The Office of President and the government are at odds after President Bidya Devi Bhandari returned the Nepal Citizenship Act, 2006 (First Amendment) Bill to the federal parliament for a review. President Bhandari put forth 15 concerns and suggestions on the Bill but the House of Representatives (HoR) ignored her suggestions and re-endorsed it as it is. Bhandari is unhappy with the executive under the five-party alliance that gave short shrift to her message. The citizenship should be a means of connecting citizens and mustering their loyalty to the nation but it has unfortunately divided the political spectrum. Moreover, it has been politicised for partisan gains, which will have long-term negative impact on the Nepali society.
In her massage, President has stressed on paying attention to the theoretical aspects and past backgrounds of drafting citizenship laws. However, some of her concerns can be addressed by revising the Citizenship Regulation such as giving provincial identity while others require amendment to the constitution. Prior to sending the Bill back to the House, the President consulted lawyers, experts, political leaders and civil society members over its content. Her latest parleys with the incumbent and former army chiefs as well as retired generals have ruffled a few feathers among the coalition leaders. The ruling parties suspect that the UML is egging on President so that it can exploit citizenship issue in the upcoming polls.
Some have advised that she should authenticate the Bill immediately as she is in a ceremonial role. Nonetheless, many of them suggested that she should not endorse the Bill, arguing that there is no strict condition with regard to providing naturalised citizenship to foreign women married to Nepali men. They insisted that this would pose a threat to national sovereignty. But, in her lengthy message, the President has not categorically spoken on the need for keeping ‘cooling-off period’ for a foreign woman married to Nepali man to obtain citizenship.
The proposed Bill has facilitated children, who are born in Nepal to Nepali women but their fathers are not identified, to acquire citizenship by descent. But the Bill stipulates that mother has to make a self-declaration that the father is not identified if the child is granted the citizenship in her name. If her claims turn out to be false, she will face action. The President has taken exception to this provision, stating that this violates the fundamental rights of the children as well as women’s safe motherhood and reproductive rights enshrined in the constitution. This will be an affront to self-respect and privacy related to reproductive rights, she has insisted.
Seemingly, the President’s concerns are valid but at the same time this is a very liberal provision for the mother to get citizenship for her son/daughter without mentioning the child’s father. However, this provision will hurt the sentiments of the child more than the mother. It is a right of every child to know his/her father. How can a child lead a normal life when his/her mother declares that her husband can’t be identified?
However, the President has come under fire from the ruling parties for endorsing an ordinance on the Citizenship Amendment Act introduced by the erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government but seeking changes in the Bill having the same provisions. The President has defended the ordinance, stating that the Constitution does not authorise her to review the ordinance recommended by the Prime Minister but has the right to send any Bill to the parliament for a review, if necessary. But, the President’s argument does not sound convincing. The President is considered the custodian of the constitution. Suppose an ordinance that contains anti-constitution and anti-national elements landed on her table. Should the head of state ask the recommender to revisit the ordinance or sign on the dotted line?
The UML lawmakers have strongly opposed the Bill, stating that it does not have the provision of time limit for the foreign women married to Nepali men to obtain the naturalised citizenship. Altogether 65 UML lawmakers had stood against the Bill when it was put to a vote in the House on August 18. However, the UML lawmakers were tight-lipped about the ordinance that the Oli administration unveiled in June last year before inducting Janata Samajbadi Party-Nepal in the government in the wake of raging intra-party squabbling. The ordinance had omitted the seven-year time limit for the foreign women married to Nepali men for naturalisation.
Despite deliberating on the amendment bill to the Citizenship Act for 22 months, the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of federal parliament had failed to forge consensus on it. It finally endorsed the Bill with the provision of seven-year cooling-off period for the foreign women to get naturalised Nepali citizenship through a majority vote in June 2020. Earlier a secretariat meeting of ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) had decided that the foreign women married to Nepali men had to wait for seven years to obtain the naturalised citizenship. However, the Oli government that enjoyed near two-thirds majority in the parliament did not present this Bill to the full House for discussions and deliberations for six months. As the parliament was dissolved twice, the fate of the Bill hung in limbo.
The current amendment Bill that replaced the old one has also excluded the seven-year time limit for the foreign women. It has given continuity to the provision of the Citizenship Act, 2006 that stipulates that foreign women married to Nepali men have to start the process to renounce their original citizenship to get naturalised citizenship. On Thursday, Minister for Home Bal Krishna Khand, while responding to the President’s concerns, said: “If the Oli government had kept seven-year time limit for the marital naturalised citizenship in the ordinance, it would have been easier that time than now.” However, it will not be late in adding this provision to the Bill. Nepal should follow the practice on the marital naturalised citizenship adopted in other countries, including India. The time limit provision will be instrumental to deter the demographic pressure from the south.
(The writer is Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)