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Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal. India-Nepal Ties are often referred by many scholars, Ministers, Foreign Secretaries, Ambassadors of both countries, including the Prime Ministers as ‘Roti-Beti Sambandh’, which relates to the cross-border marriages prevalent between the two countries. These ties are always given special significance in the cultural connections and development of understanding between India and Nepal. More often than not, they are also a premise on which the ties are viewed as a bond that is hard to break. Yet, the critical issue is what concrete measures have been taken by both the governments to consolidate these ties and legally empower the women who are the backbone of these ties. In fact, over the years, the bonding between the people and cross-border marriages have become a major target for the ultra nationalist forces in Nepal to dissect the cordial and harmonious relationship. In all this, there is a clear victimization of Indian women married to Nepali men.
Dr. Paromita Chaubey, Academic Consultant IUCTE, BHU, states that apart from ethnic diversity of people in Nepal, there is another facet of diversity, often least highlighted, is the diversity of many Indian women mostly from Indian states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Northeast India, who are married to Nepali men, especially in the Terai region, due to cultural proximity. However, these women, who are in large numbers, often face the obstructions due to structural discrimination and social mindset. The orthodox, patriarchal, and at times feudal thinking prevents these women to break the barrier of veil and come to the forefront of demanding equal rights and equal treatment. Those who are able to break those barriers, also face greater animosity in the name of being outsider or Indian.
Nepal’s New Constitution and Discrimination of Indian Women
In 2015, Nepal promulgated a new constitution. Nepalis regarded the new constitution as very progressive and granting equal rights to all its citizens, though there was serious discontent among Madhesi people who revolted and launched a movement to boycott and protest. However, some of the provisions in the new constitution was seen as regressive by many feminist groups, who raised their voice against discrimination with regards to the rights of women. The significant factor in the constitution was unequal treatment of Nepali women married to foreigners and that of foreign women married to Nepali men. As the majority of foreign women marrying Nepali men are Indian women and Nepali women also marry Indian men more than other foreigners, it is not wrong to posit that the provisions were directed against India. The successive amendments to the rules prove this proposition.
In June this year, amidst Covid-19 pandemic, Nepal’s Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa further announced a change to the citizenship rules for Indians. According to the new rule, any Indian woman marrying a Nepali citizen will get citizenship only after a period of seven years. Ram Bahadur Thapa cited similar Indian laws for citizenship without mentioning the fact that Indian laws do not apply to Nepali citizens. Hence, the brewing of anti-India sentiments in Nepal is taking a brunt on the Indian born women in specific. The provisions deprive the Indian women married to a Nepali man to live a life of dignity, respect, and independence, as in Nepal anyone who is not given a citizenship card is devoid of admission to any college/university, gain employment, open a bank account, apply for a passport, get a driving license, have a SIM card, or even get electricity and gas connection. A citizenship card also entitles an individual in Nepal to gain the social security services of the state, especially in crucial times like the Covid-19 pandemic. It also entitles an individual to gain voting rights and civic participation. Hence, the Indian born woman by Nepali law becomes extremely dependent on the Nepali man with whom she is married and the in-laws, who may or may not give her due significance. She is, therefore, disempowered to function socially, economically, politically, as well as culturally in Nepal.
Ms. Bibha Bhattarai, a Politician and Member of Parliament, states that 2015 constitution brought about 33% reservation for women in federal and state bodies; while 40% reservation in local bodies. Yet, the issue is does these reservation give any specific benefits to Indian woman married to Nepali man? The answer is clearly “No”. There is no provision for Indian woman married to a Nepali man to get equal treatment in Nepal. She is also restrained from any higher political positions and administrative roles in Nepal, as she falls under the category of “acquired or naturalized citizen” and not “a citizen by decent”.
Madhesi Indian Women and Exclusion
As Madhes is the region where a large proportion of Nepali men get Indian bride, the issues also range greatly and are different from the reality of Nepal in totality. Bibha Kumari Thakur, a Central Committee member of RJPA (Janta Ssmajwadi Party, JSP) Thegana-Dhanusha, states that “to be a Madhesi woman, then be a woman with naturalized citizenship, and to be a woman in itself, all three are demerits in Nepal”. The discrimination based on these factors is the highest in Nepal. This was clearly visible in case of Ms. Sarita Giri, a politician, who was removed from the post of Member of Constituent Assembly and was deprived of party position, as she raised her democratic voice against the Kalapani issue in Nepal’s parliament demanding a rational thinking. The social media trolls labelled her as ‘Indian woman’, even though she is married for decades and sacrificed in struggles for the improvement of Nepali Republic. Ms. Giri believes that social media tool is now a weapon in the hands of those who want to attack women and make them vulnerable. It creates more gender biases and discriminates women on the basis of their role and position. It was evident during her criticism that forces in Nepal use social media also to launch a propaganda attack against Indians and brew anti-India feeling against Indian born women as well as Madhesi women. Voices like ‘India, take back Madhes’ was predominant and a discourse on true nationalism was finally thwarted by Mr. Rajendra Mahato, a politician and now also a member of JSP, in his powerful speech in the Constituent Assembly on the issue of Kalapani.
Ms. Kiran Thakur, Deputy Mayor for the Gaur Municipality in the Rautahat District, states that generally it is difficult for women to join politics in Nepal, but Indian born women are neither allowed to be in the forefront, nor speak on stage. Ms. Sunita Sah, human rights defender and President of Nepal Bharat World Development Forum (Province No. 2) states that the moment a woman becomes bold and raises her voice, there are political forces that sideline her and suppress the voice with all kinds of nexus, threats and intimidation. Hence, women are not independent in Nepal, but are dictated and suppressed. Many Indian women in Nepal points out that in Nepal, being born in India and married to a Nepali is a stigma in itself. On any issue of national interest, Indian woman are tagged as ‘having loyalties with India’, no matter how much loyalty they carry for the in-laws and for the place whee she is married for decades i.e. Nepal. The lack of any provision of dual citizenship between India and Nepal makes women more vulnerable in the hands of state. Hence, Bibha Kumari Thakur believes that “neither India wants us, nor Nepal recognizes us”.
Dowry, Violence and Legal Status
In recent years crimes against women are on the rise in Nepal, especially during Covid-19 pandemics, the graph of crime rate in Nepal is on a fast upward trend. Ms. Mohna Ansari, Commissioner of National Human Rights Commission, pointed out that within a week, there were nine cases of rape reported to the National Human Rights Commission. She says, the bigger challenge to women is access to justice. However, due to lack of any concrete data relating to Indian women married to Nepali men, the issue of justice become challenging. In Nepal, neither there is any separate record or research of crimes against Indian women, nor any specific administrative body to look into issues relating to treatment of foreign women in Nepal. Hence, all records of domestic violence and dowry deaths goes down as general crimes against woman. But the problem is that due to lack of equal rights, the treatment of indian born woman is surely on an unequal footing. Does Indian and Nepali authorities ever took these matters to any platform. The answer again is “No”.
As a general social norm in Nepal, not only an Indian born woman is much sought by a Nepali man due to huge dowry that she can bring, but there are issues of social class, caste and status that gives Nepali men privilege to have an Indian born woman as his wife. The social norm prevalent in Nepal is also that one man marries multiple women and domestic violence is high. When it comes to a serious legal issue, the registration of marriage in Nepal is not mandatory, hence records are lacking. Besides, Nepal not only lacks family court, but civil and family matters take a long time to get resolved. In addition, the local understanding is that an Indian born woman is at vulnerable position to get due justice in Nepali court. The voices of masses always support and prejudice in favor of Nepali men. Ms. Kiran Thakur summarize the state of woman in few words “Aanchal men dhool aur aankho mein pani leke chalna hai” (A woman has to walk with dust in her edge of sari and tears in her eyes). Do the authorities in India and Nepal listen to the cries of Indian born woman married to Nepali men. Ms. Bibha Kumari Thakur, makes a loud cry and calls on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “either India demands protection of rights of Indian women married in Nepal or end the Roti-beti sambandh”.
Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal
Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
China Fudan FDDI Ambassador in South Asia