Nepal: A Growing Nation of Immigrants

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by HARI PRASAD SHRESTHA 11 May 2019

Nowadays, a popular buzzword loudly heard in Nepal that it is in a process to be similar to Fiji, stating that the immigrants are dominating countries’ demography. Since 1951, Nepal’s citizenship laws have been full of controversy with never-ending problems as almost all governments in Nepal seemed to be weaker and external guided in this issue related to nationality. Nationality, in our geopolitical situation is often used as a synonym for citizenship, denoting a person’s membership of nation – ethnic groups, large or small residing since many generations.

When there are many diverse groups within nation citizenship 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.

Each country has its policies, regulations, and criteria as to who is entitled to its citizenship. In some countries, people are automatically citizens of the state in which they are born. Many countries fast-track naturalization based on the marriage of a person to a citizen. States also grant naturalization citizenship to people who have entered the country legally and been granted a permit to stay, or been granted political asylum, and also lived there for a specified period.

Wealthy people invest money in property or businesses, buy government bonds or donate cash directly, in exchange for citizenship by investment. Some Arab countries which rarely grant citizenship to other religious ethnicities, e.g., Qatar is known for granting citizenship to foreign athletes, but they all have to profess the Islamic faith to receive citizenship.
According to the 2011 census of Nepal, the hill population has declined to 49.73 percent from 64.8 percent, while—as a result of increased immigration—the Tarai population has risen to 50.27 percent from 35.2 percent from 1952 to 2011. These are the product of liberal and democratic provision of our citizenship laws for immigrants.

There are two types of issues regarding citizenship distribution in Nepal. The first is the external guided issue to distribute easy citizenship certificates to immigrants especially to bordering Indians and the second is an internal issue of discrimination to minorities especially to women and children.

The first one has always been controversy as Nepal and India have open border, and the bordering poor Indians consider Nepalese citizenship certificate as their game changer in life.
Moreover, the bordering inhabitants of Nepal and India have similar appearances, culture, religion, and relation of bread and daughter. The attracting factors behind acquiring citizen of Nepal are economical as well as political. The ever-increasing domination of immigrants in Nepal’s economic and political fields have been another factor of motivations for bordering Indians to be Nepal’s citizenship. They have completely dominated the Tarai, plain land of Nepal.

Although some section of the general public, politicians and the civil society opposes Nepal’s citizenship secure provisions to foreigners, however, no positive result have been witnessed to address by the government. There is a problem in political level in Nepal as they cannot absorb external shocks and are always compelled to resolve the issue in favor of immigrants. Now, Nepal is in saturated point becoming unable to absorb more external immigrants.

Due to demographic imbalances in Tarai, Nepal has witnessed many agitations and conflicts there, citing domination of hill people to plain land people of Nepal. The newly arrived immigrants from India have always been major players in the agitations as they became successful in controlling economic and political power in Terai within a short period.
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, they occupied significant seats in parliament through Madhesh constituencies and nominated their nearest and relatives including their wife, daughters in proportional seats of parliament. However, after decades of being in government, they did nothing for the progress and prosperity of Tarai. Their dominations on minorities, Dalits and original inhabitants increased an unprecedented way. The original Madhesis, Muslims and Tharus, who were not in favor of their complete Madhesh agitation have been compelled to support them to some extent because of similarities in appearances, castes, culture and marriage relationships.

The India Nepal border blockade of 2015 by the Madhesis supported by India was the major turning point in Madhesh agitation, which was counterproductive both for the Madhesi leaders and ruling authority in India. After that, regional Madhesh parties became weaker by dividing into many fractions.

The original communities in Terai have realized that they have been far behind economically and politically compared to immigrant communities. Many of them started to oppose the liberal citizenship provisions for immigrants.

Moreover, the constitution of Nepal 2015 demarcated Nepal in seven provinces comprising hill and Tarai districts except for province no 2, which only comprises seven districts of Terai in central Nepal.

However, after successful promulgation of the constitution of Nepal, a new controversy again arose in Madhesh related to granting citizenship certificates easily to immigrants through the proposed amendment bill on citizenship act 2006.

It reignited the general public as well as political leaders by opposing the proposed amendment in citizenship bill. Even members of parliament of the ruling party are against controversial government parts of this bill.
The significant discontent seemed in the provision of new cut off the year and providing citizenship by descent to the child of citizens by birth. People, who are opposing the bill argue that this provision would qualify by law the child of immigrants to be appointed in the post of president, vice president, prime minister, chief justice and head of security organs, currently which are prohibited to the naturalized citizens.

The next disagreement on the bill is that the designated authority may award the Nepalese citizenship certificate based on identification at the time of spot investigation by at least two persons having obtained Nepalese citizenship certificates and residing in the same ward and one local level authority, who are acquainted with the applicant. After the election of local level municipalities, the provision to issue citizenship based on identification by two people on spot investigation will be misused alike previously around four million citizenship certificates were distributed to the people especially majority of immigrants.

Moreover, proposals to issue citizenship certificate immediately to a foreign woman married to Nepali man and citizenship by descent to the child whose parents are unknown are other points of disagreements on the general public.

After opposition from the general public over the bill, it is currently pending in the house for the time being. However, the government took another short cut measure to support immigrants by issuing a circular to all district administration offices to issue citizenship certificates by descent to the child of a citizen by birth up to September 20, 2015. After a petition, the supreme court ordered not to grant citizenship certificates based on the government’s circular dismissing its previous order.

Amendments in our citizenship laws are , and the inhabitants residing from generations are much frustrated as they are becoming a minority in their own country. There is strong demand from the significant sections of society that after fixing a policy guideline, citizenship law should not be amended frequently as we are doing right now.

Other administrative and procedural reforms are also needed. For example, the citizenship record in district administration offices is being kept manually, where many files are missing, unavailable and destroyed by natural disasters. A person can make fake citizenship certificate easily due to its manual nature, and such fake citizenship cannot be easily verified immediately.

Therefore, Nepal must start as early as possible to convert all citizenship certificates into biometric identity smart card. The national identity smart card system also must be based on citizenship act to convert all citizenship certificates to a smart identity card. Taking into consideration, the gravity and seriousness of the citizenship, all the countries of the world, except Nepal have issued biometric identity card as proof of citizenship to their people. Moreover, Nepal is the only country in the world, which allowed Indians free movement through the open border, without visa, passport and ID card and vice versa.

Nepal should try to implement citizenship policy, equivalent or alike Indian citizenship law as India has very restrictive policies in granting citizenship certificates to foreigners. For small examples, an investment procedure has been started there on 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 have been out of NRC. The cut off a year in India is unchanged fixed on 1951, however, cut off the year in Nepal are changing in every amendment in citizenship laws and promulgations of constitutions. Therefore, there is also high demand in Nepal regarding the provision of cut-off year for citizenship, which should be fixed and unchanged to the year 1990.

Besides, people are demanding to establish a tribunal to reinvestigate all the citizenship certificates issued illegally to non-Nepali people and fake citizenship certificates to convert in a new biometric smart identity card.

Moreover, there must be at least seven years of bar to get citizenship by a foreign woman married to Nepali man. Until she receives Nepali citizenship, a separate identity card should be issued for essential purposes. Such an ID card should also be issued to another genuine person, whose citizenship approval is on pending. The provision of naturalized citizenship must be scrapped.

The general public in Nepal is also concerned that there are millions of street children in India and newly opened numerous child protection centers in Terai of Nepal may bring such children in such shelters of Nepal through Nepal India open border. At the same time, the Bangladeshi, Rakhine of Myanmar, Tibetan, African are also residing in huge numbers in Nepal, they also giving birth to a child, which is going to be a big problem for Nepal, Nepal must be severe in these issues, too. The provision in the proposed bill to award citizenship by descent to a child whose parents are unknown could create a big challenge to national sovereignty in the future.
These were external issues related to the immigrants, subjects of opposition in Nepal and below are the internal issues, which must be solved through the proposed amendment in citizenship bill pending in the parliament.

The internal issues are if the son can pass on citizenship to his children without having to identify who their mother is why should not daughter be able to do the same without having to determine who her father is?
Although, women in our patriarchal society still face a lot of discrimination when passing down citizenship to their children, especially in the absence of the father or if the father is not a Nepali citizen.
Many women are victims of violence and discrimination. Especially those who have gone abroad for work, victims of rape, women who were abandoned, those forced to leave home and divorcees – all risk being deprived of their identity.

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.

It is hoped that these discriminatory issues related to women and children in Nepal’s citizenship system will be addressed after parliament approves amendment bill, nevertheless the provisions to award citizenship to immigrants should not be included this bill, in the name of discriminations. Otherwise, no one can stop, Nepal to be like Fiji, a country dominated by the immigrants.

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