The Hague Colloquium on the Future of Legal Identity

Civil Registration Centre for Development, The Hague and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Johannesburg

Ornit Shani

Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa

My research from 1997 to 2007 explored the rise of belligerent Hindu nationalism in India from the mid-1980s that posited itself, in the main, in opposition to Islam, as it sought to redefine India as a primarily Hindu state. I argued that rather than stemming from historically entrenched or newly emergent religious antagonisms, the intensifying sectarian conflicts from the mid-1980s were largely driven by growing caste tensions among Hindus. These tensions were largely stimulated by the state’s articulation of key resource distribution policies (reservations) for the backward castes as well as the politics that surrounded them. In state policies, particularly in identifying the backward castes, religion was inadvertently made an intrinsic criterion for compensatory policies for weaker groups in the society. By addressing issues of inequality as if they were synonymous with religious rights, the state’s reservation policy appeared and was even experienced by upper caste Hindus as “preferential treatment” of religious minorities – a policy that, in effect, enabled caste conflicts to develop and communal rivalries to deepen (Shani 2007, 2011).

From 2007 my research has centred on India’s democratic nationhood, particularly exploring the effects of India’s dynamic conceptions of citizenship on the survivability of its national unity as a democracy in the face of myriad social divisions. In this study of the evolution of India’s citizenship, I have focused on the relationships between the state and its marginalised citizens (i.e. scheduled castes, ‘weaker sections of the society’, Muslims, and other minorities). I sought to explain how and why these groups, despite the denials to their citizenship claims and entitlements, gain access to state resources and create a space for a meaningful membership in the nation (Shani 2010, 2011, 2012).

My forthcoming book, The Making of India’s Democracy: Universal Franchise and Citizenship in the World’s Largest Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, is an account of the making of the universal franchise in India. In particular, it examines the preparation of the first electoral roll for the first election on the basis of universal franchise (between 1947-1950), which was compiled in anticipation of the new constitution, and in the midst of the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Putting adult suffrage into practice and ultimately registering over 173 million people, 49% of the country’s population at the time, about 85% of whom had never voted for their political representatives in a legislative assembly and a vast majority of whom were poor and illiterate, was almost certainly the greatest undertaking of voter registration in the history of democracy. Since a voter had to be a citizen, a place in the roll became one of the most evident ways of becoming an Indian at that time of great uncertainty, and while the future legal citizenship provisions were still in draft form. I argue that the administrative means of making that colossal registry of all India’s would-be adult citizens enabled the vision of democracy to be embedded in such a large and diverse society. Thus the registration of all adults in the preparation of the electoral roll for the first elections on the basis of universal franchise played a key role in the institutionalisation of democracy in India.

Selected relevant publications:

Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence in Gujarat, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

The Rise of Hindu Nationalism in India: The Case Study of Ahmedabad in the 1980s’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 4 (October 2005), pp. 861-896.

Conceptions of Citizenship in India and the ‘Muslim Question’’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1, (January 2010), pp. 145-173.

Bootlegging, Politics and Corruption: State Violence and the Routine Practices of Public Power in Gujarat (1985-2002)’, South Asian History and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2010, pp. 494-508.

Gandhi, Citizenship and the Resilience of Indian Nationhood’, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 15, Nos. 6-7, October 2011, pp. 659-678.

Citizenship and the Resilience of Democracy’, East Asia Forum Quarterly (special issue Ideas from India), Vol. 4, No. 1, January-March 2012, pp. 23-25.

Indian Muslims and the War on Terror: Reflections on Their Citizenship Status’, in Yoav Peled, Noah Lewin-Epstein, Guy Mundlak (eds.), Democratic Citizenship and War, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 147-163.

The Politics of Communalism and Caste’, in Isabelle Clark-Decès (ed.), A Companion to the Anthropology of India, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 297-312.