Nepali Times
Powder keg

Eclipsed by the Maoist crisis in this country, and buried by headline-grabbing news of the unseemly power struggle going on at Singha Darbar, is a crisis that could potentially make both look like a picnic. It is the Citizenship Bill, and the plight of some three million madhesi Nepalis of the tarai. With their linguistic and ethnic nearness to India, madhesis have over the years found it difficult to obtain Nepali citizenship. Last year, a law that finally sought to resolve the issue and define who is Nepali was tabled in parliament.

While the bill was being debated, the main opposition Unified Marxist-Leninsts (UML), which had earlier worked on the draft, got cold feet and pulled out because it was afraid that its rival Marxist-Leninists (ML) and other fringe left groups would gain political mileage by stoking nationalist and anti-tarai sentiments. But since the Nepali Congress had a majority in parliament, the bill sailed through the house. (We did suffer a bandh on 2 August last year called by comrades of the seat-less ML, remember?) The NC also thought it did a clever thing by sending the draft to the King as a Finance Bill, thus bypassing the need to have approval of the Upper House.

The King, mindful of the fact that this was a political hot potato, in turn passed the bill on to the Supreme Court. And last week, the Supreme Court declared the Citizenship Bill unconstitutional. Now, everyone is in a bind. There is a bit of a legal Catch 22 here: the constitution requires the King to give automatic approval to finance bills and send them back to parliament, but because the Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional, he cannot approve it. And then there is the other complication of whether the Citizenship Bill could have been tabled as a finance bill in the first place. While lawyers debate this to death, you can bet that the real question of addressing the grievances of millions of Nepalis who cannot get a citizenship certificate because they "look Indian" will be sidelined. The fear of being swamped by a billion Indians living to the south of our open border is so palpable, that politicians of every persuasion have tried to use the citizenship issue to their advantage, while sabotaging any attempt by any party to resolve it and take credit from the tarai vote bank.

The Citizenship Bill as tabled in parliament finally sought to defuse a potential ethnic crisis by making it easier for genuine Nepali madhesis to get their papers. There are enough safeguards in it to prevent foreigners from illegally getting citizenship, and tough penalties for fraud and misrepresentation. If properly implemented, and that indeed is the real sticking point, the bill could stop the present travesty: foreigners with the right amount of cash can illegally buy citizenship, while bonafide Nepalis cannot get citizenship whatever they do.

The main objection of critics of the bill seems to be that it grants people citizenship even if their daddies do note have citizenship. This can easily be reworked without hurting the chances of genuine Nepalis to finally get their papers, but that would demand political will and vision-both in short supply among our elected officials. Political parties cannot seem to see beyond the tips of their noses, and are interested only in politicising the citizenship issue for easy pickings. In a multi-ethnic country like Nepal, citizenship should not be confused with nationality. And as we have seen from our South Asian neighbours, the worst possible thing you can do is mix politics and ethnicity. Don't even think about touching that powder keg. Politicians, back off.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)