I am a Nepali citizen who lives and works in Delhi. As someone who grew up in Kathmandu, whose parents continue to live there, and as a journalist who has extensively covered politics and written a book on the country, I engage on a sustained basis with developments at home. I go back several times a year, and I spend most of my waking hours outside of work thinking about Nepali affairs.
Yet, my children – even if they wish to – cannot become Nepali citizens.
And that is because I married an Indian woman.
Nepal is currently in the final lap of its constitution.
On Friday afternoon, Hindustan Times became the first media outlet to break the news about the contents of the draft constitution. And as feared by activists, the text had citizenship clauses which would have been considered anachronistic even in the last century.
Here is what the constitution says.
The draft clearly states that only those whose father AND mother are Nepali citizens would be eligible to become Nepali citizens by descent. This is a reversal of the clause in Nepal’s interim constitution, promulgated in 2007, that a person whose father OR mother was Nepali could become a citizen by descent.
In formal terms, it means I cannot pass on a citizenship that I so cherish to my children.
It also means that a Nepali woman married to a foreign man cannot do so either.
In practical terms though, I may be able to get around this provision. Given the patriarchy entrenched in Nepal’s state apparatus, when I go to the District Administration Office, it is unlikely that the district officials will ask me about my wife’s citizenship – they will probably assume she is Nepali, and provide a stamp of state legitimacy to my child.
Banking on the inadequacy and the structural bias of the Nepali state, I am hoping the law will falter in its implementation.
But when a Nepali woman approaches the same office, given the same prejudices and assumptions inherent in the official machinery, she will be asked to show the identity of her husband. And till she can prove the identity of her husband, or show the father of her child is Nepali, her child will not get citizenship.
At the root of these provisions is a fear of Indian men, of Indian ‘demographic aggression’. Cross-border marriages are an integral feature of the India-Nepal special relationship – this is particularly true for Indian citizens who live in Bihar and UP, and the Madhesis of Nepal who live in the plains. The draft constitution’s underlying logic is to keep out Indian men who would marry Nepali women and have children who could then become Nepalis. This, the Kathmandu establishment fears, could be a step to enhance Indian influence in Nepal.
It is a fear that reminds one of the manufactured ‘love jihad’ conspiracy theories in India where Hindutva activists have played up the threat of Muslim ‘demographic takeover’; Nepali ultra-nationalist activists have framed citizenship laws based on a similar fear of the Indian ‘takeover’.
This provision triggered a civil society movement led by feminist activists last year to push for more reasonable, fair and sensitive citizenship provisions.
The #ornotand and #citizenshipthroughmothers hashtag on social media and sustained pressure on the political class forced some leaders to concede that this was indeed a discriminatory provision.
But when the draft appeared last week, Nepal’s political class stuck to its decision. They cushioned it partly by allowing those whose parents could not be identified, or whose father could not be located, to be eligible for Nepali citizenship. But Nepal is joining 27 other countries which limit the ability of women to pass on citizenship to their children.
It also limits the ability of men like me to pass on citizenship – which is why this movement is not just a women’s issue, but one which affects men, children, women and all those concerned with statelessness.
Inequality is formally institutionalised in another category – citizenship by naturalization.
The draft constitution says that if a foreign woman is married to a Nepali man, she can get immediate citizenship as long as she gives up the citizenship of the country to which she originally belonged and is a resident in Nepal. But if a foreign man is married to a Nepali woman, he has to wait 15 years before he can become a Nepali citizen.
There was an earlier proposal to have both foreign men and women married to Nepali spouses wait for seven years before they could get citizenship. This sparked a major backlash from the Tarai based parties – they argued that given the extent of cross border marriages, and the fact that women usually moved to the homes of their husband, such a provision would make millions of Indian women married to Madhesi men stateless.
The proposal was withdrawn, but the provision of the 15 year waiting period in the case of the men stayed. This was deeply unfair to Nepali women. But it was again was driven by the same fear – that Indian men would marry Nepali women, would infiltrate Nepali politics and economy, and thus Nepal needed rigid citizenship laws which made naturalized citizenship difficult.
Nepal’s citizenship provisions are a product of chauvinistic nationalism and patriarchy. It will affect not just Nepalis but Indians with deep family links across the border; it is not just a ‘national’ matter but is directly linked to universal human rights and international conventions. And that is why it deserves far greater attention from the Indian civil society and intelligentsia since it has so far received.