After exchanging names, both first and last—first name as a signifier is never enough—formal conversation between two strangers in Nepal leads to the next inevitable question, “Ghar chain kata paryo ni?”; literally, ‘Where is your home?’ The answer needs a place that one can call home; a place that one was not only born in, but where one also owns material property—usually a piece of land, if not a house. Not an easy question to answer for those with no land or house in the country. In other words, being a ‘Nepali’ in Nepal has a very spatialized and material meaning. Being born and raised in Nepal, and finding emotional ties to a birthplace within Nepal does not automatically make one a complete Nepali, both in everyday conversation as well as legally.
Under the Citizenship Act 2006, there are three main provisions under which an individual can obtain Nepali citizenship: by descent, by naturalization, or by birth. In general, a sukumbasi without citizenship may be able to claim Nepali citizenship under ‘descent’ or ‘birth’ category. Under both conditions, citizenship can be inherited or obtained if one of the parents, father or mother, of an applicant has citizenship status. Although, it is also well documented that women find practical difficulties in conferring citizenship to her child due to bureaucratic discretions that are influenced by patriarchal mindset that informally sidesteps formal state provision (Please read ‘Stateless in New Nepal’ in Nepali Times for a well-informed article that troubles gendered dimensions of citizenship in Nepal). Further, the applicant has to have the Village Development Committee (VDC) or the Municipality certify her place of birth, her relationship with the relatives, and that she has permanently resided in Nepal, after birth.
For anyone applying for citizenship under ‘birth’, one has to produce a landownership certificate, if not her own, her relatives’ (in which case the relationship has to be confirmed by either the VDC or the Municipality). If not, one is required to present one of the following documents: certificate of land tiling rights, proof of housing, or listing of one of the parents’ name in the voter’ list prepared by the Election Commission (obtaining which involves another circular and convoluted process of presenting various documents certifying the applicant’s ties to the land and people).
In the event that the applicant is unable to produce any of the documents, there is a provision called ‘spot investigation’. The investigation involves three Nepali citizenship-owing individuals, preferably the applicant’s relatives, as witness of the applicant’s birth, and her permanent residence in the same place as the witness, since her birth. This centrality of land and permanent ties to it in the form of ownership and residence are what exclude a large number of sukumbasi populations from obtaining citizenship in Nepal.
In the absence of one’s ability to secure citizenship by birth or descent, obtaining one becomes a process that is fraught with complications, which in most cases further subjugates one already materially deprived as the illegal ‘other’. The provision for inclusion that the Citizenship Act of 2006 provides becomes the condition of exclusion that perpetuates a majority of sukumbasi populations’ statelessness as non-citizen ‘Nepali’. Here is how. Many are orphans, or have no whereabouts of their parents since they were small. Many own lands in paper, but real land is either swept away by flood or landslide. Many go back to their birthplace to seek citizenship but do not find enough people to bear witness to their ties to the place because they have become strangers after years of living outside. These are few of the many practical and political ways the amended Citizenship Act perpetuates statelessness and reproduces a non-citizen ‘Nepali’ in Nepal.
The state should address the demand for citizenship in the city by dismantling the politico-economic and cultural conditions that create a non-citizen ‘Nepali’.
When institutional provisions engender exclusion, the excluded find a different site to claim inclusion. In the sukumbasi case, that site is no longer the text, the Act, which resides within the state. City as a lived space becomes the site, not as an a priori, but one that is actively produced as one. More specifically, spaces that sukumbasi inhabit, the riverbanks and inner parts of the city, as they are reproduced and transformed into functional neighborhoods, provide sukumbasi communities a language, or discourse, to make demands for citizenship. The self-understanding is one of ‘able resident’ who turned ‘the riverbank into a livable place’, and ‘who has the financial wherewithal to pay property taxes through savings and credit schemes if land is legally owned’; or as ‘good citizen’ who ‘has done the duty of protecting public land from land mafias, and kept the honor of the state intact’. In enacting the empowered ‘self’, the sukumbasi also sometimes perform as the ‘disempowered state’ through public events such as ‘petticoat exhibition’; the semi-nude body of a sukumbasi woman, in the exhibition, embodying ‘the naked state with no power to provide anything to the citizens’.
As the city pries apart the seam between the state and citizenship, it breaks open a different understanding of ‘slum’—it is not just a passive space where a sukumbasi life unfolds, but rather, an active site in which citizenship becomes constructed from below. However, what has become mute and marginal in the ensuing national debates around realignment of citizenship with provincial state formations is the new ways in which citizenship is ‘locally’ embedded, and demanded, within the ‘urban’ setting, with the city as the site of contestation. The sukumbasi struggle serves as a case in point. This is the demand by non-citizen ‘Nepali’ for formal citizenship status. Obtaining formal status will not automatically guarantee substantive rights, however, it will ensure a more secure access to material rights (access to municipal services or public employment) and political freedoms (right to vote) that they currently do not have.
The radical demand for citizenship is not an isolated case. Instead, it articulates with political demand for citizenship globally. The demand calls for a defeat of market-oriented neoliberal citizenship to be replaced by social citizenship that is framed as the Right to the City, foregrounding ‘the right to change the city more according to our heart’s desire’. For example, a Hong Kong-based millionaire finds a shortcut access to Canadian citizenship, whereas a political refugee in Toronto may get his citizenship revoked for ideologically biased reasons. Likewise, while a London-based immigrant might be able to exercise municipal citizenship rights, barring the right to vote, an Indian citizen in Mumbai may not have access to such rights simply because she is poor or of low caste. Urban social movements and organizations target such discrepancy and discrimination by representing the voice of those who are materially dispossessed, culturally stigmatized, and politically marginalized. The sukumbasi communities of Nepal are therefore finding their demand being increasingly articulated globally, albeit under different social and cultural contexts.
In the current situation, political demands for recasting citizenship along ‘ethnic’ lines are gaining traction in Nepal, and to a significant extent, for valid reasons. Very broadly speaking, the demands call for correcting historical failures of the state in including indigenous and marginalized nationalities in the state-making processes. However, the Nepali state would do well to also address the demand for citizenship forming in the city, not by displacing it, largely through forceful eviction of sukumbasi settlements, but by dismantling the political-economic and cultural conditions that create, and reproduce, a non-citizen ‘Nepali’ in the first place. In other words, by recasting not just the ‘ethnic’, but also the ‘social’ in citizenship.
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