Who is an Indian Citizen?

A rich account of the struggles behind ideas of citizenship in India

01 May 2013
A Karbi woman exercising her franchise. Reservations for tribals have led to social stability if not solidarity.
A Karbi woman exercising her franchise. Reservations for tribals have led to social stability if not solidarity.

MY FIRST FORMAL ENCOUNTER with the idea of citizenship was through my eighth-standard civics textbook in India. Civics was a quasi-subject that counted for about 20 percent of the combined history-civics paper. The textbook was an object of derision for its excruciating dullness and a source of mirth because of gems such as “The President of India is a rubber stamp. Discuss.” But the awkward appending of civics to history was neither meaningless nor accidental. Given the history of India, the objects discussed in the civics textbook—such as Parliament and citizenship—were assumed to be byproducts of the successful fight for national independence from the imperial yoke of the British.

Citizenship, then, was something that we automatically possessed as Indians, something that we knew intimately and intuitively, or at least were meant to thus know. In the many years since I reluctantly memorised the contents of that textbook as a school student, I have often come across the same assumption: overzealous television anchors and holier-than-thou celebrities exhorting Indians to do their duty as citizens; Indian elites grousing about the fact that other Indians lack a culture of citizenship; or assorted groups, from privileged majorities to disenfranchised minorities, claiming that they have been treated as second-class citizens by the Indian state.

The meanings of citizenship in India, though, are by no means straightforward. The historian Gyanendra Pandey notes that all nation-states endorse a hierarchy of citizenship which distinguishes between its unmarked “axiomatic” and “natural” inhabitants and its marked “hyphenated” minorities. The cloud of suspicion hanging over Muslim and Christian Indians, India’s hyphenated minorities, means that their citizenship is considered to be of a lesser order than that of Hindus, even as they are routinely expected to prove and perform their loyalty as Indian citizens. Ideas of citizenship in India have been constrained by the burden of the colonial past, given that the institutions tasked with protecting the rights of citizens were born of the need to control imperial subjects. However, the Indian state after 1947 has often used that legacy in cynical ways as well.

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    Rohit Chopra Rohit Chopra is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Santa Clara University.

    Keywords: colonialism rights reservation migration indian constitution minorities citizenship