After the Citizenship Amendment Act became a reality in the middle of December, protests broke out across India. By now, about 25 people have been killed around the country, most of them falling to police bullets. Even in the Jayaprakash Narayan movement against Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and the subsequent Emergency, such massive nationwide protests and police killings did not take place.
Despite the government’s claims that the Opposition is behind the protests, they mostly are spontaneous. Again, contrary to the government’s suggestion, it is not just the Muslim community that is demonstrating. People of all religions – especially students – have participated in a big way.
The panicked Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled Central government has let the police loose on protesting students and general public in states ruled by the party. But the police baton-charges, teargas shelling and firing have failed to cow down Indians: to the contrary, they have resurrected the spirit of Indian democracy.
State and society
In Hindutva political theory, there is no discourse about citizenship of human beings in relation to state and society. The concept of citizenship first formulated by Aristotle in Greece. He defines citizen “as a person who has the right to participate in deliberative or judicial offices of the state”. According to him aliens and slaves have no citizenship rights.
This idea was developed by later European thinkers, who broadly defined a citizen as a person who could vote and receive the benefits for continuing life and making the life better in the process of living in a given state. Immigrants were given the right to ask for citizenship based on their contribution to that society and state through their labour power, not based on religion or creed, caste or race.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharitya Janata Party want to rely on ancient Indian literary sources for their understanding of the concept of the citizen. But there is no proper definition of citizenship in moar ancient Indian texts: they all support caste-based karma theory but not a rational theory of citizenship. Even Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise about statecraft, fails to define who a citizen is.
The only book that talks about the citizen, known as the nagarika, is Vastyayana’s Kama Sutra. But it offers a rather perverted definition of the role: the nagarika is a householder and enlightened person. What should he do? According to Kama Sutra, “having put his clothes and ornaments, [he] should during the afternoon converse with his friends. In the evening there should be a singing and after that the house holder, along with his friends should await in his room, previously decorated and perfumed, the arrival of a woman who may be attached to him.”
The woman with whom the nagarika is supposed to engage with is a ganika – a courtesan. But there is no discussion about the state and its membership in this text at all.
A theocratic law
No democratic state should give citizenship to either migrants or to refugees based on their religious background. But the Citizenship Amendment Act provides a fast track to citizenship for undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – if they are not Muslim.
This is a theocratic law, to say the least. According to Hindutva theoreticians like Subramanyan Swamy, no Muslim is persecuted in these Islamic nations so they have no need to seek residence in India. If so, why mention religion in the Act at all and arouse the ire of India’s Muslims? The mention of religion in the Act provides serious grounds for Indian citizens belonging to that religion to be anxious that all of them could be rendered stateless. That suspicion has deepened now.
Even considering that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh discriminate against their minorities, why should a mature democracy like India, which has well-acclaimed Constitution, do the same? Our founding fathers would not have wanted this.
A danger to democracy
Assuming that the US decides tomorrow that illegal migrants of all religions will get citizenship, except if they are Hindu. Hindus who are already US citizens will realise that they are being told they are unwanted.Once such a law is enacted, how do they think that non-Hindus will treat them as good citizens? This is the main problem that the Indian Muslims will face with the country’s new citizenship law.
Even though India has functioned as a constitutional democracy for seven decades, our idea of human rights and citizenship remains underdeveloped. We need to evolve in our understanding of several matters, particularly how to negotiate between civil rights and religious faith. If the line between religion and civil rights is erased, our democratic system will collapse.
Though India’s ancient and medieval texts do not provide us a sophisticated theory of citizenship or on how democratic institutions should function, modern Indian thinkers like BR Ambedkar have provided some guidance on these matters. Still, to sustain democracy, we needs to read and re-read the western theories of human and civil rights.
The foundational principle of democracy is that though majority elects government, the minority that voted to the opposition should always feel secure in every institution of the nation. A government should never equate itself with nation, as the BJP-RSS are doing. That is self destructive.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author and the Former director, of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad.