Reading Gaige in 2015: Part II (The politics of citizenship in the 1950s)

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We ended Reading Gaige Part I with the understanding of a general commentary on the geo-politics of the Tarai, border issues with our southern neighbor and how migration into the Tarai began. This week, I shall outline a sketch of Gaige’s research on the politics of citizenship in the Tarai.

Chapter 5: The Politics of Citizenship

Citizenship has been a sensitive issue in Nepal since its determination in the country. After Prithivi Narayan Shah’s 1769 conquest of Nepal inclusive of the Tarai, came the need for defining roles and responsibilities for the plains. Minor government posts and zamindarita (land-lordship) were granted in 3 levels; with first preference being given to the ‘hill folks’, second to ‘those settled with family in the tarai’ and who were rich, faithful and from respectable ancestry’. Third preference was given to Indians, with Indians being defined as a plains person residing in the Tarai without his family. This separation was because there were no citizenship laws before 1964 and identification was made as such. Before the Citizenship Act of ‘52, there was an absolute lack of administrative mechanism to determine a person’s status as Nepalese or Indian. Thus, both Tarai residents and Indians were required to obtain a passport from Birgunj before they were allowed entry into Kathmandu, except for on Shiva Ratri – when Indians were allowed to make pilgrimage to Pashupatinath. These passports were checked at Chisapani Garhi and the procedure was not abandoned completely until 1958. As Gaige notes, before 1951, nationality depended heavily on use of the primary language, meaning Nepali (as spoken in the hills) and thus these people required no such form of identification when entering from the eastern or western hills into the capital.

When the Nepalese political revolution began in 1951 and there was a need to draw up a voters’ list, there had still been no formal definition of citizenry in the country. Hence, the Public Representation Act of 1951 affirmed that any person who had resided in a constituency for at least 60 days would be allowed the right to vote. This liberal approach to voting may have been influenced by India’s influence on Nepal’s political matters, considering that Nepalese leaders were far from policy drafting experts and required help from India in such an arena. The ’51 Constitution was subsequently seen as an adaptation of the then newly formulated Indian constitution. The results of the general election of ’59 can however give an indication of the bonds that the hill and tarai leaders had with each other. Of those elected in the Parliament from Nepali Congress, 12 were plains people and 11 were hill folks, who had strong ties with the plains and included leaders such as B.P. Koirala and Subarna Shamsher. As Gaige puts it succinctly, ‘there was a time when the men of the hills and plains worked, fought, and occasionally died together and, when the struggle was over, they governed together’.

The 1952 Citizenship Act formed the basis for citizenship laws, which was later reiterated in the 1962 Constitution, barring for difference in naturalization requirements. Article 8, Section 2 of the Constitution of Nepal (1962), qualified a foreigner for citizenship based on whether he/she could speak and write in Nepali and was residing, and engaged in an occupation in Nepal. He/she should have also already taken steps to renounce the citizenship of the other country in question. Additionally, in case the person was of Nepalese origin, he should have resided in Nepal for a period of less than two years and in case he was not of Nepalese origin, he should have resided for at least 12 years inside the country’s territory. Gaige’s examination of said clauses reveal the following: that requiring the population to also write Nepali as part of the citizenship acquirement when the literacy rate of the entire country was 4 percent in the 1950s made very little sense. Provisions for a language test for testing the same was also absent, calling for little or no enforcement.

While the other clauses can be understood as commonly administered citizenship rules, the fourth clause is a little misleading with no concrete definition of said ‘Nepalese origin’, leaving two interpretations, whereby one would be being born inside the political border of Nepal (including the Tarai) or culturally, a person born in the hills of Nepal alone (which was then referred solely as Nepal).

Citizenship soon became an important identification in Nepal when it was associated with the right to own property in the country. Though neither the 1964 Lands Act/Rules explicitly stated the need, its details were required when acquiring land. The cause for this ambiguity was to potentially avoid India’s furious reaction. According to the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty, citizens living in either countries were allowed to own property in the other. Though initially signed with motives of maintaining peace and friendship, the treaty has been continually resented by Nepalese as a way of India’s way to interfere with Nepal’s sovereignty. Though attempts were made in the past by the Communist parties of Nepal to nullify the agreement, the pact is yet to be scrapped.

In terms of citizenship procurement in the 1950s and 1960s, the procedure was laced with considerable bureaucracy. For citizenship by birth, one had to provide proof that one was born inside the political border of Nepal. Birth registration was scant expect in a few hospitals in Kathmandu, and officials were generally ready to accept hill people to have been born in the country. On the other hand, a plains person had to find one or two prominent people from the Tarai to vouch for him/her. Unfortunately, these people usually engaged in asking for financial compensation for the task, greatly disadvantaging the poor of the plains, thereby causing most to forgo citizenship acquirement.

There is some commentary at the end of the chapter on how anti-Indian sentiments were at its peak in Nepal during the promulgation of the ’62 Constitution of Nepal with it re-instating the King’s power as the monarch. With the promulgation of the new 2015 Constitution of Nepal, the sentiments have hardened and continue to threaten bilateral relations between the two nations.

The next part on Reading Gaige will cover the politics of language and communication among other things.


Labisha Uprety

Labisha Uprety is a Research and Communications Officer at Samriddhi. She enjoys debating and likes her tea black with a little sugar.

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