Dissidence, legal anthropology, and citizenship

Citizenship Regimes, Law and Belonging: The CAA and the NRC by Anupama Roy, Oxford University Press, 2022,, pp.270, ₹1495.

THE pandemic brought an abrupt end to the nation-wide protests against National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), but not without leaving a trail of questions for academic debate and legal conundrums, which are yet to be resolved by the courts. Professor Anupama Roy, in this book, has pursued the academic questions with the rigour of a social scientist and anthropologist, while making clear why, according to her, the protests, and the expression of dissidence against the two controversial Acts make sense. 

The book revolves around the argument that law must be seen not only in terms of its bare provisions but also examined for its political and ideological embeddedness.  

According to the author, each citizenship regime in India – starting from the Citizenship Act of 1955, followed by amendments in 1985 and 2003 and resulting in the latest National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in Assam (2015 onwards) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 onwards – carried within it a tendency to gravitate from jus soli (citizenship by birth) to jus sanguinis (citizenship by descent). 

The author argues that the regime of documentary citizenship to prove citizenship through descent, along with the constraints on citizenship by birth, produced a regime of citizenship based on the logic of a ‘bounded’ community, based on ties of belonging to a dominant ‘we’ within a Hindutva imaginary of nationhood and citizenship.  

Thus, the author contends that the documentary regime instituted by the NRC in Assam, with the requirement to establish a clear link to  Assamese ‘legacy’ generates a form of ‘hyphenated citizenship’ within Indian citizenship.   The use of the term ‘hyphenated’ as a prefix to citizenship, according to the author, denotes a variant of citizenship that associates citizenship to an identity, which gets accommodated within common national citizenship.   The author suggests that the experience with the preparation of the NRC through a Supreme court-monitored process shows disparate strands where amidst the desire for closure of a festering issue in the state, deep uncertainties were generated as people in Assam presented themselves for registration as citizens to the NRC authorities. 

Chapter 2 in the book focusses on the category of bounded citizenship to explain the contours of the legal regime of CAA.  Citizenship instals strict walls of separation to distinguish citizens from non-citizens and establishes the association of citizenship with the idealised notion of a bounded national territory with a clearly defined community of citizens, explains the author. 

The CAA, the author explains, sought to introduce religion as a principle in making a distinction among persons – a principle that had been discussed and emphatically rejected by the Constituent Assembly of India. The NRC and CAA come together in an ideological alignment in so far as both make citizenship dependent on lineage, spelling out ideas of belonging which are tied to descent and blood ties. 

Chapter 3 of the book examines the Land Border Agreement Treaty (LBAT) of June 6, 2015 between India and Bangladesh as an example of the resolution of illegality through an agreement between the two governments to resolve long-standing disputes pertaining to the demarcation of the boundary.  The illegality referred to here is the condition of enclaved citizens who did not reside within the contiguous nation-state boundaries of either country, and for all practical purposes, were displaced persons with disputed citizenship, denied political rights, and constitutional protections, and led a precarious life of perpetual liminality.   

The author did field work, conducted at five sites in Cooch Behar district in West Bengal – three transit camps for Indian ‘returnees’ in Dinhata, Mekhliganj, and Haldibari and two chhits with ‘new citizens’, Balipukhuri, and Dhabalsati Mirgipur, in December 2016.    The author suggests that the exchange of enclaves generated split-citizenship among both the returnees and the new citizens, which was expressed through idioms of loss and betrayal.  The book is a significant contribution to legal anthropology. 

In Chapter 4, the author articulates her view – through an exploration of protests against the CAA across the country – that in contexts of dominant politics, where citizenship itself is under siege, dissidence demands restoration of equality as the non-negotiable foundational premise of democracy.  Her view is that expression of dissent in such contexts aims at enhancing the deliberative content of the law. 

The book has an implicit message to the State which has sought to victimise those who mobilised dissent against the two laws through street protests, by abusing the draconian provisions of laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which has come under critical review in recent times.