In Search of Wisdom Part III – The Ethics of Citizenship

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Nepal is known not only for its monsoon that pours water, hail and snow over its landscape but also for a monsoon of slogans, demands, and complaints that overwhelm the mindset of its populace. The effect of this second type of monsoon is such that every political player seems to be running for shelter and not thinking about strategies to tackle it. And those who leave Nepal for greener pastures seem to faithfully carry this mindset wherever they go and never get rid of it. A prime example of this is the issue of citizenship and voting rights floating abroad these days. Last month, I received more than two dozen emails requesting that I sign a petition to gain citizenship and voting rights for Nepalese living abroad. Since this has been portrayed as a high priority and hot issue, I like to add a few thoughts on this debate as a Nepali grazing in those green pastures.

Firstly, let me elaborate this issue of heartache that bothers my friends living in the USA and Canada. They are bothered for the fact that although they are children of mother Nepal, carry Nepalese passports, love Nepal from their hearts, and helped Jana-Andolans, they have not been treated fairly. Their important right as a citizen – the right to vote – is being taken away from them by selfish politicians living in Nepal who are bargaining to eat-away the spirit of mother Nepal. How dare their country unjustly deprive them of their voting rights today, when even Panchayat Raj was able to give this right during the referendum of 2036BS? Why is an American citizen allowed to carry multiple citizenships, vote in multiple countries, and vote from wherever he or she lives but not a Nepalese citizen? Instead of spending my time and energy into digging the quantitative data on which countries give what rights with what conditions attached, I want to plunge straight into the qualitative analysis of this debate.

I believe that there are two complimenting sides of an issue of citizenship: one pertaining to the rights and the other pertaining to the responsibilities. Neither the rights without responsibilities nor the responsibilities in absence of the rights carry much significance. However, I find that this issue is made to revolve around the rights alone while excluding the responsibilities from the equation. This one sided focus is giving an incomplete and biased view. Yet, the power of media and propaganda is so great that a lot of well meaning people seem to be at loss in figuring out what is the right thing to do. I, therefore, would like to share a lesson that I have learnt in my life in a hope to simplify this problem.

My much admired mentor in management once taught me that in any job, we solve or execute a set of problems or tasks everyday. But, as our responsibilities rise, we will not find time to solve them all. Therefore, to remain successful in our jobs, we must rank our tasks in terms of their priorities and start solving down the list beginning from the highest priority task. We should strive to solve as many problems as possible in a day and repeat the same process everyday. We will find that either our low priority items would have become unimportant, or solved as the side-effect of solving the high priority tasks, or would have climbed up in the list to being solved.

Having learnt this approach, I attempt to mentally assign priorities for the problems that are urgent for these tumultuous times of Nepal. I see so many high priority problems faced by Nepal’s 28 million people that it overwhelms me to even think about them. There is grinding poverty, illiteracy, under-development, unemployment, corruption, insecurity, under-representation, authoritarianism, anarchy, ethnic-tensions, regional-tensions, political-bickering, injustice, and discrimination. Even innocent children are deprived of food, shelter, care, and education. In these circumstances, should not people like me who live comfortably in wealthy countries expend constructive energy to help Nepal find systemic solutions to those problems? Instead, we seem to think ourselves as the greatest minds Nepal has ever produced and behave as if we are the chosen sons and daughters of Nepal, and seem to lobby for ourselves. We are influencing media to advance the agenda for ourselves at a time when those people living in Nepal have yet to see any signs of addressing the causes and effects that fed the last ten years of armed conflict.

Is it ethical for Nepal to spend time buttressing people like us? Should the needs of people like me living in Canada and the USA, who never tell Nepal where we live, report earnings and pay taxes to these countries, and many vote in those adopted countries, be at a higher priority than the needs of those 28 million who have no means to go in the lands of the plenty, or those who chose to stay in Nepal despite the fact that they could have been in even greener pastures than us? Why should a Dalit of Dailekh, a Kamaiya of Tarai, or a hungry child of Humla, and the illiterate of Nepal think about the voting and citizenship rights of people like us? I have yet to find ethical answers to defend our petitioning friends. Personally, I cannot encourage Nepal to spend energy on something that my little knowledge in management tells me is a low priority. The logic that we will shower Nepal with investment dollars if Nepal could pamper us is simply ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that no one is saving his hard earned dollars for the welfare of Nepal. If ever any dollar lands in Nepal, it is to help our own families, or else it is for the motive of profit – political or economic. Of course, there would be small exceptions to this as there would be anywhere else – I should leave some room for Buddha!

China is the best example in attracting investments from the Diasporas, but it did so not by dishing out voting and citizenship rights but by providing an investment climate to whoever wanted to invest. Of course, ex-patriot Chinese had the first wave of interest because of their ethnic roots. Many contributed enough to pull China to modernity and making themselves worthy to be its citizens. And, despite all this investment wonder, China has not opened itself to duel citizenship. Look at Poland, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel and many other countries which are able to garner large foreign investments for their economic development. Their citizenship rules are pretty stringent, some even requiring mandatory military service. Ireland opened up immigration to ex-patriot Irish who wanted to return to Ireland but not to all Irish descendents who wanted to live somewhere else and gain Irish citizenship. If Nepal can create an environment where our Diasporas can feel that they can be richer by doing things in Nepal, they will invest or return irrespective of their citizenship status. Therefore, building necessary foundations for prosperity should be given a high priority.

Nepalese toiling inside Nepal should remember that people like me may have enough love for Nepal but not the strength to live with the pain faced by Nepal. We are not there to improve the system from within. And, don’t be fooled when we build our logic by using those who are toiling in Arabian deserts as examples. Obviously, those working in the deserts, forests and streets are not seeking any dual citizenship. The most vocal among us are often the operatives of the same political parties that are ruling Nepal. The parties are busy expanding their membership bases in foreign lands (by the way Gyanendra’s operatives also do the same) and they attempt to find the best slogans to help that endeavor. Plus, most elite politicians have a lot of stake attached to countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and the EU. And, Nepal will never receive anything from us unless Nepalese living in Nepal solve all the problems and present us with the most conducive environment and a “red-carpet”. While we are busy building economies somewhere else, we tend to think that our rights reside in Nepal for it issued passports for our travel. The root cause of this is that we landed in developed countries as the “chosen people” and with a big ego sprouting tall within us. But as time passed away, we found that our successes are mediocre at best and our ego is hurt. So, it is not unnatural to dream of landing in Singha Durbar or other high places using our aura of big genius. So I tend to question, am I ethically justified to demand that my problems be addressed ahead of a poor and marginalized person who is left in my village while I am afraid to take the responsibilities demanded by the conditions of that country? I have yet to find a satisfactory answer from within my conscience.

Since democratic credentials are also talked about by some, it would be important to understand that only a far and few are worried about democracy. But most important question here is: can support to democracy and other aims be translated into voting rights? No. I do not qualify to be a citizen of South Africa simply because I marched on the street against apartheid. Those millions of Britons who stood against the invasion of Iraq do not qualify for Iraqi citizenship. As citizens of a connected world, it is our human duty to stand against injustice whether it is perpetrated by Bush in Iraq or Gyanendra in Nepal. It would be unethical to seek a favor in return. Further, the admiration of the “western democracy” is done so self-servingly at times. This is not all glorious in the west either! How many Canadian or American citizens are denied their rights to bring their old and frail mothers to their new homes even when they swear to look after them? Or, does such a right even exist? Where did that citizenship right and freedom go? How many doctors drive taxis and engineers tend gas stations in USA and Canada because of unfair barriers placed against them? There are too many unanswered questions to list them all. Therefore, if we are dreaming of importing American democracy and American economy to Nepal, we are simply fools! It is time that Nepalese better wake up and shift this paradigm altogether and learn to respond to the humanity of the future instead of chasing the ghost of the past. Let us learn to be free people not the slaves of “granted freedom” like people of Iraq.

Having said all this, let us also talk about the ethics of those Nepalese living inside Nepal. As much as looking for a greener-pasture is a human tendency, so is the tendency to not leave the zone of comfort. Therefore, instead of spending energy in being angry on those who left, it is better to channel all the energy to build infrastructure for justice, freedom, peace and prosperity so that people would not have leave. Also, it is better to have compassion and openness to welcome all returning Nepalese in the same way as a mother would welcome her lost children! And, those who go back to Nepal should be given all rights including the right to vote as if the love had never ended. However, Nepal does not need to stretch hard to fulfill the higher necessities of those who have left her by choice. Therefore, there is no need to transport ballot boxes to world capitals when there is a higher need to feed the undernourished in Kalikot. Nepalese living abroad do not need to catapult into Singha Durbar the day they land either; they should be required to spend time before they can get such rights. However, voting rights can be given outright.

And, when it comes to generosity, it does not hurt Nepal to be extra generous in offering immigration to people from anywhere in the planet that are willing to live in Nepal and carry with them the knowledge, skill, wealth, and wisdom. If they live and contribute with the tools of prosperity, they should be bestowed with the citizenship of Nepal irrespective of whether those people have a Nepalese heritage or not. However, Nepal must not sell its soul to the polluters, exploitative investors, businesses of exporting religions, and development without humanity. All endeavors must put people, natural environment, humanity, and continuity of human generations at the top priority. Let us not have a simplistic “get rich quick at any cost now” mentality but have a mentality to make an enduring progress that is true to our generosity and humbleness.

(The author is a former faculty member of Tribhuvan University and holds a Ph D in electrical engineering. He is Executive Director of the Canada Forum for Nepal and lives in Canada)

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