I had not thought about my citizenship until December 12, 2019, when the government of India in Parliament converted the Citizenship Amendment Bill into an Act. Three days later, sporadic protests broke out in a few universities across India, which gradually turned into a full-fledged resistance led by Muslim women, many of them semi-literate and traditionally unempowered. Those two months of resistance – imaginative and Gandhian – made me reflect on yet another privilege of mine: citizenship.
On December 12, 2019, the Indian Parliament, overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, did two things. One, it added a political premium to Indian citizenship, making it less about a human being’s history and even lesser about her social experiences. Two, it linked citizenship to religions which were regarded as Indian in origin. Or to put it the way Vinayak Savarkar preferred – making India unquestionably the land of people whose pitr-bhoomi and punya bhoomi it was. In this formulation, birth was a mere accident. And choice, a tragedy.
By this amendment to the Indian citizenship rule, the government heeded the argument of those in the Constituent Assembly, for instance, P.S. Deshmukh, who had argued for both these factors – premium and religion – as determinants of Indian citizenship. In 1949, Deshmukh, a Congress man, was out-debated by his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly. But in 2019, 70 years later, he finally prevailed.
There are three reasons why I am writing about citizenship now. One, it’s December, three years since we went back to 1949. Two, I recently spoke at a colloquium on citizenship, which forced me to think about what it means and how the government uses the argument of national security to deny human rights to a few. Make no mistake. Citizenship is the most basic of human rights in the world divided up as different sovereign nations, with each installing gatekeepers to allow some people in and keeping some out. In this world, human dignity itself flows from the citizenship. Imagine human beings that no nation wants?
And three, today, there are two concurrent movements in India pertaining to citizenship. One is the legal framework (under the CAA) to deny or revoke the citizenship of certain people, which currently is in abeyance. And the other is the concerted diminishing of citizenship rights of bona fide Indian citizens, through specific laws that target their rights and liberty, reducing them to an inferior status in comparison to others.
The most obvious example of this is the Kashmir Valley, where since the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, people were forced to live under prolonged curfew for almost a year. The Valley also frequently faces communication blackout, throwing people off the internet highway. The longest of this was after August 2019, when the people were without internet access for over 200 days. In a digital world, where everything from education and employment to medical care is digitised, deliberate denial of the internet is tantamount to solitary confinement.
But I am not writing about Kashmir here. I am writing about mainland India, the land of free and equal opportunities. But conditions apply. Of course, conditions have been applying right after independence, despite the pragmatism and magnanimity of the Constitution, but the situation had not become as precarious as it has been in the last few years. The reason for this is simple. In addition to specific laws, passed Constitutionally, that restrict select communities’ rights to practice and propagate their religion as they deem fit, or curb their rights to ply their traditional trade etc., the government has been winking at the emergence of extra-Constitutional armed and vigilante groups which act as law-enforcers by terrorising ordinary citizens. Since these groups claim impunity from the State, these victims can’t even expect justice from the State!
Citizenship has three aspects. The first is legal or constitutional. This determines the rights and privileges of being a citizen. Participation in democratic processes. Access to government facilities and largesse—from rations, education, healthcare to subsidised housing. Assurance of security of life and livelihood, as well as practice of religion and celebration of festivals. When the State deems one practice as cultural and another as religious it diminishes the Constitutional aspects of citizenship.
The second is social, which refers to the ease of living or the quality of life one can have. This translates into what citizenship mean to ordinary people in their everyday life. The familiarity with the place, neighbours, culture, food, language and even religious practices. People should be able to live where they are happy and not just secure. They should be able to enjoy their lives and not just exist. Refusal to rent places to people because of their religion or eating habits lead to religious and caste segregations in cities. It creates ghettos not just in the physical space but mental too. And mental ghettos lead to insecurity.
This brings in the third aspect of citizenship: security. Not only must the State assure equal security to all, but it should also remove insecurity among people about one another. Instead, today the State is leading in fostering insecurity among people. This not only restricts access of certain people to full citizenship rights, but it also makes them vulnerable to suspicion by fellow citizens as well as law-enforcement agencies. The spectre of terrorism and national security is being frequently raised to disenfranchise certain people.
For example, nearly 30% of all undertrials in Indian prisons are Muslims, while the total Muslim population of India is just about 14 per cent. A large number of these either already have or are likely to spend over a decade as undertrials. An overworked judiciary is not the only reason for this. Many of these prisoners are charged, without evidence, under non-bailable acts, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. According to one fact-checking website, since 2014, 10,552 Indians have been booked under the UAPA and only 253 have been convicted so far. Clearly, the UAPA is being used as a political tool to deny rights and liberty to certain people. No prizes for guessing who these could be.
Sadly, none of these fosters security because honestly the source of our insecurity lies outside the borders of India, not within. Constant screening for enemies within only undermines us as citizens and adds to our collective insecurity. Insecure people are unhappy people. Something to reflect upon as we prepare to usher in the new year.
Ghazala Wahab is editor FORCE magazine. Her recent book is Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India.
Featured image: A protest at Jama Masjid against the CAA.
This article was first published on The Wire.