The Politics of Citizenship in Nepal
By Pramod Mishra , 08-Mar-02
The recent Citizenship Bill, passed by the ruling Nepali Congress, has already provoked strong criticism. The Bill’s stark contradiction stems from the abstention even by the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, for whom the issue of the rights of the Taraiwasi has been crucial for its raison d’être. The rest of the opposition parties, too, just walked out on the Bill when it came back to the Lower House after its rejection in the Upper House. Having passed the Bill by using its Whip, the Congress told the people of the Tarai that it and it alone is the true benefactor and representative of their interests. In short, it played politics, even though the initiative needs to be recognized. And the result of this politics is that the Bill might eventually fail to become law and spell trouble for Nepal’s unity.
The issue of people’s right within any political boundary, one of the most vexed issues in modern history, ought to have been handled better. The Jews and the Gypsies, even after centuries of habitation in Europe, remained deprived of the rights of citizenship. They could occupy only those marginal professions that others didn’t want; the state and its dominant population regularly subjected them to pogroms.
In the Third World, the biography of nation-states is mired in the messy politics of colonialism and the expediency that followed decolonization. Whatever one may think of King Prithvi’s successful efforts to unify Nepal, the Company government in India determined Nepal’s territorial boundary. We can only imagine the scenario if King Prithvi, Bahadur Shah and Bhimsen Thapa’s expansionist ambitions had not been later contained by the British in the treaty of Sugauli in 1816 and the Ganges were the natural border between India and Nepal. There would have been, for all justifiable reasons, another Uttarakhand movement in what is today Nepal. But the historical fact is that the treaty of Sugauli occurred and Jung Bahadur managed to form a strategic alliance with the British to let his domain alone, and Nepal came to survive in its present shape.
But the logic of nation-state formation in Europe on the basis of the identification of territory with one religion, one language, and a vague notion of one culture is flawed. And this European monster, given as a gift of colonialism to the rest of the world, has wreaked havoc in Africa, all over South Asia, let alone Europe itself. If one looks over South Asia, one can see the damage this flawed concept has done to almost all the countries there—India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, etc. And Nepal seems to be on its way to join its South Asian fraternity. In Nepal, one language, one literature, one ethnicity, one religion cannot be the grounds on which the state could safely be based for a trouble-free future.
There is one criterion, however, that could be successfully applied to justify Nepal’s independent, sovereign entity. And that is its historical justification. Because Nepal remained historically independent due to geographical difficulties, the strategies of the Rana rulers, and its own successful survival so far, it is and must always remain an independent nation-state with its own complex, evolving existence. And then, there are numerous other tangible benefits of staying a sovereign entity, besides a matter of pride and identity. But its geopolitical and geocultural reality also means that Nepal will always have to confront India in defining and imagining its nationhood and identity. Frankly, I do not know of any other nation-state that has such an open border with another country without any artificial, natural or ethnic barriers, with such open-border crossings from both sides.
But the history of sovereignty and biography of nation-states in the world have been dynamic historical processes, even though in political rhetoric the ideology may have been posed as timeless, immutable, and natural. Each dynamic nation-state has to evolve and redefine its image and reconceptualize its tenets in order to make smooth transition from one historical era to another. The world over, the tenure of nation-states has been uneven, but even within this unevenness, one can easily notice a few general trends. There are some nation-states, for example, that have possessed internal dialogic dynamic by virtue of the existence of institutions and cultures of open debate engaged in by their more informed civil society; they have been constantly in dialogue with themselves about their past, present and future identities and aspirations. As a result, they have successfully negotiated their rocky journey through history with periods of difficult transitions and crises, which the very nature of nation-state’s artificiality and constructedness occasions.
The dominance of nation-state as an organizing principle and reference point of thinking has more or less come to an end in a globalized world, even though the movement of capital and labor has not been the same across national boundaries. The Europeans, who fought numerous bloody wars with each other until recently, have once again taken the lead and formed the European Union, merging parts of their currencies, travel, citizenship, etc (even Germany has amended its citizenship laws), while retaining the basic structures of their sovereignty. Europe has formed this dual structure in order to face two rivals: the rise of the United States as a global power, on the one hand, and the potential prominence in the future of India, China, and other South East Asian countries. Where does Nepal, the yam between two boulders, stand in the company of nation-states in the post-Soviet world?
In Nepal, the issue of citizenship should not become for any one party to take credit for at the expense of others, nor a battering ram for one group against another. What are the benefits and losses of giving citizenship to people who have been living in Nepal for decades? Is the fear of many Nepalis justified that if citizenship laws are made logical, population from the populous neighboring states of Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar would overflow and overpower Nepal’s fundamental identity, marginalizing its own people? What would be the repercussions of this Bill in the rest of South Asia? What should be the right procedure for giving citizenship as a matter of people’s right rather than a humiliating experience? And who should be authorized to do so and why? All these and many such questions should have been debated in public before passing the Bill. A multiparty consensus ought to have been sought. At the end of the day, some parties might have opposed the Bill but the public at large would have been educated.
The fear of the loss of sovereignty needs to be thoroughly addressed in order to logically dispel such fears and defeat the vested interests of groups that have so far used ultra nationalist rhetoric, as in other places, to serve their narrow ethnic, caste, class and political ends. Because of the dominance of bureaucracy in Nepal’s public life, an imitation of the colonial rule in India and its model afterward, the people at the grassroots have little say in public matters. As a result, many who deserve citizenship have been deprived of it and others who have had easy access to towns and money have obtained it.
Not a single person who does not qualify for citizenship, whatever the agreed and debated qualification, should be given one just because the person has access to power, towns, and money. On the other hand, those who deserve, those who have lived in Nepal for several decades, serving and bringing together people of diverse ethnicities, even before Nepal’s national identity acquired its Panchayati contours, those for whom Nepal is not just another place to exploit by using its name but the only place, must get citizenship without delay and with all dignity and respect. Any delay is a violation of their human rights.
There are clear benefits of passing courageous, realistic, and unambiguous laws about citizenship in Nepal. The biggest achievement of this Bill would be the strengthening of the cohesiveness of the country in its multicultural paradigm. The Bhutanese refugee problem would, then, have clear moral as well as political direction. Nepal can then tell other nations in South Asia that they need to respect the people within their political boundaries as equal participants. Nepal can also compel India to persuade the Bhutanese authorities to resolve the Bhutanese refugee crisis by passing laws that would recognize the rights of the Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin. Bhutan can no longer go on violating the human rights of its people. But as long as Nepal does not pass clear laws of citizenship for its own people, it not only would have no moral and political clout to resolve the Bhutanese refugee problem but the possibility of other refugees—such as Sikkimese, Assamese, Meghalayee or Manipuri, etc, of Nepali origin—would always hang as a sword over Nepal.
What’s more, if no Bill is passed, the Tarai problem will only fester. The wrong people with wrong intent will obtain citizenship anyway through power, access, and money, as they have always done. So far, the acquisition of Nepali citizenship has been a farce in the hands of Nepal’s bureaucracy.
In all this, Nepal needs to conduct its affairs with dignity, vision, and fortitude, like a genuinely sovereign nation-state. It cannot behave like another Indian state, such as the Assam of the seventies or Kashmir of today or any other small, geographically isolated ethnic enclave, like Uttarkhand of UP or Bodoland of Assam. It needs to put forward bold plans before the Indian government along with the administrations of Bihar, Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh for monitoring and provisioning for each other’s population movements into each other’s territories so that both India and Nepal can better manage their populations and envisage new policies and programs for them. It may be a misfortune for Nepal to be adjacent to Bihar but it is an inescapable geopolitical reality. The case of Bihar is a doomed one. And the possibility is that the moral chaos, expediency, caste-ism, and culture of hooliganism of the Biharis might soon overcome Nepal, if Nepal’s politicians and intellectuals do not take timely action and guide the Tarai away from the invisible clutches of Bihar.
On the other hand, as long as Bihar, Bengal, and UP (but particularly Bihar) do not get their acts together, Nepal will only hobble despite massive inflow of foreign aids. Nepal’s education system has failed partly because of the chaos in education in Bihar; Nepal’s administration has stumbled partly because Bihar’s corrupt example in running its system has only added to Nepal’s all too readiness to emulate its neighbor; and Nepal’s Parliament is showing all the signs of emulating the behaviors of Bihari politicians. To be historically independent and sovereign is not enough to stay sovereign and independent; nor is it enough to shout ultra nationalist slogans. Both complacency and fascism ultimately lead to damage to the long-term interests of the nation-state. A complex, landlocked Nepal needs to formulate a proactive national agenda in place of reactionary nationalism. As a long-time independent entity, unlike its South Asian neighbors, it is Nepal’s responsibility to lead by example by adopting innovative ways to solve its internal and external problems. So far, Nepal has been just trying to walk in the muddy and bloody footsteps of the rest of South Asia; it hasn’t looked seriously at the resilience and capacity of its cultures and peoples.
Therefore, let Nepal be a talking nation rather than one of silent and violent dictates, a dynamic one rather than one hijacked by conspiracy mongers and ultra nationalists, a bold nation ready to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century by taking rational, progressive steps rather than timid ones. It cannot lead a healthy national life by living in perennial fear of dissolution and disappearance. At any rate, Nepal needs to do the right thing with regard to the issue of citizenship for people who have lived in Nepal for several decades and have nowhere else to go.
(P. Mishra teaches academic writing at Duke University)
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