NEPALGUNJ, NEPAL — Kaladev Baskhor bought a plot of land about 200 meters (656 feet) from where he lives now, in this city near the country’s southern border with India. He purchased it five years ago, but he can’t legally own it because he has no documentation proving that he is Nepali. “I have already paid the amount in full,” he says. “The legal landowner is sick.” He worries whether the owner’s heirs will honor the agreement.
According to one estimate in 2021, nearly 7 million people — more than a quarter of the eligible population in Nepal — did not possess citizenship certificates. Without this document even if they were born in Nepal and have lived there all their lives, they cannot vote or access public hospitals or schools or, like Baskhor, legally own land. The Constitution of Nepal, promulgated in 2015, guarantees a right to citizenship, but as legislators in Kathmandu wrangle over amendments to the country’s citizenship law — which, enacted in 2006, doesn’t align fully with the Constitution — many Nepalis find it impossible to live fully and freely, instead ensnared among contradictory laws and policies.
Baskhor’s father died in 2006, without acquiring citizenship papers. In 2007, after the introduction of a citizenship law that granted citizenship on the basis of birth to people born in Nepal before 1990, his mother, Phulmata Baskhor, obtained citizenship. Prior to its passage, for decades Nepali citizenship was only transmissible through patrilineal descent: That is, if a man was Nepali, then his offspring were eligible for citizenship. By the time Kaladev Baskhor and his four siblings applied for their citizenship certificates, issued to those age 16 or older, their father was no longer alive but their mother had a legal identity. Still, their applications were rejected.
“Until a new law comes, we have been directed not to grant citizenship to people whose parents received citizenship on the basis of birth,” says Hari Prasad Sharma, assistant chief and information officer for Banke district’s administrative department. The Constitution promised citizenship by descent to people whose parents were earlier given citizenship by birth — such as Kaladev Baskhor and his siblings — but no federal law has been enacted so far. Last fall, then-President Bidiya Bhandari blocked a bill that had been passed by Parliament. The bill was not without its critics: While it would have allowed an estimated 500,000 people access to legal identity, it did not eliminate longstanding discriminatory provisions regarding Nepali women, especially single mothers and those married to foreigners. In late May, newly elected President Ram Chandra Poudel approved the bill; but in early June, the Supreme Court issued a short-term interim order blocking its implementation.
Despite this yearslong impasse in the corridors of power, Kaladev Baskhor and his siblings took matters into their own hands. In 2019, they launched a collective legal battle — and received a favorable verdict from the Tulsipur Nepalgunj High Court that summer. A few months earlier, a minister-level meeting also concluded, citing provisions in the Constitution and the citizenship law, that people like the Baskhors could acquire citizenship.
“The government office has been disregarding this decision,” says Biswajit Tiwari, a lawyer for the Baskhors.
After that ministerial decision, says Sharma, “we did distribute some citizenship. But we were told that without a legal provision in place we cannot grant citizenship, so we stopped processing them.”
Currently, 18 members of the Baskhor family have no way of proving they are Nepali. “Citizenship is the basis of all rights in Nepal: to obtain birth certificates for your children, to seek higher education, to obtain a SIM card, to trade land,” says activist and lawyer Sunil Shrestha. The process of obtaining citizenship certificates is particularly fraught in a border region like Banke, he adds, because there is suspicion that Madhesi people “might be Indians.” Madhesi refers to various communities living in the lowlands of Nepal. “I am not saying give citizenship to everyone, but make the process easier for people who are eligible.”
Like Kaladev Baskhor, Shivani Baishya also can’t obtain a citizenship certificate; the 22-year-old’s father had received his citizenship on the basis of birth. She fears she will have to give up her job at a local school. Three years ago, in order to crack down on tax evasion and encourage financial transparency, any salary higher than 1,000 Nepali rupees (7.64 United States dollars) had to be deposited in a bank. But only Nepali citizens can open a bank account. Baishya is planning to pursue a master’s degree but faces the same hurdle. “Citizenship is needed to pursue higher education, to work for any organization, or for the government,” she says.
Kaladev Baskhor and his three sons, Sumit, Shani and Roshan — ages 20, 18 and 16 — work as painters in Nepalgunj. “Citizenship is needed to secure government painting contracts as well as those of big companies,” he says. “I am only able to get 10- to 20,000 rupees [about 75 to 150 dollars] of work.” His sons do not have birth registration certificates, so they also have been unable to pursue higher education. “My friends have bought motorcycles,” says Sumit Baskhor. “Citizenship is required to purchase one. The situation is so desperate that I bought a mobile SIM card with my grandmother’s citizenship documents.”
Noting that political intransigence is depriving people of the right to live with dignity, Tiwari points out that, in this instance, it is also disenfranchising the historically marginalized. “Baskhor is a community of Nepali Dalits,” he says. (The community has been trying to gain official recognition as Nepali Dalits.) “Without citizenship, they are denied services reserved for the Dalit community.”
Kaladev Baskhor and his siblings’ quest for legal identity is also undermined by another inconsistency in Nepal’s current citizenship framework: Nepali women are prevented from independently passing citizenship to their children. Baskhor’s father passed away without procuring a legal identity, so there is no way of proving that he was a Nepali citizen. “How do I bring my dead father back?” he asks.
Sharma, at the district administration office, says they are simply following the rules. “The provision given to us to grant citizenship through the mother says it needs to be proven that the father is a Nepali citizen,” he says, admitting that “the evidence aspect has proven difficult.” The passage of a citizenship law, he says, will solve this issue. The proposed amendment does offer a path for a Nepali woman to transmit citizenship to her children — but only if she can prove their father is Nepali or declare that he is “unidentified.” (If that declaration is proven to be false, the woman can face prosecution.) If the bill is enacted in its current form, says Tiwari, the Baskhors will still find themselves in a difficult situation because the law only contains provisions for people whose fathers are unidentified — not those whose fathers died without obtaining citizenship.
Amrita Jaisi, GPJ Nepal
Patriarchal thinking is prevalent in Nepali society, says Tiwari. “They search for the father while issuing citizenship based on the mother’s name — but they don’t even bother to ask who the mother is when citizenship is obtained through the father. It is the mother who carries the baby and raises the child. No matter how much we talk about inclusion, it is not in practice.” In 1990, when Tiwari first obtained a citizenship certificate, it did not mention his mother’s name. “But why is my mother’s name not included?” So, in 2022, he obtained a new citizenship certificate that included his mother’s and wife’s names.
Earlier this year, in the Tulsipur High Court in neighboring Dang district, lawyer Binu Shrestha and law student Bimala Rani sued the district administration, demanding the mandatory inclusion of the mother’s name on a citizenship certificate. The case is expected to be decided later this year.
There are other ways, too, in which existing policies are discriminatory. Currently, a married woman applying for citizenship must submit birth and marriage registration papers, in addition to her husband’s and father’s citizenship certificates. As a result, Kaladev Baskhor’s wife, Moni Baskhor, also can’t obtain citizenship, even though her parents are both citizens. “When I mentioned that she could obtain citizenship after divorce,” Kaladev Baskhor recalls bitterly, “my wife cried, saying, ‘Who taught you such things in old age?’”
The new law does not address the additional burden on married women seeking citizenship.
Two years ago, his elder brother, Ambarlal Baskhor, died by suicide; he drowned himself in a lake near their home. “He was anxious that his children were of marriageable age — despite a million attempts, he was not able to obtain citizenship,” Kaladev Baskhor says, adding that his brother could no longer bear that mental toll. He also can’t help but worry for his own sons and the opportunities passing them by and for the two-room house that he worked all his life to be able to build — but that he fears he will never be able to claim as his own.