Definitions of citizenship are galore. It has also been approached from different perspectives. Tentatively, we can consider citizenship as membership of a political community with certain rights and obligations acknowledged and shared in common. The membership that citizens enjoy is both passive and active. Considered passively, citizens are entitled to certain rights and obligations without their conscious involvement in shaping them. But citizenship also involves active engagement in the civic political life of community and this is reflected in the rights and obligations related to it.
While increasingly certain rights are conceded to all human beings in normal times by states, citizens have certain specific rights which non-citizens do not possess. Most states do not grant the right to vote and to stand for public office to aliens. The same can be said about obligations too. What are regards as right of citizens today were initially a preserve of the elite. However, eventually the great democratizing process led the large masses of residents- the marginalized, the ethnic groups, minorities, women and the disabled persons to the benefits and burden of citizenship .
Just the fact that one is a citizen gives access to many rights which aliens do not enjoy. Aliens become natualised as citizens with attendant rights and obligations. Passive membership often is associated with limited legal rights and extensive social rights expressing redistributive arrangements. The state plays a major role in devising and sustaining them. Active membership highlights citizen-agency and is closely linked with democracy and citizen participation. Most political communities of which citizens are members today are nation-states. Therefore, when we talk about membership of political communities, we preliminary refer to membership of nation states.
Citizenship rights are universal in the sense that they pertain to all citizens and in all relevant respects. They are sought to be implemented accordingly. Universality of rights need not preclude enjoyment of group-related rights and to the extent that citizens belong to relevant groups, they are increasingly conceded such rights. Minorities and disadvantaged groups in many societies do enjoy certain special rights. However, often equal rights of citizens are seen as running into conflict with group-rights and cultural belonging of subgroups.
Citizenship invokes a specific equality. It may admit a wide range of quantitative or economic inequalities and cultural differences, but does not admit qualitative inequality wherein one man or woman is marked off from another with respect to their basic claims and obligations. If they are marked off for special consideration, it is on account of the disadvantages they suffer relative to others or due to their distinct collective identity.
Citizenship invites persons to a share in the social heritage, which in turn means a claim to be accepted as full members of the society in which they have a claim. Therefore, it provides for equal access to and participation in the public fora and institutions which arbitrate on social heritage. Citizenship is supposed to be insulated from class and status considerations.
However, to the extent that citizens have equal access and participation in the public life, they collectively decide to a great extent the framework and criteria that determines public life. Therefore, undoubtedly it has a levelling impact. In this context, one of the most important questions that comes to the fore is whether basic equality can be created and preserved without invading the freedom of the competitive market. However, in spite of the role of the market there has been an undeniable sociological tendency wherein citizenship in recent years has been inevitably striving towards social equality and it has been a significant social tendency for over 300 years now.
There is a profound subjective dimension to citizenship. It involves a conscious agency, reflective and deliberative, qualifying his or her pursuits with public interests. It is a way of life growing within a person and not something given from outside. Legal perspectives on citizenship, therefore, have their necessary limitations.
Citizenship involves duties as well as rights. Over the years, an array of rights have been associated with it. The same cannot be said about the duties associated with citizenship. It has had long term consequences in terms of increasing the role of the state and shrinking citizen-initiative.
Citizenship can be divided into three dimensions:
The civil dimension is composed of the rights necessary for individual freedom such as liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to own personal property and to conclude valid contracts and the right to strive for a just order. The last are the rights to defend and assert all one’s claims in terms of equality with others under rule of law. Courts of justice are primarily associated with civil rights. In the economic field, the basic civil right is the right to work i.e., the right to follow the occupation of one’s choice and in the place of one’s choice subject to limits posed by other rights.
The political dimension consists of the rights to participate in the exercise of political power as a member of the body that embodies political authority; to vote; to seek an support political leadership; to marshal support to political authority uploading justice and equality and to struggle against an unfair political authority.
The social dimension consist of a whole range of claim involving a degree of economic welfare and security; the right to share in full the social heritage and to live the life due to one as per the standards prevailing in one’s society. The social dimension also involves the right to culture which entitled one to pursue a way of life distinctive to oneself.
In feudal society that prevailed in large parts of the world prior to the onset of modernity, status was the mark of class and was embedded in inequality. There were no uniform standards of rights and duties with which men and women were endowed by virtue of their membership of society. Equality of citizens did not qualify inequality of classes. The caste system in India too ranked caste unequally in terms of rights and obligations, although the nature of inequality prevalent here differed in significant respects from that of the feudal society.
These in equalitarian orders were progressively displaced by a system based on the civil rights of the individual, not on the basis of local custom, but the common law of the land. The evolution of different institutions representing and embodying different dimensions of rights was uneven. In Europe, century, political rights in the 19th century and social rights in the 20th century. However, in the colonies, particularly in India, we find the national movement and the independent regime that followed it invoked all these threefold dimensions together.