Niraja Gopal Jayal speaks to Madhav Khosla about her book, Citizenship and its Discontents
Q1. It is sometimes felt that a strictly legal conception of citizenship, as it were, can work against more participatory forms of citizenship. Do you feel that some inclusionary forms of citizenship are reflections of deeper failures?
A1. That, in a sense, is my point of departure in this book: equality is the premise and the promise of citizenship, but it is also, and precisely because of this aspiration to equality, an embattled and endlessly contested political project. Take legal citizenship: it is certainly true that the denial of legal citizenship can be gravely unjust, but its affirmation in law can also be worth little or nothing. As far as inclusionary forms of citizenship are concerned, it rather depends on what sort of inclusion is attempted and which inequalities the polity seeks to redress. We may be, and frequently are, satisfied with symbolic inclusion, without however aspiring to address the much larger challenge of structural inequalities which hold the key to equal citizenship.
Having said that, legal citizenship should properly be seen as a first, necessary, but far from sufficient condition of a robust conception of political membership. This applies to immigrants in affluent societies as much as to those who are nominally citizens in their own country but so desperately poor or discriminated against that their citizenship has little real purchase. The impediments to participation are not exclusively from legal conceptions of citizenship, but they can also emanate from the denial of membership in the political community.
Q2. Much of the current discourse around citizenship in India focuses on rights and their expansion. Do you think that India needs to be more circumspect in this regard – and that the enthusiasm with which matters are being set in stone might, as Bentham had famously feared, hold the potential for giving rise to illiberal outcomes?
A2. To the extent that Bentham was suspicious of natural rights, and saw rights purely as creatures of law, the current predilection (of both state and civil society) to give legal and even constitutional status to social rights, with no antecedent moral principles being corralled to justify them, can quite cheerfully cohabit with Bentham’s view. However, the real question is about whether we run the risk of illiberal outcomes with rights being cast in stone, and the question seems to imply that social and economic rights run this risk more than, say, civil or political rights, which are deeply and foundationally liberal. So, to return to the question of social and economic rights, thirty years ago this could have been quite easily answered with a nod in the direction of the then Soviet Union. Today, however, this is considerably more complicated. Except for those who altogether dismiss rights as appendages of bourgeois modernity, the interconnections and interdependencies between different types of rights have become stronger, whether in international covenants or in some of the new constitutions of the Global South. If anything, with new forms of state censorship on literary and artistic work, and of state surveillance using sophisticated technology, it seems that it is the civil and political rights and freedoms that underpin liberal politics that are endangered. Today, the possibility of illiberal outcomes appears less likely to emanate from social rights (to the implementation of which there are not only serious structural impediments, but also bureaucratic and social resistance) and more from the new forms of governmentality, and – literally – new technologies of rule.
Q3. In many countries, citizens, in any particular endeavour, are not reduced to a single identity. At the same time, however, the law itself does not focus on management through identities. The very idea is that one need not speak through one’s identity. What you do feel should be the relationship between immutable identities and citizenship?
A3. I think what you are describing in these countries is really the French ideal type of the past. The politics of multiculturalism of the last quarter-century suggest otherwise. I think it is important to recognize that this emphasis on the immutability of identities, and on conceptions of citizenship mediated by identity, is something in which citizens and states are complicit. There is a pact between states (who are eager to ‘identify’ their citizens and govern them additionally through laws that recognize identity) and citizens or their community leaderships which make these claims on the state. In such a context, the idea of a civic identity seems either terribly retro or politically incorrect.
I do believe that something valuable is lost when the civic identity completely drops out of the project of citizenship, but that does sadly seem to be the way things are in the present. The Occupy movements did seem to herald some possibility of change, but eventually turned out to be rather shortlived. Ultimately, a civic identity must be not only about identity, but also about solidarity, and civic solidarity is essential to crafting consensus on, say, redistributive strategies for a more equal citizenship.
Q4. Do you feel that the contests within identity groups merely represent new forms of elite power capture, and that the poor remain potatoes in a sack – unable to speak to one another or mobilize together? Does a focus on immutability run the risk of turning our gaze away from class, and those who truly lack the capacity to participate as citizens?
A4. It is very difficult to objectively distinguish between the genuine claims of oppressed identities and those that represent forms of mobilization for elite capture. The political scientists’ binary of primordialism vs constructivism simply cannot answer all questions. It is however true that the more strident claims are often made by leaders of already empowered groups that have learnt how to leverage identities by linking them to political and economic opportunity. This has, as we know, generated incentives for the invention of new identities. In that the state is the first and last port of call for arbitrating identities, we have not strayed too far from the colonial script. As for class, it is astonishing that despite the obvious and compelling overlap between class and horizontal inequalities, both citizens and the state are equally invested in the latter, and tend equally to disregard the convergence between them.
Q5. On a more personal note, can you us a little bit about your journey into this topic, both from your important earlier work, Democracy and the State (1999), and more generally? And, if possible, what we might expect your next project to be?
A5. The journey from Democracy and the State was fairly straightforward, though long and punctuated. In that book, I had argued that the quality of Indian democracy should be assessed in terms of its ability to provide for the meaningful exercise of the rights of citizenship. So the next logical question clearly was: what are rights of citizenship, and is citizen
ship about more than rights. This book attempts to answer both those questions. Going forward, I would like to explore a bit more the implications of the theoretical hollowing out of the state, which is at least partly an outgrowth of some of the citizenship literature and its fascination with transnationalism and cosmopolitanism. My worry is that while the questioning of borders and normative nationalism is very appealing, it can also be a little irresponsible because cosmopolitanism does not offer any convincing answers to problems of poverty, hunger, and disease, even as it lets the state off the hook completely. Q6. (publisher’s question) Could you list a few of the books that have stimulated your ideas and intellectual directions? A6. It is hard to identify a handful of books that have influenced my intellectual formation. Two books
that made me turn to the study of Indian politics in the 1980s were Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse and Atul Kohli’s The State and Poverty in India. I derive aesthetic pleasure from novels that are unusually structured, and speak to contemporary problems through history. Two of my all-time favourites in this genre are Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio and Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land. This may also explain why the books that I have hugely admired, without their necessarily having influenced m
e in any discernible way, are Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India.