Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar’s recent circular on citizenship sent to the district administration offices and the refusal by some Chief District Officers to act on the circular, on the ground that it contravenes the interim constitution and existing citizenship laws, has raised a furor. Prominent Madhesi politicians have portrayed the refusal by the bureaucrats as yet another example of how mainstream political parties and the Nepali bureaucracy remain staunchly anti-Madhes.
Some leaders from the mainstream political parties, on the other hand, have accused the home minister of attempting to turn Nepal into another Fiji, an island nation in the Southern Pacific Ocean, where people of Indian origin gradually became a majority. A simple, legitimate citizenship problem has been blown out of proportion, leaving it to feed bigotry and hatred. This is yet another classic example of how our politicians are capable of inventing a crisis out of a simple problem that needs to be addressed, and can be addressed easily enough.
The problem: The Nepali state issued citizenships to 170,042 individuals immediately after the success of Jaanadolan II in 2006 under a special, one-time provision. Based on this, individuals born in Nepal before 1990 and living in the country thereafter, could obtain their citizenship on the basis of birth. The offspring of these individuals born after their parents had already acquired citizenship would automatically qualify for Nepali citizenship on the basis of descent as per the existing citizenship laws.
But the problem has arisen over the fate of offspring born before their parents had become Nepali citizens, as they don’t qualify for citizenship by descent. It would be a grave injustice to argue against citizenship for such people—let alone actually deny them citizenship. And, fortunately, no one is arguing in that fashion. But the existing citizenship laws seem to be the obstacle since the problem was not envisaged when citizenship was distributed to the 170,042 individuals under the special citizenship provision.
If the existing laws are the only problem, as seems to be the case, the solution is easy enough: Amend the laws. But Home Minister Gachchhadar apparently chose an even easier, and an illegal, way out by issuing his circular. The matter was discussed at cabinet level and top bureaucrats also advised him to opt for amending the laws. But he chose a short cut. He seems to have been politically motivated in doing so since he could claim the credit for resolving on his personal initiative this particular problem relating to Madhesi families.
Whatever Gachchhadar’s intentions, a problem has arisen and needs to be addressed urgently. The government should immediately introduce a bill in parliament to amend the citizenship laws with a view to tackling this problem specifically. But we advise against too much tinkering with the laws, as that could give rise to another set of problems in future