Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NEPAL: Citizenship Law Divides Nation

Suman Pradhan

KATHMANDU, Aug 3 2000 (IPS) - A proposed law to confer Nepali citizenship on nearly four million people of Indian origin living for decades in this Himalayan nation has divided the country with rights groups reluctant to speak up.

Alleging that this would eventually make ethnic Nepalis strangers in their own home, opposition parties have taken to the streets to protest the ruling Nepali Congress party’s bid to modify the citizenship law.

The government’s main foes, the communist parties forced a public shut-down Wednesday in Kathmandu to oppose the bill to amend the Nepal Citizenship Act.

The legislation has been passed twice by parliament’s lower house. Although rejected by the opposition-controlled upper house the first time, the chamber cannot do so now. Government leaders have declared that the bill would soon be sent to King Birendra for royal assent.

Home Minister Govinda Raj Joshi who tabled the bill in parliament, denies that it is meant to offer “easy access to citizenship to foreigners.”

“All it does is simplify procedures so that thousands of people in the terai plains can gain citizenship which was denied to them for so long. Under the new bill, any person who has lived in Nepal long enough can acquire hereditary citizenship even if their fathers did not posses any documents,” he explained.

“There are stringent measures in the bill to punish those who abuse it,” he added.

The main beneficiaries of the law would be the people of Indian origin living in the southern ‘terai’ plains of Nepal adjoining a large stretch of north India.

The two countries threw open their borders after a landmark 1950 friendship treaty. Tens of thousands of Nepalis migrated to India for work and an equally large number of Indians came to Nepal, mostly from the northern and eastern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that border Nepal.

The Indian settlers in Nepal, mostly in the terai, are locally known as ‘madhesi’. While hundreds of thousands of them became citizens, an estimated 3.4 million are still aliens.

A non-citizen can neither own property nor claim public state services. The government says the exclusion of these people from citizenship was an “historical oversight” that must be rectified. Terai-dwellers form nearly one-third of Nepal’s 23 million people, and most of them are of Indian origin.

One year after taking office following Nepal’s third general polls, the Nepali Congress is trying to keep its election promise to the madhesi community. The bill is based on suggestions of two commissions set up by former governments.

An attempt to implement these three years ago by an executive order by the then Nepali Congress government was blocked by the Supreme Court, which ruled these unconstitutional.

Opposition parties are whipping up fears among ethnic Nepalis that the changes in the citizenship law would upset the country’s demographic balance.

Said communist leader Bam Dev Gautam whose hard-line left party called Wednesday’s strike: “With this bill, ethnic Nepalis will one day become a minority in their own country.”

Another top communist leader and a former minister, Sahana Pradhan was equally blunt: “The bill has been wrongly passed in parliament. When citizenship certificates are available so easily, Nepal could very soon become another Fiji.”

Even as the controversy rages in and outside the legislature, human rights activists have refrained from speaking up. The silence of the rights groups is being attributed to the fact that most of them are openly aligned with the communist parties that are battling the law.

The citizenship legislation was introduced and passed unanimously by the lower house of parliament in June, but was rejected by the upper chamber.

An embarrassed government got it passed again by the lower chamber, but this time, the entire opposition walked out in protest. Only the terai-based, opposition Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP) stayed in the house, though its lawmakers did not vote.

“We want amendments to the constitution itself that will simplify the procedure, not a new bill,” said top NSP leader Hridayesh Tripathi.

The madhesi settlers have been “discriminated for too long on citizenship matters because of contradictions in the constitution,” he added. The NSP has burnt copies of Nepal’s constitution in the past.

Information and Communication Minister J.P. Gupta, himself a madhesi, is “dismayed” by the attitude of the opposition to “one of the most genuine problems facing this country.”

However, senior communist leader K.P. Sharma Oli said his party was “sympathetic” to the problems of the madhesi people. But it disagreed with the way the government passed the bill without a proper debate.

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