Misplaced concerns over Nepal’s new citizenship bill blind a larger social reality

Cross-border marriages, i.e., matrimony between Nepal's son/daughter and India’s son/daughter are very common in India's bordering districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, writes Jivesh Jha  for South Asia Monitor

Jivesh Jha Jul 01, 2020

Nepal has floated a new Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) that seeks to grant citizenship to a foreign woman married to a Nepali man after her seven years of continued residency in the Himalayan republic. The Madhesh dwellers, who share bread-and-bride relations with India, are displeased with the unprecedented move of the Communist government, stating that the ultimate intent is to restrict the entry of Indian daughters (brides) to Nepal.  

Of late Madheshi activists argue that the CAB, once passed, will help protect non-Madheshis and harass Madheshis, who are people of Indian ancestry residing in the Terai region of Nepal, when they line up at the government offices with their paper work. Madhesh, dwellers  in the southern plains believe that the state is divided like never before into ethnic lines. Clearance of the CAB would favour fanatical agendas aimed at disturbing bread-and-bride relations with India.  

Madheshi leaders, NGO and activists have always floated misinformation to entice Madheshi community members against Kathmandu and hill and, in return, they have bagged important government posts with settlement and negotiation with Kathmandu power centres. For instance, major government positions are held by NGO activists, who had protested against the constitution in 2015 in Province-2. They are also holding vital government positions under the same constitutional frameworks against which they had protested for more than 135 days in 2015. They enticed people to join their protest which claimed more than 40 lives.      

Like buffalos can never turn into white cows, so is the story with Madheshi parties if we look into their past. Nevertheless, it does not mean that Nepali Congress, Communist Parties, and Maoists have done much for the plainspeople. As I come from the same community, I am always with the Madhesh, where I was born and bred. It’s indubitable that Madhesi people's demands and aspirastions need to be heeded. Their aspiration of equality, peace, and prosperity can’t be overruled. 

These activists entice people against the authorities, mobilise people in street protests and later bag vital government offices in deals. Madheshi parties refused to give the stamp of approval to the new Constitution, arguing that the “statute is not a broad-based document” and it would “politically marginalize the Madheshi people.” They misled the people earlier and now they disseminated false information about the CAB.  

CAB, cross-border marriage and misinformation 

There is anxiety among Madheshis over the denial of citizenship to their spouses in a cross-border marriage. But there is nothing as such in the bill that aims to proscribe a foreign woman married to Nepali citizens to acquire citizenship or Nepali nationality. 

Firstly, it’s true that a foreign woman, including that of Indian daughters marrying Nepalis, would have to wait for seven years to apply for naturalized citizenship of Nepal. But, it does not mean that those brides, who have left their country after solemnizing a marriage in Nepal, would be left stateless for up to seven years. Until the citizenship is granted, a foreign woman married to a Nepali man would be granted an identity card of permanent resident, which is equivalent to citizenship for the purpose of enjoying economic, social and cultural rights. It means an Indian or foreign woman, who is married to a Nepali man could obtain the permanent resident card after producing a marriage registration certificate and proof of initiating the process renouncing the citizenship of her country. 

A person with a permanent resident card is eligible to purchase land, establish a business, can study, apply for the government/semi-government or non-government jobs, apply for the registration of birth certificates to their issues, dissolve the marriage by the way of divorce or claim estate/maintenance from the husband’s property at the event of the dissolution of the matrimony or at the instance of the death of the husband. However, Madheshi activists of Nepal neither spoke even a single word about the permanent resident card nor did they disseminate a true picture of the CAB.  

In fact, the grant of citizenship after seven years of holding the permanent resident card is the continuance of citizenship. This bill is for granting nationality and continuance of citizenship; neither deprivation nor suspension of national identity. So, the new proposed law would neither harm bread and bride relations with India nor would it make any person stateless. Yet, it has a serious implication.

The foreign women so married with Nepali men are not entitled to enjoy political rights, meaning thereby, they are barred from contesting elections and casting votes. 

Moreover, the foreign women married to Nepalis are naturalized citizens, who are not eligible to hold vital government offices by virtue of Article 289 of 2015 constitution of Nepal. Article 289 disallows a naturalized citizen to be ‘appointed as the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the parliament, Chairperson of National Assembly, Head of the province, chief minister, speaker of Provincial Assembly and chief of security bodies. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Convention on the nationality of married women, 1957 provides that everyone has the right to a nationality and must not be arbitrarily deprived of, nor denied automatically by marriage or dissolution of marriages. Nepal’s CAB does not deprive the nationality of married women. 

However, states may make special procedures available for a wife to acquire her husband’s nationality [Article 3(1), Convention the nationality of married women, 1957]. Women must have equal rights in relation to men with regard to the nationality of their children [Article 9, Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979]. The children have a right from birth to acquire a nationality [Articles 7, 8, Convention on the Rights of Child]. International provisions also seek to prevent statelessness by outlining the circumstances in which a state must not deprive a person of nationality, such as where deprivation would result in a person having no nationality or where a person is deprived of racial, ethnic or political ground [Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, 1961].

The CAB hosts provision for a permanent resident card until the citizenship card is issued. This way, the CAB neither deprives the nationality of the married women nor does it discriminates with children born to such a couple. 

Cross-border marriages, i.e., matrimony between Nepal's son/daughter and India’s son/daughter are very common in India's bordering districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This is the reason why Madheshis treat Indian soil as their relatives’ home, not a foreign land. 

Poverty and lack of development 

Nepal is a country of limited resources where inflation and poverty are at the zenith. The government imposes more than 200 percent tax on vehicles that are imported from other countries. Nepal does not manufacture motorbike or other vehicles. A Nepali is bound to invest more than 150,000 for a bike that costs INR 40,000 in India. Every Nepali in bordering districts frequently visit the Indian market for daily food items because they find grocery items, clothes, and other essential services at a reasonable price. Millions of Nepalis are working in India. A government officer in Nepal receives around NPR 40,000 which is equivalent to INR 25,000. An officer in India receives salaries several times more. These things clearly show that Nepal is a poor country.    

So would an Indian daughter born and brought up in an affluent family dare to establish matrimony in Nepal? The truth is that even a middle-class family of India won’t dare to marry their daughters and sisters in Nepal where there is rampant poverty, illiteracy, and poor infrastructural development. In reality, Indian women solemnize marriage with Nepali men having equal status. To put it simply, these days Indians don’t love to marry their daughters in Nepal because of the country's political instability, poverty, illiteracy, and lack of development. 

In fact, no foreigner or Indian would wish to settle in a country where a government university teacher draws a salary of NPR 50,000 (that is INR 31,250) per month. Nepalis are moving abroad on a daily basis in search of a better life. Nepal’s millions of youths are toiling in Gulf countries as migrant labourers.  Nepal’s poverty and lack of development itself are deterrent to cross-border marriages; there is no need to float harsh laws to achieve this goal.        

Nepali citizenship is based on the principle of ‘jus sanguinis’ or bloodline. In this way, a person born of (father) parents who are holding citizenship of Nepal will have a claim to seek citizenship by descent.  The provision of permanent resident card guarantees the social, cultural, and economic rights of every woman married to Nepalis. So, there should be no confusion in this regard. 

(The writer is a former law lecturer Kathmandu University School of Law. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at jhajivesh@gmail.com)

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