One of the trends that intrigued me about Indian democracy is that our obsession with the Constitution seemed inversely proportional to our interest in citizenship. We see the Constitution as a great discourse, a protean phenomenon, and we are proud of its survival and its transformations.
We wave our Constitution like a flag, definite that it is one of our great possessions. While the Constitution exists larger than life, our sense of citizenship seems to have shrunk. Our ideas of citizenship are drab. At best the citizen is a boy scout or an NRI, but in an everyday sense he seems a fragile creation vulnerable to the state, to lynch mobs, to people in power. Citizenship as a concept is apolitical currency we have completely devalued.
The Muslim in India often feels he has to wear his patriotism on his sleeve
The hedging of citizenship as a concept took place in the 19th century when the idea blossomed playing itself out against the fragility of exile, migration and the refugee.
There was almost a bourgeois permanency to the idea of a citizen. The prefix of the word citizen to a person added to his presence and tangibility. Today the idea of citizenship, despite the proliferation of rights around him, has become a grey and dismal concept.
One sees it in the everydayness of India where citizenship becomes Orwellian as some become more equal than others.
In fact, the English word “regularise” develops a different range of meanings in Indian languages.
Regularisation is a slow, tedious, almost endless process of becoming official.
A temporary house becomes permanent. A migrant obtains the divine blessing of a ration card. Temporary electricity tapped illegally becomes a legitimate affair.
The temporary shadow of the informal economy cast around citizenship is devastating.
He only counts as a citizen at voting time when doles gave him a temporary bonanza of entitlements.
Chief ministers like the late Tamil Nadu leader, J Jayalalithaa, turned the dole into the Christmas party of citizenship.
The sadness of India’s democracy lies in the process of development.
Development involves displacement and, as a result, we create internal refugees which emasculate the idea of citizenship.
We see tribals, whether in Niyamgiri or Narmada, as archaic entities who lack the contemporaneity of citizen.
A citizen inside a country was supposed to be safe but it is internal vulnerability that is vitiating citizenship.
Between the violence of development and rioting we have created over 50 million internal refugees.
Our sense of citizenship is also snobbish and narrow. It caters to the sedentary middle class, inflating his sense of bourgeois and bureaucratic power.
But the tribal, the nomad, the pastoral groups, the marginal farmer, the multitude of minorities are suspect in many ways and have to work harder to earn the halo of citizenship.
We see tribals, whether in Niyamgiri or Narmada, as archaic entities who lack the contemporaneity of citizen. The label “backward” becomes a lethal term depriving subsistence groups of citizenship. As theologian and philosopher Ivan Illich once said development is a war against subsistence denying people at that level any claim to citizenship. It is almost as if the Constitution is becoming a schizophrenic document with the notions of development and citizenship acting as counter-currents to each other.
The vulnerability of citizenship in the case of tribes, nomads is accentuated further by the status of minorities in a majoritarian society.
The majority claims a right of citizenship in terms of electoral power and believes that right includes the power to treat the minority as suspect.
The Muslim in India often feels he has to wear his patriotism on his sleeve to remove any suspicion his ethnicity or religious beliefs may cause.
In fact, in a slow but devious way, patriotism as a subjective marker has become a substitute for the only activity of citizenship.
After many a riot, the Muslim as citizen is still atoning for the alleged sins of his ancestors waiting to the exonerated to enter the Vandalia of citizenship. Citizenship becomes remote or fragile in conditions of internal war where legal provisions like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) allows unconditional brutality and violence against a citizen.
My Kashmiri friends tell me that the conditions of violence, of torture, interrogation, brutality and rape destroy the everyday possibilities of citizenship. Especially for a woman or child, citizenship as an entitlement to a set of civic routines is no longer available.
In Assam, the very act of citizenship bill creates demographic tremors, which will disturb the polity. There is a need for a wider debate which goes beyond the narrowness of legality.
Law and order
Citizenship is not merely to guarantee the possibility of law and order; it is a dream of a decent society. A dream which cannot be harshly exclusive but must be warmly encompassing.
Nehru’s response to the condition of Tibet and his generosity highlights the creative power of that hospitality.
Our treatment of the Rohingya illustrates our indifference to the same vision.
The presence of the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh stirs no compassion in the Indian democratic soul.
One senses echoes of this in the pandemic of mob lynchings occurring across India.
The presence of the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh stirs no compassion in the Indian democratic soul
The target of lynching is the migrant who like the minority becomes immediately and essentially suspect and subject to a whole range of violence.
His citizenship, his rights even to a hearing seem to dissolve quickly.
In fact, the phenomenon of the lynch mob is the greatest internal threat to citizenship.
The lynch mob, by seeing itself as a policing extension of the state, substitutes for a condition of rights and a claim to decency. This is sheer barbarism and bestiality. The sadness is that the warmth and the possibilities of citizenship are being emasculated by majoritarianism, development and communalism.
One needs a revival of the concept, not as a straw man but as a lived reality with its own politics. One hopes our politics, our ethics, our language and literature rise to the occasion.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)