In Nepal, after the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, one of the most contested provisions has been the one on citizenship. A political regime can be called a republic only when its constitution recognises citizenship as a dynamic principle of its organisation and is ‘owned’ by its citizens. Citizens of a republic are both the rulers and the ruled. The significance of citizenship extends far beyond a piece of paper issued by the government on whose basis an individual can get a job or own property.
While citizenship grants privileges and rights, it also binds the citizens with the obligation to obey laws and fulfil their duties and responsibilities. This establishes a reciprocal relationship between the state and the individual, bringing citizens closer to the state and ensuring equal status with respect to their rights and responsibilities. However, in Nepal, many communities such as the Madhesis, women, Dalits, and Janajatis have been kept out of this relation, making them feel deprived of the right and opportunity to be equal and full citizens.
It is notable that Nepal’s citizenship provision, when conceptualised through the 1952 Citizenship Act, was not as shallow as it is today. Although it cannot be argued that it was the best one, what cannot be denied is that the idea of the citizen conceived then was much broader. It was far more progressive and it provided a greater sense of nationhood to all citizens. For instance, it had provisions to grant citizenship to those who were residents of Nepal ipso facto.
Further, a person whose Nepali father was married to a foreign mother could legally acquire citizenship after his father’s death, and being born in Nepal was sufficient to acquire citizenship. Similarly, a woman married to a foreigner and the child born to such parents were eligible to be full citizens of Nepal. Residing in Nepal for one year was sufficient to acquire citizenship for children born of Nepali parents who had acquired foreign citizenship. A foreign national could acquire citizenship by residing in Nepal for five consecutive years. After having been a citizen for 10 years, they were also eligible for eminent positions like that of the prime minister or the chief of security agencies.
Such provisions were helpful to make the Madhesis feel a stronger sense of attachment to the state, given the common practice of cross-border marriages. Women married to foreign nationals could transfer citizenship to their children. A spirit of democracy that is embodied in the ability of the state to foster citizenship was more pronounced in this document. It can at least be considered to have envisaged a vision of fostering citizenship as compared to the current provisions, which only seek to narrow the very idea of citizenship and, by extension, the spirit of democracy at large.
Problematic Panchayat era
This trend was set in the Panchayat era and it led to heightened discrimination and marginalisation of communities such as the Madhesis, women, Janajatis and Dalits. The citizenship provisions became shallower in their conceptualisation and they became a tool to marginalise and alienate these groups in the name of ardent nationalism. The constitution, which is the fundamental source of law, was used to legitimise discrimination against citizens. With each successive constitution, discriminatory citizenship provisions have become more pronounced. Citizenship has been denied under pretexts like linguistic differences, marriage and birth. Whatever the pretext, it only reflects the exclusionary nationalism inherent in the Panchayat mindset. With such a mindset, a progressive republican Nepal cannot be imagined.
Nepal’s claims of republicanism remains confined to hollow slogans. Nepal has failed to conform to the conditions that are necessary to foster true republicanism. Mutual agreement of sharing of natural rights and transferring of rights has never been the norm of governance. Rather, the state has largely been representative of the interests of the stronger sections. Continuous and enforced alienation has made ethnic divisions profound; neglecting diverse ethnicities and their unique cultural and traditional contexts has estranged citizens from the state.
It is a well known fact that prospects for peace and stability are strongest when governments are accountable to the population for delivering goods and services, when laws reflect the common good, and when citizens and the government work in partnership in determining the right course of action. It is important to understand that citizens constitute the backbone of the state. A state’s strength depends largely on the intensity of the bonds of trust, reciprocity and readiness of the citizens to assume duties for the country. But in Nepal, basic individual rights and entitlements have been curtailed through skewed constitutional arrangements. Nepal today stands on the brink of democratic degeneration characterised by a weak government and an alienated citizenry.
Jha holds a master’s degree in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences