Who is an Indian citizen? Should all immigrants be naturalised? The problem of citizenship is a knot too hard to untie

In India today, the topic of citizenship has become a hot button issue thanks to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Ajay Kumar December 27, 2019 19:47:40 IST
Who is an Indian citizen? Should all immigrants be naturalised? The problem of citizenship is a knot too hard to untie
  • The concept of citizenship is something that is not alien nor is it new

  • It has been around since the earliest of civilisations and a subject of debate

  • It’s a tough question to answer and our struggle to answer it is a shared one

One of my favourite passages from the Bible is Chapter 22 of the book of Acts. The apostle Paul has just been accused by the residents of Jerusalem of defiling the Jewish Temple. He is brought before the Roman authorities for punishment. The passage reads:

Who is an Indian citizen Should all immigrants be naturalised The problem of citizenship is a knot too hard to untie

A file image of anti-CAA protests in Assam. Firstpost

"22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”

23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air,

24 The commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this.

25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”

27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered.

28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.

29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains." (Acts 22:22-29 NIV)

I reflect on this passage today remind us of another point. The concept of citizenship is something that is not alien nor is it new. It has been around since the earliest of civilisations and the question of how one is entitled to it has also been a subject of debate. When we read the passage, we see that both the centurion and Paul were Roman citizens. The centurion, however, had to buy his citizenship (naturalisation) while Paul was a citizen by birth. We also see that being a citizen carried with it some rights, rights that the Roman authorities dared not violate.

The Romans made a list of their citizens and they called the process of making this list the census. Citizens had to present themselves and get themselves registered in the census and so did non-citizens. All persons had to register themselves and the process was quite cumbersome. If we read the Bible, we will note that the whole reason, Jesus was born in a cow shed was because his parents were travelling to get their names listed on the census. Even the Romans felt all those years ago that it was important to know who this special class of people called citizens were.

In India today, the topic of citizenship has become a hot button issue thanks to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The CAA grants certain communities the right to apply for citizenship based on a criterion outlined under the CAA. The NRC is going to be this national register of all persons who are Indian citizens. The fate of those left out of this nationwide NRC is still undetermined, but if the experience of Assam is anything to go by, sans clarifications/assurances from the government, there is a legitimate cause for fear among certain sections of society.

But while the CAA has passed into law and the all India NRC is looming on the horizon, it may become worthwhile to examine citizenship and the concept of civic nationalism in India.

India’s Constitution attempts to create a semblance of civic nationalism by creating a class of persons who are “citizens” for the purposes of the Constitution of India. These citizens enjoy rights and privileges that others do not. The right to vote, the right to live in India, freedom of movement, freedom of speech among other rights. Non-citizens get some rights but do not get the entire bundle. They get a diet version of the fundamental rights while Citizens get access to the whole pie.

In India’s constitutional set up, like other constitutional set ups that come from the days of the earliest constitutions in Greece and Rome, citizenship is a marker of one’s formal relationship with the State. Civic nationalism tries to take that one step further. In civic nationalism, citizenship becomes a marker of one’s identity and possibly becomes the highest identity someone may have. As an identity that cuts across tribal, ethnic and religious lines, citizenship is an identity that can help build modern multi-cultural states, or so we think.

Welcome to the problem of India and the fact that we are a melting pot. Unlike the United States, we are a very old melting pot, and while new flavours keep being born all the time, the older flavours have been here long enough to gain an identity of their own.  This problem is best seen in the “diaspora”.  According to data from the Ministry of External Affairs, at the end of 2018, there were around 1,78,82,369 Persons of Indian Origin and 3,09,55,729 Overseas Indians. These do not include Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who are Indian citizens who work abroad. But these numbers reflect persons who are of foreign nationality but claim to be Persons of Indian Origin or Overseas Citizens of India. This is not to mention the Non-Resident Indians who live in the Arab States, who are forbidden by local law from naturalising there. Almost every middle-class person in India knows someone from the Gulf, who while never having lived in India, has been an Indian citizen their entire lives and who’s children will also probably be Indian citizens.

So, what is it that finally makes us “Indian”? Is our Indianness linked to our Indian citizenship? I have this Zoroastrian friend in Mumbai. Her family came as refugees to this country well before the white man set foot on our shores and hoisted the cross of St. George. The Parsi community is endogamous, they do not marry outside the community. If bloodlines are to be a metric to determine Indianness (as we do in the cases of PIOs and OCIs), then my Zoroastrian friend, with Indian citizenship, whose family has been in India for many years, will count as less of an Indian than a third generation Tamil Singaporean citizen. If bloodlines are not a metric to determine Indianness, then the very concept of a PIO or an OCI becomes moot as OCIs and PIOs are given to people who can show they descended from people who lived in the sub-continent.

There comes civic nationalism to try and save the day though. Civic nationalism says that one’s citizenship is a function of law and therefore, if one is a citizen according to the law, their lineage, bloodline, religion, ethnicity all does not matter. They are Indians because the law of India says they are Indian. But the law on nationality in a multicultural republic like ours does draw some arbitrary lines. This is because it is compelled to, as civic nationalism is a legal fiction.

Civic nationalism can have no rational or just basis for it is created to end all arguments about who finally gets to be Indian. That is why citizenship was important at the time of the commencement of the Constitution and which is also why we do not allow for dual citizenship. The idea being that your citizenship, determines not just your political allegiance but also your cultural allegiance. While you many politically serve two masters (as in the cases of dual citizenship), your Indian citizenship is also the last stop on your cultural journey. You are an Indian citizen and therefore you are an Indian, not vice versa. At least this is what I think is the idea the Constitution tries to promote.

But if the Constitution does promote this idea, what happens to the right of people to self-actualise? Why can an Indian not say they are Hindu or Muslim first and then Indian citizens? Mahatma Gandhi used this to great effect with the Kihilafat movement, when he mobilised Indian Muslims to identify with a pan-Islamic struggle to oppose the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. This would be problematic from a civic nationalism sense, as Indian Muslims were British subjects and many of them fought the Turks on the Commonwealth side in World War I. Modi is today using a similar strategy to great effect when he tries to convince the Hindus to feel a sense of belonging with other Hindus in South Asia. Both Gandhi and Modi use religious identity, to move past a civic identity and connect with a religious one. A civic identity made secondary to the religious identity.

Which is why perhaps the CAA and the NRC have become a double-edged sword that has pierced the fabric of Indian civic nationalism. We cannot oppose the CAA without conceding to the reality that people are Indian citizens because of legal fictions resulting from accidents of history. When my Zoroastrian friend’s ancestors were on their boats, if they had gone a little further and ended up in Sri Lanka rather than Gujarat, I probably wouldn’t have a Zoroastrian friend today.

It is an accident of history that the legal fiction of Indian citizenship covers all of us. The CAA adds a religious criterion to citizenship. But at the end of the day, all such criteria are arbitrary. Take the case of Hong kong. Post the British handover, many people in Hong Kong continued to remain British citizens, but they participate in Hong Kong’s political life. Citizenship is not what defines someone as a Hongkonger or not. Residence does. In India’s case, you can have someone who is born outside India, spends their entire life outside India, never sets foot here to even vote, but is an Indian citizen.

But we cannot in the same breath argue for a civic nationalism that covers all of us and say that something like the NRC is not required. For citizenship to have any meaning at all, we must all be able to claim the same privileges as Paul did. When he asserts his right to be treated better than a non-citizen by virtue of his citizenship. Citizenship must be exclusive for it to have meaning in the context of civic nationalism. If we allowed everyone who lived in India to have the same rights irrespective of citizenship status, this wouldn’t be a problem. But we don’t and nor are we willing to. Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia are still taunted for being of Italian origin, though Rahul Gandhi is an Indian citizen by birth and his mother is one by naturalisation. The idea of non-citizens having the same rights as citizens is something that makes India deeply uncomfortable.

But in that case, how do we reconcile all these feelings with the reality that there are non-citizens that remain here without valid papers or permissions? That they have made it on to the electoral rolls? If we must claim a form of civic nationalism, we have to defend the integrity of Indian citizenship and ensure non-citizens do not gain the same privileges as Indian citizens. This is not about jobs or the economy. India anyway has no jobs for people to take and the economy is in shambles. This is about a more fundamental idea of who we are as a people.

The CAA is an arbitrary statute that allows some people in. The question is not whether the CAA is constitutional, but the question should rather be, whether the CAA is the best exercise of our right as a people to choose who we admit into our fold. What of the NRC though? Do we not need to carry out that exercise as well to ensure that illegal immigrants do not gain benefits solely the preserve of Indian citizens? Because we have already established that civic nationalism doesn’t require you to even have a material connection with India to be an Indian citizen. What is the point of being a citizen if anyone can be one?

One solution would be to naturalise all immigrants already here. Give everyone a path to citizenship and not bother with the “refugee” criteria outlined in the CAA. This is a fair argument for some to run. But then question of the moral hazard arises. Would it be justified for us to reward those who broke the law with citizenship? What precedent would it set? What message will it send to others who wish to violate our laws and remain here?

These are contradictions in the case against the CAA or the NRC that need to be resolved before there can be a rational discussion on what needs to be done about the illegal immigrant population in India.  If not the NRC, then what? If not the CAA, then what? How do we in the same breath do the impossible, promote a sense of civic nationalism while also not taking steps to maintaining the integrity of Indian citizenship. It’s a tough question to answer and our struggle to answer it is a shared one.

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