Citizenship : From Civic Agency to Religious Statism.

In conversation with Dr. Laurence Gautier.

Q1) How did the concept of citizenship emerge?

If you look at global history, not just Indian history, you will see that we often trace the idea of citizenship back to Ancient Greece, that’s the 5th or the 6th century BC. Of course when you hear the word citizenship, the word you also hear is the word “city”. The idea of citizenship is primarily built around life in the city. The idea is that politically active residents of the city are citizens – this guarantees some political rights- like the right to participate and present yourself in elections, the right to vote, but also includes the guarantees of certain legal rights- for example the freedom to expression along with many other freedoms.

Q2) How did we move from subjects to citizens? What did this transition hope to accomplish? In the Indian concept, how did the concept of citizenship materialize?

Now if you look at the Indian context, of course the move from subjecthood to citizenship happened with Independence and it’s important to remember this context for two reasons – one, because the idea of citizenship is deeply connected with the ideas of emancipation, freedom, no more subjection to another (colonial) power. Citizenship was to bring about liberation and empowerment, the power to become an agent of political right. Second, with the rise of citizenship in India, one highly debated issue that came up was: on what basis should citizenship be awarded?

There were two conceptions of citizenship, one based on Jus sanguinis: Should it be awarded on the basis of descent, if your parents were Indian, and as their children you are entitled to Indian citizenship? Or should it be based on Jus soli , i.e. should it based on whether or not an individual was born in India. There was no consensus about this in 1947, and the debate carried on for a few years. It was only in 1955 that the Citizenship Act was finally adopted. So for a good few years there was confusion about who was a citizen and who was not. This also happened to be a time of mass migration, in fact the biggest migration recorded in human history with the Partition, so who belonged to what territory was really unclear.

Eventually our government settled on the right of territory, Jus soli, which means that it didn’t matter what religion you belonged to, provided you were born in India, you could become a citizen. This was especially important in the context of a country which was still trying to heal from the wounds of Partition. The Congress government was trying to build a more inclusive definition of citizenship which would bring together people from different religious, cultural, ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. This made the definition of citizenship extremely important for nation-building.

While the Citizenship Act recognised all the people who lived in India as members of India’s citizenry, it also excluded all the Indian population that had migrated abroad, as indentured labour, merchants, or administrators to other British colonies. Now these people felt Indian because of their descent, their culture but were not entitled to citizenship. So the Citizenship Act of 1955 was made to be inclusive yet it also proved to be exclusive from the very beginning.

Q3) What sort of political climate was it developed in?

The confusion regarding citizenship partly arose from the fact that citizenship rules had to be fixed at a time of great political turmoil. When the British left, of course they left behind some infrastructure but it had to be divided amongst India and Pakistan. Suddenly the state had to be built anew. This was a time when the state was weak and was struggling to ensure national unity. This national unity was not a given, it had to be built. The adoption of a territory-based citizenship can be read in this light as an effort to build a sense of unity beyond and above communal differences.

Q4) The citizenship act in India, is one that has been changed over and over- Birth, Descent, Origin and Now Religion. What has inspired such radical change and amendments over the past 50 years?

We have established how and why the first basis on which citizenship was granted was Birth. However, the Citizenship Act has been amended over time. The idea of descent was incorporated in 1986, when it was stated that not only did you have to be born in India but you also needed to have at least one Indian parent in order to become an Indian citizen. So it was no longer enough to be born in the country. In 2003 there was another Amendment that stated that in addition to being born in the country, both parents should be Indian citizens or one parent should be Indian and the other should not be an illegal immigrant at the time of birth. Now this is important because when you define who should be a citizen, you also say who shouldn’t become an Indian citizen. This amendment reflects a growing fear of the “other”, especially in this case a fear of the illegal migrant. There is a fear that these “outsiders” would disturb the cohesion of the general citizens’ body.

We see this fear pop up time and again. It was clear in this 2003 amendment and it is clear again in the more recent context. We see how the idea of citizenship based simply on birth and territory has slowly been eroded as new criteria have been introduced. That brings me to religion. The recent Citizenship Amendment Act introduces for the first time religion in the Constitution as a criterion to access citizenship, in the sense that the Act is supposed to grant an easier access to Indian citizenship for religious minorities in certain neighbouring countries when they migrate to India to avoid religious persecution. The countries mentioned are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – all Muslim-majority countries. Other neighbouring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka are not mentioned. This act also explicitly mentions what groups can benefit from this provision. The only religious minority that cannot enjoy the benefits of this new act are Muslims (the assumption is that Muslims cannot be persecuted in Muslim-majority countries, which is a problematic assumption: Shias, for instance, can very well be persecuted in Sunni-majority countries).

This conception of citizenship based on religion or on “blood right” has actually been in debate since Independence. It is not novel or exclusive to this time. The idea that Hindus residing outside India would not be granted citizenship was and still is hard to accept in certain schools of thought. So in many ways we still live with the legacy of Partition: the debates around CAA are part of a longer debate on citizenship, one that has been ongoing since 1947.

Eventually our government settled on the right of territory, Jus soli, which means that it didn’t matter what religion you belonged to, provided you were born in India, you could become a citizen. This was especially important in the context of a country which was still trying to heal from the wounds of Partition. The Congress government was trying to build a more inclusive definition of citizenship which would bring together people from different religious, cultural, ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. This made the definition of citizenship extremely important for nation-building.

While the Citizenship Act recognised all the people who lived in India as members of India’s citizenry, it also excluded all the Indian population that had migrated abroad, as indentured labour, merchants, or administrators to other British colonies. Now these people felt Indian because of their descent, their culture but were not entitled to citizenship. So the Citizenship Act of 1955 was made to be inclusive yet it also proved to be exclusive from the very beginning.

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