There is a social media message currently doing the rounds that says something like “The only minority in India are those who call themselves Indians. The majority is busy calling itself Hindus and Muslims.” Circulated by many who believe themselves to be liberal as well as secular, the message encapsulates everything that is wrong with a certain strand of Indian liberalism. It is being circulated with the apparent intent of castigating all forms atavistic identities. At best, it is lazy thinking and, at worst, it is at one with a majoritarian world-view.

To start with, the message assumes that claiming the rights of citizenship are equally open to all, irrespective of, say, religious identity. And, that being “Indian” is merely an act of volition, something we can will ourselves into. This is not very different from the idea that anyone can “do well in life” and all it requires is hard work and the desire to do well.

There are, in other words, no structures that constrain and no processes that discriminate. This, as anyone who has been following recent history of the Republic – and particularly the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act – is the territory of Disneyland liberalism, a place where all it takes to be what you want to be is some fairy-dust thinking.

Expression of privilege

What lies at the heart of the slogan is, in fact, a deep conservatism. It is the conservatism of those who are in a position to enjoy the benefits of citizenship: those who may never be asked to prove their “patriotism”, be told to “go to Pakistan” or come for particularly brutal police treatment because of their religion. This is a group that has not faced discrimination as a consequence of the names they carry or the clothes they wear. It is a collectivity that, in the Indian context, lies at the top of the social hierarchy. It consists of upper-caste well-to-do Hindus for whom structures do not constrain. Rather, in the manner that they operate in our society, social structures facilitate their well-being. This is a group for who it is particularly easy to say, “Let’s all just be Indians!”

Constitutional citizenship is a desire and an act of imagining a level playing-field. It proscribes discrimination but is unable to enforce the proscription. Actually,-experienced citizenship is the reality that is determined by both subtle and overt social attitudes. We have a fine Constitution but a social and political reality where constitutional injunctions pass through the shredder of social beliefs and attitudes. The fact of the matter is that, at least at the present time, being Indian – and being able to enjoy the benefits of citizenship – is not open to all. To think otherwise is to be either deliberately blinkered about the nature of the society we live in, or just naïve. The latter position might be well-meaning but naivety among adults is not as endearing as that among children.

A protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters,

The failure to recognise the actual inequality – social and economic – produced through being Muslim (or connected to some other identity) is also part of a longer history of an act of misrecognition. The exhortation to “Be Indian” assumes that what is Indian is, in fact, either a-religious or multi-religious. Our post-colonial public life has been one where symbols, rituals and other representations of Hindu life-ways have been imagined as representing secular – a-religious – Indian-ness. We light lamps at academic conferences and break coconuts to launch warships as acts of “Indian-ness”. We have, in fact, learnt to confuse religious symbols as secular signs. It is also this context that comes into play in the complaint that “actual minority is the one that only claims an Indian identity”. This Indian identity is, in fact, deeply buried in the life-world of a very specific religious identity.

Condescending attitutude

There is, finally, a more troubling aspect, as is wishing actually existing structures of discrimination away in favour of an imagined Indian-ness is troubling enough. The meanings that gather around the social media message also have to do with viewing a gathering of Muslims as a dangerous and fearful one. The visual aspect of the current Citizenship Amendment Act protests is really quite striking: at many of our public places what we see are gatherings of Muslims demanding that a law specifically aimed at furthering discrimination against the be rolled back. Through attire and expression, the female and male protestors are identifiably Muslim. There is an almost primeval fear of the collective Muslim presence that palpably comes through the social media dictates to “Be Indian”. This aspect requires self-examination: what do we fear and what are the sources of this fear? Urban mass-gatherings of Hindus – the Kanwariya, to take a recent example – do not seem to invite similar exhortations.

Unless we are able to interrogate the social media “common sense” that the answer to the current malaise lies in asserting Indian-ness over all other identities, we do no better than align with the frequently made assertion that all those who live in India are “ultimately” Hindus. And that “Indian” and “Hindu” are interchangeable identities. For that is precisely the consequence of this form of WhatsApp politics: those who have never suffered discrimination because of their religious identity have the luxury of not confronting it. They simply assume Muslim-ness an irrelevant distraction and advocate the need to rise above it.

This is not very different from advising a black person that she will not face racism if only she thinks of herself as human. And, unless we are able to confront “our” own fears – ones frequently masked under the guise of devotion to a unified national identity – it is very likely that when we conjure the idea of a representative Indian figure, it will be a very specific kind. This the spectre that haunts ideas of constitutional citizenship.

Sanjay Srivastava is a professor at the Tnstitute of Economic Growth in New Delhi.