India’s diversity is unique—it has long had the world’s second-largest Muslim population—but the question it is dealing with, of what makes a citizen, poses a challenge for democracies around the world. With battles over immigration and citizenship, membership and belonging, acquiring intensity not only in India but also in the United States and Europe, it is worth asking whether, as India’s founders felt, the ultimate solution will be found not in some ideal pact among communities but rather in a system where one is treated as an individual. That is, an arrangement in which Indians would not be seen as simply members of a particular community, be it a religion or caste. This is hard to achieve, and requires constant political work. The equality promised would demand the intense suppression of one’s instincts and impulses, but holds the possibility of creating a self-sustaining politics.
Imperial rulers consistently saw India as a collection of groups, and Indians as people without a past and without a future. The territory was not populated by individuals who could deliberate, form opinions, exercise judgments, and make choices, but by fixed and permanent identities. They were not free agents but rather members of a group—Hindu or Muslim, Brahmin or Dalit—people condemned to communities whose interests were predetermined. The task of political life was to manage tensions among these groups, to discover some kind of balance among distinct categories of people, rather than people themselves.
This way of thinking cast a deep imprint on Indian political thought. In the years preceding the end of the British empire, few efforts were made to reimagine political representation in a way that focused on individual freedom. Historians have, for example, long debated the real intentions that drove Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan: Did Jinnah seek a separate nation-state, an independent homeland for Muslims, or did he instead seek more power within a single united country? For those who believe the latter claim, the birth of Pakistan is seen less as the product of a clear ideology and more as an unintended consequence of political negotiations that went astray.
If one focuses not on territoriality but on representation, it becomes clear that regardless of whether Jinnah wanted one nation or two, he certainly saw Hindus and Muslims differently. He famously observed that whether one considered “culture and civilization” or “customs and calendar,” Muslims had a “distinctive outlook on life and of life.” For Jinnah, irrespective of how the matter of territory was to be settled, citizenship was to be mediated through one’s community. Hindus and Muslims were to be seen as Hindus and Muslims, rather than as individuals who happened to be Hindu or Muslim.