Citizen as 'Rehne-wala': How Children Imagine Rights and Equality in India Today

Children’s voices offer a provocation, an invitation, to think more deeply about what can be the difference between the idea of a citizen and the idea of a 'rehne-wala.' Perhaps we may find a more expansive and human way of being and belonging.

Desh mein mere koi haq nahin hain lekin aur logon ke hone chahiye…”

“I have no rights in the country but others should…”

A 14-year old Dalit girl living in Govandi, Mumbai said this while we spoke of what it means to be a citizen in India.

In Firozpur, Punjab, a Class 8 boy who had not heard of the constitution, when asked what rights are, said “Haq…jaise mazdoor ko sahi dehadi na mile.” – ‘Rights…like a worker not receiving correct wages.’

In Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, a Class 6 girl who had been a regular visitor at the protest site in 2019-20 said, “Awaaz uthane ki baat mujhe pehle nahin pata thi, Shaheen Bagh se.” – ‘I did not know that we could raise a voice, before Shaheen Bagh.’

These responses by 21st century children show us that there is much we need to understand, much that we need to do with our children for them to know their place in the world. The Enlightenment gave us the idea of the autonomous subject and with that, the idea of the child as an incomplete subject that grows into the autonomous individual, assisted by the right education and upbringing.

But just as we know that the autonomous subject is rare, apart perhaps from the white middle-class male, the idea of the child as incomplete also needs to be discarded. There is no threshold that marks a complete adult and just as adults continue to develop through their lives, growing from what they experience, child psychology has demonstrated that children too are not blank slates but are absorbing from what happens to them from the day they are born.

So, if we are committed to developing our understanding of the world through the life experiences of diverse groups, we must include the voices of children. To make place for children’s expressions is to acknowledge that they belong in the world in the same way as adults.

Therefore, we must glean meaning from their voices to see how the world can be construed and constructed more equitably. Children’s experiences in and of the world can contribute to a richer and more nuanced understanding of the present that can have repercussions on the burden of futurity that they carry. If we are able to arrive at a more meaningful response to the big challenges of our times, for example citizenship, then the world that today’s children grow up into may be an easier one for them to live in. 

So, what can we learn if we talk to children about an idea like citizenship?

I chose to do this with small groups of children at three sites across northern and western India – Shaheen Bagh that was a site for the anti-CAA protests, rural Firozpur in Punjab that saw enthusiastic participation in the farmers’ protests and an urban redevelopment space in Govandi, Mumbai where project-affected, working-class Dalit and Muslim families have been resettled. While all children are dependant and vulnerable, it is important to remember that they are vulnerable in different ways because they come from diverse contexts. So, even as children grow out of childhood dependencies, the extent to which they will continue to be subordinate adults will vary based on their context – class, caste, race, gender etc.

A child’s artwork from a workshop on equality. Photo: Seher Islam

Thus, I tried to talk to children from a mix of socio-economic backgrounds, rural and urban, with some enrolled in government schools and some in private schools. The children were all in middle school because those are the years in which the school curriculum includes the study of the constitution of India and they are supposed to gain an understanding of the key ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. 

Schooling, I found, did not seem to play a big part in how children understood citizenship. I discovered that while most children had an awareness of the constitution, this did not always come from the school curriculum or classroom interaction. Additionally, the constitution’s role as the source of rights for a citizen was clear only to some of them.

For example, a girl in Grade 8 at a low-fee private school in Govandi spoke of celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti and of Ambedkar’s importance in their lives, and linked Ambedkar to the constitution, but in a confused way. She said, “Unhone Bharat ka samvidhan jeet liya hai…” – ‘He has won the constitution of India.’ When pressed to explain what she meant, she said she did not know what the constitution was.

In Zira block of Firozpur, two boys in classes 6 and 8 of a government school had not heard of the constitution/samvidhan or the word citizen/nagrik. Understanding the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, thus, comes mainly from their everyday experiences, not academics.

Everyday experiences have been a rich resource for feminist, race, minority and Dalit studies that have shown that the citizen as a modern liberal subject is rarely autonomous, free and independent. The idea of citizenship – that human beings are born with inalienable rights, that became the basis of modern nation states after the French Revolution, is not experienced in isolation, separated from the relational context in which caste, class, religion, region, gender etc play a part.

The first article of the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen 1789, that influenced the ideas of liberty and democracy across the world, states “Human Beings are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes 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.” However, Agamben sees this as a fiction and finds that when “birth immediately becomes nation” with the nation representing sovereignty, it presents the crisis inherent in the idea of citizenship. He links this to the “growth in the course of the French Revolution of regulatory provisions specifying which man (sic) was a citizen (sic) and which one not…” (Agamben, 1998). Exclusionary regulations continue to be introduced to define access to citizenship – as we have seen in India with the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act that re-draws the line between who is eligible for Indian citizenship and who is not, or in the UK’s “stop the boats” plan and remarks made by UK Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, advocating that laws that worked in favour of her parents’ immigration and citizenship status now need to be changed “to control our borders.” 

Migrant labourers on Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway as they head home in the middle of nationwide lockdown in 2020. Photo: PTI/Files

The modern liberal idea of citizenship – of all human beings being free and equal – is thus, in reality not a simple truism. The crisis that Agamben writes about appears in India in the form of the Dalit child I encountered, living with want, segregation and discrimination, for whom the idea of citizens’ rights promised by the Constitution are an alien and distant construct, something she cannot see in her life.

This voice of the child forces us to recognise the web of intersectionality and examine the structural inequalities that make citizenship of a democratic country fraught with the legacy of active and passive citizenship that was also, along with the idea of inalienable rights, theorised during the French Revolution:

“All inhabitants of a country must enjoy the rights of passive citizens… All are not active citizens… Women, at least in the present state, children, foreigners, and also those who would not at all contribute to the public establishment must have no active influence on public matters.” (Sieyes quoted in Agamben, 1998)

While the feminist movement has pushed for women to be seen as active citizens, this hierarchical distinction clearly remains in operation at many levels, and there are many struggles being waged to ensure equal rights for different groups of people. While these struggles to affirm rights are necessary, is there a way to shift our conceptual understanding as we work towards equity? If we listen to the children’s responses that I encountered, we may find some other clues.

In the web of intersectionality that shapes children’s worlds is also the thread of language and idioms, phrases that are in common use. When asked who is a citizen, the children used phrases like – rehne-wala, jo is jagah par rehte hain, jo entered hain, ham log, poore log, India ke log. These responses likely emerge from what the children absorb, from what they hear and experience and what that prompts them to think. Children’s articulations cannot be free of context just as childhood itself cannot be seen as a pure space, devoid of context. So, the phrases used by the children may overlap with adult understandings too. And in these seemingly vague phrases lie meaningful ways of engaging with big ideas that can lead us to reimagine the way we think of citizenship.

For example, to be a rehne-wala, a resident, is to be a person with no other qualifying markers other than the fact that you inhabit a space. No documents that prove place of birth, no cut-offs for date of birth, no parental gene certifications. Does that person deserve liberty, equality and fraternity? 

For the child who says ‘jo is jagah par rehte hain’ (the one who lives here) there is no difference between herself and the other person in a measure of citizenship. The phrases ‘hum log’ (we people) and ‘poore log’ (all the people) evoke an inclusiveness, a sense of the collective that emerges from the intersection between a notion of community and of citizenship. Can we the people include all those who inhabit a space, irrespective of the kind of documents they possess? 

The phrase ‘jo entered hain’ (those who have entered), may be a reference to those the state has documented, but it could also be a phrase that opens up the collective to later entrants, an immigrant or a refugee who now inhabits the same space. Is that person to be seen merely as the repository of ‘bare natural life’ and to be denied liberty, equality and fraternity? 

These are simple but powerful questions that shift the focus away from a rights discourse to the fact of human presence. They ask us to think simply – if there is another human being here, how should we treat them? If we keep children’s voices at the centre, we privilege another notion of citizenship – not in terms of rights, but in terms of care. We are forced to reconsider who is a citizen, a person worthy of liberty, equality and fraternity. We move away from trying to identify the appropriateness of categories and documents that prove membership to those categories. We think instead about the context in which human beings are ‘rehne-walas’ and the kind of care they need. We think of which human being is not deserving of fundamental human rights. This focus on human presence is a humanistic idea that moves beyond critiquing the challenges of modern liberal citizenship and offers us a way of engaging so as to create a more empathetic, compassionate and equitable world. 

In a post-pandemic world, where we have had to confront the meaning of borders -irrelevant to a virus and impermeable to those fleeing war – this is not something to be dismissed as romanticism. In fact, the idea of active, compassionate citizenship has existed in the educational paradigms debated upon from the early 20th century onwards, with Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan being a concrete example.

As a staunch critic of colonial education, Tagore sought to put in place an educational system that was embedded in the local language and culture. According to him, the “object of education is the freedom of mind which can only be achieved through the path of freedom…(where) children should not have mere schools for their lessons, but a world whose guiding spirit is personal love” (Tagore 1921, quoted in Batra , 2015). Is this nurturing environment, in Shantiniketan’s case set amidst nature, not based on a similar idea of care, between people as well as between people and nature, so relevant today in the era of the anthropocene? When J. Krishnamurti wrote, “Education must help students to recognise and break down in themselves . . . all social distinctions and prejudices, and discourage the acquisitive pursuit of power and domination” (Krishnamurti, 1953 quoted in Batra, 2015), was he also not talking about care? And wasn’t care rooted in Mahatma Gandhi’s Nai Talim that emphasized the development of the self by fostering “attitudes of cooperation, social responsibility within a frame of equality and freedom of the human spirit” (quoted in Batra, 2015)?

More recently, Sharmila Rege’s theorising of Phule Ambedkarite Feminist pedagogies explains how the PAF perspective sees “teachers and students as modern truth seekers and agents of social transformation” by integrating “the principles of prajna (critical understanding) with karuna (empathetic love) and samata (equality). This perspective too, then, is framed from a lens of care intertwined with the idea of the citizen as an agent of social transformation. 

Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan’s Visva-Bharati. Photo: Public domain

The children I met showed how abstract concepts taught in the classroom with no links to their lived experiences can at most lead to a theoretical understanding of rights but may not enable a compassionate, active citizenship.

Listening to children voice their lived experiences can.

In a writing exercise on the idea of fraternity that was part of my engagement with the children in Govandi, the following poem emerged through a dialogic process between the children and I, exploring when fraternity, a sense of apnapan, was experienced at home, in the school, in the neighbourhood, and in the country.

मेरे लोग

वह दोस्त जो मुसीबत में साथ देते हैं.
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह पडोसी जो छोटी-छोटी बात पर लड़ते हैं
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह फैमिली के लोग जिन्होंने मेरी बहन की शादी के लिए पैसे दिए थे
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह नानी जो मुझ पर शक करती है
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह किताब महल लाइब्रेरी के लोग जो मुझे हर चीज़ में चांस देते हैं
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह लोग जो ताज होटल के अंदर जाते हैं
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह टीचर जो मेरी बात सुनते हैं और समझते हैं
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह पुलिस-वाले जो अमीर का पैसा लेकर ग़रीब पर इल्जाम लगाते हैं
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह पवई के चाॅल के लोग जो मेरे साथ 14 अप्रैल को आंबेडकर जयंती मनाते थे
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?
वह लोग जो मस्जिद तोड़ते हैं
क्या वह मेरे लोग हैं?

My People

Those friends who are with me in difficult times
Are those my people?
Those neighbours who fight on small things
Are those my people?
Those people in my family who gave money
for my sister’s wedding
Are those my people?
That grandmother who is always suspicious of me
Are those my people?
Those people at Kitaab Mahal library
who give me a chance to try everything
Are those my people?
Those people who walk into Taj Hotel
Are those my people?
Those teachers who listen to me and counsel me
Are those my people?
Those policemen who take money
from the rich and falsely accuse the poor
Are those my people?
Those people in the Powai chawl
who on April 14 celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti with
Are those my people?
Those people who tear down mosques
Are those my people?

The questions that the young writer, the same person who spoke of not having any rights, ponders upon in this poem invites us to examine the idea of belonging from a lens of care, resonating with the ideas of the educationists who sought a pedagogy that would develop compassionate critical thinking in young people. The experiences that found their way into this poem and the repeated question of “Are those my people?” show us the grey areas between the promise of citizenship and the reality of everyday life. Between inhabiting spaces with family members who show no care and strangers who do, between teachers who care and policemen who don’t, between making divergent choices in the public space – between all these, falls the shadow.

The poem asks us to look at fraternity in a contextual way, recognising dissonance but holding out hope. It is the child’s voice that pushes us towards this understanding. Perhaps, it is time to listen to that voice, to actively honour the commitment of keeping the child at the centre of change as the National Policy on Education said in 1986, and reimagine how we look at the citizen. 

Citizenship goals have been actively embedded in education for centuries. In independent India, we have struggled to achieve equity and social justice through the framework of rights. The contested debate over reservations is one such example with the idea of equality often being used to reject affirmative action. The children’s voices encountered here offer a provocation, an invitation, to think more deeply about what can be the difference between the idea of a citizen and the idea of a rehne-wala. Perhaps, in that examination, we may find a more expansive and human way of being and belonging.

Samina Mishra is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and teacher based in New Delhi, with a special interest in media for and about children. Her work uses the lens of childhood, identity and education to reflect the experiences of growing up in India. This article is based on her research project, Hum Hindustani for TESF India.