Indian wives of MadhesBiased citizenship laws have been created to promote ethnic homogeneity in Nepal
The ethnic conception of the Nepali nation determined the track along which the politics of citizenship has been driven by the dynamics of interests. Nepal’s citizenship law has more or less continued, or even increased, its focus on ethnic exclusivity as the principal motif in law and policy. This was clearly reflected in the provision regarding citizenship by naturalisation which has impacted, in particular, Madhesi women.
In the recent past, there was a strong movement for providing citizenship through the mother’s name as Nepali mothers cannot transfer their citizenship to their children. While this was the core argument, the larger issue that this movement questioned was equal citizenship rights for women. The struggle has, however, failed to adequately address issues associated with Madhesi women. There are two categories of Madhesi women in Nepal: those who were born to a Madhesi father holding Nepali citizenship by descent, and those from across the southern border who are married to Madhesi men holding Nepali citizenship.
The creation of stateless Nepalis
Current laws largely ignore the plight of Madhesi women married to Nepali men. The following issues have created a foundation for the struggle: In case of a second marriage, lack of identification of the whereabouts of the father who has left his wife and children, and proof of the father’s domicile. These circumstances have placed women, especially single mothers, in inconvenient socio-cultural, political and economic situations, including the denial of citizenship to their children, which has been one of the sources of statelessness. However, the question that is never asked is what happens to Madhesi women holding naturalised citizenship when caught in the same situation. Another issue is how to accommodate these women in the larger question of equal citizenship rights for women. Under these circumstances, it is very likely that the Madhes will have generations of stateless children or children who are naturalised citizens, depriving them of state benefits to which they are legitimately entitled.
In Nepal, debates regarding citizenship policies are often debates regarding the desirable form of the state. Over the past decades, the state attempted to compel minority groups to give up their distinctive practices and identities. The failure of this project of cultural homogenisation forms the backdrop of the reality of tensions between Madhesis and the powerful Nepali Khas Arya. Fears that Madhesis might infiltrate Khas Arya society have led the state to view with hostility the citizenship applications of Madhesi women—with women from this grouping seeking naturalised citizenship in particular and all Madhesi women in general.
Resurgence of ‘nationalism’
This has led those interested in promoting ethnic homogeneity in Nepal to develop rules that would prevent the permanent settlement of perceived foreigners, which in this case, are Madhesis or those who are not ethnic Nepalis. For instance, the Nepali state has conveniently imposed sanctions on naturalised Nepali citizens from holding eminent positions. This is likely to impact Madhesi citizens more, given the high rate of cross-border marriages. It is important to note that this provision was not there in past constitutions. The central role played by the resurgence of Nepali nationalism in legitimising the new state has created questions regarding the status of Madhesis living within the borders of Nepal. Although sharp reactions have been seen from some sections of civil society against such policies, the state of Nepal has carved new ways to use powers to promote the creation of an ethnically homogenous nation.
The rigors with which policies of exclusion on ethnic grounds are being practiced in Nepal are distinctive from other countries in the immediate neighbourhood. Ethnically based naturalisation has become more prominent than ever. Nepal’s shallow nationalistic ambition is reflected in the emphasis on the ‘loyalty’ of Nepalis, and citizenship laws have been one tool employed to this end. The idea of ‘loyalty’ has been designed at the discretion of the state. An obsession with sovereignty has always relegated Madhesis to second-class citizen status, and now Madhesi women have become the new targets of the state.
The Nepali state rules by spreading anxiety about being subsumed into India. It has tried to establish Madhesi women who hold naturalised citizenship as the ultimate threat to their sovereignty. Naturalisation policies in Nepal are deeply patriarchal, and reflect a much larger pattern that has to do with ethnic nationalism. While they have deeply affected the lives of Madhesi women in particular, and all foreign women married to Nepali nationals in general, they have a far-reaching impact. The prevalence of laws that treat women simply as an appendage of their husbands is doubtlessly laden with the view that wives are not entitled to rights that are equal to those of their husbands.
This is what is largely reflected in the situation of Madhesi women, and in general, all Nepali women who are treated as appendages. Therefore, in terms of citizenship laws and bringing women’s rights on par with their male counterparts, there does not seem to be much of a departure from the state of affairs under which a woman can be deprived of her citizenship against her will. These patriarchal arrangements can only be ended through a strongly united feminist movement. However, the feminist movement in Nepal is also divided along ethnic and caste lines and scattered across geographies, which is a major hindrance.
Jha is the author of The Madhesi Upsurge and the Contested Idea of Nepal