Explained | The bill to amend Nepal’s Citizenship Act faces public backlash yet again. Here is why

Instead of allowing members of the concerned parliamentary committee to have comprehensive discussions, the ruling coalition chose to pass the bill through a fast-track method.

NL Today

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: Laws related to acquiring and transferring citizenship have rarely been out of controversy in Nepal. Laws have been amended multiple times. Grievances, however, have always remained. 

Some political leaders say, “millions” of people have been deprived of citizenship rights while some others claim “thousands”. Some political leaders stand in favor of even tightening the provisions of acquiring citizenship.

However, there is no credible data regarding the actual number of people who have been deprived of their citizenship rights. Consecutive governments have not shown any interest in conducting an authentic study and bringing accurate data to the fore.

Political parties and their leaders look more interested in weaponizing the citizenship issue as a tool to create a buzz during elections. The tendency of politicization of the issue has put the genuine problems related to citizenship in the shadows.

As in the past, the latest attempt of the government to amend the Citizenship Act (2006) has also been controversial.

Divided opinions 

Ever since the bill to amend Citizenship Act (2006) was endorsed by the House of Representatives on July 22, there have been criticisms against the move by certain politicians belonging to the main opposition CPN-UML, some leaders from Maoist Center (which is the coalition partner in the government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba) and the people on social media. 

There is a palpable division among the political parties over the bill. While Nepali Congress and Madhes-based parties have supported the bill, leaders from other parties have raised voices against the bill, though they have not institutionally and collectively spoken against it.

After ratification from the House of Representatives, the citizenship bill was presented to the National Assembly, the upper house of Nepal’s parliament, for deliberations. The bill has been forwarded to the office of the president for authentication after the National Assembly endorsed the bill.   

Meanwhile, some people on social media have appealed to President Bidya Devi Bhandari not to authenticate the controversial citizenship bill into law.

Reasons for disputes 

What makes the citizenship bill so disputed? Here are some reasons.

Disregarding parliamentary committee: State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of the lower house had prepared a report after consultation recommending certain provisions, including the cooling off period for foreign citizens married to Nepali citizens. The new bill completely removed the seven years cooling-off period earlier proposed by the State Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. 

The Committee had proposed seven years cooling-off period for both foreign men and women married to Nepali citizens before they obtained naturalized citizenship. The government on July 9 withdrew the bill presented by the previous government and brought out a completely new one. 

The committee had discussed the bill for 22 months investing huge resources. But the very bill was withdrawn by the government which goes against the norms of parliamentary democracy, said Dr. Bimala Rai Paudyal on a talk show

The current bill imposes no cooling-off period for foreign women married to Nepali citizens. “The proposal to impose a ceiling of five or seven years for both foreign men and women married to Nepali citizens was fair. It would be in line with the constitutional principle of equality while at the same time preventing the citizenship acquisition process from becoming too flexible,” said Jivesh Jha, who is a legal expert. “Now that the bill has no provision of cooling off period for foreign women married to Nepali women, it would appear unjust to impose any cooling off period for foreign men married to Nepali women.”

Fast-track method: Another reason for the dispute is the process itself. It was passed through the fast-track method and by around 12 percent of the total number of parliamentarians. Nepal’s lower house consists of a total of 275 members but on the day the bill was passed only 45 members were present in the House.  

The bill was passed by a majority of 45 members. The crucial and most sensitive bill on citizenship was given less time in parliament for deliberation. If sufficient time was allocated for deliberations, people would come to know arguments both in favor and against the bill. People would be better informed about the merits and demerits of the bill.  

Continuity of discrimination: The proposed provisions in the bill appear to perpetuate the discrimination against Nepali women. According to the bill, foreign women married to Nepali men can obtain naturalized citizenship right after starting the process of relinquishing the citizenship of their country of origin. A Nepali man does not have to wait to obtain citizenship for his spouse even if she is a foreigner.

However, Nepali women married to foreigners cannot ensure citizenship to their spouses in the same way the Nepali men married to foreign women can. Foreign men married to Nepali women should wait for ages to obtain Nepali citizenship. They can obtain naturalized citizenship only if they have lived in Nepal continuously for 15 years, can speak languages spoken in Nepal and made contributions to Nepal in various economic and social fields.

“The problem with this bill is that it makes acquiring citizenship for foreign women married to Nepali men extremely flexible while making the same too rigid for foreign men married to Nepali women,” said Jivesh Jha, a legal expert. He argues that this flexibility could be misused. “Our state mechanisms have failed to take actions against those who have acquired Nepali citizenship illegally. With too flexible provisions, more cases of misuse might occur in the days to come,” he said.

India factor: On July 23, a day after the bill was passed by the House of Representatives, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of Maoist Center, declared in Sarlahi that with the endorsement of the bill, he had fulfilled the commitment made to the Madheshi people on citizenship. 

As the bill was passed five days after Dahal’s India visit, many see it as a tactic of the ruling parties to appease India. Some have accused the ruling coalition of endorsing the bill under India’s signal as the bill was passed on the heels of Dahal’s visit, BBC Nepali reported recently. It should be noted that India had expressed reservation with citizenship provisions of the existing constitution soon after it was promulgated in 2015. 

Problems remain: The bill, according to some observers, can also be seen as a tactic to woo the voters rather than trying to resolve the longstanding contentious issues. If the leaders were committed to solving the dispute forever, they would have allowed more open, transparent, and meaningful discussion on the bill.