There is a lot of whining and crying, lot of ifs and buts, unleashing of hate against political leaders, nation and nationalism but there is no solution.
Ill logic, emotion and sentimentality, name calling of nationalists and mocking of Nepal are back on citizenship debate. This time around too, like a year ago and years before that, a set of some same myths, lies and propaganda are being manufactured and spread as State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of the parliament has proposed seven years’ residency for foreign women married to Nepali citizens as a criteria to obtain Nepali citizenships.
The arguments making rounds are: Women have always been treated as second class citizens by rulers. If Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are grounded on discrimination against women, let's do way with such nationalism. So and so queens of Nepal were from India. How did that endanger our nationality? So on and so forth.
The danger with such false logic is that it completely overwhelms the real problems. The real problems seem so insignificant and problems of little significance look like real problems.
What’s the problem?
Our citizenship laws have considered men as more reliable agency in matters of transferring citizenship. Thus, a Nepali man, whoever he marries, whether he takes care of the person he marries or lives with her, how many children he may have from this marriage and whether he even takes care of those children, can transfer citizenships to his partner and children by virtue of being a man. The process is easy and hassle-free.
A Nepali woman cannot do that.
Existing provisions give more priority to foreign women married to Nepali men than Nepali women married to foreign men in terms of acquisition and transfer of citizenship.
As a result, a child born of Nepali man and foreign woman is entitled to every right. S/he becomes the citizen by descent. The woman who marries Nepali man is entitled to citizenship of her husband's country so easily and she enjoys nearly all the rights Nepali citizens enjoy. A foreign woman can get married today with, say, a Nepali man from Sindhupalchok or Saptari, can apply for the citizenship the next day by furnishing a proof that she has begun the process of renouncing the citizenship of her country of origin. She gets the citizenship of naturalization. With this she can file for candidacy at local, provincial and national elections, and in a few months can even become a mayor or a minister.
But that’s not the case with a Nepali woman marrying a foreign man. If she is married to a non-Nepali citizen, first of all, he might have to wait for years even to apply for the citizenship of Nepal. And the children born of her also do not become the citizens by descent. If she applies for the citizenship for her children, her application is put under scrutiny—she is asked who her husband is, whether he is a Nepali or a foreigner and so on.
In this way, existing laws and practices are more favorable to foreign women married to Nepali men than Nepali women married to foreign men, the foreign men and their children.
It is unequal when foreign women married to Nepali men can obtain citizenships on ‘arrival’ simply because their spouses are Nepali men, they can enjoy all the rights and can vie for any political and constitutional positions (except for some top five political posts which the constitution has reserved specifically for the citizens of descent), their children become the citizens of descent, but when the spouses of Nepali women who marry foreign men have to wait for years in uncertainty to become the naturalized citizens and their children also become the naturalized citizens, unlike the children of foreign women married to Nepali men.
In other words, while the process of acquiring and transferring citizenship is extremely flexible by law for certain people, for others it is extremely difficult and unequal, too, by law. Both provisions are flawed. The question is how to correct and where to start with.
I see three possible options. Dear readers, judge which one is appropriate for Nepal.
First, the state accords the privileges a man enjoys in matters of acquisition and transfer of citizenship (to his wife and to his children) to a woman as well (in matters of acquisition and transfer of citizenship for her husband and to her children). That is, a foreign man married to Nepali woman can also acquire citizenship ‘on arrival’ through her name, he can vie for all the jobs and political positions, even become a parliamentarian, a minister in a few months.
Second, setting provisions to decide who can become a Nepali citizen and who cannot (concept of citizenship is based on the idea of native and foreign, nation and nationality etc, the self-proclaimed anti-nationalists do not need to scoff at these lines). That is to set some criteria, the years of residency, for example, between which the new comer renounces the citizenship of the country of his/her origin, becomes familiar with Nepali way of life and culture, irrespective of whether the person in question is male or female. In setting such provisions, however, we also should draw from the experience and precedents of other countries.
Third option is to maintain the status quo. Argue and argue but reach no solution, keep the seeds of dispute alive.
Nepal Communist Party (NCP) dominated parliamentary committee seems to have tried the second option mentioned above but it presented itself, again, as being hostile to women.
First, when NCP secretariat took the decision on naturalized citizenship by marriage, it only mentioned that foreign women would not be eligible to obtain Nepali citizenship for seven years after marriage. No further explanation was given as to what would be their status for seven years: How will they be able to run business, own property, whether they will be able to vote, what if the husband divorces such wife before seven years and so on. So within a day people had made their own opinions: Seven years of statelessness for women? So Nepal fears women? NCP is a club of misogynists. Nepal is cutting off its age-old roti-beti relations with India.
NCP could have begun by introducing such provision for foreign men married to Nepali women, and the same provision could have been applied in case of foreign women married to Nepali women too.
What do you want?
The biggest drawback among the participants to citizenship debate has been the tendency only to talk about problems but offer no solutions. There is a lot of whining and crying, lot of ifs and buts, unleashing of hate against political leaders, nation and nationalism but there is no solution.
We need to be clear what we want (For my position, see “Rage and reason,”Republica, March 28, 2019).
Do we want a system where the state provides citizenship ‘on arrival’ to some people just because they are married to Nepali citizens and deny the same to others though they are also married to Nepali citizens? Do we want the citizenship system to be regulated and governed by fair and just law and well-crafted processes?
Citizenship is linked with the fundamental question of what makes a person the citizen of a country. If you look into it through the regional prism, you might get a different picture. Population of Nepal’s Tarai, because of its historic matrimonial ties with India, may feel differently about the citizenship than population of hills. Even so, we all need to agree to be governed by the same set of laws.
Or do we want one set of laws for, say, people of one region and gender, and another for people living in other region and of other sexual orientation?
What on earth do we actually want on citizenship?
Political leaders and commentators need to be clear. So do media. Should not Nepali media, which provides editorial recommendations on wide range of issues, come clean on what should be done with the citizenship issue?
Since the next elections are around two years away, some parties and leaders may be looking up to making it an election agenda. Others may be afraid that speaking clearly about it and saying what ought to be done will invite displeasure of certain power centres.
So the emotionalists and obscurantists will keep preaching us: You distrust your own mother? Do not undermine the agencies of your mother, daughters and daughter in laws. How can you even think of not allowing your mother to pass on citizenships? What good is this nationalism if it disrespects women?
It is easy this way because you do not have to answer the real questions. You do not have to say what should be done either.