But the main opposition got cold feet and smaller parties are whipping up fears of an Indian influx.
For years, Nepalis living in the tarai plains with ethnic and linguistic affinity to north India have found it difficult to obtain Nepali citizenship. But a law that finally states who is a Nepali is generating a chauvinistic backlash in Kathmandu corridors. Once again, fears have been raised that Nepal will be swamped by Indians.
The Nepal Citizenship Act, 1963, Amendment (1999/00) Bill fulfils a promise all mainstream politicians have made to the large population of madhesi voters from the plains. The tarai-based Sadbhavana Party actually wants nothing short of a constitutional amendment to resolve the issue.
Supporters say without the Bill, tarai Nepalis will become even more alienated and demands for secession, however naive, could derail national politics. Critics respond that it will lead to the \'Sikkimisation\' of Nepal through a quantum jump in the number of people of \'Indian origin\' in the electorate.
After the Lower House first approved the bill in June, it was the sent to the Upper House. But the king\'s appointees and UML members banded together to sent it back without even discussing it, or suggesting any changes. NC does not have a majority in the Upper House and had it gone into debate and sent back with suggestions, the Bill would have had to be taken to the committee again. That it was sent back without comment, some believe, speaks of UML\'s real intention to see it through.
Last week, after the ruling Nepali Congress rammed the Bill through parliament amidst a walkout by the opposition, who now have decided to use the bill to whip up latent populist xenophobia.
The fact is the Bill was a consensus document. The State Affairs Committee of Parliament held 16 marathon meetings to comb through the draft amendment proposed by the government. Almost every word in it was approved by consensus, say; Committee chairman Homnath Dahal (NC).
Opposition MP Subash Nemwang (UML), himself a well-known lawyer, was among those who actively took part in the deliberations, as were Pradip Nepal, UML\'s firebrand spokesman, and K.P. Oli, deputy leader of the opposition. The Sadbhavana Party representative in the committee also went with the consensus.
Shorn of political rhetoric, it becomes clear that the fight is not over the Bill\'s content, which has adequate safeguards against foreigners (read Indians) getting Nepali citizenship. It also has tough strictures against fraud, misrepresentation and contains provisions to penalise people obtaining citizenship illegally, including erring Chief District Officers. The powerful Left opposition is using it simply to deny the Nepali Congress any political mileage among the tarai voters. And so, the Left has made a strategic decision to ride the bandwagon of Kathmandu Valley populism.
The UML now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Logic dictated the bill, but the breakaway ML and Panchayat-holdover RPP now threatened to make away with the all-important \'nationalist\' platform.
The ML-led fringe Left groups are forcing a Valley shutdown to protest the bill on 2 August. The main point of opposition is a clause in the amendment that grants people citizenship even if their father had not obtained Nepali citizenship, as provided for by the 1962 Constitution.
UML\'s Nemwang now speaks of the need for unity in the legislature: "While boycotting parliament on such a sensitive issue, we said division of parliament was not right. All we wanted was more time before passing it."
There is also a possibility that the bill will be challenged in court after it becomes law. Lawyer Bal Krishna Neupane, who has blocked five previous attempts to settle the citizenship issue, has already made his mind up to file his sixth lawsuit. "I will sue and this law will get quashed," he says.
Work to begin simplifying citizenship procedures began with an effort by the UML during its nine-month term in 1995. During its second stint in power, home minister Bam Dev Gautam (then UML, now with ML) went ahead and handed out citizenships through a committee headed by Jitendra Dev, a party colleague. Dev distributed 34,000 citizenships before he was stopped by a Supreme Court stay order, as demanded by advocate Neupane.
The good news is that the government and the main opposition worked together to come up with a draft that is forward-looking and likely to promote national integration across Nepal\'s hill-plain divide. The bad news is that it may take time for the ideologically-driven \'nationalistic\' dust to settle before it can be implemented.
But the Bill is now a fait accompli, and it will one day firmly define Nepali citizenship so that one of the most consistent headaches to the Nepali polity-the role and place of the madhesi in the mainstream- will be removed.