Decoding the controversies over the flawed citizenship bill

Without paying any heed to the call of the President for review, the citizenship bill has again been passed by the House of Representatives. Frankly, this smacks of political hooliganism.

Bhagirath Basnet

  • Read Time 4 min.

The provisions in the Citizenship Act used to be strict and they would be amended, if at all, with careful consideration during the authoritarian rule of the Panchayat era. In sharp contrast, the federal democratic republic of Nepal has taken it very lightly. 

In almost all the countries across the world, citizenship rules are clear and rigid. Astonishingly, in Nepal, setting aside numerous other pressing matters of public concern, political parties in the ruling alliance are now paying top priority to pass the bill into a law, even if it raises legal and moral questions.  Indeed, passing any bill, after the announcement of the election by the moribund legislature, is a mockery of democracy.

Those advocating against the bill say that the prime political motto of the government to pass the bill as a matter of urgency at this moment is to secure gains in the forthcoming elections slated for November 20. The prompt action of the government to pass the bill by fast track process from the House of Representatives and the National Assembly  leaves room to doubt the intention of the ruling parties.

President’s move

After the bill was passed by the lower house through fast track method on July 22 and in equal haste by the National Assembly on July 28, it was submitted to the Office of the President for authentication on July 31.  As questions were raised both about the content of the bill and the process of its passage, President Bidya Devi Bhandari returned the bill to the House of Representatives for reconsideration. 

There have been mixed reactions for and against her move.

Opponents have criticized the President’s action on the bill by saying that until now she hasn’t returned any bill to the House for reconsideration. Previously, she had immediately signed all ordinances sent to her for approval before the ink dried up, they say. 

President Bhandari

Those supporting her move, on the other hand, say that ordinances were accorded immediate approval as they were meant to facilitate the urgent works of the government and the president had no constitutional right to return the ordinance for review. As such, her immediate approval for such ordinances was justifiable.

After the President returned the bill for reconsideration, it should have been a moral obligation on the part of the lawmakers to consider the bill and decide whether they should pass it again and forward for approval on the eve of the forthcoming elections.  At this juncture, the moral responsibility of the lawmakers would call for a thorough discussion of the bill considering the call made by the President. It would be a grave disregard to the President’s call for review to endorse the bill again without any review. It would also be questionable to pass the controversial bill in the existing format, especially when the date for federal parliament and provincial assembly elections has been announced. But without paying any heed to the call of the President, the bill has again been passed with the support of 135 lawmakers and 60 lawmakers against it. Frankly, this smacks of political hooliganism.

Cause of controversy

Nepal’s Citizenship Act has always been controversial. Despite its amendments from time to time, the lawmakers have failed to bring a balanced, equitable and justifiable Citizenship Act.  Almost all the countries across the globe have strict provisions to acquire citizenship but in our case it has always been shrouded in confusion and controversy. Many argue that one of the causes of dissatisfaction is the alleged intervention from the outsiders.  As a result, a credible and acceptable Act has yet to be formulated.

Surprisingly, most of the important bills are usually submitted in the House in critical situations. This time too, the citizenship bill was submitted and passed just a few days before the announcement of the general election date. Isn’t it itself a serious mistake committed by the lawmakers?

The citizenship bill was presented in the House earlier which was thoroughly studied and discussed for 22 months by the State Affairs Committee of parliament. Following a detailed discussion in the House, the lawmakers had proposed seven years of ‘cooling off period’ for the foreigners married to Nepali citizens before they acquire Nepali citizenship. But, the incumbent government withdrew this bill endorsed by the parliamentary committee  and submitted a new bill removing the provision of the cooling-off period and passed it through fast track. This is the root cause of the problems, controversies and dissatisfactions.

In the face of all allegations and controversies, it would have been better for the ruling parties to refrain from acting on the bill now and leave the tasks to be settled by the new legislature. 

It was an absolute breach of parliamentary norms to withdraw any bill lying in the House and presenting the same bill with changes suited to the government in the same House. And at present, notwithstanding the call of the President to reconsider the bill, it has already been passed by the House of Representatives. It is nothing but a mockery of the Parliamentary democracy in our country and a severe crime committed by the lawmakers against the trust bestowed on them by the people.

Opinions were divided over the previous citizenship bill. Nepali Congress together with Madhesi parties opposed the bill whereas other parties supported it. The most thorny and controversial issue in the bill was whether to keep a seven years’ cooling-off period for both men and women married to Nepali citizens.

The current bill is also biased towards the Nepali women married to foreigners as their spouses can’t acquire Nepali citizenship the same way the foreign spouses of Nepali men can. Foreign men married to Nepali women should wait for years to obtain Nepali citizenship. 

Besides, legal experts opine that if foreign women are given Nepali citizenship and political rights–including the ‘voting rights’–upon marriage it will have long-term impacts on national politics.

On a positive note, the bill has given respite to nearly five million non-resident Nepalis to have a citizenship which would authorize them to use economic, social and cultural rights. But such citizenship won’t allow them political rights such as contesting elections, voting and getting appointment in public posts.

Criticism has also been made on the timing of the passing of the bill just five days after Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s India visit. Consequently, some have also alleged the government for passing the citizenship bill on the direction of foreign agencies.  On the face of all these allegations, it would have been better to refrain from acting on the bill now and leave the tasks to be settled by the new legislature. 

But as the ruling parties look bent on turning the bill into a law by any means it is likely to draw more controversies in the days to come.

Bhagirath Basnet is former Nepali ambassador.