It’s We the People, not we the Citizens, of India!

Image courtesy News 18

People, Persons, Citizens

When the idea of citizenship is wielded like a deadly weapon to deprive people of basic rights rather than to empower them, it’s time to think about the basis of rights differently.  While in the Preamble to the Constitution, ‘we the people’ resolve to secure to all its ‘citizens’ justice, liberty, equality and fraternity; Article 14 of the Fundamental Rights ensures equality before the law to all “persons”, not only to citizens.

The people of a land precede the creation of “citizens”, and we the people of India must think seriously at this moment in our history, about how justice is to be secured to all persons, and whether citizenship is an emancipatory idea any longer.

Consider the revealing and tragic irony of one of the accused arrested for his alleged role in violence during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) , in East Delhi’s Seemapuri. Through his counsel, in a Delhi court, he claimed to be a juvenile, and to prove this, produced certificates from the madarsa at which he studies.

Delhi Police, however, claimed that these documents were insufficient to establish his age, and requested permission for a bone ossification test. The counsel of the accused argued that according to central government notifications, madarsa certificates are sufficient to prove age, but the Delhi court permitted police to carry out the ossification test.

Imagine the claim of such a person to  citizenship and to inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC)! What documents will be accepted as proofs of parentage, residence, age? Apparently even central government notifications declaring certain documents as valid can be challenged by police and dismissed by a court.  Let us remember that age is not marginal but key to the test of citizenship by NRC, because

The Ministry of Home Affairs announced…that no individual will be considered an illegal immigrant so long as they or their parents can prove that they were born in India before July 1, 1987.

So this young Muslim has been arrested for “violence” as an adult now, for protesting a law leading to the NRC; while the NRC itself may recognize him as a juvenile through his madarsa certificate, born after 1987, and therefore under pressure to prove he is not an illegal immigrant!

Meanwhile, the chest thumping Modi bhakts who live in the USA and UK, unproblematically take advantage of citizenship rights that protect immigrants and minorities. They publicly celebrate the Prime Minister of their erstwhile country, publicly observe their festivals; build their temples, even direct the foreign policy of political parties in the countries in which they live and work – UK’s  Labour party back-tracked on its Kashmir resolution criticizing the lockdown of the state, under pressure from Overseas Friends of the BJP. These “consumer refugees” (as Victoria Dominguez called them), demand full citizenship rights for themselves in their country of residence, while financially supporting the disenfranchising policies of Hindutva in the country they have left.

Here are two notions of legitimate citizenship. Citizenship by birth as opposed to citizenship by place of residence and labour.  This distinction is already unjust, because an accident of birth should not determine whether you are deemed to be a full human or not.

But in addition, Hindutva politics does not even recognize citizenship by birth when it comes to Muslims.  There are multiple additional tests that Muslims have to pass, including giving up their holy lands (punyabhu) outside India. Tests set by Golwalkar and other Hindutva ideologues, who assume for themselves all rights of citizenship as well as the right to declare others, non-Hindus, as non citizens. Ultimately, in a gesture of total assimilation, Hindutvavaadis declare all who live in India to be Hindus.  This is their grand gesture of supposed inclusion, which erases all other identities.

But looking at the way in which Rahat Indori’s rousing declaration,  Hindustan kisi ke baap ka thodi hai! stirs the multitudes, mostly millenials, spiritedly taking back India – it seems the BJP and the RSS grossly overestimated the extent to which even  supposed Hindus support their agenda.

Here is Indori in his inimitable rendition of this old poem of his which is now one of the anthems of the times.

The blood of every one of us is fused with this soil/Hindustan doesn’t belong to your  father! Hell, no!

What is the idea of ownership of “India”  that we see here? It seems to me that it surpasses a mere notion of “birth”. If our blood and sweat is fused with this soil, then that far exceeds the mere accident of birth.

 Is citizenship self-evidently empowering?

On the contrary, the very idea of ‘citizen’ produces simultaneously, as its shadow, the ‘non-citizen’ in the form of the Refugee and the Migrant.

The shadow cast by the idea of citizenship has been long recognized. This darkness arises from the location of citizenship rights in the nation state. As Ranabir Samaddar points out, a nation-state is made up of citizens, but it is the nation-state which defines who its citizens can be. Everyone who is willing to be a citizen, all those willing to participate in nationhood, cannot do so. The rights of citizenship are powerful precisely because they are available only to the community delimited by the discursive practices of the nation-state. ‘Only those with whom the nation has the obligation to transact will be considered citizens.’ (Samaddar 1999: 22). The point is that however inclusivist they may be, citizenship rights within nation-states are necessarily exclusionary. The resources of the nation, it is assumed, should be used exclusively for the benefit of citizens, thus creating a zone of privilege for them.

Thus, as Samaddar points out, the nation-state always has two subjects, the Citizen and the non-Citizen – the latter in the forms of the migrant and the refugee.

The refugee, according to Hannah Arendt (1943) is the paradigm of a new historical consciousness – ‘Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.’  Giorgio Agamben notes, in a reflection on Arendt’s essay,  that the appearance of refugees as a mass phenomenon comes into being with the emergence of the modern nation-state system that began to be put into place after World War I. Only a world of sovereign states that had categories of people called ‘citizens’ and that were intent on regulating population flows across/s ‘borders’ could produce the legal category of ‘refugees’.

The migrant represents the phenomenon of movement of populations that has been widespread and common over the globe for several hundreds of years. This movement has been both voluntary (seafaring traders, pastoral nomads, invading armies that end up settling the lands they conquer) and forced (slave trade, indentured labour to run plantations). Once the nation-state system was put firmly in place however, such movements themselves came under scrutiny from the new ‘homelands.’ From this point onwards, (approximately the early 20th century), migration began to be closely linked to the issue of the security of nation-states. Migration is no longer simply an issue of demography or labour economics, it is now perceived as an issue that concerns a nation’s very survival.

Ranabir Samaddar points out that what is called ‘migration’ is actually a continuation of natural human flows through the centuries, suddenly rendered illegal by new national borders. What now require to be called new rights, he says, such as the right to move across national borders for trade, work, or for grazing of animals for example, are not new privileges, but simply the re-legitimation of old practices (Samaddar 1999:40). With the dynamics of the current phase of globalization, with free movement for capital across national borders in search of cheap labour, cross-border migration of labour has also increased.  Asia as a whole continues to face the implications of an internationally mobile labour force and many Asian governments have enacted regulatory mechanisms to deal with the issue. Many governments including our own, focus on regulating the recruitment activities of private agents, but, since the remittances of the workers is an attractive factor, states and employers acquiesce in clandestine migration to meet the requirements of capital. The migrant worker in South Asia makes minimal demands on the social expenditure of the host country (that is. has no claim to even the minimal state facilities on offer), and since the worker is mostly an illegal immigrant, the situation is often close to slavery. In addition, the illegal immigrant is branded as a threat to national security and lives in constant danger of police harassment and deportation (Samaddar 1999: 38). In India, for instance, the ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi immigrant is also marked by her religious identity so that even Indian Muslims from Bengal and Assam come under the periodic police operations to remove illegal immigrants.

But not all Bangladeshi immigrants in India want to become Indian citizens, for ‘in their own minds they are only temporary shelter seekers since they are still Bangladeshis to their own selves’ (Samaddar 1999: 107).

Mahmood Mamdani (2005) argues in the context of Africa, that the notion of citizens’ rights as attached to place of birth has increasingly anti-democratic consequences because of the history of large-scale migration on the continent, which means that at any given time, hundreds of thousands of people are not living in the land of their birth. They thus have no citizens’ rights for the large part of their lifetime. Mamdani rejects the post-colonial assumption that cultural and political boundaries should coincide, and that the natural boundaries of a state are those of a common cultural community. This assumption makes indigeneity the litmus test for rights under the postcolonial state. What this means in effect is that the state penalizes those elements of the population most dynamized by the commodity economy – ‘the more the economy dynamizes, the more the polity disenfranchises.’

Mamdani argues, contrary to nationalist wisdom, that cultural communities rooted in a common past do not necessarily have a common future. Political communities rather, are to be defined not by a common past but by the resolve to forge a common future ‘under a single political roof’. He believes therefore, that citizens’ rights should be attached to place of labour, not place of birth (Mamdani 1992).

Another destabilizing perspective on citizenship and migration is provided by feminist critiques of anti-trafficking initiatives. They show how these initiatives collapse the distinction between (voluntary) sex-work and (coerced) trafficking, treating all cross-border movements of women as coerced; thus excluding these women from legal recognition, and casting their families as criminals.

Nandita Sharma has suggested that anti-trafficking campaigns need to be replaced with a political practice that questions the very legitimacy of sealed national borders that we have come to take for granted over the last century. National border regimes must be opened up as well as the labour markets organized through them. There must be an end to discrimination based on one’s nationality. These are the demands of the growing group of No Borders activists across the world. A radical political practice is called for, that challenges the barbed-wire borders of nation-states (Sharma 2003).

We need to keep these thorny questions in mind as we think about the current moment in India.

Religious and ethnic identities in a secular India

The Prime Minister directly lied to the people of India, claiming, in the face of the relentless protests against CAA and NRC, that CAA has nothing to do with NRC and that NRC is not even on the agenda of his government, but his lies are desperate and blatant and have been thoroughly exposed. The CAA, the National Population Register (NPR) and the NRC are very closely linked,  and are central to  the Hindutva agenda of making non Hindus non-entities in India.

When the attack of Hindutva is directly against non-Hindus but against Muslims in particular, then Muslims will speak up as Muslims – whether Muslims by birth; Muslims by faith; born Muslim but practising atheists; identifying as non religious but branded as Muslims anyway; or identifying as believing, practising Muslims. The 200 million Muslims of India are now speaking up as Muslims, and as citizens, and Indian secularism has reached a new phase. The old Leftist mantra of ‘leave your identities behind when you enter the realm of secular class politics’, is worn out, but also expressive of the power of patriarchy, caste privilege and savarna Hindu domination.

After Islamic outfits fielded burka-clad women as the face of the state’s protest against the amended citizenship law, the CPI (M) on Sunday warned that “using religious symbols and organising people on a religious basis would only serve to further the agenda of the Sangh Parivar.”

Indian secularism has to learn that within its space multiple religious and other identities will now reside, and stake claim. If religious identities cannot enter the public domain, that excludes only practising minorities from being publicly political. Because let us be very clear, the dominant religious identity, in this case Hinduism, normalizes its own functioning. In secular India, for decades, we have had bhumi pujas for public buildings and coconuts broken at the start of public state functions and even recitation of Sanskrit shlokas to Hindu gods in public institutions.

While reasserting the Constitution as The Book of which we are The People, India has to learn new ways of engaging with religious identities in the public domain as long as they assert Constitutional values, even if, perhaps, in hitherto unfamiliar ways.

Similarly, the protests against CAA in the North East are not cast in the Hindu-non Hindu frame at all, but in the frame of insider/outsider in ethnic terms. The complex histories of the states of that region come into play here. Evidently there, citizenship by birth, based on ethnic identity, and protection of that identity, is the primary concern. There are legitimate fears of CAA leading to being overrun by an influx of outsiders, whether Hindu or Muslim is not the issue for them.

What kinds of conversations are possible once Hindutva’s agenda is defeated, among those who are on the streets together now, but who are divided on whether rights should be based on residence and labour, or on birth-based identity? Between those who believe in a borderless world, and that no human being is illegal; and those who want to protect indigenous cultures from outsiders?

These will be difficult conversations, but they have to begin. And we may have to give up on the idea of one clear answer applicable everywhere in this landmass we call India.

The myth of the Hindu majority

And what about the mythical “Hindu majority”? It is time we recognized there is no such thing as one Hindu community. As Ambedkar said, “Hindu society as such does not exist, it is only a collection of castes.”

The old term for this land, Hindustan, referred to the land of the Sindhu or the Indus river, but it has nothing to do with the emergence of the label “Hindu” in the 19th century, which was given by Western scholars to heterogeneous communities of people supposedly practising a single religion.  This idea became part of colonial governmental practices, as well, thus giving it even more traction.  But there was no such single religion. There was a community with a distinct set of practices and beliefs distinguishable from Islam (with its belief in the Vedas, varnashramadharma and the trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara), but this community was not coterminous with, did not include, all those who were not Muslim. In other words, there were multiple Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi communities also with distinct practices that did not conform to Islam, but nor to what came to be called sanatan dharma . These communities ate beef, did not recognize the Vedas, or the superiority of Brahmins,  buried their dead, were denied access to temples of the Hindus, and so on.

The myth of the Hindu majority is maintained by legally defining as Hindu,  all those who are not Muslim, Christian or Parsi.  Thus even heterodox sects that explicitly left Hinduism (that is,  sanatan dharma) are assumed to be and treated legally as Hindu.

Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Lingayats, all  Dalit Bahujan Adivasi communities, are all perforce treated as Hindu. Lingayats have of late renewed their decades old demand to be treated as a separate religion, as Basavanna, their 12th C founder saint, abandoned the Vedas, the caste system and belief in Brahmin superiority.  It is not a coincidence that the three rationalist anti Hindutva intellectuals who were assassinated between 2015 and 2017 by Hindutvavaaadis (Gauri Lankesh, M M Kalburgi and Govind Pansare) were all Lingayats.

Hinduism is thus merely the label that enables the assertion of an eternal identity, one that claims to be in the majority in India. The term also helps to discipline diverse practices of castes and communities into this mould of Hinduism defined in a narrow North Indian, Brahminical/savarna masculinist way.  The idea that India is culturally Hindu emerges very clearly in VD Savarkar’s Essentials of Hindutva (1922)  in which he makes claims such as, all Hindus across India follow the same festivals like Holi and Rakshabandhan and that all Hindus worship Rama. This is not true even for all savarnas who consider themselves Hindu, let alone for Dalit Bahujan Adivasi communities (See my 2019 article for a detailed argument along these lines).

India is thus not a Hindu majority country at all, but a land of multiple minorities.

The vengeful ‘sanyasi‘ of Uttar Pradesh

Military occupations routinely impose punitive fines on conquered civilian populations for resisting their authority.  When a supposedly democratically elected government uses the same tactic to silence and punish citizens who protest unjust laws, we know that the legitimacy of that government is severely challenged.

In Yogi  Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, which is effectively under a state of lawless, violent siege by the UP police, some Muslim residents of Bulandshahr

handed over a cheque for Rs 6,27,000 to the district administration in lieu of the damage to public property incurred amid violence during the protests in this district.

Terming the gesture a good initiative, the district and police administration have welcomed it.

This gesture comes in the wake of Adityanath’s decision that damage to public property during the anti- CAA protests would be “avenged” (badla lenge, he said) and compensated for, by confiscation of properties and massive fines.

At least 230 such notices have been issued, and most of the people they had been issued to were Muslims, state government officials said on Thursday. The claims are likely to run into tens of millions of rupees, they said.

These notices have been issued supposedly on the basis of “video clips, photographs and CCTV footage” of stone pelters and those engaging in violence, but this claim appears false. For apart from poor working class people (many of whom were picked up by police from their homes) , prominent Muslims and Dalits have been picked out by the state administration as “rioters”, including former IPS officer SR Darapuri, Mohammad Shoaib of Rihai Manch (a civil rights organization) and Congress spokesperson Sadaf Zafar among others. All three were also arrested and are still in jail, with Sadaf having been beaten and tortured.

In Sambhal, among 59 persons issued notices by the UP government are

a 57-year-old Ayurveda doctor who runs a clinic, a 56-year-old social activist who runs a school for Dalit and Muslim children, a 47-year-old political activist who runs a puncture shop, a 51-year-old businessman who also runs two educational institutions…

Dr Nazim, the Ayurveda doctor, said

the notices are being issued to curb the voice of the “educated middle class”. “Note the pattern. None of those in the notices are there in any video footage of the violence. All of them are from the educated middle class who have been at forefront against government policies,” he says.

By December 25, 2019, over 300 notices had been served all over UP.

Meanwhile, as massive anti CAA  protests in other states pass off utterly peacefully, there is mounting evidence that in Adityanath’s UP, the main perpetrators of violence were the UP police. “Every assailant was a policeman”, according to videos released by civil society activists who conducted a fact-finding.  At the earlier protests in AMU it has already been established that the police

entered hostels, thrashed students and indulged in vandalism.

And far from CCTVs providing evidence of protesters being violent, Reuters has reported that CCTV videos from two localities in Meerut end abruptly after a policeman hits at the cameras with his lathi. Meerut residents claim that several CCTV cameras were broken by the police before they began unprovoked violence on residents.

In many places in other parts of India where scattered incidents of violence have been reported in anti CAA protests, activists and local people have established  the role of BJP workers in skull caps or pointed out the suspicious actions of police themselves breaking stones and bricks on rooftops at the time of protests in the locality.  Who were the perpetrators of violence, really? Why was there violence in Gujarat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh but not in the massive anti CAA protests in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar? In other words, where the state governments (and in Delhi, the central government) directed the police to “act”, it did so, and where it was asked to restrain itself, that’s what it did. The police force is part of the coercive apparatus of the State, and is controlled in a democracy, by the government.

In Uttar Pradesh in particular, it appears that the police is rampantly communal, and received full support from a government openly promising “revenge”. Police launched unprovoked attacks inside homes, and  worked actively to paint a false picture of the anti CAA protests as anti-Hindu . A cop has been caught on camera in a rabid anti Muslim rant, while his senior lauds his restraint. There is ample evidence by now of a criminal conspiracy of the UP state machinery to target Muslims, vilify them, imprison them, physically attack and even kill them, and through these punitive fines, to break their back economically, a process already well in place through anti cow slaughter legislation and well planned lynchings in its name.

Civil disobedience against unethical laws

Whatever Modi’s and Modi bhakts’ patronising claims, every protester understands the link between CAA, NPR and NRC.

BJP does not care in the slightest for refugees and persecuted  minorities – the CAA was introduced to take care of Bengali Hindus excluded from Assam’s NRC (which is precisely why Assam is opposed to the CAA). How it can act as a safety net for Hindus omitted from the NRC if it is implemented  in other parts of the country, as Amit Shah has declared it will,  is not clear

Read What NRC+ CAA means to you for a clear exposition of the issues involved here.

Meanwhile, even as most of India is on the streets against both CAA and NRC, the cabinet approved the NPR, National Population Register at a cost of Rs 8400 cr. What is the purpose of the NPR?

An investigation by explains:

The National Population Register would create a list of all the residents of the country. And then the National Register of Citizens would take that list and identify people of “doubtful citizenship” – thus, by corollary creating a list of citizens.

The NPR is thus the first step towards the creation of the NRC, and the disenfranchisement of large numbers of Indian citizens. This is why West Bengal and Kerala have stopped all work on the NPR.

Is the NPR necessary for and connected to the Census as it is being claimed? Not true.

The National Population Register is being conducted under the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the 2003 rules while the Census is done under the Census Act, 1948. The Census data is kept secret and cannot be used for anything else. The National Population Register data will be publicly displayed as part of the claims and objections process and will be used to create a National Register of Citizens.

Thus, National Population Register has nothing to do with the Census.

This government lies to our face, about everything from the state of the economy (“everything is normal”), to the state of Kashmir (“everything is normal”), to what the CAA is a precursor to (“Nothing much”).

This government has an agenda set by the RSS to fulfill, of establishing a Hindu Rashtra in which even Hindus will not be safe.

This government, many of us believe based on very good evidence, did not come by its massive majority in the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections without manipulation of the Election Commission.  (On this, there have been several posts in Kafila and The Quint).

The NPR must be boycotted by the people of India on a nation wide scale. Not one of us should give any information whatsoever for the NPR.

Yes Varun Grover, Hum kagaz nahin dikhayenge!

We must keep up public protests until CAA is repealed, and the NPR and NCR shelved indefinitely.

Massive civil disobedience against this unethical and dishonest government is the only option we have in our struggle to re-establish the Constitution as the foundation of India.

In conclusion – the Ganga dhaba dog and vasudhaiva kutumbakam

Have you watched our young people face a lathi charge?

And so many have by now, over the past year in particular, in so many parts of the country, as they marched in thousands again and again –  to defend the Constitutional idea of India, the public university, gender justice, and to reject caste discrimination.

Facing a lathi charge, they don’t just scatter in panic.

They turn to the vulnerable amongst themselves, they support one another, they run back towards companions cornered by the police, sometimes the women protect male comrades with their own bodies (as we saw Ayesha and Ladeeda do in Jamia), they offer their shoulders to comrades hurt, limping…they shout slogans, their defiant  chants of sarfaroshi ki tamanna and Aazadi ring out as they disperse.

They dont just scatter in panic, they don’t.

At one of the earlier massive marches against fee hikes that JNU students mounted, they reached Jor Bagh despite facing several lathi charges. A dog from Ganga Dhaba had decided to accompany her friends, passing through barricades, running along with them, she marched with them all the way to Jor Bagh. It was a carnival we found there, when some faculty arrived to express solidarity, Music and singing and energizing chants. Suddenly the street lights were switched off, and everyone knew in that moment of darkness that the lathi charge was about to begin. The two students I was chatting with, moved of one accord. They dashed off to find the dog, and as I stepped to the side, my heart pounding at the knowledge of what was to come, protected from it by my age and status as faculty (though the lathis did fall on two of our male colleagues), I saw the two women emerge from the crowd, carrying their friend, running, stumbling, the dog safely in their arms.

They carried her back to campus.

Modi, Shah – listen.

The next time you chant vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole earth is one family – in the way that you Sanghis routinely and hypocritically do, remember this.

The young people of India understand what vasudhaiva kutumbakam  really means, they know how to act upon it, and they will take this country back for all of us.


Mamdani, Mahmood (2005) ‘Political Identity, Citizenship and Ethnicity in post-colonial Africa’ Keynote Address, Arusha Conference. Available at (Downloaded on June 12, 2013)

Mamdani, Mahmood (1992) ‘Africa Democratic Theory and Democratic Struggles’ Economic and Political Weekly Vol – XXVII No. 41, October 10

Menon, Nivedita (2019) “Counter-narratives to Hindutva Claims
Beyond the Eurocentrism–Indigenism Binary” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 54, Issue No. 38, 21 Sep, 2019

Samaddar, Ranabir (1999) The Marginal Nation, Sage, Delhi

Sharma, Nandita, (2003) ‘Travel Agency: A Critique of Anti-Trafficking Campaigns’ Refuge 21:3 (May)

4 thoughts on “It’s We the People, not we the Citizens, of India!”

  1. Sad as it may sound, the insanity of religious identity has such a firm foothold in India that, the nomenclature “secular” is nothing but toxic. Because, secular has come to mean the allowance of free reign by the insane. Until India can outgrow the juvenility of religious insanity and curb the legitimacy of these voodooist enterprises in public matters, India is nothing but a sham cuckoo’s nest of unevolved primates.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s