Who Is an Indian?

The question facing the country 70 years after it became a republic is similar to that from decades prior.

People hold signs and India's national flag during a protest in New Delhi, India.
Demonstrators protest against the new citizenship law in New Delhi, India. (Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)

India houses more democratic citizens than any other country in the world. But for weeks, it has been in the throes of an intense argument over who those citizens should be. The passage of a new citizenship law that treats non-Muslims from three neighboring countries differently from Muslim ones has sparked much outrage. Yet even though this law is new—and arguably the single largest blow to India’s secular character—debates over the country’s religious and ethnic diversity, over how its people should be defined and identified, have been part of India’s history for more than a century. Seventy years on from the implementation of its constitution, a central question continues to vex the country: Who is an Indian?

The circumstances surrounding India’s birth—the partition of British India into two separate countries, India and Pakistan—are well known. The hurried withdrawal of the British Raj, the movement of millions across borders, and the ensuing displacement and violence have been unpacked and interrogated for decades. The philosophical context of the event is less appreciated, though. The division of British India marked a constitutional failure of gigantic proportions, underlining a breakdown over how to navigate identity and a failure to agree on the political form by which India’s millions should be represented.

India’s diversity is unique—it has long had the world’s second-largest Muslim population—but the question it is dealing with, of what makes a citizen, poses a challenge for democracies around the world. With battles over immigration and citizenship, membership and belonging, acquiring intensity not only in India but also in the United States and Europe, it is worth asking whether, as India’s founders felt, the ultimate solution will be found not in some ideal pact among communities but rather in a system where one is treated as an individual. That is, an arrangement in which Indians would not be seen as simply members of a particular community, be it a religion or caste. This is hard to achieve, and requires constant political work. The equality promised would demand the intense suppression of one’s instincts and impulses, but holds the possibility of creating a self-sustaining politics.

Imperial rulers consistently saw India as a collection of groups, and Indians as people without a past and without a future. The territory was not populated by individuals who could deliberate, form opinions, exercise judgments, and make choices, but by fixed and permanent identities. They were not free agents but rather members of a group—Hindu or Muslim, Brahmin or Dalit—people condemned to communities whose interests were predetermined. The task of political life was to manage tensions among these groups, to discover some kind of balance among distinct categories of people, rather than people themselves.

This way of thinking cast a deep imprint on Indian political thought. In the years preceding the end of the British empire, few efforts were made to reimagine political representation in a way that focused on individual freedom. Historians have, for example, long debated the real intentions that drove Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan: Did Jinnah seek a separate nation-state, an independent homeland for Muslims, or did he instead seek more power within a single united country? For those who believe the latter claim, the birth of Pakistan is seen less as the product of a clear ideology and more as an unintended consequence of political negotiations that went astray.

If one focuses not on territoriality but on representation, it becomes clear that regardless of whether Jinnah wanted one nation or two, he certainly saw Hindus and Muslims differently. He famously observed that whether one considered “culture and civilization” or “customs and calendar,” Muslims had a “distinctive outlook on life and of life.” For Jinnah, irrespective of how the matter of territory was to be settled, citizenship was to be mediated through one’s community. Hindus and Muslims were to be seen as Hindus and Muslims, rather than as individuals who happened to be Hindu or Muslim.

The idea that Muslims were a distinct community was pervasive. From Syed Ahmed Khan, the preeminent South Asian Muslim intellectual of the 19th century, onward, Muslim leaders undertook a widespread effort to draw a line between one’s political commitments and one’s religious faith. Even for Abul Kalam Azad, an important voice for Hindu-Muslim unity and a senior leader in the Indian National Congress—the party of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—the question of belonging was often framed in religious terms.

Other political thinkers didn’t make much progress in framing national belonging as separate from religion either. Hindu nationalists such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and M. S. Golwalkar—heroes in India’s current political climate—spoke in universal terms, but their universalism was predicated on all true Indians being Hindu. Savarkar emphasized neither geography nor birth, but rather “common blood” underlying the cultural and social practices that tied Hindus together. Muslims, he felt, could never make India their homeland. Their gaze was “ever turned towards Mecca and Medina,” and they were “often found to cherish an extra-territorial allegiance.” For him, as for Golwalkar, national unity lay in underlining the similarities that Hindus shared and their differences with others.

The Indian National Congress, the party behind India’s struggle for independence, saw citizenship very differently. Even though it rejected communalism, it did not quite put forth any positive idea of representation centered on the individual. At the time of the independence movement, Nehru distracted from the problem, seeing tensions among communities as reflections of underlying economic conflicts. In his mind, there was no real problem to address. For Mahatma Gandhi, the emphasis was on political practice, on the power of example. He sought unity and held a radical view of individual agency, but his answer was a noninstitutional one. It did not involve any theory of representation.

The partition of British India changed all this. The event captured how a politics structured around competing identity claims was unsustainable. For decades, Indians had responded to the claims of different communities with proposals ranging from political quotas to separate electorates. But the division of territory revealed the instability of such solutions—the only answer to the competing claims was a new nation. It was, as Jinnah made clear, the conversion of a minority group into a majority. Partition displayed how any framework centered on identity would fail to satisfy everyone. The only solution could lie in moving to a new representative system, one centered on individuals who could participate as free agents and create and re-create majorities and minorities within the crucible of politics.

Today, as India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its constitution, the document’s liberal vision is under serious challenge. To be sure, the decline of constitutional principles has been steady, perhaps in motion ever since the death of Nehru, India’s prime minister for its first 17 years and the man who cemented the principles of liberal democracy. But the test at present is perhaps as serious as it has ever been. India has faced the dangers of an authoritarian state before, most notably during the 1970s, when then–Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency. Yet it has never seen such a direct attack on the idea of individual citizenship; it has never witnessed the legislative remaking of the nation along religious and community lines.

In India’s current situation, the colonial model of citizenship has come back with a vengeance. The people have been viewed as having preset interests; they have been defined as permanent majorities and minorities. Their preferences are taken to be fixed matters that exist outside the domain of politics. And the nation faces the same challenge it did a century ago—it lacks a robust political alternative in which citizenship is imagined and defended on individual terms. Though the social unrest that has spread across India in recent weeks has been genuine and extensive, a new political vision has yet to emerge.

For the makers of India’s constitution, who strove to create democracy in a country that had long been regarded as unfit for it, the promise of self-rule was that a person’s interests were not predetermined. Rather than being divined on the basis of one’s identity, they would instead be formulated and reformulated in politics. The democratic ideal enabled the idea of majorities and minorities to be ever changing, constantly subject to alignment and realignment. Such a vision could liberate individuals from prior associations and allegiances, and create new loyalties.

The idea that one’s preferences were not imposed from either above or below was a modern one; it marked a departure from the ancient and medieval world where one’s choices were not exercised but assumed. As India’s republic turns 70, many of its citizens are wondering whether it can become modern again.