main critic of minority rights as obstructing a uniform civil code for the achievement of national unity.

BANGLADESHI LABOURERS IN Guwahati. A file photograph. The IMDT Act, 1983, laid down the procedures to detect illegal immigrants - from Bangladesh - and expel them from Assam. The Supreme Court struck down the Act in 2005.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Within the Congress discourse, on the other hand, justice-based arguments for exemptions for Muslims remained underdeveloped. The case for the accommodation of minorities relied largely on secularism interpreted in terms of Indian/Hindu practices of toleration. But the Congress' interpretation of secularism in the Shah Bano debate, as requiring special provisions for religious minorities, was seen as marking a shift from its earlier elaboration of secularism in terms of equal rights for all individuals irrespective of religion. The BJP, Rochana Bajpai suggests, simply manoeuvred itself into a position on secularism similar to that occupied by the Congress in the Constituent Assembly debates and portrayed itself as the champion of true secularism that emphasised the irrelevance of religion for rights.

The outcome of her laboured discussion is that the rise of the Hindu Right did not represent the reassertion of religion over modernist liberal democratic ideals, but it was, in fact, the other way around. The book suggests that both the Mandal and Shah Bano debates show that Indians, by and large, are sympathetic to reasoned arguments on social justice and minority rights (if at all they are used), and the silver lining is that people are, in general, committed to supporting secularism simpliciter.

However, a careful analysis of her explanation is likely to make one consider it as nothing more than a red herring. Rochana Bajpai's account suffers from a liberal interpretation that overlooks existing inequalities. As Anupama Roy has explained elsewhere, formal/legal equality does not easily translate itself into substantive equality unless all citizens are practically able to exercise their rights or legal capacities conferred by citizenship. The plain truth is that in India minorities are unable to exercise such rights or legal capacities because of the institutional bias against them.

The rest of the books under review explore this phenomenon through historical and contemporary lenses.

Citizenship in crisis

In Militant and Migrant: The Politics and Social History of Punjab, Radhika Chopra, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Delhi, articulates Anupama Roy's concern for the migrant citizen in a historical context. She deals with family decisions on migration in Punjab during the phase preceding Operation Bluestar. She suggests that sending away young men as migrants was a veiled way of resisting, critiquing and responding to the emerging violence. Migration decisions, she says, were a response to an ambient fear, a form of voicing an uncertainty about the future. Her research on the social history of migration, considered by Anupama Roy as a feature of citizenship in crisis, is likely to be of interest to citizenship scholars.

Radhika Chopra traverses three different fieldwork locations Amritsar, a village of the Doaba area, and the transnational urban neighbourhood of Southall in the United Kingdom. She draws on interviews with men who sought political asylum in the late 1980s and with those classified as illegal labour migrants of the late 20th century. The linkages between transnational migration and religious revival fascinate her and the reader.

In his book Justice Before Reconciliation, the sociologist Dipankar Gupta dwells on an aspect of citizenship that requires serious study and reflection. Researching how victims coped with the aftermath of the riots in Mumbai (1993) and Ahmedabad (2002), he records that the Muslim victims in both the places could not forget that citizenship' rights were cruelly snatched away from them by people who acted in the name of the people'. As the demand for justice is ever present in the minds of Muslims, the author suggests that living will be a stealthy operation where one will perpetually have to be on guard, especially if one is a religious minority' and cannot speak in the name of the people'. The author has found that the Muslim victims in Mumbai and Ahmedabad coped with the violence against them quite differently.

The author traces what he calls the evolution of the new normal' situation among the victims after the riot during their long-term adjustment with reality. Unlike in Mumbai, there were only an insignificant number of Muslim leaders and notables in Ahmedabad who could offer succour to their less fortunate co-religionists. Because of this, no citizen action rose from among the Muslims in Ahmedabad as it did in Mumbai.

The author makes an interesting observation about Muslims in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The majority of the poor Muslims in both cities are migrants, and a significant proportion of them are from North India. Yet, when it comes to the choice of the medium of instruction for their children, Muslims of Ahmedabad choose Gujarati, while Muslims of Mumbai choose Urdu rather than Marathi. The author has no explanation for this paradox. He has found no evidence to suggest that the carnage in Ahmedabad and Mumbai turned Muslims towards fundamentalism. This is a redeeming feature. But to build on this, the author's prescription is relevant: provide them with quality schools so that their young can lead a life with options other than being labourers or poor technicians when they grow up. This is also what most Muslims want, he says.

The social and economic character of Mumbai is very different from that of Ahmedabad and this explains, according to the author, why Mumbai Muslims are relatively less affected than those in Ahmedabad.

The author concludes that unless the law is adhered to in letter and spirit, it will be almost impossible to stop the tendency towards ghettoisation and the feeling of marginalisation among Muslims. They want justice so that they can be assured of their status as full citizens, he says. He suggests steps that include provision of adequate municipal and civic services in places where ghettoisation has taken place and recruitment of a large number of Muslims (disproportionately) to the police force of every major metropolis. The author opposes reservation for Muslims on the grounds that the politics associated with it would swallow the demand for justice.

Minority rights

The subject of minority rights is explored historically in Minorities and the State: Changing Social and Political Landscape of Bengal edited by Abhijit Dasgupta, Masahiko Togawa and Abul Barkat. The book is based on two workshops, organised in Kolkata and Dhaka, to examine the question of the minorities in West Bengal and Bangladesh respectively since Partition in 1947. Problems relating to two numerically significant religious minority groups, Hindus in Bangladesh and Muslims in West Bengal, have been explored in the context of recent political changes in the two countries. The individual chapters point out that questions of citizenship, nationality and identity are at stake in both countries.

A sample of observations by the authors of various chapters reveals this rather starkly. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay writes on the riots of 1950 in post-Partition West Bengal thus: The post-colonial state in India, which fashioned her nationhood on a Western liberal model, has not been able to overcome its weakness (in the form of majorities looking for an unsullied national whole), and therefore, the minority Muslim community, despite the oft-repeated shibboleths of Nehruvian secularism, has continued to live at the margins of its putative nation-space and under a constant shadow of suspicion.

Abhijit Dasgupta, in the second chapter, seeks to demolish the myth that infiltration had led to an unprecedented growth of Muslim population in West Bengal by arguing that migration of Muslims could have contributed to this. According to him, better job opportunities in the informal sector in the State had attracted Muslim workers from adjoining States for several decades.

The overwhelming emphasis of the remaining chapters is that the state, in return for citizenship and compliance with law by citizens, guarantees certain rights for the minorities, and their protection. When this guarantee is compromised, the very nature of citizenship, as defined by the nation's history and the Constitution, becomes a huge question mark. The issue remains outside the civil society discourse, explaining perhaps why issues of citizenship have been confined to academic debate rather than finding space in discussion in the media.

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