The ideal new citizen will subscribe not only to the rulers’ Gods, but also to their social media accounts. Elections will be reduced to millions voting not on their own issues, but on particular Twitter accounts. In a society where only some are considered humans and most others are not, these developments are only going to make the power difference between these two sets of people bigger and bigger, until things reach a breaking point. But most people in this country do not look at fellow human beings through such a vulgar lens. Along with the resistance on the streets against CAB-NRC, we must discuss the history and future of citizenship in this caste-regulated society. What does it mean for anyone to be a citizen here? –Tathagata Sengupta writes.
We are being hacked on the question of citizenship.
What is ‘hacking’? When an algorithm or a power beyond your control understands your computer and data better than you or your own software does, that’s when your system is said to have been hacked. How can a human being be ‘hacked,’ you ask? There are many ways – social, cultural, behavioral, biological. There have been recent reports on activists’ emails and WhatsApp accounts being hacked. But we have been hacked at a much more fundamental level. When a powerful social algorithm or script, beyond one’s own control, understands his or her sense of ‘self’ – in this case, ‘citizenship’ – better than his or her own brain does, that’s when the person (citizen) has been hacked.
We, as ‘citizens’ of India are confronted today with something that can be matched only by an episode that took place more than seven decades ago, namely the partition of the British Empire in India along religious lines. Our post-370, post-Ayodhya, post-Reservation nation is confronted with its ultimate citizenship project – the Hindu Rashtra or homeland of all Hindus – and the largest ever potential de-citizenship in the history of nation states. With the BJP’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (now Act!), millions of people in India have come under the threat of becoming officially ‘stateless’. While mass protests are going on across the country on the question of exclusion of one kind of people – the South Asian Muslim – from the provisions of the Bill, this article is about the rest of us, those who are still ‘citizens’ of this country. What does all this mean for us?
The idea of citizenship in India has been hacked, over and over in history. Here we consider two such major episodes – the one we are living through now, and the one that took place in the last century. In the 1940s, the idea of a ‘Hindu citizenship’ was used to hack the consciousness of millions of citizens. Today the idea of ‘Indian citizenship’ is being used to hack our psyche all over again.
The 20th Century Hack
Bengal was partitioned once in 1905, and then again in 1945-47. What is notable is that the Hindu bhodrolok class who had opposed the 1905 partition, rooted for it four decades later. What happened in these forty years to Hindu politics in the province has been documented meticulously by historians like Joya Chatterjee, Sarbani Bandyopadhyay, Shekhar Bandyopadhyay among others. This was a period of rabid upper-caste (Hindu and Muslim) led communalization of Bengal politics as the political stakes around a new political order became more and more real. Among other things, this period saw the emergence of a consolidated right-wing Hindu bhodrolok politics represented by the Hindu Mahasabha, the Bharat Sevashram Sangh and numerous other social organisations, and eventually also by the Bengal Congress. Colonial censuses, religious festivals, processions – everything became political-social flashpoints. Non-Hindu untouchable communities were being legislated as Hindus. Shuddhi (purification) movements were conducted across the state, led by both Mahasabhites and Gandhians, funded by the Marwari traders in Calcutta, to convert non-Hindu tribal and other ethnic communities to Hindus. Surnames were changed, rituals were changed, Gods were replaced, new steps were added to the caste ladder.
But still, even after swelling up the ranks of ‘Hindus’ through a decades-long intense political-social engineering that involved pitting lower caste communities against Muslim Bengalis in order to solidify the ‘Hindu’ political block, the bhodroloks of colonial (united) Bengal were unable to check the rise of an educated, politically mobilized, and economically stable Bengali Muslim middle class, particularly in the Eastern parts. The first three Prime Ministers of the Bengal Provincial Government under the colonial rule were all Muslims. The Bengali Hindu bhodrolok had realized by the 1940s that living in a united Bengal would mean living as a political minority. Eventually the bhodrolok Hindus made up their mind to carve out for themselves a Hindu Bengal. This was reflected in the Bengal Congress and Hindu Mahasabha becoming indistinguishable in their rhetoric and campaigns in the early 1940s.
One question, however, remained. What does it mean to be a ‘Hindu’? Those who had been brought under the Hindu rolls by incessant propaganda and political maneuvering during the first half of the twentieth century had been promised a mythical ‘Hindu citizenship’ by their upper caste leaders. But the history of the betrayal of such a promise began early. For the longest possible time, the Hindu bhodrolok political organisations resisted the idea of an ‘exchange of populations’. Muslims should go to East Pakistan if they want, but the large masses of lower-caste Hindus were not welcome here in exchange. The first Hindus to migrate out of East Bengal were largely the upper caste landholding classes who already had cultural and economic networks in the western part of the province, particularly Calcutta. This phase of migration happened relatively peacefully, before the official partition. These migrant families were soon allotted lands by the state, and settled. They used their caste networks to get recruited in various industries such as the mining sector, tea garden managements, railway administration, and the large upper-caste private sector in Calcutta.
The lower caste, and largely landless refugees migrated from East Bengal to West Bengal a few years later at the height of the riots. These were times when entire communities were being torn apart by brutal violence across the region. These largely Dalit ‘Hindu’ political refugee families were however refused a place in bhodrolok West Bengal. They were caged up in colonies for years in inhumane conditions, and rendered into ‘useless bodies’ for the economy, without productive employment, made to live on nominal state handouts. Later, they were made to chop down forests and settle habitations in the uninhabitable outskirts of 24 Parganas and other such places. And even later, these people were forced to become the unorganised working classes in these areas, in the service of the bhodrolok settlers. Many of these people were forced into the forests of Bastar, and when some of them returned on their own to the islands of Sundarbans to set up their own little agriculture-forest-river economy, they were massacred in the thousands by the bhodrolok-led CPI(M) government police. This has been the history of the mythic ‘Hindu citizenship’ for many Bengalis who today claim that they are Hindus.
In a caste society, there is no such thing as ‘citizenship’. Caste is a system where not everyone is considered fully human. Some are Gods, some are whole humans, and the rest are at most only part-human. Even in the early days of Greek democracy, in many ways a much more robust democracy compared to today’s liberal democracies, the notion of a ‘citizen’ did not apply to women and slaves. But at least within those who they declared as ‘citizens’ – which included the poor men alongside the rich – the ‘citizenship’ was shared more or less equally. In a caste society, where humans are graded on the caste-scale, there can only be caste citizenships. There can be no such thing called a ‘Hindu citizenship’.
However, one of the main reasons why such a hacking of millions of minds worked, why the upper caste Hindus were successful in selling everyone on this mythical notion of citizenship, is because of the successful construction of the Muslim as ‘the real untouchables’. Caste Hindus used the Muslim ‘other’, the hate-able inhuman Muslim ‘enemy’, for their ‘Hindu citizenship’ trick to work in hacking millions into believing that they are, or can someday become, Hindus. Such a day hasn’t come yet, and will never come.
Citizenship and a World in Tremendous Turmoil
Today again, the Muslim in this country has been officially, legally marked as second-class citizens, to bolster upper-caste control over this country through forging the mythical ‘Hindu block’ as opposed to the Muslim. But today’s crisis is not exactly the same as that of a world that was reeling from a six-year-long World War II, a new economy that vowed to usher in planned capitalism, and a politics that fooled itself into thinking that a liberal democracy was the way to go when dealing with a society that has been spiritually and politically hacked.
The post-2008 phase of capitalism has triggered a return to the questions of nationality and citizenship and religion across the world, not just here in India. The world is seeing epic scales of refugee crises – with billions of people on the move because of political or climatic disasters. Not very different from the post-World War II 1940s. A young nation then, caught in an uncertain new world, was hacked by its ruling classes using the ‘Hindu citizenship’ dream offer. Over the subsequent decades, this dream turned out to be a betrayal for some, and a nightmare for others. The lower caste Hindus have remained lower caste Hindus. Even a progressive Constitution that outlawed untouchability, was not allowed to ban caste. And meanwhile, capital and markets in this new nation jumped from the feudal stage to the croniest of neoliberal models, at the speed of light. The nation’s depleted economy was hooked onto the enraged and out-of-control bull of global capitalism.
It is at such a juncture, with an extremely stressful, violent, and uncertain future on the cards, that India is re-evaluating and re-constructing itself. If the twentieth century was about the creation of a post-colonial liberal democratic Indian state, the twenty-first century is going to be that of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’.
The 21st Century hack that is currently unfolding
The formation of a new nation always comes with the question of citizenship. But just like one lie requires a string of other lies to lend credence to the original lie, the twenty-first century reality requires a fresh round of hacking everyone in order to maintain the twentieth century lies.
There is a difference, however. In today’s world, we are all already hacked. Our smartphones know us much better than we know ourselves. Our phones and browsers know all about our conversations, locations, social links, race, ethnicity, caste, gender, our aesthetics, our likes and dislikes, our loves and our fights, our deepest secrets that often we ourselves may not know. Data corporations are running programs that are the equivalent of thousands of NRCs running in parallel at any given moment.
Our idea of citizenship is also therefore already hacked, largely by the media. Our public citizenship dialogue or imagination does not allow any of the pertinent questions surrounding citizenship a careful discussion. This is true not only of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in TN for decades, or the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh waiting for citizenship, but also of those billions of ‘citizens’ across generations that this nation has not provided with security, dignity, food or health. We don’t consider children as citizens, we don’t really consider anyone other than a heterosexual upper-caste man as a full citizen, with all kinds of rights and freedoms. The workers who were burnt alive in the Delhi market fire were obviously not full ‘citizens’.
But if we are already hacked, then why this legislative theater? The BJP Government could have much more efficiently conducted an online, hidden NRC, and then dealt with Muslims in Assam brick by brick, neighborhood by neighborhood, one at a time. They demonstrated that they are capable of doing it – in Kashmir. If ‘governance’ was the only issue, like the Government claims, surreptitious internet-based NRCs are today the established way to go. In fact, at the same time when the CAB was being passed in the Parliament, another completely secular bill called the “Data Protection Bill” was also tabled. This bill seeks to relax data protection laws for investigative agencies to buy data from data corporations like Facebook, WhatsApp, etc., be it for surveillance, credit scoring, or debt recovery.
But hidden NRCs don’t help in hacking the imagination of citizenship. The NRC-CAB theater on the other hand comes handy for hacking us ideologically and philosophically, by hacking our humanity itself.
Our Humanity is in serious Crisis
The ongoing strife regarding citizenship in this country are loud alarm bells for the crisis our humanity is faced with today. We urgently need public discussions of a wide range of issues. We have to address not only the ghosts from our past and present, like we discussed at the beginning of the piece, but also those of the future.
Economic slowdown has taken roots all across global capitalism. More and more human productive activities are being replaced by machines leading to severe joblessness across the world. Human productivity across the world had hit its ceiling at the height of capitalism in the 1980s, and has been dropping since then. The US is losing its twentieth century place as the chief economic driver of capitalism. China, which had taken up the burden of carrying global capitalism forward by turbo-charging investments in its production sectors post-2008, is also now beginning to slow down. The Euro is in deep crisis with Britain leaving the currency zone, and with the poorer European nations sliding ever further into the debt crisis.
Climate change is threatening entire nations with decimation – Bangladesh is one of the red zone countries facing unparalleled climate catastrophes at a massive scale. Where will these people go? Where will the Rohingyas go? Where will the fishing communities across the South Asian coastline go? In this country, questions of unemployment, social security, pension, credit crisis, minimum wage, and minimum support prices are only going to grow louder and louder over time. Entire swathes of land in India are getting desertified each year. Large parts of central and northern India are becoming arid deserts, completely unsuitable for agriculture. Where are these people going to go? Chennai has run out of water, New Delhi has turned into a gas chamber – our children are not going to be born as ‘free citizens’ anymore. They are going to be chained to their air masks and private water vaults, in addition to being chained to their castes.
Hollowing out of political institutions
With the twentieth century economies crumbling, twentieth century political setups are also gradually hollowed out of power. Bretton Woods-style welfarist liberal democracies – including our own Tata-Nehruvian model – were necessary post-World War II to stabilize capitalism under the leadership of the USA – the only country that made an economic surplus out of the war. But over time, entire sections of people began entering into the realm of national politics for the first time through such liberal democracies, especially in feudal contexts such as the Indian subcontinent. Whenever this happens, capital by nature – and power along with it – flows out of such spaces. Capital, caste, and economic power are only interested in labour, and not in the body in which that labour is hosted. The labourer for them is just a headache. If there were a mechanism of sucking out all possible labour from a human body, store it in a battery, and recycle the labourless worker’s flesh and blood – that’s what capital would do.
Thus whenever large numbers of human bodies have joined as a workforce, capital has found ways to make those spaces powerless, by automating certain types of work, or by restructuring entire designs of the industry. The shutting down of the Bombay cotton mills in the face of powerful worker unionising, and the restructuring of the entire production process to prevent workers from organising in future – is an example. Just when Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim students started creating their own autonomous spaces in the country’s higher educational institutions, capital and power left the public education sector and established a parallel private education system. Every time women entered into specific professions and workspaces in massive numbers (such as after the World Wars that led to wiping out of large sections of the male working population), capital and power soon left those spheres and went elsewhere. Now when IT workers in this country are beginning to organise for their demands, capital and power is about to leave them permanently for an automated IT industry that uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc.
The Crisis of a new Political infrastructure
When capital restructures economic relations, it also restructures the political infrastructures that are necessary for those economic relations. It builds new political mechanisms and new political ideologies to deal with the new economic reality. In this country today, and in fact across the world for that matter, capital has successfully shifted to a minute section of the human species. The 62 wealthiest people in the world have wealth equal to the total wealth of the bottom half the human population on the planet today. Power has therefore left liberal democratic institutions such as Parliaments or State Assemblies, and has made a home for itself in the pockets of a few corporations owned by a few families.
Voting has been reduced to social media propaganda strategies. Election strategists have emerged as more critical than politicians themselves. Management of welfare schemes such as the PDS and social security benefits have been handed over to banks, online accounts, and online databases. Employment generation has been outsourced to the people themselves and their own ‘entrepreneurship’. The gig economy is replacing all organised economic activity. Justice is being effectively taken out of the purview of courts and handed over the mob and the police. Unchecked power to the bankers, made possible through decades of ruthless neoliberal loot of people’s money and resources, coupled with the recent rise of algorithms to power, has taken the entire world economy off the hook. Here is an example. A recent book titled “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos” describes how Donald Trump was about to order evacuation of American citizens from South Korea, at the height of his tensions with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He was prevented from doing so by his advisers who warned him that such an order would give signals of war, and the South Korean economy might crash overnight. Our economic systems have become ticking bombs. The 2008 financial crisis was only a sample of the scale of economic catastrophes that are bound to proliferate in the years to come. With the arrival of artificial intelligence, intelligent machines, and big data engineering, capitalism has successfully created a monster that is about to eat its own creator.
Today’s nation states and their elected governments are no longer suited for this kind of economy and society. They have no power when confronted with the big data companies. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon are bigger than most powerful nations today. Our nation state-based legal systems are completely unsuitable for monitoring and controlling either the international finance economy, or big data industry. The Russian Government wasn’t trying to hack the US elections through Facebook. They were mainly interested in business. It was Facebook which hacked both US and Russian politics. The Cambridge Analytica hacking of Indian elections was nothing in scale compared to what will be possible in the future. Totalitarian data surveillance is what today’s Kashmir is. Knowledge accumulated from decades-long surveillance experiments by the Israelis on a captive Palestinian nation, has now been applied to Kashmir – page by page. Every block is under total monitoring, every neighborhood has been mapped, every phone connection tracked, and every single phone user has been profiled. This is no longer the run-of-the-mill twentieth century nation state governance. This is twenty-first century techno-surveillance, and governance through pure data management. The Indian Government doesn’t need the NSSO anymore, because it can now get all data on its citizens through big data corporations. In fact, the Indian Government doesn’t really need big data at all. Big data needs the government. Data or media organisations are no longer an arm of the government. It is the government which is just a political arm of the big data and media industry. The media can create issues, it can kill issues, it can create demand for products, it can forge social tensions, it can track and read and hack people at a scale that neither the Nazi deep state nor the Soviet secret police could even imagine of. The Hong Kong protestors realized this early on in their struggle for independence, and have gone to great heights to undermine the role of social media in controlling and infiltrating people’s movements.
We need urgent Public Discussion on Citizenship
Given all this, we urgently need to discuss the meaning of citizenship in this country. The rulers of this country have no answers to the twenty-first century questions that we are faced with. Their idea of citizenship is based on artificial geographical borders, social borders, economic borders. Their politics of citizenship will remain unresolved because at the core they are against the very notion of citizenship for real people. Most of those who feel lucky today that their interests are protected under the current legislation should know that this is not going to end here, and they could very well be next in the line of disenfranchisement. Our rulers’ coveted ‘citizen’ is a private individual body that can be controlled and governed. Their new citizenship project for the twenty-first century is about spreadsheets, and registers, and ID cards, and verification numbers, and retina scans, and bioinformatics, and surveillance cameras, and concentration camps. They want to make Aadhar ID number more valuable than an acre of land. Technology for them is a prized tool for cultural control. The ideal new citizen will subscribe not only to the rulers’ Gods, but also to their social media accounts. They will listen to their rulers directly, through their computer screens and Bluetooth devices, and there is no need for any intermediary institutional bureaucratic mess. Elections will be reduced to millions voting not on their own issues, but on particular Twitter accounts. Twitter accounts will now be the new rulers of the world. Rage, hatred, violence, anger fueled through social media industry are the new gold-mines of ratings, screen times, advertisement and behavioral economics. In a society where only some are considered humans and most others are not, these developments are only going to make the power difference between these two sets of people bigger and bigger, until things reach a breaking point.
But most people in this country do not look at fellow human beings through such a vulgar lens. And there is nothing that is stopping the common people of this country from having the much required public conversation about all this. Along with the resistance on the streets against CAB-NRC, we must discuss the history and future of citizenship in this caste-regulated society. What does it mean for anyone to be a citizen here? The Greeks had their own definition. But we need our own. We need to start the discussion. Right now.
Notable References for the reader interested in how such ‘hacks’ work:
-Bandyopadhyay, S. (1990). Caste, Politics and the Raj: Bengal 1872-1937, Calcutta: KP Bagchi.
-(1997) Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal 1872-1947, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, second edition, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
-(2004) Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Dominance in Colonial Bengal, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks London: Sage Publications.
-(2009) Decolonization in South Asia: Meanings of Freedom in Post-independence West Bengal, 1947-52, London and New York: Routledge.
-Bandyopadhyay, S. (2012). Caste and Politics in Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 47, Issue No. 50, 15 Dec, 2012.
-(2013). History of Caste Politics in Bengal. Youtube video interview. Dalit Camera. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jE7_mp_0jg
-Bergen, P. (2019). Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos. Penguin Random House, US.
-Chatterji, J. (1994). Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932–1947 (Cambridge South Asian Studies).
-Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511563256
Harari, Y.N. (2018). 21 lessons for the 21st century. New York : Spiegel & Grau.
-Varoufakis, Y. (2019). Talking to my daughter about the economy,or, how capitalism works–and how it fails. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The author is an education researcher. Views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.