Nepal’s Citizenship Amendment Bill explainedWhy it was blocked by the Supreme Court after the government sent it to the president for approval
July 2022: Both Houses of Parliament passed an amendment to Nepal’s Citizenship Act 2006. Called the Nepal Citizenship (First Amendment) Bill, it was sent to former Nepal President Bidya Devi Bhandari for formal ratification.
August 2022: Bhandari sent the bill back to the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Lower House with 15 ‘concerns and suggestions’ for review.
September 2022: The bill was once more passed by both Houses of Parliament without any changes, but Sital Niwas allowed its 20 September ratification deadline to lapse. Since the ceremonial head of state did not authenticate the bill, it was rendered null and void. Many saw this deadlock as a result of the power struggle between the opposition UML, which had appointed Bhandari president, and the NC-UML coalition.
September 2022: Parliament was dissolved after completing its five-year term.
March 2023: President Bhandari herself completed her tenure and was succeeded by Ram Chandra Poudel.
31 May 2023: President Poudel authenticated the Citizenship Amendment Bill rejected by his predecessor, following a recommendation by the Council of Ministers.
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What is in it?
The amendment clears the way for children of parents who got citizenship by birth to become citizens by descent and paves the way for hundreds of thousands of Nepalis, especially in the Tarai, to finally become Nepali citizens. The bill also allows Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs), except for those residing within South Asia, to acquire dual citizenship but without the right to vote.
Activists have long said the bill’s restrictions on citizenship for children born to single mothers as well as the process of obtaining naturalised citizenship were discriminatory towards women.
The bill allows foreign women married to Nepali men to immediately obtain naturalised citizenship provided the women renounce the citizenship of their country of origin. But there is no similar provision for foreign men married to Nepali women to get Nepali citizenship.
Meanwhile, children born to Nepali mothers born in and residing in Nepal whose fathers are not identified are eligible for Nepali citizenship by descent. However, the woman must make a self-declaration that the father cannot be identified and she can be imprisoned if the claim turns out to be false.
A Nepali man does not have to mention any details of the mother of their child to get citizenship. A child born to a Nepali man married to a foreign woman can obtain citizenship by descent, but a child born to a Nepali mother and a foreign father will only be eligible for naturalised citizenship provided the state deems it okay.
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President Ram Chandra Poudel’s authentication of the Citizenship Amendment Bill on 31 May on the eve of Prime Minister Dahal’s official visit to India drew both outrage and appreciation from across the political spectrum and civil society.
While NRNs as well as hundreds of thousands of people mostly in the Tarai deprived of citizenship welcomed the move, some constitutional and political experts were critical of the process by which the president ratified the bill.
“In a parliamentary system, neither the President nor the government has the right or the authority to validate a dormant bill, one passed by an already lapsed House,” said constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari. “The ball was not in President Poudel’s court.”
Usha Malla Pathak, former Vice President of the Nepal Bar Association, agreed: “The move by the President to authenticate the bill, which was not passed by a new Parliament, is unconstitutional so there is no point debating its merits.”
While some parties are entirely against the bill, others seem to agree with some parts of it while disagreeing with others-- especially provision allowing foreign women married to Nepali men to obtain naturalised citizenship without any waiting period.
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Nationalist groups have said the bill would open the floodgates for Indians to marry Nepalis and settle down in the Tarai. Critics wondered if there was a connection to the timing of the ratification just before Prime Minister Dahal’s official visit to India.
Members of Dahal’s coalition, including the NC’s GaganThapa have publicly criticised the bill. Rabi Lamichhane’s RSP has called the bill anti-national.
On Sunday, the Supreme Court acting on a writ petition issued an interim order against the implementation of the amendment bill. Many without citizenship who had reached government offices across the country to get their certificates were once again turned back.
In Parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Dahal deferred decision on the bill to the apex court, whereas the opposition UML leader K P Oli called for a new bill to be tabled in the House for discussion.
The Supreme Court Bar Association on Tuesday put out a statement calling the authentication of the bill unconstitutional.
‘It is the opinion of the Bar Association that the honourable president has approved the Citizenship Bill against Nepal’s parliamentary system, the Constitution, and the principle of the separation of powers,’ wrote Bar Secretary Shyam Kumar Khatri.
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Once a Nepali, always Nepali
Much of the to-and-fro about the Citizenship Amendment Bill which has been blocked by the Supreme Court after ratification by President, has centred on the fact that the president should not have approved a bill that was passed by a lapsed parliament.
However, many Nepalis are not worried about due process not being followed, but on the contents of the bill: specifically the provision allowing foreign women married to Nepali men to immediately obtain naturalised citizenship. The rhetoric surrounding this debate has been hyper-nationalist, anti-Indian, and anti-Madhes.
The opposition UML has been using similar nationalist and populist talking points to criticise the bill, and the RSP, the new party of young professionals which exited the governing coalition joined the fray, calling it “anti-national”.
One notable aspect of the bill that has been overshadowed is the provision for Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs) to finally obtain dual citizenship. NRNs will however not be allowed to vote, run for public office or hold civil service jobs, and dual citizenship applies only to overseas Nepalis and not those in South Asia.
NRNs seeking dual citizenship need to present proof that their parent or grandparent is a Nepali citizen. They must present proof of having renounced Nepali citizenship, and must have foreign citizenship.
Those who have not renounced their Nepali citizenship previously cannot use the same identification and must present their old citizenship before they obtain a new Nepali citizenship.
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NRNs can open bank accounts in Nepal, own and operate businesses and conduct trade, buy land and property, inherit assets, make investments.
The Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) promptly welcomed the bill’s authentication, saying in a statement:
‘The bill addresses the long-standing demand for Non-Resident Nepali Citizenship from millions of non-resident Nepalis scattered around the world since 2003. We are confident that this step by the Honourable President will soon give meaning to the NRNA mantra of Once a Nepali, always a Nepali.’
It added that this connects Nepali people worldwide to their homeland and utilise their knowledge, skills, and capital to benefit Nepal.
Although some overseas Nepalis that Nepali Times spoke to said they had no knowledge about the bill, others were overjoyed that they could now invest in Nepal and contribute to the home economy.
Former British Army commando and mountaineer Nimsdai Purja was among those who took to social media to express his appreciation.
‘Granting NRN this new legal citizenship…will allow NRNs to practice full economic, social and cultural rights. I believe it is a step in the right direction towards a more positive and prosperous future for the country,’ wrote Purja. ‘This makes tourism and investment easier … means that the wealth is distributed from central areas like Kathmandu to less wealthy communities in mountain areas.’