Oped

Papers please

  • Denial of citizenship to legitimate citizens is a travesty of all achievements of all popular Nepali movements
- Deepak Thapa
Papers please

Nov 20, 2014-

It says a lot about the sorry state of affairs that nearly a decade since we received a new citizenship act which reflected better the aspired-for gender equality in a New Nepal, someone receiving citizenship papers on the basis of matrilineality still makes news. Such was the case with 19-year-old Bina Pariyar of Khotang, who was handed her citizenship certificate by Chief District Officer (CDO) Govinda Sapkota recently. Good for her, and we can only say of CDO Sapkota, May His Tribe Increase, for having the guts to follow the letter of the law where so many of his colleagues have baulked.

Letter of the law

Bina’s seems to have been what is called an emblematic case, meant to serve more as an example than the beginning of a revolution. She needed a member of the Constituent Assembly to vouch for her bona fides, which seems to have included the assertion that her father had indeed gone missing from her life a long time ago. But, if the attitude of the Kathmandu CDO is anything to go by, there is little chance of that serving as a precedent for our bureaucrats in charge of dishing out that all-important piece of paper. Asked a couple of months ago by Al Jazeera why his office had not followed up on the landmark 2011 Supreme Court directive to the Dolakha district administration that one Sabina Damai be granted citizenship papers based on the fact that her mother is a Nepali citizen, CDO Basanta Raj Gautam simply said, “Just because a person got citizenship based on that decision doesn’t mean everyone in that category should.”

And, what of the law? The 2006 Nepal Citizenship Act grants citizenship by descent to “any person born at the time when his father or mother is a citizen of Nepal” and in the very next sentence withdraws that privilege to “a child born out of wedlock by a Nepali female citizen to a foreign national” who can only be granted “naturalised citizenship...provided the child has not acquired the citizenship of the foreign country on the basis of the citizenship of its father”.

The jarring part is that the same conditions do not apply to the child of a Nepali man and a non-Nepali woman, who can immediately be conferred citizenship without question. Leaving alone the unfairness of the latter provision, even for those with both Nepali parents, acquiring citizenship remains a hurdle. A simple reading of the law means that everyone has to prove that both her parents are/were Nepali citizens, since the underlying suspicion seems to be that the father could be a foreigner who might have surreptitiously bestowed his own nationality to his offspring. An individual without proof that her father did or does indeed possess Nepali citizenship, which could be the result of any number of reasons such as abandonment, disappearance, death, parental conflict, rape, etc, can easily be denied citizenship. This is a grave mockery of the spirit of the 2006 Act, and is perhaps the reason that we cannot but agree with Mr Bumble’s famous declaration in Oliver Twist: “The law is a ass.”

Depraved attitudes

But the asininity of the law is not enough to explain what people have to undergo when faced with officialdom. To cite the Al Jazeera story again, a young woman whose father had run away when she was only five relates how her mother had been humiliated by a government official who asked why she had not thought of the consequences of sleeping with the man. Another woman, married to a foreigner was asked, “You didn’t think our Nepali men were good enough.” This is beyond sexism; it is a lewd depravity of the mind that certainly has no place in any setting, let alone a government office.

The problem with the acquisition of citizenship is much more acute, though. A survey released by the Kathmandu-based organisation Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), estimated that 4.3 million people above the age of 16 do not have citizenship papers. That’s nearly a quarter of all the people entitled to it. This represents a gross failure on the part of the government to confer full rights to its citizens, particularly since that piece of paper is the most-important documentation required to access any kind of services in Nepal. The FWLD study mentions that prejudice among government officials towards Madhesis is still strong when it comes to distribution of citizenships, while Dalits are reluctant to apply because of the attitude they encounter, including refusal by officials to allow them to use their family names instead of those that identify them as Dalits and hence, subject them to outright discrimination. Nothing new there, but to have it re-emphasised after so many years of an ongoing transformation of the state is galling.

Actually, in many respects the transformation seems to be headed the other way round. Even that ‘father or mother’ clause in the already problematic citizenship law is likely to be replaced by ‘father and mother’, ensuring gender equality in a rather perverse sort of way. That at least was the recommendation of the sub-committee in the first Constituent Assembly (CA) headed by none other than Prachanda, the great revolutionary and a great votary of the rights of everyone, women included, at least till his own transformation. Unless the Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee headed by the other great revolutionary, Baburam Bhattarai, wants to allow a debate on the matter, that is how it is going to be presented in the CA, where the use of party whips would ensure its easy adoption.

A travesty

What has been surprising during all these deliberations, held in camera, of course, is that there has not been a concerted effort to push for more liberal citizenship laws by those most vulnerable to being denied citizenship, women, Dalits and Madhesis, not to mention those who claim to represent the poor. A coalition of these forces, along with the many individual and group allies in society, should be strong enough to get the message across in the CA and in drumming up public support. The tragedy, of course, is that each group is so caught up in the rhetoric against the other that they fail to see eye-to-eye on something as fundamental as that. Hence, non-Madhesi women and hill Dalits have not been able to effectively counter the fallacious argument that granting immediate citizenship to foreign men married to Nepali women would see all of Nepal swamped by Biharis and denizens of Uttar Pradesh; Madhesis would rather see women as appendages to their person; and no one seems to care about the fate of landless Dalits all over the country. These are obviously caricatures of extremes but every new bit of information seems to validate these impressions again and again over the years.

The denial of citizenship rights to all the people of Nepal will be a travesty of the achievements of all the popular movements that our political parties are so fond of invoking. Ironically, one of the results of those gains has been the elevation of someone like Bamdev Gautam to the chair of Home Minister, putting him in charge of the department that distributes citizenship certificates, and who reportedly pronounced at the release of the FWLD report something to the effect: There is no problem of citizenship in our country. Raking up the issue is all a ploy of donors and their agents, the NGOs.

Published: 20-11-2014 07:36

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