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The Promise of Citizenship

Anupama Roy ( teaches at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

From ‘People’ to ‘Citizen’: Democracy’s Must Take Road by Dipankar Gupta, New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2017; pp xviii + 205, ₹ 650.


From ‘People’ to ‘Citizen’: Democracy’s Must Take Road, an anthology of 10 meticulously crafted and persuasively argued chapters, by Dipankar Gupta, makes him an exponent of a road less travelled. The courageous call to take a road to democracy through citizenship makes this book important for all social scientists trying to make sense of the dilemmas and challenges thrown up by political and social contestations in contemporary democracies. Kymlicka and Norman (1994) had announced the “return of the citizen” in their article in the journal Ethics. They suggested that unlike the earlier periods of heightened consciousness about citizenship, the

revival of interest in citizenship in the 1990s was accompanied and made necessary by the need to democratise it by accommodating multicultural and group-differentiated rights.

While Gupta does not engage directly with the works of scholars who saw these changes as marking a historical moment of transformation in citizenship, he presents a case for the “restoration” of citizenship’s foundational principle of equality of status as the non-negotiable premise, “an inviolable initial condition,” of democracy. This condition can be achieved, he argues, with the “protection of the individual,” with other forms of differences following, at what he calls, “much lower social costs” (p xiii). Yet, this process is a fraught one and has to contend with competing ideas, and indeed, claims, to what it means to be a citizen, and the relationship between the citizen, the state, and the nation. While making these arguments, the book recalls and invokes T H Marshall’s celebrated lecture “Citizenship and Social Class” delivered in 1949 in Cambridge University as part of the annual lecture commemorating Alfred Marshall.

The prefatory chapter in particular and almost all the chapters in the book find support in Marshall’s unflinching faith in the equalising potential of citizenship—a promise which has roots in the concurrent histories of citizenship, democracy, and modernity. The chapters in the book are not arranged around particular themes, but it is possible to see them addressing different aspects of this relationship, around the four sites where they play out, namely the relationship between popular sovereignty and citizenship, welfare and social rights, cities and citizenship, and citizenship and modernity. This review will present the arguments of the book broadly along these sites, and in doing so will put them in conversation with similar and different arguments made by other scholars, but more specifically with those made by Marshall himself.

Transition to Citizenship

What marks the transition to citizenship? When and how do “people” become citizens, and what is it that holds them together? The literature on comparative constitutionalism, in particular, that which locates the constituent moment in the histories of transition to the “magnificent goal” of democracy (Baxi 2013), argues that the central motif of transformative constitutionalism is a conscious and meticulous refiguration of the relationship with the past. This refiguration distinguishes the “temporal register” (Mehta 2010: 16) on which constitutions are etched. Constitutions in this framework embody the momentous present, from where a vision of a future, emphatically different from the past, could be professed. This vision aimed specifically to repudiate and transform “legacies of injustice” (Bhatia 2019), by replacing colonial governmentality with the institution of popular sovereignty. By ensuring that the constitutional edifice provided the template for reconstruction of the state and society, it aims to repudiate
the entrenched structures of traditional hierarchy which thrived on deference legitimation.

The transition from “people” to citizens for Gupta not only passes through, in fact, the constituent moment, this passage is imperative to ensure that the atavistic bonds of “blood, territory and historical hurt,” which make the “people,” are replaced by citizens bound by fraternity (p 5, 20). The solidarity of citizenship, he argues, is based on an ethics of citizenship which generates evaluative frameworks governing state intervention in creating democratic majorities through a series of “negotiations” between and among cultures. Interestingly, for Marshall, the solidarity of citizenship is established in a growing national consciousness and “awakening” public opinion, which produces the “first stirrings” of community membership. This, however, has no material impact on social inequalities and class structure, until the working class “learns” to wield “effective political power” (Marshall 1950: 42). For Marshall, citizenship is how equality travels historically and sequentially from the domains of civil, through political to
social, alongside the processes of institutional differentiation and structuration of the state.

Gupta, however, is not concerned with the transformations in the domain of rights with which, he says, most authors singularly associate Marshall’s framework of citizenship. Gupta is concerned with the transformation and democratisation of power, as the transition from people to citizens takes place, and how it is consolidated through “consensus domination,” by reducing “multiple discordances in public life to consolidate citizenship … by making certain forms of discrimination illegal and unacceptable” (p 35). Building democratic citizenship is then a sustained process of making a democratic culture, an act of leadership, a consciousness of creating something new, all the time “with citizens in the forefront” (pp 42–43).

Fragmented Citizenship

In 1992, Tom Bottomore reproduced Marshall’s essay in a book along with his own essay on “Citizenship and Social Class: Forty Years On.” In the foreword to the book, Robert Moore justified, what he said appeared to be a “Perverse Inclusion” of Marshall’s essay in a series devoted to a critical analysis of the New Right in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. If there was one central target for the New Right in these decades, Moore argues, it was citizenship. Yet, the inclusion of Marshall’s essay made perfect sense, since Marshall’s analysis of the historical trajectory of citizenship brought it to the “twentieth century terminus”—of the installation of social rights and the welfare state—when, as Marshall argues, citizenship and capitalism are no longer companionable and end up at war with each other. It is at this point when citizenship parts ways with capitalism, that it becomes possible to think of a universal right to real income, incommensurate with the “market value of the claimant,” and the possibility of moving beyond “class abatement” to changing the architectural edifice of capitalism itself.

Gupta proposes in this work to “tropicalise” Marshall, which is to say, he sets out to see how citizenship would have prospered, had welfare measures, such as those in Britain and other European countries, were in place in India. It may be noted that Marshall’s analysis of the development of citizenship in Great Britain was “dictated by history” rather than by logic. This would mean that he neither saw the British experience as a modular trajectory, nor did he believe that the historical sequence witnessed in Britain was the way citizenship would invariably develop elsewhere. Yet, regardless of the origins and flows of citizenship pertaining to specific historical contexts, Gupta’s book sets out to foreground Marshall’s argument that citizenship must be based on the foundation of “sameness” (p x), premised on “equality of status, first and foremost, and on its foundations he advocated that structures of inequality and differences be built” (p xiv).

The social component of citizenship, for Marshall, was associated with economic welfare and a share in the common heritage of society, which enabled a person to live a full life according to the prevailing standards in society. The institutions of the state associated with social citizenship were the welfare apparatus of the state and the educational system. This component of citizenship has been largely seen as having developed in post-World War II Europe as part of the process of economic and social reconstruction. The two elements of postcolonial transformations that Gupta points at in the Indian context pertain to: first, a targeted development policy planning, catering to poverty alleviation, and the second draws from the constitutional promise of equality, that is, reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (and later Other Backward Classes) in jobs and higher education institutions.

Gupta subjects both to scrutiny, evaluating them against the standards of democratic citizenship. While he finds that caste-based reservations can withstand the initial test of democratic citizenship for providing equality of opportunity, political laziness over the years had led to its degeneration into a “source of patronage” (p 45), and no longer about the fullness of citizenship. Poverty alleviation programmes and targeted planning, on the other hand, when tested for democratic citizenship, fail, since they promote fragmentary citizenship and are aimed ultimately at producing “sequestered groups who are treated patronisingly as beneficiaries.” Arguing that the best way to serve the poor is to “forget” them, Gupta makes a case for devising efficient systems of universal delivery of public goods which would serve all sections (pp 48–49); in other words, policies that are citizen-oriented and not poverty-oriented (p 55, 77).

Citizens and Cities

More recently there has been an attempt to move away from state-centred formulations of citizenship to examine it as a complex of multiple experiences based upon local, regional and transnational affiliations. A number of insightful works on cities as the “locus of citizenship development” and the “sites” where distinctive experiences of citizenship have been fashioned have come in this wake (Gordon and Stack 2007; Holston 2008). Holston (2008: 3) in particular looks at cities, which in the context of global urbanisation, become volatile, “crowded with citizens and non-citizens who contest their exclusions.” Even amidst the most entrenched regimes of unequal citizenship, can emerge what Holston calls “insurgent citizenship” that “destabilises the entrenched.” It is “the experiences of these peripheries—particularly the hardships of illegal residence, house building, and land conflict,” which become both the “context and substance of a new urban citizenship” (2008: 3).

Marshall saw the city—in particular, the development of the medieval city—as important for horizontal mobility, but found them inadequate “local” units of membership, when seen from the terminus of “national” membership. Two chapters in Gupta’s volume discuss the crucial dimensions of the centrality of cities, and the experience of cities as the locus of citizenship that they have also introduced in citizenship studies. The first of these has to do with what is often seen as the neo-liberal turn in citizenship, contrasting with both the welfare models of the post-war contexts and workfare model associated with citizens’ participation in the workforce and strengthening of labour in employment and ­negotiation through collective bargaining. Among others, Turner (2017) has characterised the neo-liberal turn in citizenship as a model in which citizenship becomes consumerist-passive and the market, rather than civil society, becomes the setting for citizenship, as the state steps back and allows competitive market forces to occupy its space without accountability.

Gupta, however, sees in urbanisation a new opportunity for citizens to break free from “producerist governance,” as citizens. Despite their varied interests—in a manifestation of “civic consumerism”—citizens would converge in a unity greater than in the past, merging their differences, as the state becomes their common point of reference to demand action against corruption, crime, and for social goods (pp 106–07). The development of the city and city planning, focusing on cities across the world, forms a significant part of this discussion, especially for the imagination of the historical and the contemporary city, the contest over city’s spaces, and the different logics and terms of belonging that the city produces for its residents. The category of the “master plan” in this context is significant for the ramifications it has on citizenship practices in terms of who is it for whom the city is imagined, and what kind of, if any, civic membership is envisaged in the process of planning itself.

Redeeming the Citizen

What are the sites and modalities through which the “citizen” can be brought back in? Civil society, often seen as a route and domain of autonomous citizenship practices and as a school for civic education, argues Gupta, can only be a charmed circle of beneficiaries, if it relies on non-governmental organisations as its constituent. He proposes that it is time to “go back to the classics,” to embrace and enhance citizenship. What would this road to citizenship look like, and what would the citizenship en route look like? The mere apotheosis of the masked individual—the citizen—is no guarantee for equality and freedom. Hannah Arendt described Western democracies around the period of World War II as “mass society,” marked by the decline of the public sphere of politics, the emergence of bureaucratic rule or the “rule by nobody,” and the rise of an amorphous, anonymous, uniformising reality that she called the “social.”

For Arendt, the public sphere, “that sphere of appearance where freedom and equality reign, and where individuals as citizens interact through the medium of speech and persuasion, disclose their unique identities, and decide through collective deliberation about matters of common concern,” was the only repository and guarantee of equality; and the political community was the best possible form of the public sphere (Arendt 1958). The rise of political conservatism, populist authoritarianism and neo-liberal ideology worldwide, has made the revitalisation of the public space essential. This revitalisation also requires the invocation of the republican virtue of political courage (Sparks 1997). Indeed, Gupta’s emphasis on fraternity as citizenship solidarity may provide the frame within which the relationship between the citizen and the state may acquire the meaning which was promised in the transition to democratic citizenship and may also hold the key to its sustenance.


Arendt, Hannah (1958): The Human Condition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Baxi, Upendra (2013): “Preliminary Notes on Transformative Constitutionalism,” Transformative Constitutionalism: Comparing the Apex Courts of Brazil, India and South Africa, Oscar Vilhena, Upendra Baxi and Frans Viljoen (eds), Pretoria: Pretoria University Press, pp 19–47.

Bhatia, Gautam (2019): The Transformative Constitution: A Radical Biography in Nine Acts, Noida: HarperCollins.

Gordon, Andrew and Trevor Stack (2007): “Citizenship beyond the State: Thinking with Early Modern Citizenship in the Contemporary World,” Citizenship Studies, Vol 11, No 2, pp 117–33.

Holston, James (2008): Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kymlicka, Will and Wayne Norman (1994): “The Return of the Citizen: A Survey of Recent Work on Citizenship Theory,” Ethics, Vol 104, No 2, pp 352–81.

Marshall, T H (1950): Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, T H and Tom Bottomore (eds) (1992): Citizenship and Social Class, London: Pluto Press.

Mehta, Uday S (2010): “Constitutionalism,” The Companion Volume to Politics in India, Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 15–27.

Sparks, Holloway (1997): “Dissident Citizenship: Democratic Theory, Political Courage, and Activist Women,” Hypatia, Vol 12, No 4, pp 74–110.

Turner, Bryan (2017): “Contemporary Citizenship: Four Types,” Journal of Citizenship and Globalisation Studies, Vol 1, No 1, pp 10–23.

Updated On : 12th Apr, 2019


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