Differing Conceptions of Citizenship: Nehru, Gandhi and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)

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In December 2019, the Parliament of India passed a law entitled the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA, endorsed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, essentially excludes Muslim immigrants from neighboring countries from obtaining Indian citizenship, while the law offers pathways to citizenship for immigrants belonging to other faiths.[1] This law marks a radical shift in how citizenship is defined in India and challenges India’s secular foundational principles. Analyzing the specific ways that citizenship in India has evolved historically may provide insight into what it means to be both an Indian and a citizen in a broader sense.

In the 1947 Partition of India, the British split their former colony into two nations: Pakistan and India. During the decolonization process, both nations had to determine the ideals that would guide their respective countries. In India, leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned a state founded upon the principle of secularism, in which nationality is not linked to religion. This concept was extended to citizenship, which was to be granted to anyone born in India, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. However, Gandhi and Nehru’s views of citizenship differed in some respects, and both conflicted with the undercurrents of ethno-nationalism promulgated by Hindu nationalist groups and leaders.

Gandhi’s conception of citizenship can largely be defined by one concept: “Swaraj,” or self-rule. Self-rule, in Gandhi’s vision, means that “everyone is his own ruler,” and is a self-realized individual, separate from any groups to which they may belong.[2] Gandhi asserted the autonomy of the individual, separate from their relationship with the state. If a state was unjust, Gandhi believed citizens had a “sacred duty” to civil disobedience, revealing how citizenship to him was not only a concept detached from the state, but in some cases, could be defined in opposition to it.[3] Additionally, according to Gandhi, the rights of a citizen were not simply granted to them, but were derived from the exercise of their duties as a citizen. The role of the state is minimal, providing only basic necessities, with the burden of rule falling on the individual. In Gandhi’s definition, therefore, citizenship is not simply a status, but is a myriad of practices, requiring constant negotiations and renegotiations of power and is defined individually rather than as a relationship to the state.

Gandhi’s model of self-rule was markedly different from competing contemporary theories of citizenship, which prioritized the protection of rights over the exercise of duties and tied citizenship to an individual’s relationship to the state. For Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first Prime Minister, the state’s role was to safeguard certain individual rights in pursuit of a common good. Thus, citizenship to Nehru was associated with promoting national unity, defined in universal and secular terms, rather than self-reliance. An interventionist economy, which provided social services for all, was preferable to Nehru over the decentralized approach preferred by Gandhi. However, both Nehru and Gandhi saw the importance of treating citizens as individuals, rather than as members of groups.[4]

The “ethno-nationalist” model of citizenship competed with the views of Gandhi and Nehru. This theory captures citizenship in terms of membership to a larger cultural, religious, or ethnic group. Those who subscribe to this model in the Indian context view the country as an intrinsically Hindu nation, just as Pakistan is viewed as a distinctly Islamic nation. Therefore, this ethno-nationalist definition is in opposition to the secularism and individualism promoted by both Gandhi and Nehru. One organization, called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which roughly translates to “National Volunteer Organization, played a particularly important role in promoting the paradigm of Hindu ethno-nationalism. The RSS adheres to an ideology known as “Hindutva,” which advocates for cultural homogeny in India.[5] To the RSS, citizenship is defined not by a relationship of the individual to the state, but rather by an individual’s identity and membership in a group.

Following the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, Nehru was elected as Prime Minister of India. Because Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of the RSS, Nehru’s government banned the ethno-nationalist group, and many of its leaders were arrested. Gandhi’s assassination resulted in the dominance of Nehru’s idea of citizenship for many years thereafter. The state centrally planned much of the economy, establishing its role as a body which provided necessities to citizens, who in turn pledged their allegiance to the state. This relationship largely was maintained in following administrations, further establishing the legitimacy of Nehru’s definition of citizenship. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, became Prime Minister of India in 1966 and expanded upon her father’s model of citizenship. In an amendment to the Preamble of the Constitution, Indira Gandhi explicitly used the word “secular” to define India, and in Article 51A, she delineated ten basic duties of every citizen. These duties included protecting “the unity and integrity of India” and promoting “a spirit of common brotherhood, transcending sectional diversities.”[6] Thus, the universalist, national, and secular definition of Indian citizenship was formally institutionalized.

However, India has recently experienced a growing wave of nationalism, best represented by the success of the Hindu nationalist BJP party. A myriad of factors account for the growth of the BJP, as well as nationalist parties worldwide, but among them are dissatisfaction with the political establishment, a desire for greater economic growth, and a wish to restore “authentic” cultural values. These factors contributed to the success of the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and allowed him to pursue a Hindu nationalist agenda. As represented by laws such as the CAA, which excludes immigrants based on their faith, India is now moving towards an ethnonationalist definition of citizenship, defined by religious affiliation and ethnic identity.

These developments are concerning for a number of reasons. By defining citizenship in terms of group membership, India is abandoning the secular principles of its Constitution. Furthermore, this shift is diminishing the ability of individuals to be active participants in democracy, by perceiving their desires through the identities to which they belong. Both Gandhi and Nehru correctly recognized that citizenship should be defined as individualistic, universal, and a process, rather than a status. India should not abandon this ideal today.

Works Cited

Cage, Monkey. “In India, thousands are protesting the new citizenship law. Here are 4

things to know.” The Washington Post. Last modified December 31, 2019. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/31/india-thousands-are-protesting-new-citizenship-law-here-are-things-know/.

Government of India. “Original edition with original artwork – The Constitution of

India.” November 26, 1949. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/2672/view/1/1/.

Patnaik, Prabhat. “Fascism of our times.” Social Scientist 21, no. 3-4 (1993): 69–77.

Shani, Ornit. “Gandhi, citizenship and the resilience of Indian nationhood.” Citizenship

Studies 15, no. 6-7 (2011): 659–678.


[1] Monkey Cage, “In India, thousands are protesting the new citizenship law. Here are 4 things to know,” The Washington Post, last modified December 31, 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/31/india-thousands-are-protesting-new-citizenship-law-here-are-things-know/.

[2] Ornit Shani, “Gandhi, citizenship and the resilience of Indian nationhood,” Citizenship Studies 15, no. 6-7 (2011): 659–678.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Prabhat Patnaik, “Fascism of our times,” Social Scientist 21, no. 3-4 (1993): 69–77.

[6] Government of India, “Original edition with original artwork – The Constitution of India,” November 26, 1949, https://www.wdl.org/en/item/2672/view/1/1/.