Skip to main content


Niraja Gopal Jayal
Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Niraja Gopal Jayal
whose book CITIZENSHIP AND ITS DISCONTENTS: AN INDIAN HISTORY (Permanent Black and Harvard University Press, 2013) has been published to profuse critical acclaim, is interviewed here by 

Madhav Khosla

Madhav Khosla (PhD Candidate, Department of Government, Harvard University).

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 citizenship 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?
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 me in any discernible way, are Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India.  


  Citizenship and Its Discontents

An Indian History

Breaking new ground in scholarship, this is the first history of citizenship in India.

Unlike the mature democracies of the West, India began as a true republic of equals with a complex architecture of citizenship rights that was sensitive to the many hierarchies of Indian society. In this provocative biography of the defining aspiration of modern India, Jayal shows how the progressive civic ideals embodied in the constitution have been challenged by exclusions based on social and economic inequality, and sometimes also, paradoxically, undermined by its own policies of inclusion.

Citizenship and Its Discontents explores a century of contestations over citizenship from the colonial period to the present, analysing evolving conceptions of citizenship as legal status, as rights, and as identity.

The early optimism that a new India could be fashioned out of an unequal and diverse society led to a formally inclusive legal membership, an impulse to social and economic rights, and group-differentiated citizenship. Today, these policies to create a civic community of equals are losing support in a climate of social intolerance and weak solidarity.

Once seen by Western political scientists as an anomaly, India today is a site where every major theoretical debate about citizenship is being enacted in practice, and one that no global discussion of the subject can afford to ignore.

“The idea of citizenship in India promised inclusive community, but the country's enlivened politics have transformed that promise into a more fragmentary, divisive reality. In this magisterial analytic history, Niraja Gopal Jayal maps for the first time the concept's vicissitudes, and makes an essential contribution to our understanding of contemporary India and of political theory.”—Sunil Khilnani, King’s India Institute

“A contribution to our understanding of citizenship and democracy in India that is empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated.”—Amrita Basu, Amherst College

Hardback / 376pp / Rs 795.00 / ISBN 81-7824-371-7 / South Asia rights


Popular posts from this blog


Indians have been writing prose for 200 years, and yet when we think of literary prose we think of the novel. The “essay”   brings only the school essay to mind. Those of us who read and write English in India might find it hard to name an essay even by someone like R.K. Narayan as easily as we would one of his novels, say Swami and Friends or The Guide . Our inability to recall essays is largely due to the strange paradox that while the form itself remains invisible, it is everywhere present. The paradox becomes even more strange when we realise that some of our finest writers of English prose  did not write novels at all, they wrote essays. The anthology is an attempt at making what has always been present also permanently visible. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra   • A collection of the finest essays written in English by Indians over the past two hundred years. • The Book of Indian Essays is a wide-ranging historical anthology of the Indian essay in English – the f


BUY THE PAPERBACK       FROM THE REVIEWS   Review in SOCIAL HISTORY, USA by Benjamin Siegel The Great Agrarian Conquest represents a massive intervention into the contemporary historiography of South Asia, elaborating upon some conventional wisdom but upending a great deal more of it. Readers might well place this book in conversation with works like Ranajit Guha ’ s A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963) and Bernard Cohn ’ s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what Bhattacharya o ff ers is a wholly original account of the transformation to agrarian colonialism . . .   Few volumes in South Asian history have been more awaited than this monograph, Neeladri Bhattacharya ’ s fi rst. One of the most celebrated mentors and researchers at New Delhi ’ s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Bhattacharya retired in 2017 after a decades-long career. His formal scholarly output, limited to sev


"While the Covid-19 pandemic was still raging in the autumn of 2020, I found, one evening, placed outside the door of my home in Kolkata, a sealed packet. Apparently, it had been left there sometime during the day. It did not come by post or any of the courier services that usually deliver mail because, if it had, someone would have rung the bell and I was home all day. In fact, the parcel did not bear any seal or inscription except my name and address written in English script in a confident cursive style rarely seen these days. My curiosity was aroused because the package did not look like a piece of junk mail. The thought that it might contain something more sinister did strike my mind – after all, the times were not exactly normal. But something in the look of the packet persuaded me that it should be examined. After dutifully spraying the packet with a disinfectant, I unwrapped it and found, within cardboard covers and neatly tied in red string, what looked like a manuscript