A home for allIf our identities are fluid, citizenship cannot remain dictated by archaic divisions and anxiety of otherness.
After much ado, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel as President Ramchandra Paudel has authenticated the bill to amend the Citizenship Act. And with the bill’s passage, it is as if the Dickensian dictum “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” has come true in Nepal. On the one hand, the country has been rocked by the scandal of the state-sponsored metamorphosis of Nepali citizens into fake refugees. On the other, it has committed to becoming home to around 400,000 hitherto stateless people—and rightly so. The amendment allows the children of the parents who got citizenship by birth to acquire citizenship by descent. We say this as a matter of principle. Whether the new President could legally authenticate a bill forwarded by the previous parliament to the previous President—and the fact that a related case is sub judice in the supreme court—is a different matter altogether.
In its previous avatar, the Citizenship Act allowed everyone born within Nepal’s territory before April 12, 1990, to acquire citizenship by birth. However, their children had failed to acquire citizenship by descent in the absence of a legal provision. The amendment also clears the way for non-resident Nepalis (NRNs) to enjoy cultural, economic and social rights by acquiring citizenship, which is a win-win for both the country and the NRNs.
The amendment bill, which aimed to provide a sense of identity and belonging to the Nepalis who had been ineligible to obtain citizenship due to stringent and ill-thought-out provisions, had remained moribund after former President Bidya Devi Bhandari had repeatedly refused to endorse it. Bhandari had, on August 14 last year, returned the bill, with her concerns and suggestions, to the House of Representatives. When it came back a second time, Bhandari had sat on it until the 15-day deadline for its authentication had passed, inviting fury and support in equal measures from the media and the public alike, depending on their ideological standpoints.
Now that the amendment bill has received a green light from the President, the Nepali state has fulfilled part of its duty to provide a roof to the people born on its soil. The bill, however, was inadequate in addressing all outstanding issues concerning citizenship, the foremost being existing provisions in the Citizenship Act on marital naturalised citizenship. The discriminatory provisions of providing naturalised citizenship to foreign women married to Nepali men immediately, while requiring a cooling period for foreign men married to Nepali women, continue to be upheld. The provisions have been greeted with uproar, with rights activists and women alike saying it is against women’s right to choose the partner she wants.
In an ever-flattening world, where ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender, national and various other boundaries continue to be pushed, the provisions of the Citizenship Act remain too conservative and a bit too behind the times. If our identities are fluid and our choices limitless, citizenship cannot remain dictated by archaic dichotomies of gender and ethnicity, among other markers that betray our anxiety of otherness.
The Nepali state should start working immediately to address the remaining thorny issues of the Citizenship Act and relieve the rightful claimants of Nepali citizenship of the tribulations of perpetual homelessness.