Let us look at two historic events with profound significance to the idea of India. What better occasion would there be than the threshold of the 70th Republic Day to critique our ideas of nationhood and citizenship.
Scene One: Constituent Assembly of India (August 11, 1949)
PD Deshmukh, member of Constituent Assembly moved his proposal on citizenship and made a strong plea on following lines, “----- by the mere fact that he is a Hindu or a Sikh, he should get Indian citizenship. If the Muslims want an exclusive place for themselves called Pakistan, why should not Hindus and Sikhs have India as their home? We merely say that we have no other country to look to for acquiring citizenship rights and therefore we the Hindus and the Sikhs so long as we follow the respective religions, should have the right of citizenship in India ----"
The Constituent Assembly discussed at length on all aspects of the issue, giving opportunity for different shades of opinions to be aired and deliberated with dignity and mutual respect. Then the Assembly voted out the sectarian view on citizenship. The Assembly comprising elected representatives and nominees of Princely States rejected the idea of citizenship based on religion and adopted a liberal, inclusive definition where religion had no place in determining citizenship.
Scene Two: Lok Sabha (December 10, 2019)
Well after half a century of those comprehensive deliberations, the Government of India introduced a Bill in the Parliament to amend the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to the illegal immigrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian religions from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have been living in India without documentation. They are being extended the opportunity to be granted citizenship on the ground of being persecuted minorities from our neighbouring countries which were part of undivided India. Apparently, a magnanimous gesture of large-heartedness to the suffering fellow human beings facing existential crisis, but the deliberate exclusion of Muslims from the list raised eyebrows about the propriety and constitutional validity of the idea. A patently exclusionary legislation in an avowedly secular nation did seem anachronistic to many right-thinking citizens in India and abroad.
The controversial bill was passed after barely 12 hours of debate in Lok Sabha. The Upper House (Rajya Sabha) cleared the Bill even more briskly in 6 hours in spite of the ruling dispensation falling short of majority. The subject matter of this controversial legislation was the very idea debated and rejected by Constituent Assembly even before the adoption of the Constitution.
The contrast between these two scenarios, fifty years apart in time triggers an uncomfortable question about the maturity and resilience of our representative democracy. Well-studied and logically phrased debates, discussions, counter proposals and consensus building which lasted for hours were the hallmarks of the Constituent Assembly proceedings; that was an age when political leadership was driven by passion for nation building and deep empathy for the people at large. The current scenario of hurried and tactical debates and the mechanical rush to push through legislations is symptomatic of an alarming competence deficit in democratic governance.
By the way, both nationalism and citizenship as concepts are getting attuned to the emerging millennial mindset. In the context of the networked society that we live, the very concept of nationalism is substantially virtual, diffused and more economic than emotional. The trend of global migration for residence and employment shows key economic motivators for people to move to societies which seem more promising and sustainable for them and their offspring. In the globalized world, it is alright to feel nostalgic charm about traditional roots; yet narrow geographical nationalism has limited appeal to the millennial generation. The future would see more and more global citizens.
Governance effectiveness is increasingly being recognized as a key differentiator in making nations into winners, losers and ‘also ran’ types. Citizen competence has become an intensely researched and debated topic in liberal democracies around the world in recent times. The term ‘citizen competence’ means quite simply the ability of the individual citizen to understand politics and to participate in democratic governing. The leadership competence of the elected representatives is an integral part of citizen competence.
Competence is inherently a behavioural process and a competent society is one where the significant majority of citizens demonstrate behaviours indicative of healthy values and positive interfaces. Empathy is at the core of social competence.
A competent citizen should have basic knowledge about the constitution, democratic governance structure and processes. He should also have a fair knowledge about different political ideologies and political parties. In many of the Western liberal democracies, citizen education has been incorporated in the national curriculum.
Every citizen who is 18 years old on the qualifying date - unless disqualified for valid reasons - is eligible to be enrolled as a voter in India. Low political awareness and indifference to citizen rights and privileges and lack of social orientation explain the low voting percentage and political participation of significant number of people especially in the Hindi heartland.
A structured and objective citizen competence building program should become the part of Secondary School education. There should be a nation-wide capacity building program for citizen education for general public as well. The challenges for implementing a citizen education program across India are manifold.
Firstly, education is in the concurrent list of the Constitution and it requires consensus building among stakeholders to evolve an acceptable model of school curriculum for citizen competence.
Secondly, over the past few years, the political scenario in India has been so fragmented and vitiated that trust and mutual respect among different shades of political opinion are nearly impossible to re-establish at this point. Any proposal from the Government is bound to be received with cynicism and suspicion in the prevailing circumstances. Over the years the political process and associated citizen behaviours have become enormously subjective and self-serving. Identity politics, feudal power dynamics and increased instances of exclusionary tactics by parties and leaders have substantially weakened the possibilities for shared vision and consensus on core strategic issues of governance.
Thirdly, ideological intolerance has reached toxic levels in Indian polity. A competent society would provide political space for the right, the left and the centre. When that doesn’t happen, the fringe elements emerge and hijack the agenda. Ultra-right and ultra-left are both aberrations to a competent and healthy political culture.
There is simply no doubt that we are at an inflection point and it is time for informed and empowered citizens should take on a more active role in repairing the damage to the political sensibilities. A well-structured and effectively delivered Citizen Competence Building Program would turn the current political culture on its head – servant leaders would emerge from the pool of informed and empowered citizens. The design and delivery of a citizen education framework should focus on political sensitisation. It should reinforce the core values such as scientific temperament and objectivity, empathy for fellow human beings, ability to manage diversity and flexibility.
How do we ensure an objective and effective citizen education program in the Indian context? The ideal agency that has the stature, credibility and authority to oversee and implement such a massive and sensitive program is the Election Commission. The success of the experiment would depend upon the maturity and big picture perspective that political parties would demonstrate.
Secondary school level citizen development should focus on knowledge building, skill development and behavioural aspects. Citizen competence should be the focus of the University level program. This phase is crucial to the maturing of the citizen competence. A structured internship with an accredited NGO or Social Service organization should be part of the University phase.
Citizen competence building is indeed a strategic priority for the making of the New India – an inclusive, accommodative and assertive India where citizens play a much more active role in charting their own and posterity’s bright future.
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach and mentor based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at