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Book Reviews

Book Review: 'On Citizenship' By Romila Thapar, N Ram, Gautam Bhatia and Gautam Patel

Hamza Lakdawala
28 Feb 2021 12:28 PM GMT
Book Review: On Citizenship By Romila Thapar, N Ram, Gautam Bhatia and Gautam Patel
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The passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 sparked widespread protests across the country. Overnight, citizenship became one of the most discussed issues in India. Online portals dumped op-eds and TV news debates pitted party spokespersons against each other – CAA was what everybody was talking about. And while citizenship was being discussed, not many knew enough about it....

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The passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 sparked widespread protests across the country. Overnight, citizenship became one of the most discussed issues in India. Online portals dumped op-eds and TV news debates pitted party spokespersons against each other – CAA was what everybody was talking about. And while citizenship was being discussed, not many knew enough about it. While lawyers, historians, and journalists tried to bring nuance to the conversation, much of the public discourse was superficial. As Covid-19 spread across borders and forced all CAA-NRC-related protests to suspend indefinitely, the CAA-NRC discussion faded from our news cycles. And while over a year has passed, the fact that most know very little about India's citizenship remains unchanged. On Citizenship aims to change that.

On Citizenship is the latest book in a series published by Aleph Book Company in which eminent writers and thinkers comment on some of the most pressing issues facing India today. The book examines the key aspects of what constitutes citizenship in India and explores the historical context necessary to understand how the issue of citizenship has evolved in the world's largest democracy. To be clear, this is not exactly a 'review', but rather an overview of a book that extensively covers an issue that has lately been the subject of furious debate and controversial decisions by the government in power. The book contains 4 chapters - each authored by historian Romila Thapar, editor and political commentator N. Ram, legal scholar and writer Gautam Bhatia, and jurist Gautam Patel respectively.

In her essay, 'The Right to be a Citizen', the historian Romila Thapar examines the history behind the concept of being a citizen and explains how it evolved into the legal concept that we today recognize as citizenship. Thapar writes, 'The historical change of the lower orders of society, from slave to serf to subject and finally to citizen was recognized as a change from having virtually no rights to having rights as well as the right to assert these rights, as one political theorist expressed it. In the relationship between the individual and the state, citizenship was no longer limited to categories of the elite but included every member of the nation, by birth, descent, and by other means.' Thapar also explains how the world wars, the Indian independence movement, religious nationalism, and the turmoil during partition impacted the nation's outlook towards citizenship.

In 'The Evolving Politics of Citizenship in Republican India', the editor and political commentator N. Ram presents the political history of citizenship in India. N. Ram starts his inquiry from the Independence struggle. He goes on and explores the partition, Citizenship Act of 1955, the 1985 Assam Accord, the origins of the NRC, the 2003 Amendment of the Citizenship Act, the latest Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, and everything in between. His years of experience in journalism are evident as he examines how 'a citizenship regime that began brightly, despite difficult historical circumstances, with the making of a transformative Constitution founded on the principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity has become the arbitrary, undemocratic, biased, and surveillance-oriented regime that we encounter today.'

In 'Citizenship and the Constitution', legal scholar and writer Gautam Bhatia dives into the Constituent Assembly Debates to explore the original intent of the framers, and to show how the Assembly envisioned Citizenship – like the fundamental rights, the directive principles, the federal structure, and the rest of the Constitution—were part of a coherent web of principle, not single strands floating in the air. Bhatia presents a compelling case to prove that religion cannot become a basis for citizenship. He writes, "There were some in the Assembly who suggested that the only way to meet this moment was, like Pakistan, to model Indianness on religious lines, and to treat India as a default homeland for some identities—but not others. The stakes were clear, and the Constituent Assembly turned down that proposal. Even as it drafted, worked, and reworked provisions to deal with the largest human exodus in history, it did not let go of the constitutional commitment to universal citizenship, and to civic rather than religious or ethnic nationalism."

The essay by jurist Gautam Patel, 'Past Imperfect, Future Tense', looks at the relationship between citizenship and fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution. He recounts decisions like Korematsu vs United States by the United States Supreme Court and Liversidge vs Anderson by the United Kindom's House of Lords to shine a light on how courts around the world have legitimized state-sponsored racial discrimination and violations of civil liberties. Gautam Patel also examines the various decisions delivered by the Indian Supreme Court in the context of fundamental rights and personal liberty. He ends his essay with these thought-provoking words: "We look back in anger. We look forward in trepidation. For we have faltered before. We cannot afford another misstep. At stake is something so vital, so fundamental, so taken for granted that we risk missing it altogether: the idea of India. Sooner or later, our courts and we must face the most terrible judgment of all—the judgment of history. We should not be found wanting."

It is seldom that the works of people from such diverse backgrounds sit together so harmoniously. Collectively, the essays in On Citizenship provide a clear and comprehensive understanding of citizenship in India. The book is well structured and flows naturally – each essay lays the foundation for the next one. Not only do the authors deliver well-researched facts, but they also share personal insights that they have collected over the years. The book aims not to persuade its readers to adopt a particular view but rather toils to enable the readers to reach an informed conclusion by supplying clarity on the law and historical context. One can confidently conclude that the book is destined to be a go-to source for anyone who wished to understand the history behind, and the issues surrounding citizenship in India.

The book is available for purchase here: https://amzn.to/3pAEQIK

[Hamza Lakdawala is an aspiring litigator, researcher, and writer from Mumbai. He studied Journalism at Mumbai University and is currently pursuing his LL.B. at Kishinchand Chellaram Law College, Mumbai. He tweets at @hamzamlakdawala]


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