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Indian citizenship and the resilience of democracy July 17, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Ornit Shani

India’s founding leaders were determined to create a democratic state when the country became independent in 1947, but becoming and remaining a democracy was by no means inevitable.

The difficulties were daunting: the mass killings and violence unleashed by the subcontinent’s partition, widespread illiteracy, dire poverty, and the country’s profound religious, ethnic and social diversity. How, in such adverse circumstances, were democratic citizenship and practices institutionalised in India? And how has India’s emerging framework for membership in the nation, the essence of citizenship, enabled the endurance of its democratic polity?

Key to the making and endurance of democratic nationhood in India were the evolving conceptions of the relationship between the state and its would-be citizens in the process of constitution-making and institution-building. In practice, these relations function through the concept and institution of citizenship, which defines the terms of engagement between individuals, social groups and the state. It forms the basis for attaining membership and a sense of belonging in the social body and the state, as well as delimiting and excluding people from membership in the nation.

To a considerable extent, it is because different conceptions and practices of citizenship were articulated and could co-exist within India’s constitutional framework that India’s constitution and democracy struck roots and endured against the odds. The constitution’s drafters, in the long process of its creation, gave enough space for different, even contradictory, views of the relations between the state and its citizens to exist, compete and legitimately make counter-claims of the state, while still remaining members of a unitary nation. Indeed, there are four dominant and competing conceptions of citizenship in India, representing different views on the nature of relations and resource allocation between the state and various social groups. These are the liberal, republican, ethno-nationalist and non-statist Gandhian conceptions.

The liberal conception of citizenship views the individual as the bearer of a package of rights, designed to protect personal liberties. Individual freedom is ensured by minimum external interference, in particular from the state. The republican conception of citizenship is based on the notion of a pre-existing common good. Republican citizenship emphasises the civic virtue of citizens as active participants with a sense of public rather than individual responsibility. The ethno-nationalist conception of citizenship views membership in the nation-state as being defined, above all, by a ‘descent’ group which can be based on blood ties, religion, or on cultural or linguistic affiliation. In these three conventional conceptions, citizenship is defined from the viewpoint of the state, and becomes an end in the making of the state.

In India, it is also possible to distinguish a fourth, and paradigmatically different, conception of citizenship, identified as ‘non-statist citizenship’. Its ideational and institutional basis is derived from Mahatma Gandhi. Citizenship, in this view, implies a notion of membership of the state in the society (rather than membership in the state). This should make the state subservient to the society, guaranteeing that power is invested in the people. The state is viewed above all as a coercive entity, owing its very existence to violence. To ensure genuine self-government, minimal interaction and control by the state is desired. In this conception the individual plays a critical role in the pursuit of true self-rule. In Gandhi’s notion of the self, true freedom is derived from the self-disciplined, self-realised individual, liberated from attitudes of exclusivity, absolved from any particularistic identity. The spatial structure underlying the relationship between the individual and the state is composed of an ‘oceanic circle’ of villages, referring to a social order with ever-widening, non-hierarchical and self-sustained autonomous villages. At the centre of this structure is the individual who is prepared to defend his village and the next. This, according to Gandhi, is the road to true democratic self-rule. And true democracy is what promotes the welfare of the people and brings uplift for all (Gandhi called it sarvodaya). The notion of a harmonised caste-based social and moral order that created unity of cultural diversity formed part of Gandhi’s vision of ‘perfect democracy’. For Gandhi, the citizen’s duties, particularly the duty to dissent in the face of injustice, took precedence over individual rights, and were primarily tied to non-violence as a core value, as well as to the notions of self-help and moral conduct.

While the Gandhian notion of citizenship was poles apart from the other conceptions, it was also inextricably linked to each of them. Paradoxically, the Gandhian conception simultaneously facilitated and impeded some aspects of the other conceptions of citizenship, and their prospect for dominance. For example, Gandhi’s emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of the individual fed into a liberal citizenship order. But his non-stateism and notion of dissent, which neutralised the need to identify with the nation state, represented a radical form of liberalism that in effect negated the state altogether. Gandhi’s notions of uplift for all and self-help served to legitimate the republicanism that evolved in India at independence, which defined the common good as development within a framework of equality.

But the ultimate pursuit of such a common good required sturdy measures of redistribution that would curtail basic civil and political democratic rights. This happened in India during the spell of emergency rule between 1975 and 1977. The Gandhian conception of citizenship dented communal sectarianism, but it shored up ethno-nationalism in relation to caste, as it conceived of caste ‘upliftment’ solely within the Hindu framework of the moral social order. Caste conflicts can challenge an ethno-Hindu conception of the nation and therefore impede Hindu ethno-nationalism. It was chiefly Gandhi’s idea of non-statist citizenship that guaranteed the dynamics of a continuing interplay and shifting balance between the four conceptions of citizenship, and ensured that Indian citizenship was never fully dominated — at least not for long — by any one conception of citizenship.

In effect the evolving constitutional framework, informed by different conceptions of citizenship, allowed for multiple social conflicts and different notions of belonging to coexist within the Indian polity. This citizenship framework also allowed for a non-rigid adjudication on matters of the state and its relations to the various social identities of its human constituencies. The nature of the interconnections between the four competing conceptions of citizenship created a dynamic wherein an ongoing interplay and shifting balance between these conceptions resulted in the sustainability of some conflicts while excluding other more threatening divisions. This dynamic has ensured the resilience of India’s democracy.

Ornit Shani is a senior lecturer and the head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum Quarterly, Ideas from India’, and and on East Asia Forum, 15 July 2012.


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