Amit Shah has been off the mark quickly in his new job as India’s home minister. He has passed a slew of laws and orders curtailing liberal citizenship, which is a phrase for a right legally guaranteed by India’s Constitution and was born during the French Revolution.
The systematic rollback of liberal citizenship has been at play in India in recent years. While die-hard Hindutva supporters continue to physically and verbally attack minorities on the streets, the new BJP government is now focusing on legally strengthening the power of the state and reducing equal citizenship. The effort is to defang dissent, firm up a legal framework to reduce the accountability of the state, and weaken people’s protection against arbitrary arrests and violence.
This is being done through amendments to the Right to Information Act, the National Investigation Agency Act (which gives prosecutorial powers to special courts), the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (which introduces the clause to brand individuals as ‘terrorists’), and pushing through the project to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which attempts to formalise unequal citizenship based largely on religion.
Clubbed together, these legal moves mount a formidable challenge to the notion of liberal citizenship.
The genesis of decline
Since the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, universal and equal citizenship in India has witnessed a steady decline, mostly for minorities but also for the silent and passive majority. Tendencies that seemed like aberrant actions of an unruly mob on 6 December 1992 are now firmly part of the ruling party’s strategy of establishing what appears to be two-tier citizenship into the country’s laws and Constitution.
The most egregious example of how spurious, religion-driven legal efforts are being used to deny citizenship is the NRC in Assam. The method of “registering” citizens is discriminatory, arbitrary, and designed to spread fear and insecurity among people. The obvious fallout of this development has been the commonplace understanding of Indian citizenship as Hindu citizenship since all Muslims are seen as potential foreigners in Assam. The BJP government has already been ‘working on modalities’ to extend the NRC to other states in the country, making Assam feel like a test case.
There is systemic propaganda that signals that ‘Hindus naturally belong’ to India while Muslims do not. What we are seeing in India now is the weaponising of religious identities, turning them into political identities that can then be defined as ‘anti-national’ – easier for the Hindutva forces to find inconvenient.
The control and purging of educational institutions and intellectual scrutiny is similar to what Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing in Turkey’s liberal bastion Ankara University. Other countries like Pakistan, Hungary, and Egypt use similar tactics of fear and intimidation to induce overt or self-censorship on expression.
Growing incidents of mob lynching have created an atmosphere of fear and vulnerability that serves a political aim – of vilifying not only Muslims but also alienating liberal critics of such violence.
An increasing focus on identity politics and the use of caste and religious identities – instead of the universal category of citizen or Indian – has been popularised to the extent that it no longer remains merely on the fringes of the Right-wing thought but has entered into institutions like the police, the army, and the judiciary. The beginning of this exclusionary focus can be traced to the series of protests in 1990 against caste-based reservation in government jobs.
What is citizenship?
Citizenship works in multiple ways, as does the systematic project of disenfranchisement.
Citizenship is granted by legal, contractual documents like the Constitution, signalled and proved by passport or Aadhaar cards or Pan cards or ration cards, and practised by people at the voting booth or in mass protests or revolutions. All these forms of citizenship are undergirded by the laws of the land, which courts uphold and strengthen. Tiers of citizenship include:
- social citizenship: the right to participate in the social and cultural discourse of the nation;
- cultural citizenship: the right to see your culture or language or customs as being a part of the nation;
- legal citizenship: all citizens are equal under the law.
All these citizenships are forms of equality. The right to practice and affirm your equal membership in a nation is a fundamental tenet of democracy.
Since 1993, however, what we have seen is the breaking up of the right to equal citizenship that has been guaranteed to all Indians. The genie of communalism and majoritarianism, which manifested itself at the time of the founding of the Indian republic, and lay suppressed for many decades, has inched its way, one brick at a time, and is now attempting to change the symbolic notion of Indian citizenship.
Destruction of equal citizenship
The preamble to our constitution says that it guarantees “JUSTICE social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, faith and belief and worship; EQUALITY of status and opportunity”. It is no secret that under the guise of anti-Nehruvianism, these three terms, justice, liberty, and equality, have been systematically diminished by the actions of Hindutva groups in recent years.
There were two phases to this destruction: in the first, informal phase, the Sangh Parivar put in place a grassroots structure to recruit popular support – by whipping up popular paranoia, identitarian thought, a fear of the other, and an exaggerated sense of economic rivalry and false information. (Revati Laul’s book The Anatomy of Hate (2018) explains how this was carried out in Gujarat.) The second phase saw the formalisation of the campaign against equal citizenship. Assam’s NRC is a test case for this just as Gujarat was for earlier systemic violence.
If we allow our laws to change in such a way that our Constitution no longer sees justice, equality, and freedom as fundamental, non-derogable rights guaranteed to all of us; if we allow the majority party to make laws in favour of a majoritarian citizenship; if we allow ourselves to be distracted by moon landings and ignore what is happening on the ground – then we might as well not bother to vote.
India is not alone in its Rightward turn – we are also seeing US President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric and nativist fears against immigrants, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban pitching an insular Christianity to keep Syrian refugees out.
But India’s experiment with dismantling equal citizenship – legal, cultural, social – is more dangerous because it is one of the largest and most diverse democracies to do so.
The author is Professor, International Studies and Refugee and Forced Migration studies, DePaul University. Views are personal.