Conflict Alerts # 116, 24 June 2020
In the news
Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Government on 21 June fired another salvo against India. Through State Affairs and Good Governance Committee, the NCP moved Constitutional (Amendment) Bill proposing changes to Clause 4.1(b) of the Citizenship Act of 2007. The Parliamentary Committee has finalized the bill through majority votes, as it could not muster a consensus. The said amendment would require a foreign woman married to a Nepali national to wait for seven years to be a naturalized citizen and acquire the citizenship certificate.
The core argument behind the proposed amendment is that such women need time to understand the country better and develop a sense of loyalty to the nation. During the period they will have seven different social, economic and cultural rights; residence permit; right to do businesses and earn; sell any fixed and moveable assets and property; register birth, death, marriage, divorce and migration; study in academic institutions; and acquire national identity cards. The Nepali Congress (NC) and Janata Samajbadi Party-Nepal (SJP-N) have registered a note of dissent on the bill, saying that the amendment would be an inconvenience to the Madhesis living in the Terai owing to a widely prevalent cross-border marriage in the region.
Issues at large
First, amendment likely to flare Madhes conflict. Madhes are the people of Indian origin residing south of Nepal in the foothills of the Himalayas, known as Terai Region covering 22 of Nepal's 75 districts. The region constitutes 17 per cent of the country's area with 50 per cent of its population. This region has felt deeply discriminated by the Hill politics dictated by Kathmandu and also remained politically and constitutionally sidelined during the federal structuring of the new Constitution in 2015. This resulted in prolonged conflict and became the root for the Madhes demanding share in the political power of Nepal. The said amendment in the Citizenship bill is read as a policy to clip the policy aspirations of the Madhes population by socially ignoring their tradition.
Second, another tango in India-Nepal relations. The policy would affect the 'bread and bride relations' with India that Nepal has since ages. The NC critiqued it would create constitutional, social and familial complexities. Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) opposed it saying it would adversely affect Indo-Nepal cultural ties and would sever the kinship ties between the two. According to the 2011 Census, the Madhesis are 56 lakhs with castes and ethnicity similar to Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. They have frequent inter-marriages between families on either side of the border, and this amendment seems to be aimed at discouraging migration of Indian women to Nepal by way of marriage since they would stand debarred from political rights for seven years.
Last, the demand for equality in law gets louder. Women groups have criticized and asked for a say in the political matter as it has been decided by an all-male secretariat. The all-male polity has also remained silent about the foreign men married to Nepali women. Presently, foreign men married to Nepali women have to wait for 14 years to get naturalized citizenship.
The India-Nepal bilateral relations have hit a nadir ever since the Left government took over the reins of governance. On 18 June Nepal completed the process of redrawing political map including three of India's strategic areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura, much to the chagrin of India. The Citizenship Amendment Bill is another nail in the coffin of bilateral relations. The present amendment may be an attempt to further downsize Indian influence in Nepal, demonstration of Nepali assertion against India, and to please China amidst ongoing Sino-Indian border row.
Dr Alok Kumar Gupta is an Associate Professor, at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand