Citizenship en Masse: Playing With Demographic Fire

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Minister Hridesh Tripathy of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi) was in an understandably exultant mood the other day. Then, speaking at a public forum, he confidently predicted that the House of Representatives (HoR) would unanimously approve the draft bill on citizenship that the government adopted and intends to table with a view to amending the Citizenship Act 1964.

Tripathy proclaimed that when that happened “everyone” would acquire citizenship, thereby solving the citizenship problem once and for all. He explained to his audience that the HoR would immediately nullify Article 8 and 9 of the present Constitution that hinders the passage of a new law that would in effect provide the right of citizenship to a teeming mass of individuals in the Terai, estimated at around 4 million.

To be noted, too, is that the party, among others, desires that new citizenship certificates be distributed in the Terai with such dispatch that all would have it in their hands – before the proposed elections for the constituent assembly the date for which has not been announced, thus far.

In other words, here is a case of double jeopardy: first sweepingly liberal criteria matched with certificates dished out with super-express speed!

Exultant

Since the Sadbhavana Party has been amongst the most vocal in demanding a revision in citizenship laws to empower the 4 million or so it claims has been unrightfully denied, it is easy to understand Tripathy’s sense of political victory.

Other voices, however, are not quite as upbeat. For, among other things, they argue – rightly, in my opinion – that the new criteria for eligibility would open a floodgate. That would result in not only a drastic transformation in the basic demographic character of Nepal but could, in a few short decades, even render genuine Nepalese a minority in their own land.

Who doesn’t know that it has become something of a national sport to flay the panchayat era’s reservations with respect to granting en masse citizenship especially in the Terai that shares a long open border with India? Yet, very much less is said of the fact that the several democratic governments that followed in the wake of the 1990 Change did nothing about fundamentally altering the panchayat-era situation, in that regard. One however suspects that there must have been good reasons for their caution in the first decade of multi-party governance.

Before going any further into this discourse, it may now be recalled that under extraneous pressure – need one be more explicit and mention the source? – a Nepali Congress government in 2000 attempted to overturn the status quo on the Terai citizenship front.

It is salutary to remind ourselves that when they went down that slippery path, they did so by attempting to make desired changes embedded or camouflaged in a finance bill.

Though it was passed by the HoR it was roundly rejected in the Upper House. In those circumstances the late King Birendra had no constitutional option but to refer it to the Supreme Court which in turn stymied the government’s attempt to alter the existing citizenship laws in such a fashion.

What seems to have changed in the interregnum is that the Maoist insurgency provided the momentum to the lurch towards en masse citizenship rights in the Terai. That it did, among other things, by encouraging political groupings in the Terai to work for an autonomous region.

Against the backdrop of envisaged elections for a constituency assembly to write a new constitution, it would now appear that the government has attempted to pull the rug from under the Maoists’ feet by being more revolutionary than the rebels.

To be noted is that the bill approved by the government and now being readied for passage in parliament has been timed BEFORE the Maoists join an interim government. In other words, it would clearly seem that the intention of the constituent parties forming the government is to claim credit for the same – and hopefully translate the expected satisfaction among the newly enfranchised citizens of the Terai into valuable votes for their respective parties.

Even without going into the nitty-gritty of the proposed law, it is shocking that there is a provision that, in the absence of relevant documents proving birth in Nepal or residence since 15 April 1989 or even being including in electoral rolls, acquiring three bonafide Nepalese citizens’ recommendations in that regard would be adequate!

It hardly requires any great imagination to assume that anyone, not merely an Indian national, could easily coax/bribe his/her way into citizenship.

The above is not, of course, to argue that genuine cases for citizenship – whether in the Terai or elsewhere in the country – should not get their due right to citizenship without hassles.

It is merely to point out that, one, it is simply suicidal to adopt a blanket policy of citizenship, merely for the asking, not least given the geo-political setting of the Terai, cheek-by-jowl to the open Nepal-India border and the fact that, over the years, there has been a constant flow of immigrants from India into Nepal, particularly in the Terai.

For another, one can hardly forget not merely that India has the world’s second largest population but also that the Nepal Terai borders Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the two most populous states in India.

Sometimes, smug arguments are heard about liberal immigration policies in countries, say, such as the United States and Canada which are huge territorially, have small populations as compared to their expanse, a low birth rate but whose appetite for cheap labour is virtually boundless. Is Nepal is such a position?

On the other hand, let us not forget that there are countries such as Japan, much admired around the world, which does not grant citizenship even to those born in Japan, if the mother is married to a non-Japanese. As the Himalayan Times stated in a recent editorial (surprise, surprise): “if all the Nepalis emigrated southwards, or northwards, the population increase would be just about two percent but if only two percent of the population of either poured into Nepal, its population would double, creating a demographic upheaval.

Flawed Criteria

Besides, since none can guarantee the accuracy of electoral rolls, citizenship should not be granted merely on that basis. After all, as Bipin Adhikari reminds us in an opinion piece in the Kathmandu Post, the anti-foreigner campaign in India’s state of Assam during the late 1970s and early 1980s protested the presence of hundreds of thousands of illegal Bangaldeshis in electoral rolls in Assam.

If that was the sorry state of affairs in Assam then, why should one assume it is different here now, not least given the endemic corruption, less than robust policing capabilities and a weak or non-existent documentation system?

To quote another example from Adhikari’s write-up, recall that the Indian Supreme Court issued an order in April 2002 that maintains that “foreigners may not claim the right of Indian citizenship on the ground that they are enrolled in voter lists, have ration cards and that they have been living in India for a long time.”

If Nepal is not to be swamped with a deluge of foreigners armed with Nepalese citizenship certificates in the near future, the fine print and the haste with which the government has apparently bulldozed through must be thoroughly debated before genuine Nepalese are placed on the endangered species list.

Incidentally, the same irrational haste and lack of proper study comes across in the Kathmandu Post’s editorial lauding the government decision which – in that paper’s learned view – would bring a “great sigh of relief for over 40 million” (repeat, forty million) as the “historic decision to embrace the 40 million people (again, the same figure) will definitely make them to take part in reconsolidating the national integrity and unity.”

Need one remind the Post that with Nepal’s current population estimated at around 25 million, an infusion of “40 million” with dubious claims to citizenship is hardly likely to reconsolidate either national integrity or national unity.

Its unseemly rush to please the powers that be has, like that of the government, been severely blemished by a blatant disregard of the demographic and other facts on the ground.

But, then, such is the very essence of today’s “loktantrik” Nepal!

M. R. Josse is a writer on Nepal and the author of Nepal: Politics of Statemate, Confusion and Uncertainty and Nepali Politics 2002-03: Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.