Who is an Indian Citizen?

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

A Karbi woman exercising her franchise. Reservations for tribals have led to social stability if not solidarity. MISHEL SHYLA / DELHI PRESS IMAGES
01 May, 2013

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.

The subordination of the rights of female citizens to the interests of religiously defined communities in independent India, as seen in the Shah Bano controversy, is a case in point: an outcome of the colonial codification of customary laws and of the postcolonial investment in the preservation and production of conservative notions of religious identity.

Both egalitarian ideals and the political compromises that have tempered those progressive impulses have shaped notions of citizenship in India. They have meant different things to different categories of Indians; and these categories through which Indians see and understand themselves and others—of majority and minority, backward or not—have been produced by debates, policies, and laws on citizenship. Despite the warmly inclusive ring of the term, and notwithstanding the one-size-fits-all understandings of the concept in trendy TED talks and NGO manifestos, citizenship in India, and indeed anywhere in the world, is the product of deeply contested histories.

As the title of Niraja Gopal Jayal’s exemplary book—Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History (Permanent Black, 376 pages, Rs 799)—suggests, her emphasis is on the struggles that have shaped ideas of citizenship in India. She emphatically states that the objective of the book is “not to construct a synthesis that facilitates a consensus on the meaning of citizenship, or even Indian citizenship”. This focus informs Jayal’s methodological strategies at the broad level of the research design as well as at more fine-grained levels of analysis. Given that the “immensely fashionable” but very “variously interpreted” concept of citizenship is the property of many disciplines, Jayal employs a range of approaches apposite to the many species of research materials that she covers, from colonial discourse to policy debates, case law to ethnographic narratives.

The readings of each set of materials significantly centre on tensions, anomalies, and paradoxes about Indian citizenship, that is, those limit cases which enable one to see clearly the constructed, contingent, and contested nature of Indian citizenship. For instance, Jayal points to the fact that wealthy expatriates of Indian origin have very readily been allowed to claim Indian citizenship by Indian governments though the same governments have been generally indifferent to the plight of poorer migrants and refugees who have been living in India for decades. In telling the story of citizenship in India as one of contestation and contradiction, Jayal unsettles many myths such as the idea of the Indian state as a welfare state, the notion that Gandhi was opposed to individual rights, or that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act will bankrupt India or lessen its sheen in the eyes of global financial capital.

THE OPENING SECTION OF THE BOOK, which addresses legal rights, maps the emergence and development of the paradox of the “subject-citizen”—the ruled subject of empire who could, nonetheless, also boast of a limited status as a citizen, with the implications of autonomy carried by the term. The concession of colonial citizenship can be seen as an outcome of the colonial state’s need to secure legitimacy among its subjects, and the demands of Indians that the state make good on its professedly liberal principles. Yet, despite a theoretical claim to inclusivity, colonial citizenship was marked in practice by hierarchical distinctions. Educated elites had the primary claim to colonial citizenship.

Qualifying Partha Chatterjee’s well-known thesis about race as the fundamental marker of colonial difference, Jayal describes how considerations of class and community also influenced who could qualify for colonial citizenship, and in what measure.

Jayal goes on to challenge the academic consensus that India inherited a jus soli (or citizenship by birth) regime of citizenship at the moment of independence, while only moving later to a jus sanguinis (or citizenship by blood-based descent) regime in the wake of illegal migration from Bangladesh. Presenting a fine analysis of how the legal and constitutional understanding of citizenship was indelibly marked by the experience of Partition, Jayal argues that both jus soli and jus sanguinis imperatives were already reflected in the early constitutional articulation of the question. She makes the point that both principles featured in debates about Muslim “returnees” to India whose status did not fall neatly into the categories of either voluntary migrants or refugees compelled by extenuating circumstances to cross borders. These returnees were Indians who had migrated to Pakistan at the moment of Partition only to return again to India shortly thereafter. Were they now Pakistanis seeking Indian citizenship, or Indians? As Muslims who had chosen Pakistan only to change their minds, could they be trusted with bearing the responsibilities of Indian citizenship?

Refugees in the aftermath of Partition. The legal and constitutional understanding of citizenship was indelibly marked by the experience of Partition. BETTMANN / CORBIS

In postcolonial India, somewhat similar claims have been raised by the presence of migrants from Pakistan, who arrived in India after the 1965 and 1971 wars. While some of the migrants have attained citizenship, others are in a state of limbo. Jayal’s ethnographic analysis takes up the question of how these migrants, mostly impoverished Dalits and Adivasis, understand citizenship and their relationship to the state. That relationship is premised “not on blood and belonging or even voting rights” but on access to material benefits, such as land or employment opportunities.

LEGAL RECOGNITION IS THE MINIMAL NECESSARY condition for citizenship, but it is political and civil rights that allow for that citizenship to be meaningfully enjoyed. Jayal’s genealogical mapping of citizenship-as-rights takes as its point of origin an 1897 civics textbook, The Citizen of India, authored by William Lee-Warner, a colonial official. Jayal presents a particular kind of Foucauldian analysis here, in the vein of Edward Said and Gauri Viswanathan, in which the content and context of particular texts are seen as emblematic of a discourse. Through a reading of this fragment of the colonial archive, Jayal is able to illuminate a larger story about rights and citizenship in the colonial era.

The colonial discourse on citizenship emphasised the merits of British rule, demanding obedience from Indians in lieu of its gifts of civilisation to the natives. Indians responded by arguing that it was their duty to react to the failings of the colonial state, which fell short of its grandiose ideals of equality and representation. The Indian response thus creatively inverted the claims of the British state. “Indian writings,” Jayal states, “skillfully and successfully effected a discursive shift from the duty of obedience to the right to interrogate state legitimacy.” Interestingly, both the colonial project of pedagogy and the Indian response were articulated primarily on moral as opposed to political grounds. Obedience and resistance were coded as moral duty, on which were predicated what we might recognise today as political rights.

One of the most gripping parts of the book concerns the discussions among Indian leaders, politicians, and thinkers of different stripes, and the debates in the Constituent Assembly, about the role of social and economic rights—and their relation to political and civil rights—in conceptions of citizenship. Jayal presents a fascinating account of the process by which social and economic rights found their way into the Directive Principles of State Policy as opposed to the category of Fundamental Rights, including the dramatic shift in Ambedkar’s views on the matter—from initially advocating for economic and social rights as fundamental rights, Ambedkar eventually called, in his capacity as chair of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, for including them in the Directive Principles of State Policy. Jayal sees this change as indicating various tensions in Ambedkar’s thought: one, between legal understanding and pragmatic political compromise; two, between socialism and parliamentary democracy; and, three and most crucially, between his commitment to Dalit liberation and other constitutional issues.

Despite the loud rhetoric of social and economic rights in earlier decades, it is in post-liberalisation India that these rights have moved, if in a halting and inconsistent fashion, toward the primary legal status accorded to political and civil rights, as a result of citizen movements for accountability and a more activist judiciary. The battles to secure the Right to Food, the Right to Work, and the Right to Education as justiciable have each followed their own particular history, marked by setbacks and compromises as well as by successes. At the same time, the discourse of rights in general has been framed in the neoliberal jargon of service providers and customers, accompanied by the retreat of the state and a greater role of the private sector.

The final section of the book traces the history of what Jayal terms “mediated” citizenship, that is, citizenship as embodied in and exercised through the agency of the community. Jayal offers a nuanced analysis of various species of universal citizenship and group-differentiated citizenship that challenges the somewhat bogus distinction made between the two, in which the former is taken to be the vestibule of an authentic, genuinely inclusive universalism while the latter is the preserve of monadic, particularist identities. As Jayal shows, some kinds of universal citizenship such as the assimilationist, exclusionary universalism of the Hindu Right privilege majority populations, while forms of group-differentiated citizenship, for example, affirmative action or reservation policies for members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, promote universalist aspirations by enabling populations to experience substantive citizenship in a meaningful sense.

Refugees fleeing East Pakistan in 1971. While some such migrants to India have attained citizenship, others are in a state of limbo. BETTMANN / CORBIS

Moving through an analysis of “backwardness” as the basis of group-differentiated citizenship in India, with reference to the officially produced categories of tribals and “Other Backward Classes”, Jayal concludes the section with a reflection on what the landscape of group-differentiated communities in contemporary Indian society entails for civic community. As she points out in the epilogue to the book, the “fragile and unfinished project” of civic community in India has had some successes. Reservation policies, for examples, have provided the basis of social stability if not solidarity. But the ongoing failure of the Indian state to develop a compelling vision of inclusive citizenship and the amplification of social inequality, symbolised by the rise of gated communities, suggest that this will be an arduous, challenging task to achieve.

THE TIGHT STRUCTURE of Citizenship and its Discontents is perhaps necessary given the unruly nature of the concept of citizenship, and Jayal does an excellent job of reining in and controlling it. But structures constrain as much as they enable. There are three important questions whose extended treatment the structure precludes to some extent, and I think the book, rich as it is, would have been enriched by a more detailed discussion of these.

One question pertains to the precolonial antecedents of the idea of citizenship. Was citizenship entirely a derivative discourse or did Indians, even if they had no choice but to negotiate with the colonial state on its terms and vocabulary, draw on indigenous conceptions of citizenship in their response? Were these merely instrumental, or did they possess any substantive purchase? Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty have argued that the archaic survives into the Indian modern. In what sense, then, do Indian articulations of citizenship reflect historically abiding, codified ideas of obligation, duty, and entitlement, such as swaraj or dharma? In her recent work, Righteous Republic, Ananya Vajpeyi identified these and other concepts, as “fugitive” ideas from an indigenous political tradition that were rehabilitated by Indian nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar. Jayal does point to the invocation of ideas of civilisation, nation, and culture by Indians in responding to the claims of the colonial state about Indian society, but a longer discussion would have been helpful.

A second question relates to Jayal’s philosophical approach to the analysis of citizenship, which is partially explained in the introduction. The book may be seen as the story of citizenship as shaped by its discontents. To this end, Jayal focuses on those through whose lives the faultlines of discourses of citizenship run, such as the migrants from Pakistan who have been waiting for decades to obtain Indian citizenship or groups fighting for the status of backwardness to obtain benefits. To what extent, though, have ideas of citizenship been shaped and given legitimacy by those who do not fall within the categories of the displaced, marginalised, or vulnerable? How has the lived, experiential reality of the privileged in India affected notions of citizenship and what are the ways in which these realities have been hegemonic? Jayal does address these questions to a certain extent, for example, in describing the exclusionary universalism of the Hindu Mahasabha and elites in the era of neoliberalism. But a somewhat more detailed explication and reflection would have been welcome.

The book might also have benefited from a clearer and more detailed positioning of Jayal’s views in relation to critiques of liberal notions of citizenship and ideas of difference. Jayal is rightly skeptical of the professed universalism of liberal thought and sees the idea of group-differentiated rights as important. But she also sees the value of solidarity or the civic community. In this regard, she is clearly not in agreement with those for whom solidarity is a relic of empty universalist thinking from the Enlightenment era, or a bourgeois project. How might, in Jayal’s view, the imperatives of difference and solidarity be balanced in conceiving of the community of citizens? Is it possible to conceive of a model of citizenship that can recognise or provide a place for expressions of identity based on irreducible, inassimilable difference?

Every academic work is necessarily selective, though, and the book is in no way diminished by the absence of an extended treatment of questions like these. Jayal stresses the need for an ongoing conversation about citizenship and these questions could be taken up by scholars responding to her arguments. Wide-ranging and uncommonly deep, Citizenship and its Discontents is a demanding but immensely rewarding book. A superb blend of theoretical and empirical work, it skillfully depicts the particularity of the Indian idea of citizenship, without fetishising it as exceptional. In conversation with a number of important thinkers, from the sociologist TH Marshall to the political scientist Iris Marion Young, the book also marks an important contribution to the theory of citizenship. It makes a quiet but powerful statement that the Indian experience of citizenship cannot be mapped merely in terms of deviations from Western experiences, whether it is with regard to group-differentiated rights, the claims of migrants, or economic and social rights. Rather, the Indian experience should be seen as constitutive of broader theoretical understandings of these various dimensions of citizenship.

We inhabit a historical moment when clichés about neoliberal and global citizenship abound and the debased language of economic incentives dominates discussion of political life. In contemporary, globalising India, as Jayal reminds us, the political and economic domains have in different ways cannibalised the civic. Citizenship and its Discontents is a sobering reminder that in this climate, citizenship, like democracy and equality, has to be continuously defended, fought for, consolidated and strengthened everywhere in the world.