The cut-off year for foreigners to apply for citizenship in India is very strict and conditional. However, in Nepal, it is unfortunate that its fault lines are in the constitution as the cut off year for foreigners to apply for citizenship has been extended after amendment and promulgation of each constitution.
Nepal has a poor track record of distributing citizenship certificates by making amendments to its citizenship laws before elections. The first example was before the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections by amending the Interim Constitution in 2007. It distributed over 600,000 citizenship certificates in one month by launching two campaigns - one involving mobile teams and the integrated citizenship distribution campaign - across the country. According to the amended constitution, anyone born or living permanently in Nepal before mid-April 1990 was eligible to have a citizenship certificate.
The latest example is 1st amendment 2022 to the Nepal Citizenship Act 2006, by targeting the coming general election of 2022 and it is expected more than 600,000 citizenship certificates will be distributed nationwide this time too. This amendment was made based on the Constitution of Nepal 2015, which extended the previous cut off year from mid-April 1990 to 20 September 2015. Anyone born in Nepal before this date will be eligible to have a citizenship certificate.
Each country has its own policies, regulations, and criteria as to who is entitled to its citizenship. In some countries, people automatically become citizens of the country in which they are born. Many countries offer naturalization within a certain period based on the marriage of a person to a citizen. States also grant naturalized citizenship to people who have entered the country legally and been granted a permit to stay, or been granted political asylum, and lived there for a specified period.
When there are many diverse groups within nation, a citizenship certificate may be the only actual bond which ties everybody as equals without discrimination —it is a “broad bond” connecting “a person with the state” and gives people a universal identity as a legal member of a nation.
Nationality, in our geopolitical situation, is often used as a synonym for citizenship, denoting a person’s membership of a nation – ethnic groups, large or small - residing for many generations.
The Nepal Citizenship Act, 2006 (First Amendment, 2022) endorsed by parliament has followed basic norms and spirit of the Constitution. However, it has given high importance to offering naturalized citizenship to foreigners and excess conditional provisions for Non-Resident Nepalis and minorities, especially women, children and the third gender.
After long discussions in the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of parliament last year, the citizenship amendment bill was forwarded to the House of Representatives, by incorporating the provision of seven-year waiting period for obtaining naturalized citizenship for foreign women married to Nepalis and until they receive Nepali citizenship, a separate identity card should be issued for all other essential purposes except voting and political rights, which is in practice in almost all countries of the world.
However, contrary to this recommendation, the government withdrew the bill from parliament and replaced it by scrapping the provision of a seven-year bar to get citizenship by a foreign woman married to a Nepali man.
Moreover, people were also expecting corrections and amendments to other weak contents of the Act, such as awarding Nepali citizenship certificates based on spot investigations through formation of citizenship certificate distribution teams and provisions for a child, whose parents are unknown, would-be citizens of Nepal by descent. The general public in Nepal are concerned with continuation of such improper provisions.
The provision of citizenship distribution teams could be again disastrous in case of political agitation and fluid political situation in future alike before the Constituent Assembly elections. Moreover, thousands of street children can easily enter Nepal through the open border of India, and it is not impossible to misuse this provision for parentless children if child protection centers certify them (or to any person) sheltered there and such person will be entitled to get Nepali citizenship certificates.
The population in the country’s Terai region is continuously increasing as a result of migration of people from the hills of Nepal as well as open entry of immigrants from India. This amendment to the Citizenship Act may bring more demographic shifts in the already imbalanced population structures between the Hill and Terai of Nepal.
Geographically, the population of Terai, which was 13.3 million 18 thousand in 2011, reached 15.6 million 65 thousand in 2021, increasing from 50.27% to 53.66% within 10 years. During the same period, the population of the Mountain region, which was 1.781 million, has come down to 1.778 million, decreasing from 6.73% to 6.09%. The population of the Hill region which was 11.394 million in 2011 increased to 11.78 million. However, its percentage in national share decreased from 43.01% to 40.25% within 10 years.
The shifting of population from Hill to Terai is a usual natural phenomenon inside the country, however, especially the entry of foreigners with intentions to acquire Nepali citizenship certificates through weak provisions of our laws has been a matter of concern for the Nepali people. It is true to a great extent that the attracting factors behind acquiring citizenship of Nepal by the poor, neglected Indians across the border are economical as well as political accomplishments made by them in a short period.
Earlier, as a result of demographic imbalances in Terai, Nepal has bitter experiences witnessing many ethnic agitations and conflicts; and forceful eviction of many hill origin populations from there, who are spending miserable life in new locations. Moreover, the newcomer naturalized citizenship holders are occupying significant seats in parliament through the support of political parties especially the Madhesh-based party leaders nominated their nearest and relatives including their wives, daughters in proportional seats.
As this amendment is more favorable for immigrants, and so far internal issues are concerned, the critics say that this amendment has only partially addressed it. Women in our patriarchal society still face a lot of discriminations when passing down citizenship to their children, especially in the absence of the father or if the father is not a Nepali citizen.
If the son can pass on citizenship to his children without having to identify who their mother is, why should not the daughter be able to do the same for her children without having conditionality in respect with the father’s identity? Moreover, women abandoned by their husbands and if they do not have their own citizenship document means that their children, who are just coming of age, would have no legal identity either.
Not only the general public but also several parliamentarians have expressed their dissatisfactions that our citizenship laws are depreciative to national sovereignty and national interests compared to other countries of South Asia and again a new popular buzzword started to be heard that Nepal is going to be like Fiji, stating that the immigrants would continually dominate the country’s demography.
Our neighbor India has a restrictive policy for foreigners to get citizenship certificates. And for those who have already received citizenship certificates, an investigation has been started into citizenship certificates previously distributed in Assam and West Bengal through the provision of National Registration of Citizens (NRC). Around four million citizens of Bangladeshi origin and one hundred thousand citizens of Nepali origin have been excluded from the NRC.
Therefore, the government and the political parties in Nepal must have the courage to establish a tribunal to reinvestigate all the citizenship certificates issued illegally to non-Nepali people and fake citizenship certificates. Moreover, the cut-off year for foreigners to apply for citizenship in India is very strict and conditional. However, in Nepal, it is unfortunate that its fault lines are in the constitution as the cut off year for foreigners to apply for citizenship has been extended after amendment and promulgation of each constitution.
Lastly, Nepal has a liberal citizenship policy compared to many countries. However, to maintain the demographic balances, it needs tough and strong conditional provisions for foreigners to acquire citizenships due to its strategic location, open border with India, small economy, small country and a saturated point to absorb more external immigrants.