Politics of citizenship
Politics of citizenship
DEC 08 – Ihad been appalled to read about J.P. Gupta’s paper at the Constituent Assembly (CA) that proposed naturalized citizenship for hill people in Tarai-Madhes. Limiting people’s national identity based on their local identities was not right in the age of globalisation. By shrinking the horizon of Nepalis’ identity, Gupta was advocating narrow-minded regionalism and parochialism. But now I have read Shiv Gaunle’s write-up in this week’s Himalkhabar Patrika (Dec. 1-15, 2009) on citizenship, and I can say that there are many more birds of the same feather still active as journalists, constitution makers and politicians in new Nepal.
Gaunle’s entire write-up smacks of some Panchayat-era Madhesi-basher’s phobia of and suspicion about Madhesis. The hate-filled piece written in a cool, logical Nepali prose, preaching to the Madhesi leadership, shows that even respectable-looking Nepali-language journalism has a long way to go to put forth logical and timely analysis and report on such sensitive issues as citizenship and nationalism.
What I want to say right away is that Gaunle’s write-up on citizenship is biased, illogical and backward-looking. It, at times, shows that its author has very little to do with coherent arguments about new Nepal in the 21st century save for spouting prejudice against Madhesis. And writings such as Gaunle’s deserve a public drubbing in the media in order to pave the way for reason, rationality, logic and dispassionate attitude toward cross-border circulation of people between India and Nepal.
Let me explain why Gaunle’s write-up should have been written in the heyday of Panchayat, not in 2006 in a prestigious newsmagazine. In the Panchayat days, Gaunle would have received ready accolades, found support among Nepal’s social scientists, politicians, journalists, academics and government officials. But the tragedy about present-day Nepal is that the old Madhesi-phobia hasn’t gone away, and it may very well find support all around even now. And the inevitable result is Pahade-phobia and ethnic hate mongering among Tarai-Madhesi extremists. Otherwise, such a piece as Gaunle’s wouldn’t have appeared in such a prestigious news magazine as Himalkhabar Patrika without another piece written in response to it as a counterpoint despite the fact that Himal Media has such sharp Madhesi journalists as C.K. Lal and Prashant Jha.
Shiv Gaunle doesn’t have even so much sense as to understand that when the Madhesi parties speak of a more logical provision for any Indian man or woman (I’m going to name names here) to be married to a Nepali man or woman, the Indian no longer remains a stranger but becomes a family member of a Madhesi Nepali household. And so to advocate faster citizenship for such an Indian spouse married to a Nepali man or woman is not the same as advocating citizenship for an unknown Indian.
And then the 15-year period to qualify for citizenship for such an Indian man or woman married to a Nepali. What are the goals the CA committee has set out to achieve by making the waiting period 15 years? Fear of Indians lining up to marry Madhesis of Nepal in order to take advantage of all the high-paying jobs available everywhere in Nepal? Gaunle either seems to live still in the 1980s or has no clue about the patterns of labour migration between India and Nepal.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in a Morang village, halfway between the border and the Mahendra Highway, jute and rice crops needed massive influx of migrant labourers from north-eastern and north-central Bihar. Lower caste Nuniyas came from what was then known as Darbhanga and Saharsha districts for rice planting and harvest, and Muslims came from the Kisanganj area for jute weeding, cutting and washing. Sometimes, when there was a major land-digging project in the works, such as irrigation canals, the labourers came from all over north Bihar. Every year, they would arrive with their cloth bundles and at the end of the harvest season would return to their villages in Bihar. And my father also used to bring specialist bricklayers, his disciples actually, from the Malda region of West Bengal to run the brick chimneys in Nepal.
But by the late 1980s, by the time I finished university in Patna and returned to teach college in Nepal at half the salary that college teachers in my subject from India were being paid on contract in Nepal, the flow of these labourers had dried up. When I asked why these jute and rice labourers no longer came to the village, I was told that they went to Punjab and Haryana now.
Soon, young men of all Madhesi ethnicities from my village began to go to “Punjab.” Then I lost track of these reverse migrations in the 1990s because of my own complicated migration for studies in the U.S. But when I visited the village in 2003, I found that almost all the young men (many with their families) had been living in such towns as Ludhiana, Amritsar, Karnal and Delhi; they returned to the village once every year or two for family weddings or emergencies. Some lucky ones who could raise funds have now gone to Malaysia or the Middle East for better earnings.
To be sure, there are a few Indian Indians still in the village bazaar; their parents had come in the 1960s, but these are almost all skilled caste artisans, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, fishermen and confectioners (I am yet to meet any carpenter or barber, or confectioner, or fishermen of hill origin in eastern Nepal). Almost all first-generation Indians who had come to my village as quacks, confectioners and barbers have all left the village and gone back to India.
Shiv Gaunle has spread many falsehoods, but the more objectionable are his phobias and prejudices. Why shouldn’t Bhutanese or Tibetan refugees get Nepali citizenship or Indian citizenship or American or Australian citizenship after some years of stipulated stay in India or Nepal or wherever like refugees anywhere? Does Shiv Gaunle know how many Nepalis have received refugee status in the West, both North America and Europe, since the 1990s and received Green Cards? One day, they will be citizens of the country where they reside now.
Similarly, why shouldn’t Indians who came to Nepal to be teachers, peasants, quacks or whatever because of skilled labour shortage in Nepal in the past century receive their due legal recognition and rights in the form of Green Card or citizenship? Does he know how many Nepalis from the hills work in India and have made their homes there? And I am not talking about Nepalis in the Darjeeling area but all over the northeast and all over India. Now, those who want to continue to live in India and want to settle there, shouldn’t such a Nepali receive legal status as an Indian citizen if he or she wishes to do so after completing the due legal procedure?
Today’s Nepal does not need preaching about citizenship from the likes of Shiv Gaunle. There has to be a more phobia-free, rational, globally aware policy regarding citizenship and labour migration between India and Nepal or between any two countries anywhere. It is, however, true that there are Shiv Gaunles in every country; but such people should not be the national spokespersons about citizenship. But the tragedy in Nepal is that even the Constituent Assembly Committee responsible for such a serious job as citizenship comes up with the brilliant idea of a 15-year waiting period for citizenship for a Nepali’s foreign spouse. Without legal status to get employment and officially function in the formal sector in Nepal where even to open a bank account one needs a citizenship certificate, what would the foreign spouse of a Nepali citizen do in Nepal if he or she happened to be educated? What the 15-year waiting period basically does is put a ban on marriage between a Nepali and a foreigner or if a Nepali insists, then banish them. But it is more damaging for the Madhesis because their family ties across the border have been going on for ever in the past. To be sure, it was difficult during the period of Panchayat nationalism but official corruption provided a loophole to get around immoral state laws about citizenship even though many Bahun officials, scholars, social scientists who sat on bi-national boards as representatives of the Panchayat government thought that a Madhesi of Nepal was an Indian with Nepali citizenship looking for high-level opportunity, such as Fulbright scholarship to the United States.
Actually, the Nepali state in the republican era ought to apologize to the Madhesis who had been regarded as suspect citizens, to the Indians who came to Nepal in the 1950s and 1960s and gave their entire life in the service of Nepal as teachers, educating Nepali students in the hills of Nepal from Ilam to Baitadi, as quacks who healed countless Nepali villagers, to the businessmen who ushered Nepal into modern commerce and industry. And then the CA should embark on a policy regarding citizenship that is rational, fair, logical — and strict; that respects not only universal human rights of migrants but speaks to the complexity of Nepal-India and India-Nepal movement of workers and family relationships in the 21st century.
If you need to ask anyone for advice about citizenship of Indian grooms or brides for Nepali citizens, ask the ex-royal family and their class to give you advice about it because they give their daughters to Indians and bring Indian brides all the time to Nepal — and then write another, more reasonable, up-to-date piece on the subject for publication.
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