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“Nagarikta-ko subidha”: Nepali Theories and Practices of Citizenship

Sara Shneiderman

University of British Columbia

Citizenship is often presumed to be the legal status that enables rights within an individual nation-state framework. In this paper, however, I argue that many citizens of Nepal understand citizenship primarily as a prerequisite for leaving the country, rather than for accessing entitlements within it. I suggest that while state-promoted ideologies of Nepali citizenship are shaped by a nationalist vision of belonging that presupposes an inherent connection between citizenship and identity, many Nepalis—particularly those from marginalized communities—view citizenship rather as a pragmatic instrument to leave that polity precisely due to their exclusion from the former vision of it.

To explore the gaps between these different visions of citizenship, I draw upon recent research in three different districts of Nepal (Banke, Dolakha, and Mustang), each of which experiences different patterns of mobility and citizenship. I further put these narratives in conversation with contextual ethnographic material that emerges from long-standing engagements in destinations of Nepali migration, such as northeast India, Tibetan border areas of China, and North America. I ask: How do the millions of Nepalis who rely upon transnational mobility as part of their livelihood strategy conceptualize “nagarikta-ko subidha”—literally the facilities or amenities of citizenship—that were often described to me? What do their experiences tell us about national and transnational regimes for regulating mobility and commodifying labour in the Himalayan region and beyond? Finally, how do the experiences of both those who possess no citizenship (de facto stateless people) and those who negotiate multiple citizenships (simultaneously or sequentially), complicate the state-promoted narrative of a singular citizenship?