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State of Exemption, State of Exclusion: CAA and NRC


by Santhosh S.

In India, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) are two pieces of legislation—one already enacted, and the other in the making. Needless to say, they are twin laws, coming together to substantiate a modern mythical notion of the nation through the definition of its citizenry. In a curious way, both these legislative acts center on what constitutes a refugee—one is a peculiar form of accepting refugees, and the other, a mechanism to produce refugees.

According to governmental interpretations, the CAA is aimed at granting Indian citizenship to all members of the Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh facing religious persecution, and who came to India before December 31, 2014. The first question here is: Why is there a need for such an amendment when India already has legal provisions to grant citizenship to immigrants based on the merits of their claims? The answer to this question lies not so much in the domain of jurisprudence as in the domain of politics and ideology.

The Citizen and/as the Refugee

To begin with, we need to think more on the question of the citizen itself. The paradox here is: a judicial act (CAA) that purports to include minorities, becomes itself an exemplar of an exclusionary vision. In fact, this selective inclusion and pre-qualification nullifies the very concept of the refugee based on the rights of man. As Hannah Arendt (1973) observed, the question of the refugee links together the fates of the rights of man with that of the nation-state. Her striking formulation seems to imply the idea of an intimate and necessary connection between the two. Arendt argues that the very figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence—the refugee—signals instead the concept’s radical crisis. Here in an ironic way, in the context of CAA and the proposed NRC, the rights of man are held hostage through the production of an entire religious community (or a major percentage of the population) as potential refugees in their own land.

In his commentary on Arendt’s radical conception regarding the crisis of the rights of man, Giorgio Agamben (2013), by way of his analysis of the ambiguity surrounding the very title of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of 1789, observed that “a simple examination of the text shows that it is precisely bare natural life, which is to say, the pure fact of birth, that appears here as the source and bearer of rights … The nation—the term derives etymologically from nascere (to be born)—thus closes the open circle of man’s birth.”

The CAA, by extending citizenship merely on religious grounds, is an attempt to expand the geographical ambit of the Hindu nation. This outward expansion has a definite counterweight in terms of internal contraction through the proposed NRC. In contrast to the CAA, the NRC redraws firmly the contours of nascere , or “to be born,” by projecting that Muslims are not natural citizens because their “real birthplace” is elsewhere. What necessitates the NRC is the presence of this imaginary elsewhere within the body politic of the (Hindu) nation.

Sartorial Politics and the States of Benevolence

What we need to acknowledge, however, is that such “elsewhere politics” is firmly rooted in our “secular imagination” and has in fact been perpetuated through statist narratives, logics, representational idioms, and modes. Shahid Amin, in his influential essay “Representing the Musalman” (2005), engages with the “expressive category Musalman” and explores “what constitutes the common sense on the North Indian Musalmans?” He further asks, “What are the elements of their otherness? What is the relationship between the recognition of everyday difference and attachment to different pasts, such that the antagonists are believed to be carriers of two violently different histories? What is the mixture of history, memory, innate difference and the changed context of the present in statements about the resident-Indian Muslim as ‘the other’?”

His analysis tears through the standardized narratives of secularism and the Nehruvian axiom of “Unity in Diversity” by unpacking the representational logic through which diversity has been framed by the nation-state. His astute reading of “ Turky-Topiwala ” Musalman in the national integration poster ( We are One ) brings forth this paradox. Amin observes that the stereotypical image of the Musalman in the billboard is not a real life-image, but is officially reproduced in the interest of the nation. “The result,” he states, “is a paradox: We Indians are not used to a Turkish cap in our midst, yet it is a prominent sign for the Indian Muslim of the national integration poster. In other words, the national advertisement asks us to recognize an image which we do not encounter within the geographical confines of the nation-state.”

My argument is that the efficacy of the present NRC is rooted in such secular representational logic and how it has abstracted real-life difference, and naturalized the stereotypical image of the “Indian Musalman.” In Amin’s own account, “What we have are real-life men and women with distinct class positions, social backgrounds and individual dispositions. Yet the problem of the stereotypical image refuses to go away in everyday chance encounters. With stereotypes we leave biography and history behind, recognizing those different from us largely through visible signs, as if such human beings belonged to a different species altogether.” In this instance of the NRC, enumeration is intended to provide legal validation to this abstracted image by setting the rules of the game for the absolute advantage of the (Hindu) state itself. Demanding proof of birth, based on an arbitrary cut-off date which will be fixed by the pretext of a legislative act, is in fact an assertion of, and a premeditated attempt at, fabricating evidence that the Musalman is not born adequately in the nation. I term this the “politics-of-elsewhere.” The Prime Minister’s recent statement that the protesters “can be identified by their clothes” is a clear sign of a politics stemming from such representational logic of the nation-state.

The left-liberal anxiety that “Muslims protesting against CAA and NRC as Muslims may fuel communal frenzy and aid the Hindutva agenda” is in fact yet another reflection of this very representational spectrum. For instance, in the left-liberal view, the protests initiated by minority and dalit-bahujan organizations in Kerala have largely been projected as instances of a counterproductive politics. In principle, both these adversary groups seem to implicitly suggest that living life as a Muslim is itself a problem. By their logic, if Muslims want to protest against CAA and NRC, they have to shed their “Muslimness” and become “visibly secular.” These words of Hannah Arendt (2005) may remind the liberal-left of the historical predicament of the present situation: “If one is attacked as a Jew one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German or a world citizen. Or as an upholder of human rights. But what could I do specifically as a Jew.”

Further, the Home Minister’s statement in the lower house of the parliament that “Indian Muslims have nothing to fear” is a clear instance of the benevolent state converting the constitutionally guaranteed right to citizenry into a conditional/provisional one—i.e., if Indian Muslims are willing to visibly prove their “patriotism” or are willing to shed their “Muslimness,” then the state is open to granting them citizenship. Through this patronizing verbal gesture, then, the government assumes the role of the patriarch who decides whose acts and deeds correspond with the norms of citizenship prescribed by them.

State of Exemption

In the juridical sense, CAA is an act of exemption. It provides exemption to certain religious communities but excludes members of the Muslim community from its ambit. In that sense, it is an act of exclusion as well. It not only excludes Muslims, but also some neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Such selective exclusion of certain communities and nation-states from the region requires analytical attention.

Take the example of two of India’s neighbors, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Both these countries have recorded histories of religious and ethnic persecution, and several state-sponsored genocides. The (Muslim) Rohingyas from Myanmar and the (Hindu) Tamil minorities from Sri Lanka form the core of the refugee crisis in South Asia. And yet, both these countries are excluded from the purview of the CAA. The political rationale behind these exclusions no doubt lie in the present political dispensation’s proclaimed idea of the Great Hindu Nation. Such a concept of the nation assumes that every religious faith barring the Semitic religions are part of an “Indic religion.” We know only too well how Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism have historically been appropriated as part of/sects of the Great Hindu Religion.

The exclusion of the Tamil minority from the CAA’s ambit is also a signifier of the manner in which the Hindu/Indian nation constructs its “citizen-ideal.” By this logic, in a nation, not everybody can be the citizen-ideal—it is assigned to members of specific social groups. Women, “lower castes,” non-Hindi speakers, not to mention Muslims and other religious minorities, and ethnic and sexual minorities, cannot be ideal citizens. Instead, “upper caste heterosexual men” who belong to certain language groups alone are proffered as the citizen-ideal. This is precisely why India’s past is most often marked as “Aryan” by diverse such personalities as Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dayanand Saraswati, and Vivekananda. In short, even though the Tamils of Sri Lanka nominally belong to the pantheon of Hindu religion and its religious geography, the ideological currents of the present political dispensation wilfully ignore their presence because of their lack of “credentials.”

In the geopolitical imagination of the apologists of Hindutva then, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan constitute the anomaly. By offering citizenship to members of “Indic religions” from these countries, the state attempts to play an emotive card. And through this law of exception (of Muslims), the state proclaims itself as a benevolent protector of Hindus across the globe. Christianity and Zoroastrianism found mention in the list primarily for strategic reasons. First, neither are majority religions in this region, and second, their exclusion, particularly of Christians, might have attracted more global attention to this exclusionary legislative act. Not to mention, this inclusion only drives home their point of singling out Muslims as the primary enemies of the Great Hindu Nation. My argument is that this politics of exemption (by virtue of the exclusionary act) is an attempt to lend substantive existence to the idea of the Hindu Rashtra.

Politics of Enumeration

Let us take the example of yet another “contentious” enumerative exercise from recent history. Unlike the NRC, this was the outcome of a long-drawn demand and struggle by marginalized sections of the Indian polity. I refer here to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011, which officially commenced on June 29, 2011. As Dilip Mandal (2018) has observed, “It was similar to the decadal census in a sense that door-to-door enumeration was to be conducted across the country. According to the central government’s announcement and planning, it should have been completed by December 2011. It was claimed that ‘the process will go a long way towards meeting the inclusive growth agenda of the Government.’ The data thus collected was to be utilised in the 12th Five Year Plan.”

Contrary to this governmental pronouncement, to date the data gathered by the SECC remains a state secret. An obvious reason behind the official silencing of the results of this enumeration is of course its unintended outcome, which would reveal the unequal distribution of resources, such as land, education, income, and jobs along the caste demography. In other words, this enumeration would unconceal the skewed distribution of substantive equality among caste groups and communities. While the NRC is aimed at erasing the procedural equality guaranteed by the constitution above substantive differences, the suppression of the SECC is aimed at uprooting the political struggles for substantive equality.

Let us look into a less obvious aspect of the sinister design of NRC. While in the present political dispensation Muslims are de facto subjects born elsewhere, subaltern communities are possible subjects “not adequately born in the nation.” This latter notion has deep-rooted connections with the caste-economy of the (Hindu) Indian state. Following what has happened in Assam with NRC, let us briefly hypothesize the pragmatics of citizen enumeration across the nation. Its evidentiary paradigms would be based on some genealogical model where, in order to be a legitimate citizen, subjects would have to produce proof of residence from a particular date earmarked (however arbitrarily) by the government. Most of the dalit-bahujan citizens of India are historically not members of land-owning communities. In fact, the very theological doctrines of Hinduism prohibit them from land ownership, instead ascribing the profession of seva to the “high-born castes”—in other words, servitude. Even today, land rights remain a major hurdle for most of the marginalized population partly because of this historical disadvantage. In such a scenario, subaltern communities would fall next in line to become victims of the NRC. Ironically, the appearance of their “Hindu” names in the potential non-citizenry list may well be used as evidence of the “secular” nature of the exclusionary enumerative exercise by the government.

Another legislative act from recent times we need to read alongside the CAA and NRC is the approval of a 10 percent reservation to Economically Weaker Sections of the people belonging to the “upper caste” communities, passed on January 9, 2019. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely after all, most of the left parties, organizations, and intellectuals that claimed to stand with anti-caste struggles either supported this legislative act, or remained silent. My argument is that this legislation was one of the first and most concerted efforts of this present political dispensation to dilute and erase the substantive dimensions of constitutional provisions and guarantees. By introducing economic status as a criterion for reservations, in one fell swoop the very spirit of reservations and their political import lost credence. Ambedkar’s constant reminder that the constitution is a “pharmakon” needs to be understood in this light. His scepticism regarding the constitution’s own efficacy came from an astute understanding of the internal contradictions between procedural equality and substantive equality, as embedded in the very logic of jurisprudence.


Perhaps, instead of describing the CAA as an amendment, one needs to identify it and its twin, the proposed NRC, as instances of a permanent annulment of the constitution itself. By emptying the content of such crucial signifiers as equality, liberty, justice, and fraternity, this “amendment” in fact annihilates the preamble of the constitution which is foundational to the very legislative rights of the nation-state. ×


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism: Imperialism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).

Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” in Responsibility and Judgment (Schocken, 2005), 17–48.

Giorgio Agamben, “Biopolitics and the Rights of Man,” in Biopolitics: A Reader , eds. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze (Duke University Press, 2013), 152–60.

Shahid Amin, “Representing the Musalman: Then and Now, Now and Then,” in Subaltern Studies XII (Permanent Black, 2005), 1–35.

Dilip Mandal, “From Congress to BJP: Everybody is afraid of OBC data,” The Print , November 16, 2018 .

Santhosh S. is a cultural theorist based in New Delhi, India. He teaches at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University Delhi. Drawing on his training in art history, his work critically examines the structural dynamics of the institutionalization of culture from a minoritarian perspective. He often writes on contemporary cultural politics in India, with an emphasis on deconstructing technologies of visuality and the affective dimensions of the political.

Video: Demonstration against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), Delhi, India, December 19, 2019. Excerpt from the YouTube video “Protesting Against the Indian Government” by Karl Rock.

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After reading this good article, What I think on CAA and NRC I have captured here.