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  Opinion   Oped  29 Aug 2019  What citizenship means: IAS man’s wake-up call

What citizenship means: IAS man’s wake-up call

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.
Published : Aug 29, 2019, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Aug 29, 2019, 12:05 am IST

It is significant that Mr Gopinathan has not opposed the decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A.

Kannan Gopinathan
 Kannan Gopinathan

If actions do indeed speak louder than words, then the resignation of Kannan Gopinathan from the Indian Administrative Service is the loudest indictment of the effective abrogation of the fundamental rights of over 1.2 crore people living in what was the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and will now be the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union territory of Ladakh. By his action, Mr Gopinathan has questioned the legitimacy of majoritarain democracy. By implication, he has interrogated the decision of the majority in Parliament on August 5 to disregard the idea of constitutional restraints and reasonable restrictions.

It is significant that Mr Gopinathan has not opposed the decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A. Instead, he has challenged the validity of the majority in Parliament and the government in power to restrict the freedoms of the people through a lockdown that put thousands of people in jail and prevented for citizens access to information on the one hand, and access to goods and services because of the extended curfew on the other.

In doing so, Mr Gopinathan has raised a troubling question: What is citizenship, and what is its relationship with the State on the one hand and the government on the other. With apologies to pundits, economists and Georg Akerlof, Nobel laureate in Economics, who wrote about “peaches” and “lemons” in the used car market and the problem of quality uncertainty because of the information asymmetry between the buyer and seller, I will pilfer the idea or rather the miniscule part of it that I have understood, to try and make sense of the abrupt changes that occurred on August 5.

Access to information, or the denial of access to information, has increased the uncertainty of millions of Indians. Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh at one end, and Assam at the other, are illustrative of how the government is using information to punish or reward individuals and categories within the population.

A citizen, be she/he in Kashmir or in Assam or anywhere else in the country, has civil and political rights, including the right to participate in decision-making and the right to seek and obtain information and the right to criticise and oppose. To deny citizens, be she Mehbooba Mufti or be he Omar Abdullah, Sajjad Lone. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq or the residents of Soura in Srinagar, basic freedoms and fundamental inalienable rights, even if for a temporary period, is to reduce them to a category of persons who are not citizens.

By taking years to cull illegals from citizens through a process of vetting the information they produce is hopelessly flawed and hugely expensive in Assam. The fact that absurd inclusions and exclusions have surfaced after the list of citizens was issued in 2018 has not embarrassed the Registrar-General of India. Instead, the BJP in Assam is exercised that the NRC process has failed to identify sufficient numbers of minorities in certain districts. Therefore, to correct the errors, the Assam government has declared it will set up 400 Foreigners Tribunals to sort out the mess.

The justification of what has happened in Assam and in J&K, and I mean the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a sense of entitlement. The powers that be, meaning the political establishment, in this case the BJP armed with an electoral majority, evidently believes itself entitled to punish over and over again sections of the population in the name of the public good and peace and security by questioning their citizenship and their religion.

The Narendra Modi government has declared that October 31, coinciding with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary, will be the day when the apparatus of government in Jammu and Kashmir will change from administering a state to administering a Union territory. After taking years and years, with increasing rather than decreasing degrees of uncertainty and consequent distress, of verifying citizens from illegals in Assam, it is almost impossible to expect that the transformation in Jammu and Kashmir, including the separation of Ladakh, will get done and dusted by the deadline.

And till the paperwork is done in J&K, it is equally difficult to imagine that the lockdown will be entirely lifted and normality will be restored. The concept of normality, however liberally or restrictively it may be implemented, has no place in the order of things in either Assam or Jammu and Kashmir or wherever the Modi government perceives an enclave of political resistance that offends its political design of presiding over a “New India”.

Majoritarian democracy has set about the job of defending the nation from terrorism, malign infiltrators, malevolent critics by creating classes of who is and who is not deemed an authentic citizen. If constitutional democracy is weakened or compromised, the majority, it would seem, does not care.

Therefore, the majority government at the Centre can decide that the National Capital Territory of Delhi does not need a separate human rights commission. The assumption that the national capital’s protection of human rights can be defended by the National Human Rights Commission contains within it the idea that justice, in the form of an institutional mechanism, can be denied to the residents of Delhi, which raises another question — are these residents not quite citizens?

The threat to plunge specific parts of the country into uncertainty and consequent chaos, it seems, is a leitmotif of the BJP’s idea of governance. From branding critics as anti-nationals, which was all about perception, the BJP has moved to concrete ways in which to classify people, through the mechanism of citizenship. West Bengal is an easy choice because it shares a border with Bangladesh and cross-border movement of people, with or without papers, is a constant flow. There are other politically significant states where the BJP can raise this threat, like Tamil Nadu.

Between fake citizens and authentic citizens the idea of the citizen is in danger of being irreparably damaged. It is a threat that is sometimes loud and aggressive and at other times quiet and dormant in the political game of acquiring dominance.

Citizens are either legal or illegal. Its weaponisation for political reasons in India, in the United States and in Europe is as ominous as obvious. Globalisation is failing and nationalism is taking over.

Tags: kannan gopinathan, jammu and kashmir