Who is a Citizen? How India Has Defined Citizenship Over the Years

“How are we making Indian citizenship so ridiculously cheap?” That’s an argument on citizenship from 1949, not 2020.

4 min read

Camera: Abhishek Ranjan

Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim & Vishal Kumar

“How are we making Indian citizenship so ridiculously cheap?”

I know what you’re thinking. Another story on what a politician thinks about citizenship in India. Except, this is not an argument made in 2020. Or even 2019. This is from 1949, when PS Deshmukh, India’s first Agriculture Minister, was debating citizenship in the Constituent Assembly.

Who is an Indian citizen, who isn’t and who can be — this is a question which has been debated in India since Independence.

Now, as we discuss Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019; the National Register of Citizens, and the aftermath of India’s partition again, let’s see how this debate has changed.

Listen to how the definition of citizenship in India has changed, here:


Motilal Nehru Committee Lays the Foundation

The first rough draft of India’s Constitution happened in 1928 in Bombay, when an All Parties Conference appointed a committee with Motilal Nehru as its chairman.

According to the Nehru Report, the word 'citizen' meant 'every person'.

It further explained, “No person who is a citizen of a foreign country can be a citizen of the Commonwealth unless he renounces the citizenship of such foreign country in the manner prescribed by law.”

In fact, the Nehru Report was quite cool for its time.

“How are we making Indian citizenship so ridiculously cheap?” That’s an argument on citizenship from 1949, not 2020.
Motilal Nehru. The Nehru Committee report outlined a proposed new dominion status for the Constitution of India. 
(Photo Courtesy: Commons)

It thought of citizenship as based on the place of birth, and NOT based on blood ties, which, considering how rights were being discussed throughout the world in the late 1920s, was exceptionally inclusive.


Constituent Assembly & The Ghost of Partition

Fast forward to 1949. A lot had changed since Motilal Nehru’s report.

But the most important event is still something that echoes in contemporary debates on citizenship – the Partition.

An undivided India, now partitioned into two – India and Pakistan. Thousands displaced, so many killed. Suddenly, Hindus and Muslims, who’ve lived all their lives on one piece of land were made to choose a country to call home.

“How are we making Indian citizenship so ridiculously cheap?” That’s an argument on citizenship from 1949, not 2020.
In this photo from September 1947, Muslim refugees climb overboard an overcrowded train near Delhi. 
(Photo: Associated Press)

It was against this backdrop that 299 people of the Constituent Assembly of India sat down to define an Indian citizen.

Jawaharlal Nehru was of the view that it's natural to accept those coming to India as equal citizens. Here’s what he said, “Our general rule, as you will see in regard to these Partition consequences, is that we accept practically, without demur or enquiry, that great wave of migration which came from Pakistan to India."

“It is possible, of course, that in the course of that year, many wrong persons came over, whom we might not accept as citizens if we examine each one of them; but it is impossible to examine hundreds of thousands of such cases, and we accept the whole lot.”

But much like the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 debate now, even then there was talk of citizenship based on religion.

Besides every person residing in and being born in India, PS Deshmukh wanted Hindus and Sikhs to be given citizenship – IRRESPECTIVE of whether they lived in India or not.

In an argument eerily similar to what we’re hearing nowadays, here’s what Deshmukh said,

“We have seen the formation and establishment of Pakistan. Why was it established? It was established because the Muslims claimed that they must have a home of their own and a country of their own. Here we are, an entire nation with a history of thousands of years, and we are going to discard it, in spite of the fact that neither the Hindu nor the Sikh has any other place in the world to go to.”

However, Dr BR Ambedkar was clear. In a session on 2 May 1947, he put forth a clause. He said, "All persons born in India, as defined in the General Clauses Act and who are residing in the Union and subject to the jurisdiction of the Union, shall be citizens of the Union."

This was more or less incorporated in the Constitution which said that anyone living in territory of India on 26 November 1949 was an Indian citizen.

The rest was left to the Parliament, to the elected representatives, and to “We, The People.”


Citizenship Act & Its Amendments

The Citizenship Act, 1955, apart from BR Ambedkar’s definition, gives four ways in which Indian citizenship can be acquired:

By birth, by descent, by registration and by naturalisation. This Act has been amended quite a few times now. In 1986, citizenship became restricted to whether either of the parents was an Indian citizen at the time of birth.

In 2003, an amendment was made keeping in mind illegal migrants in India, making the definition of citizenship even narrower.

And of course, in 2019, the amendment grants citizenship to six communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jain, Parsis and Christians — from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

From 1929 to 2019, the question of "who is an Indian citizen" has changed.

From an inclusive approach which includes anyone who’s born in India as its citizen, to one that has gotten restricted over the years. As we enter 2020, how will this definition of citizenship change?

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