India

Getting Nepali citizenship is a tough call

  • 21 June 2012
  • From the section India
Nepali men wearing the traditional caps
A proposed law makes it obligatory for both parents to be Nepali citizens in order to hand it down to their children

The issue of identity is a sensitive and controversial one in Nepal, a country in flux as the drafting of a new constitution fails and new elections are announced, reports John Narayan Parajuli from Kathmandu.

Sharad Bheswakar, top cricketer and sporting icon in Nepal, is not actually a Nepali. At least officially, he is not a citizen of the country he calls home.

He was born and raised in Nepal and plays for the national team. He has an Indian father and a Nepali mother, so getting citizenship should not be a problem according to the law of the land.

But his efforts to acquire Nepalese citizenship so far have been futile.

"It's been almost eight to nine years that I've been trying to get my citizenship. I'm still facing problems. It's really frustrating at times," he says.

A few years ago, he was given a travel document as a special concession so he could play in matches abroad.

'Discriminatory'

In Nepal, you can usually apply for citizenship at the age of 16 as long as your father or mother is able to sign the official document, according to the Nepali Citizenship Act of 2006.

But in practice, women in this patriarchal society still face a lot of discrimination when passing down citizenship to their children, specially in the absence of the father or if the father is not a Nepali citizen.

A lack of citizenship document can make your life tough - you cannot get a driving licence, open a bank account, pursue higher education or carry out legal transactions.

And according to the United Nations, the number of people grappling with this problem is far from small.

"We estimate from the numbers we've seen that this is quite a big problem," says Robert Piper, the UN Resident Humanitarian Co-ordinator.

"In the Election Commission's findings, more than 2 million people they interviewed - people just from the villages, not the urban areas - were actually unable to show their citizenship documents," adds Mr Piper.

Usha Kala Rai, a member of the now dissolved Constituent Assembly, believes that Nepal's bureaucratic system discriminates against women.

"Many women are victims of violence and discrimination. Specially those who have gone abroad for work, victims of rape, women who were abandoned, those forced to leave home and divorcees - all risk being deprived of their identity," she says.

Sharad Bheswakar
Sharad Bheswakar plays for Nepal's national cricket team but cannot get citizenship

'Non-persons'

Bhagwati Chettri, 55, a Nepali, was abandoned by her husband several years ago.

She does not have her own citizenship document because she failed to acquire one from either her parents or her husband before he left her.

This means that her two children, who are just coming of age, have no legal identity either.

"I have been trying for the last eight years to get a citizenship certificate. These days even to rent an apartment, you need it. I am getting old, so I won't need it much. But what about my children? If they could at least get the document, they could earn a living."

With Nepal currently in the midst of discussions about the future political set-up in the country, the issue of citizenship is highly sensitive.

Nepali politicians feel they have to be strict about the requirements for citizenship, surrounded as they are on three sides by a large and very populous neighbour - India.

Nepal is now considering a proposed law which makes it obligatory for both parents to be Nepali citizens in order to hand it down to their children.

The UN's Robert Piper describes this as "very narrow and conservative by international standards".

If this draft law is accepted, hundreds of thousands of children, the product of inter-marriages between Nepalis and foreigners, specially Indians in the southern parts of the country, will remain non-persons in Nepal.

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