Citizenship at a crossroads: the idea has changed since the last century

Citizenship is no more about residence, homecoming and belonging, a welcoming and hospitable idea but a bureaucratic, clerical system foisted on political whims and fancy

Citizenship at a crossroads: the idea has changed since the last century

Shiv Visvanathan

There is a sadness and a silence about the NRC that needs to be theorised. One has to show that it is endemic to a system called democracy and that it cannot be just attributed to the pathological vindictiveness of an Amit Shah. Majoritarian democracy produces echoes and demands beyond the electoral frame; it starts affecting the language and perception of governance itself. The sadness of NRC is eventually the sadness of the concept of citizenship.

The idea of citizenship in 19th and 20th century had a sense of stability, even hospitality. It was embodied in the idea of Statue of Liberty, inviting the homeless and the exiled from other domains. The 19th century idea of citizenship catered more to the migrant and exile. It emphasised a bourgeois claim to identity and residentiality.

The 20th century concept of citizenship mediated between exile and refugee. By the end of the 20th century, citizenship stabilised around idea of security, borders, identity to become a basic concept of the nation state. It provided a sense of entitlement to those who were certified members of the nation state as an entity.

But citizenship as a bureaucratic idea always had its tensions, its hostility to those classified as non-citizens. A classificatory mode of conduct underwritten by certification became more a process of identification rather than a ritual of identity. The Aadhar Card is an example of this where security and identification define the entitlements of the normalcy we call citizenship. Secondly, like all rigid classificatory constructs, the anomalous and ambiguous categories became the theatre for future violence.

Oddly, such anomalies were seen as clerical problems and not as life threatening situations. In the history of citizenship, two categories have been anomalous and triggers to perpetual violence. The first is the nomad embodied in the idea of the gypsy. The nomad, as gypsy with his fluid sense of space, threatens the citizens’ sense of residentiality, of the permanence that citizenship claims to guarantee.

The second were Pariah groups, unacceptable by dominant communities. If the nomad floated across boundaries, Pariah groups were marginalised in ghettoes. If the Romany was a classic example of the first, the Jew was a literal embodiment of the second. Even as late as two years ago, France, the home of enlightenment and the revolution, declared the nomadic Romany as incapable of citizenship.

The problems of citizenship in India begin with the over determination of economics and ritual caste set the precedent by creating outcastes, marginal groups who haunted the peripheries of villages and cities. Economics added to the invidiousness of caste by creating a dualistic world between formal and informal economics. The informal economy was seen as a lesser form of life providing a lesser form of citizenship. The individual in an informal economy lived out a theatre of temporariness. He needed the state through the agency of the corrupt politician to “regularise” him.

Regularisation of colonies was a covert certification of citizenship. Development added in invidious gradient to citizenship by creating an inclined gradient of time, creating a distinction between the developed and the underdeveloped. The underdeveloped, lacking the grace of progress, could be subject to violence in the name of development. Given the logic of development, tribals, nomads, peasants could be easily displaced because their claims to citizenship were tenuous in terms of the discourse called development.

Democracy, especially electoral democracy, added to the ironies of citizenship, not by targeting race but focussing on minoritarian and marginal groups. It decided pompously and formally who could be a citizen and it decided to legitimise this process as a ritual of bureaucratic government. All it had to do to destabilise a mixed population was to declare a survey or a Census. They conveyed a sense of objective science in the pursuit of welfare. But there was little that was scientific in these surveys, which were alien to an oral tradition, in which folklore defined membership, where a certificate was issued at the whims of a clerk or determined by the corruption of a party boss. A certificate was an elusive, arbitrary object in the informal economies of our time.

Suddenly, people who had lived for decades in niches of the economy or the ecology, quietly and un-invasively were declared non-citizens. The ambiguities or becoming a citizen became clear as these processes enfolded. The rules of the formal economy with its requirements of citizenship were radically different from the lives these floating, marginal people led.

Suddenly, one discovered that citizenship was not a lived, ontological category defined by residence, homecoming and belonging, but an arbitrary idea created by a clerical system and its whims and fancies. Citizenship was a front stage, officialised definition which ignored the backstage of life and livelihood. Many marginal, interstitial groups, which survived on oral trust, suddenly grasped the fact that they were non-persons, non-citizens. They lacked the official accompaniments of registrations, the so-called proofs of citizenship. The survey had no place for them. In fact, it is in these moments that one realises poignancy and power of the poet WH Auden’s dictum, “thou shall not commit a social science, nor submit to questionnaire.” But even Auden could not have envisioned their genocidal impetus. This classification is as much a ritual of exclusion as inclusion.

Surveys in the service of citizenship can be as much for the purposes of welfare but pathological in their rites of exclusion. The poignancy of the national register is presented as a mere collection of mistakes, of clerical errors that could be corrected. The survey normalises the process of exclusion. As the survey proceeds, one realises and has to confront the fact that the national register represents the Gulagisation of the diversity called India. One has to realise that this Gulagisation is intensified by a combination of social science in the service of governmentality and the idea of majoritarianism. India tends to legitimise such activities while the Chinese have no such scruples. They do not think twice about interning a million Muslim tribals whom they consider “law and order” problems. The banalisation of violence is horrific, because in India, the internship of a population is done in the name of democracy.

Gulagisation is the first step to cultural destruction and genocide. What is sad is that few social scientists have challenged this model of the state. Fewer still have commented about the banalisation of violence. What is worse is few critique the similarity of policy where Kashmir is mutilated or Assam is fragmented. The silence of the sadness of citizenship will haunt democracy for decades. One wishes this 150th anniversary of Gandhi could trigger a protest, a new vision of politics where the Satyagraha returns to redeem and heal the country.

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