Contested Identities and Questioning of Citizenship: How the context of citizenship questions changed in the course of conducting a survey

Author: Neha Ghatpande – Savitribai Phule Pune UniversityIndia

In India, we began a Survey of Young People’s Cultural Literacy (CHIEF project, WP3) in October 2019. Until the first week of December 2019, we had covered a lot of ground.

In our experience, several students used to find the following questions ‘routine’ or almost inconsequential:

‘Were you born in India?’

Do you have ‘Indian’ citizenship?

Was your father born in India’?

Was your mother born in India?

Their reactions were usually like, ‘Why are you asking, of course Indian!”. We visited at least 5 Muslim minority schools across the three districts where these questions were also met with a casual manner.

This kind of reaction was expected. If compared to Europe, where these questions are asked pertaining to the presence of young people who are immigrants, refugees or have other nationalities, in Maharashtra, this is the not the case when it comes to the age group that we targeted for this survey.

By the second week of December 2019, we had already crossed the mark of surveying 2,000 students across 27 schools. We were looking to hit the 30 schools mark and also, include more minority schools from one of the districts.

We began conducting the survey in one of the minority schools in the third week of December 2019. We started getting a hint of unrest when one of the participants asked us,

‘Why are you asking such questions? Where have you come from?’

The reaction from students provoked the school management to intervene and ask us to stop the survey.

One of their teachers enquired,

‘Don’t you think these questions are inappropriate? these students are too young and naïve to answer them.’

(Even though they were explained the intention of the research and had read the consent forms.)

The context behind this reaction by students and teachers was the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on December 11, 2019 by the Parliament of India. This amendment provides a pathway of Indian citizenship for persecuted people from religious minorities namely Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian from three neighbouring countries- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Muslims from the said countries were not included in the list.

We did not anticipate that the above mentioned questions about citizenship, once considered casual enquiries had now become offensive or controversial, so soon after the passing of the bill.

This amendment is heavily criticised because of the religious discrimination. It is also widely protested because the ruling government had stated its intention of coupling it with the implementation of a nationwide National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) programme.

The nationwide protest against CAA and NRC began a few days before the bill was passed and kept gaining momentum. These protests saw a large number of participants from minority communities.

This experience gave us a scope of enquiry into how the issues around citizenships and identities are perceived by young people. It almost occurred as if, Citizenship was one thing that was taken for granted by young people, even those belonging to minorities. What was once perceived as a mundane enquiry had now become a contested field with suspicion and insecurity attached to it.

The following quote from a female participant who took the survey on December 9, just two days before CAA was passed certainly affirms the argument.

“The questions asked (in the survey) are tricky and a little bit awkward to answer. It directly asks about the opinion on religion, country, or caste system in India. Which I felt is not relevant and can lead to conflicts later on.”

This sudden shift in the sensitivities of young people have impacted the investigation and has opened up a much larger avenue for academic scrutiny.

About the author

Neha Ghatpande is currently working as a Project Officer for CHIEF at Savitribai Phule Pune University (India). In her professional career she has contributed to various newspapers and magazines as a journalist.