The self-evident truths about Indian citizenship

A young protester has a 'NO' message written on the forehead as taking part in a demonstration against India's new citizenship law, in Kolkata on January 21, 2020. (Getty Images)

Two major culinary metaphors describe Citizenship of the United States of America — melting pot and tossed salad. Into the melting pot, go a whole host of ingredients to melt into a compound American, whose ancestry can be one part Cherokee, one part African, two parts Chinese and four parts Ukrainian, or some other such composition.

In a tossed salad, however the ingredients mix, but do not fuse. Hence we have Indian-Americans, Chinese Americans, Latino-Americans and what not. Whether tossed salad or melting pot, there is no doubt however that the vessel is all American.

If we were to extend culinary metaphors to Indian Citizenship, my dish of choice would be the bhel-puri. That marvellous mixture, best had on Mumbai beach, has puffed rice (murmura), savoury crisp noodles (sev), fried crisp puris, chopped onions, coriander and spices all tossed together with a dressing of tamarind, mint and cilantro chutney.

Each ingredient is separate and distinct, can be singled out, picked up and separately consumed. However when these ingredients are mixed in the right proportions, and tossed in an overall common vinaigrette, the resultant mixture is an explosion of delight on the tongue and heart.

The Bhelpuri that is India, has Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Punjabis and many more, who are also Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists. An Indian’s multiple markers of identity, often leave both majoritarian and minoritarian elements in the same individual.

As a Kannadiga Hindu living in Delhi, I am part of a religious majority, and of a linguistic minority. Yet I am as wholly and fiercely Indian, as the most orthodox Pandit from Varanasi or Maulvi from Deoband, for whom Hindi is a shared majority language. So what is it that binds such disparate identities together, in a shared modern nation?

Over seven decades of sharing, cricket, Bollywood and a philosophy of “kindly adjust, we are like this only,” has seen a stable nation emerge. India maybe an ancient civilisation, but as a modern republic is barely seventy years old. Citizenship of India is also of the same vintage.

Indians who were through history subjects of Rajas, Maharajas, Emperors and King Emperors, became citizens of a sovereign, democratic republic under a modern constitution only on 26th January 1950.

In a 2017 interview, the legal legend Fali Nariman rightly reminded us , that “ is the Hindu majority that gave us this Constitution, 85 per cent people at the time of the Constituent Assembly, 85 per cent members of the Constituent Assembly were orthodox Hindus with Rajendra Prasad the most orthodox of all. They gave us this magnificent Constitution. I dare anyone to say it’s not.”

Why did our magnificent ancestors, make those magnificent gestures of conciliation that gave us a modern constitution in 1950. The answer lies in the violence that identity politics had wrought upon the world in the 1940s. The Second World War, the Jewish Holocaust, the partition massacres and the assassination of the Mahatma, were all in the backdrop, as the Constituent assembly laboured between 9th December 1946 to 26th November 1949 to produce our national parchment.

The constitution that was produced was dismissed by some like K. Hanumanthayya who said “we wanted the music of the Veena or Sitar, but here we have the music of an English band.” There were others who called it a “mu'ahadah” or a contract between citizens of various religions, to establish a secular state.

Dr Ambedkar warned us “not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”

Seventy years into the working of the Indian Constitution, the national movement on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, has brought all these arguments, into renewed focus.

There are those who cannot fathom what the fuss is about, if migrants of only some religions are permitted to apply for citizenship, while others are wholly denied even a prospect of it.

If no Indian citizens are being affected, why should anyone bother? On the other side are those who fear that the enforcement of the CAA is a parliamentary device, which irrevocably breaks the constitutional contract, between citizen and citizen.

The basic objection is that, Parliament by majority has legitimised the idea of two kinds of citizens, those with a greater claim to India and those who can lay no claim upon India.

The legislation has been challenged in the Indian Supreme Court, by more than 150 petitions. The court has so far, refrained from passing any effective orders, one way or the other.

A determinative judgment is yet, a considerable way off, and might even find no constitutional infirmity in the act. We must remember that even slavery and segregation were birthed in legality and held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States.

However, while legal interpretations of constitutions are fought for by lawyers in courtrooms, “liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it” as Judge Learned Hand put it.

On the streets of India, from Shaheen Bagh to Kerala' s distant shores, citizens have stood up to redeem that pledge in the Indian Constitution's poetic preamble.

Indians now seek to secure to all its citizens, "JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation."

These pledges cannot be redeemed if our citizenry is divided by rulers, into the rightful and the doubtful. Martin Luther King Jr, had dreamt that " one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Let Indians too dream on. Jai Hind.


Sanjay Hegde, a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India, is one of the counsels in the CAA petitions.

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