The New Citizenship, part 1

Universal ID, as the past postings have suggested, is located at the crux of two imaginaries of neoliberal citizenship–security and flexibility–as revealed in the recent tussle over the nation cum database between the Indian Home (security) and Finance (transparency) Ministries. I use “neoliberal” advisedly–as many scholars and activists have pointed out, it comes in our time to stand for everything and nothing–but here it seems an inescapable frame for the citizen.

The new citizen

So what is this citizen, and why do we find ourselves compelled to speak of citizenship at a time of informalized labor migration, growing diminution of legal protections in the face of aggressive state securitization, and the marketization of rights, when the bundle of rights, responsibilities, entitlements, and protections associated with the status of citizen appear to be in question?

I want today to inaugurate a week of postings of the figure of the citizen.  Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge the smart and fearless assistanceship of Jasleen Kaur Singh, new to this blog. I will be delivering a lecture this week at Wayne State University as part of their terrific formation rethinking questions of citizenship, so in effect these posts are preparation for that conversation.

Today I will begin by engaging a piece by Anant Maringanti from EPW [the Economic and Political Weekly of India]. Jasleen, in discussing this piece with me, noted that its points are similar to those I have been working toward across these posts: that both civil and expert discourse on Aadhaar/Universal ID tends toward either inflationary claims and hype or preemptive denunciation; that “considered opinion,” as Maringanti frames it, is lacking; that at stake is a reformation of citizenship. Maringanti goes further, though, and the piece is worth attending to closely.

Of course, as soon as a number of persons begin to attend to something by claiming that no one is attending to it, a sort of contradiction or at least in Foucault’s terms a “speaker’s benefit” is being produced. So I need to be cautious in positioning myself as a heroic figure between denunciation and hype. One could argue that this is the expected position for the social scientist clothed in Weberian asceticism. Let us rather note that Maringanti and I may be part of an alternate form of emerging clamor, one that in claiming the middle ground may not be attending to other, non-scholarly mediations of these conditions of investment and alarm.

Or perhaps I may wish to leave Maringanti out of my auto-critique: it is a very thoughtful piece.

He outlines his approach as follows:

1) identify the broad contours of the state-citizenship debate specifically in India but also more generally in the global circuits of knowledge;

(2) establish the disruptions and the continuities in the state-citizenship relationship signalled by the UIDAI; and

(3) suggest the key features of the emerging terrain of politics implied by the UIDAI.

First, therefore, a mapping of “the state-citizenship debate”: of note is its quire recent emergence, at least within the archives of the EPW:  “it was not until the National Democratic Alliance attempted to introduce the Uniform Civil Code in the late 1990s that the “citizen” as both a substantive and formal category begin to appear in the archives of Economic & Political Weekly. Increasingly concerned about the nature of the expanding “civil society”, and the dilemmas of secularism, historians and sociologists first began to debate “citizenship” in the EPW during 1998-99.”

For this blog, therefore, we may need to turn to the moment toward which Maringanti directs our attention, and to how and why, in India and perhaps elsewhere, the figure of the citizen always calls attention to the figure of “secularism.”

His brief characterization of the debate suggests the emergence of a new attention to “difference” within the universalizing presumptions of secular liberalism: “the debate was marked by sharp differences and tensions that are all too familiar now: the value of post-Enlightenment modernity and universal ideals on the one hand, and the opportunities that are presented by postmodernist perspectives that valorise difference.”

To slightly reframe my last comment: we may need to ask how and why the citizen emerges in relation to a figure of postmodernity. But this question may only interest an old postmodernist like myself.

Maringanti then turns to a 1999 article by the sociologist André Beteille challenging social scientists writing about India for their failure to explore the question of citizenship (apparently oblivious of the 1998-99 flurry of writing to which Maringanti calls attention): Maringanti suggests the challenge was not fair, as “citizenship was a received category in India from western liberal democracies, and in a context where liberal democracy obtained more in form than in substance, political theorists did not really find it to be the most productive avenue for critical intervention.”

Where it was productive (thus the flurry) was in response to the centrality of Hindutva (the so-called Hindu Right) repositioning of the character of the citizen-subject and its form of belonging. Maringanti suggests that the recapture of national-level governance by an alliance led by the Congress Party under Sonia Gandhi, and the persistence of the latter in power for much of the past decade, once again allows the pointed concern with citizenship to recede.

But if Maringanti is correct, the anodyne quality of Congress leadership, its apparent ability to defuse a conversation on the (religiously marked) citizen, is worth thinking with.

In this regard, the shift in the imaginary of Universal ID from Security to the promotion of de-duplicated and efficient Flexibility is worth attending to. One could argue, in attending to the critiques I have discussed of the state’s apparent refusal (in its creating a new register of the biometrically authenticated mobile resident-citizen) to address the presumptive incursion of the Bangaleshi migrant, that an earlier 1990s dualism organizing national politics as a contest between secular promise and religious self-respect is replaced by a dualism of flexibility versus security. This seems far too simple (not the least as Congress rule has been characterized by a plethora of duplicate-based scams), and would require close attention to recent political speech at many levels of scale, but for the moment I will keep it in play.

In the next posting I will continue with Anant Maringanti’s article.


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