Nation Weekly Magazine, Sunday November, 7 2004
Hetauda is a one-day trip for Harimaya Praja. The only path to get down to the town is by walking next to the river edge, and the narrow mountain trail is often washed away in places by the rain. Holding her year and a half old son Sanubabu Praja, Harimaya fords raging monsoon waters and emerges soaking wet in her only set of clothes before reaching Manohari, where she pays twenty-five rupees as busfare to get to the district headquarters in Hetauda. Although she has come down three times, March, May and again in October, she has been unable to fulfill her mission – to get her citizenship papers.
Nepali citizenship papers are remarkable difficult to get for bona fide citizens, especially for indigenous groups far away from state bureaucracy. Eighty-five percent of Prajas (the Chepang ethnic group) do not have citizenship. Chepangs have been publicized as a “backward” group. A highly organized national Chepang conference was held in early October in Hetauda, disproving urban myths about Chepang backwardness. Like other ethnic groups, the upper strata of Chepang society have been caught up in the uneven flow of democratization and are informed of contemporary issues. But for many people eking out a living in the hills, information and access to state agencies is still out of reach.
The first hurdle is the requirements – in order to get the certificate, a person needs to prove that a male relative (father, husband etc) had Nepali citizenship. Failing this, a letter from the ward chairman is often taken as proof of residence when the application is registered at the CDO’s office. But women and children living in marginalized communities often have difficulty getting these letters.
Harimaya’s husband, a dhami (shaman) died after a three day illness, vomiting blood. None of her male relatives are alive. The V.D.C chairman has been helpful, but ineffective, in helping her with her citizenship quest.On her first trip, Harimaya was merely given a second date to come into town. On her second appointment, the V.D.C chairman told her he was working hard on her case, but he could not really do anything to help her at that moment, but that she should come again. On her third visit, Harimaya met with some people from local NGOs who could potentially advocate for her case. Many of the suggestions they give her are unfamiliar to her.
With seven children in the house, however, Harimaya cannot stay in town even for one night – she is soon back on the road to get back home so that her thirteen year old daughter, who has been left to cook for her siblings, will not have to do all the work herself. Krishnaprasad Koirala, a neighbour who accompanied Harimaya on her trip, says: “State teams would come to give citizenship certificates until 1998. They no longer come anymore.” The police post in the area has been withdrawn, leaving the area to the Maoists.
The Maoists, upto forty of them, come and demand food from relatively wealthy households, putting people in financial difficulty. Harimaya is poor, and the Maoists do not ask her to feed them, but she is affected by their presence in other ways. There is a Maoist ban on cutting big trees, and Harimaya has left her leaky roof unrepaired for fear of reprisals.
Rumors of a Maoist draft which would take a man from each household prompted Harimaya’s eldest son to go to Kathmandu to find work. The twenty-two year old was stopped at the checkpoint in Thangkot, and asked for “proof.” Unable to show his nagarikta (citizenship certificate) , he was not allowed to enter Kathmandu. Wealthier families, however, do have sons working in construction jobs in Kathmandu. Caught in-between two malevolent forces, young Chepang men await the time when they can escape the land that has become their prison.
Harimaya, because she does not have citizenship papers, is unable to register her land, buy and sell property, and pass on her nationality to her children. “Citizenship creates many rights,” says Sapana Malla of the Forum for Women, Law and Development. “But citizenship is difficult to get for both urban and rural, literate and illiterate people.” Citizenship in Nepal is handed down through a patrilineal line of descent. Unlike men, women are not recognized as kin and they cannot pass on their nationality to their children.
This anachronistic provision in which citizenship is passed only through patrilineal descent exists in few countries, including the most conservative of Muslim countries – Kuwait and Algeria. The fact that women cannot pass on their nationality is a breach of Nepal’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
“Given the precedence of the Convention over Nepal’s domestic legislation, there is no reason why some very significant steps can not be taken to eliminate that “blatantly discriminatory” legislation against women. Some specific changes can be ensured, even in the absence of Parliament. The citizenship law, in particular, requires serious attention,” Ayse Feride Acar, the Committee Chairperson of CEDAW, said in a closing statement of the meeting in January 2004.
The fact that Nepal did not give the same rights to women nationals of Nepal as it did to its men nationals in passing on citizenship to their offspring “flew in the face” of the Convention, and some urgent action was required, she said. The current discriminatory citizenship law causes difficulties for women who have married foreign citizens, or who are single mothers abandoned by their husbands. This has been an issue especially for women in the Terai who marry Indian citizens across the border. In cases where women have divorced or been abandoned by their husbands, they return to Nepal to find that their children are not eligible for citizenship.
Citizenship is also difficult to acquire for marginalized groups like the Badi, where traditional prostitution makes paternity difficult to establish. The former Kamaiya have also repeatedly asked for easier access to citizenship, without which they cannot process the land that Parliament had allocated for each family. People internally displaced by floods, whose lands have been washed away and who are now squatting on public land, also face special difficulties.
The history of discrimination of citizenship rights in other countries, especially the USA, is an interesting contrast. Women were discriminated against till the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century. Not only were women unable to transmit their U.S. citizenship to children born abroad, they even risked losing their own citizenship when marrying a foreigner. By mid-century, however, legal changes granted equal rights to women. The country’s citizenship laws did not discriminate against women; instead, in one area at least, they discriminated against men.
Operating under the stereotypes that US servicemen were promiscuous with women, the Nationality Act of 1940, for the first time, decreed that unmarried fathers of children born overseas faced prerequisites for transmitting citizenship — prerequisites that women did not encounter. These rules became stricter in later versions of the country’s immigration and naturalization law. The US law’s bias against unmarried fathers means that children born outside of marriage to foreign women are subject to deportation. Indeed, if an American man and a Nepali woman had a child out of wedlock in Nepal, the child would not be eligible for citizenship from either country, and would become stateless.
Nepal’s recent courting of non-resident Nepalis (NRI), in which proposals for dual citizenship was floated, is ironic in light of the discrimination that most residents of the country face in acquiring their citizenship. Activists worry that the Nepali state may soon start distributing citizenship rights to non-residents for their investment capabilities, but exclude its most marginalized citizens. Bribery and corruption is rampant in the process of acquiring citizenship, observers have noted. The process of getting the bureaucracy to move can often be greased with money. And there may lie to clue to why many of Nepal’s poorest citizens remain excluded from their citizenship rights.
The current shut-down of state agencies has left a void in most parts of the country. A peaceful negotiation with Maoists is necessary before state teams start going out and distributing citizenship papers to remote areas. Unsurprisingly, even when the state sent out teams to grant citizenship before 1998, the process was not user-friendly. A child had to be a certain age before they could be registered as citizens. The teams would bump up children’s ages in order to register them, since the state teams was unlikely to visit remote mountainous regions frequently. These problems would still have to be tackled seriously.
A few cosmetic amendments have been made to ease the process of acquiring citizenship, including a clause that allows non-governmental organizations to recommend an individual for citizenship. Legal observers say this right granted to civil society organizations is unprecedented in other parts of the world. While it may work as a short-term remedy, civil organizations cannot permanently take on the responsibilities of the state.Only by changing the Citizenship Act, and the Constitution, will the problem of exclusionary citizenship be completely solved, say legal experts and rights activists. Future changes in the Constitution, of course, are contingent on the restoration of the suspended Parliament.