Interview with Prof. Niraja Gopal Jayal

Niraja Gopal Jayal is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Centennial Professor at the Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics, London.  Her scholarship has focussed on citizenship, democracy, and governance. Her book Citizenship and Its Discontents (Harvard University Press, 2013) won the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association of Asian Studies in 2015. Her other books include Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and Democracy and the State: Welfare, Secularism and Development in Contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has also edited Re-Forming India: the Nation Today (Penguin Random House, 2019) and Democracy in India (Oxford University Press, 2009), and has co-edited The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (Oxford University Press, 2010); Local Governance in India: Decentralization and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2005); and Interrogating Social Capital: The Indian Experience (Sage, 2004), among others. She has held visiting appointments at King’s College, London; EHESS, Paris; Princeton University; University of Melbourne; and University of New South Wales.  In 2009, she delivered the Radhakrishnan Memorial Lecture at All Souls College, University of Oxford. Some of her recent articles and op-eds can be found here and here.

This interview was conducted over email and has been edited for length. 

Arunima Nair: Current arguments around citizenship have frequently highlighted a shift: that Indian laws have moved from citizenship based on birth in Indian territory (jus soli), to citizenship based on descent (jus sanguinis). In your book Citizenship and Its Discontents, you argue that India’s trajectory is not quite this linear. Could you elaborate on this?

Niraja Gopal Jayal: That was an argument about the historical trajectory of the idea of citizenship. The questioning of the linear narrative in my book (which, by the way, was published in 2013, when I did not anticipate that the CAA would gather such momentum in just a few years) was an attempt to jog historical memory and remind ourselves that jus soli was such an embattled idea even in the moment of constitution-making. Though it was eventually endorsed by the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar alluded to how contentious it had been when he described the drafting of it as a “headache.” Subsequently, the Citizenship Act 1955 expressed this unambiguously, and the process of attrition only began in 1986 with the amendment to give effect to the Assam Accord of 1985. So we saw, first, the emergence of a conditional jus soli – citizenship by birth available unconditionally, and regardless of their parentage, only to those born before 1987, while a person born in India between 1987 and 2003 was required to have one parent who is an Indian citizen. From 2004, this became even more restrictive, making ineligible for citizenship by birth a person born in India who has one parent who is an “illegal migrant” at the time of his or her birth. The debates around these amendments articulate the very prejudices and arguments heard for a restrictive conception of citizenship in the Constituent Assembly. They are a sign of the constitutional settlement having been less stable than we assumed it to be.

AN: Are ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ used interchangeably in Indian politics? What are the histories of these words and their usage in India? 

NGJ: Before I explain the distinction, please note that the word migrant in India has in popular parlance (at least till before the migrant workers’ crisis in the shadow of the pandemic) been prefixed by the word ‘illegal.’ It is in the Citizenship Amendment Act 2003 – which came into effect in 2004 – that the term “illegal migrant” entered the law, signifying someone who has entered India without legal authorisation or stayed on without it. It was a dog-whistle reference to Bangladeshis in Assam and the northeast more generally. 

Technically, refugees are compelled to flee their country and seek refuge in another land, due to political or religious or other kinds of persecution, and this movement is involuntary. Migrants, on the other hand, are understood to move voluntarily, more often than not for economic reasons. Such movement is also presumed to be legal because migrants typically have visas or (depending on which part of the world we are speaking about) guest worker permits. At the time of the Partition, these two categories acquired religious and normative overtones, such that Hindus and Sikhs coming into India from their homes in what had now become Pakistan were referred to as refugees, deserving of succour. On the other hand, Muslims who left their homes in India for the newly created state of Pakistan, but chose to return to India to reclaim their lives and livelihoods after the violence had abated, were termed migrants, deemed to be undeserving of the same consideration because they had after all chosen to go to Pakistan in the first instance. 

This offers an interesting contrast with the contemporary Hindutva discourse which defines both countries in terms of religious identity, such that Pakistan is an Islamic nation while India is a Hindu nation rather than a secular multi-religious one. The construction of India as a nation in which its Hindu citizens are by definition privileged, was therefore not the dominant understanding of India in 1947-48, but has acquired currency in recent times with the politicisation of religion and religious identity in our polity.

The political usage of ‘illegal migrant’ in India has thus made explicit that encoded identity of migrant = Muslim, while refugee = Hindu. This usage is consistent with the long history of these terms in India. Note that refugees from Tibet or indeed Tamils from Sri Lanka are still referred to as refugees, fleeing persecution. The CAA, in a sense, imports this distinction into its use of religious categories. It implies that Muslims cannot, by definition, be refugees because they cannot be persecuted in the three Muslim-majority countries they come from. 

AN: The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 requires applicants to prove that they belong to one (or more) of the six enumerated communities (Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs) from one of the three neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan), but the rules for the Act are yet to be notified, and it is unclear how an applicant is supposed to prove this. However, is this the first time that the religion of applicants was explicitly referenced as a criteria for obtaining Indian citizenship? How can the administration determine religion in such cases? Also, how did the local administration determine the religion of migrants to be registered?

NGJ: The Ministry of Home Affairs has reportedly sought more time to frame the rules. The text of the Amendment Act certainly does not mention any requirement for proving religious affiliation, nor does it require the experience of persecution to be proved. In fact, one of the objections of the Intelligence Bureau (as recorded in the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the CAB) was precisely this: that these provisions could be misused by “infiltrators” from neighbouring countries, presumably because they could claim to belong to one or other of these religions in order to gain entry for purposes such as espionage. It is baffling how functionaries in the local administration could determine anybody’s religious identity.

While this is the first time that religion has been explicitly mentioned as a criterion for determining citizenship, religion did find mention in the 2004 Rules of the Citizenship Act, which delegated limited duration powers to the District Collectors of border districts in Rajasthan and Gujarat to register people most of whom had come in from Pakistan after 1992, on Pakistani passports and valid visas that they had outstayed. The Rules invoke religion explicitly, as they refer to these people not as migrants, much less as ‘illegal migrants,’ but as ‘minority Hindus with Pakistan citizenship who have migrated to India….with the intention of permanently settling down in India…’ 

AN: One of the disproportionate effects of our current citizenship law is that children born after 2004 are particularly at risk of having their citizenship questioned in any verification exercise. This is because, per the Citizenship Act, any person born in India after 2004 is an Indian citizen by birth only if one parent is an Indian citizen AND the other parent is not an ‘illegal immigrant’. One example of how this has played out in practice is the NRC exercise in Assam: a child, who has a parent who’s either been declared a ‘doubtful voter’ or whose case is pending before a Foreigners Tribunal, will be excluded from the NRC on the basis of the Act. Is this creating a problem of inherited statelessness?

NGJ: Indeed it is. This is affecting people whose parent(s) may have come in 40 years ago, even likely have voted in elections. These individuals born after 2004 (who would today be 16 years of age or less) have known no other home but this. It is decidedly unjust to render them stateless and amounts to punishing them for something they had no control over – the place of their birth. The predicament of infants and children in the Assam NRC is deeply worrying.

AN: How have our citizenship laws historically grappled with (if they have at all) the statuses of women, Dalits, Adivasis, and other socially vulnerable groups?  Documentation is very  central to citizenship determination. But, as has been repeatedly pointed out, there’s a mismatch between the expectations of a formal legal regime and the sociological reality of Indians—particularly the poor, illiterate, and marginalised, who simply do not possess and cannot access any documents. And it isn’t just a question of the number and types of official documents—but the veracity of official documents themselves is constantly questioned, constantly challenged. Why is there such a pervasive suspicion of documents? Is this particularly acute in border states? Have government policies or judicial bodies taken note of this sociological reality in the context of citizenship?

NGJ: Let me phrase my response in terms of, first, a distinction between formal and substantive citizenship. The poor, minorities, Dalits, Adivasis and women belonging to all these groups enjoy the formal status of citizenship – but, for these groups, substantive citizenship, the ability to meaningfully exercise rights, is far from realized. 

Given the marginalisation and vulnerability of these groups, given the convergence between poverty and the absence of documents, and given the histories of prejudice in our society, these groups, more than others, will – through the instruments of the NRC/NPR – be pulled backwards, perhaps even deprived of the formal legal status of citizenship. For them, this would be a move from the substantively second-class citizenship they hold to formal legal second-class citizenship or worse; from an enfranchised status to potential disenfranchisement. This, if nothing else, should disturb our conscience.

Secondly, you are quite right about documents. It is a fact that the poor and disadvantaged are also historically the most poorly documented. The veracity of such documents as they possess is frequently called into question – in one case, the Bombay High Court deemed somebody’s passport as having been acquired by fraudulent means. As we saw very recently, poor people in Assam suffer the ravages of floods almost every year, and papers are regularly lost in such natural calamities. The state’s obsession with the requirement of paper as proof is one side of the coin; its habitual distrust of the authenticity of the document offered is the other.  

AN: Discussions around citizenship have primarily circled around the state’s perspective, and the state’s sovereign prerogative, in granting citizenship—which has meant debating laws, rules, and whether these laws and rules are fair or not. What does Indian citizenship mean to the various communities who are in line to receive it? What are their hopes and expectations from being conferred Indian citizenship? 

NGJ: My interviews in Rajasthan with communities – mostly Dalit and Adivasi – who had migrated from Pakistan suggests that to them Indian citizenship means just the basic paperwork to be able to get employment, send their children to school and college, access the public distribution system, get a patta for land, get an electricity connection and so forth. It had little or nothing to do with any sense of affective belonging, much less any feeling of religious identity. Those who could have got it in the citizenship camps organised by the administration often could not afford it. Even after the CAA, we will not know till the Rules are framed as to whether this fast-track citizenship will come with a hefty price tag or not.

AN: You have written that even as the years between the Partition and the present increase, we seem to be reopening, and not reconciling, the wounds and ‘divisive legacy’ of that epochal event. How do you think this affects our relationship with our neighbours? Can an ‘internal matter’ dealing with foreigners and citizens be resolved without international cooperation? 

NGJ: The CAA has already made manifest the unhappiness of our neighbours. The threat of deporting ‘illegal migrants’ to Bangladesh, led to a statement from the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in India to the effect that people from his country would prefer to swim to Italy in search of employment than to cross over to India. In fact, there is speculation that, given the impressive economic indicators of Bangladesh today, there may be less migration from Bangladesh to India now than in the reverse direction. Already, with 1.1 million illegal Indian immigrants, Bangladesh is the fifth largest sender of remittances to India. The High Commissioner of India in Bangladesh has reportedly not been given an appointment with Sheikh Hasina for four months. These incidents suggest some deterioration in a hitherto robust bilateral relationship. Afghanistan too was hurt by the insinuation that Hindus and Sikhs are persecuted in their country. In fact, some instances of persecution after the passage of the CAA have come to light. It is well known that Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities is far from good, and that untouchability is also practised against its Dalit citizens, but present day India is scarcely in a position to lecture others on the question of how minorities should be treated.

Arunima Nair is a Core Team Member at Parichay. She is a second-year LLB student at Jindal Global Law School.

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