Nepali Times
State Of The State
In a state of statelessness


Chulhai Kapar is a non-person. He is a Nepali national, but not eligible for the citizenship of this country under existing laws of the land. Chulhai is just one of the estimated 3 million stateless Nepalis of the tarai whose chances of acquiring legitimacy have been jeopardised by a recent court order. In the considered opinion of the Supreme Court, the bill intended to grant citizenship certificates to people like Chulhai is against the provisions of The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 2047 (1990).

For India-locked Nepal, citizenship has always been a contentious issue. The Kathmandu elite has a deep fear of being overrun by Indians. Laws are stringent, and their implementation even more severe when it comes to granting citizenship to those who look or sound like Indians. Due to such a deep-seated paranoia among mostly high-caste hill dwellers, the issue of granting citizenship to Nepali nationals of the tarai has been hanging fire for decades.

After the restoration of democracy in 1990, almost all major political parties played politics and sought votes on the promise of resolving the citizenship issue. But they all backtrack as soon as they enter the miasma of Kathmandu Valley where jingoism and pollution fight for supremacy at all times of the day, in every season of the year.

The Nepal Communist Party (UML) set the Dhanapati Commission to work; the Nepali Congress formed the Mahantha Thakur Commission to examine the issue. Both fizzled out and did nothing to address the madhesi grievances. In the end, the Nepali Congress with its majority in parliament took the lead. Initially, the UML went along. But the comrades backed out once they sensed the belligerent mood of the champions of hill-centric nationalism in Kathmandu.

After a bit of a controversy, the bill was passed on the strength of Nepali Congress majority in the Lower House and was submitted for the royal seal to turn the bill into an Act. Meanwhile, Kathmandu's High Priests of Patriotism went into action, whipping up fears of an Indian population invasion. Nobody, but nobody, spared a thought for madhesis like Chulhai. If anything, some condescending opinion leaders were seen offering unsolicited advice to madheshis that they will be swamped by immigrants from down south, ignoring the reality that population pressure from the hills already threatens to turn people of tarai origin into a minority in their own region.

The attempt to drum up a mass-hysteria by the likes of Ramesh Nath Pandey, Daman Nath Dhungana, Bal Krishna Neupane and Kirti Nidhi Bista failed to fire the imagination of the general population. But it caught the attention of the king. He promptly referred the bill to the Supreme Court. A special bench of the court-incidentally, composed entirely of the people of hill origin-deliberated over the bill, and came to the conclusion that the proposed provision of granting citizenship to a person whose father hadn't acquired a citizenship certificate amounted to a contravention of constitutional provisions.

People like Chulhai will now have to wait indefinitely for an amendment of the constitution. Some may be forced to resort to extra-constitutional means, but no one in Kathmandu is losing sleep over it. They are gloating over their success in the courts, unmindful of the implications of their victory will have for the stability of the state of Nepal.

Citizenship gives a person the basic right to have rights. There is ample proof from countries in the neighbourhood of what happens if this right is denied for too long. Citizenship is not charity that Kathmandu dispenses at its will and convenience. It's a right, and people do things for rights that are not always to the liking of those who take those very rights for granted.

Forget Chulhai, laws governing citizenship in Nepal are so inflexible and their implementation so blatantly discriminatory that if Lord Buddha were to be a commoner in contemporary Nepal, he wouldn't succeed in getting a citizenship certificate. Being from Kapilavastu, Buddha would be a madhesi for the Nepali establishment, a person of Indian origin for the members of intelligentsia, and nobody would grant him his true status: a person of tarai origin.

Contemporary Buddha would probably speak Awadhi, and the Chief District Officer's clerks would give him a standard application form to be filled in Nepali. He would wear a dhoti-kurta, and have to hire a bhadgaunle or dhaka topi to be photographed for the citizenship certificate. Someone in the CDO office would probably even taunt him for his gamchhi and ask him to appear in the office in labeda-suruwal, black coat and black shoes. Even after enduring all this humiliation, if his father hadn't taken the citizenship certificate, the Buddha would be stateless.

The Kathmandu establishment must decide whether it wants a united Nepal based on inclusive nationalism or a fragmented one based on the patriotism of communal purity. This is a decision that can't be postponed any more and it is ticking. A sadistic section of Kathmandu society seems to be bent on self-destruction. Those who do not listen when the meek speak run the risk of being blown away by the fury of silence. A state that does not accept the legitimacy of its own citizens may lose its own, and when that time comes it can't ask for the loyalty of people it considers stateless. A point to remember, perhaps, on Buddha's 2,545th birthday.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)