Across the borderIndia is a relatively safer destination for Nepalis in comparison to countries in the Gulf and Malaysia
The migration of Nepalis to India is a complex issue. The most common reason for India being the easiest and most popular destination for Nepali migrants is frequently attributed to its geographical, social and cultural closeness to Nepal. However, during a recent trip to India, an interaction with diverse groups of migrants revealed that India is a relatively safe destination in comparison to the Gulf countries and Malaysia.
To begin with, on landing in Delhi, I stayed at an apartment of one of my school friends, who is an engineer. Like him, a large number of Nepalis are not only going to India for studies but also finding ‘white-collar’ jobs there. Unlike in the past, Nepalis are no longer limited to being kanchhas and bahadurs in various parts of India. My friend is a perfect example of Nepalis who are part of big Indian firms and multinational companies and have ‘respectful’ jobs. They lead a good life and send a decent amount of money back home.
As my friend was hosting me for the night, he took me out for dinner at a local Punjabi restaurant. While we were eating, one of the waiters came to our table and started talking in Nepali. He told us that he had overheard us speaking Nepali and approached us, not because of our looks, which is largely ‘South Asian’. The waiter was from Achham and had come to Delhi three months ago. He had been working in the restaurant for two months, and aspired to go back to Achham during the harvesting season with some money in hand. It’s not just him; various studies done over time have shown that this sort of seasonal migration has become a unique livelihood strategy, mostly in far- and mid-western Nepal. When there is little or no work back home, the males in particular enter various cities in India, work for some time and head back with some money. This process repeats itself year after year.
When I left Delhi and arrived in Assam, I was taken by one of the Assamese staff of my host NGO to the home of another Assamese, but of Nepali origin. I not only tasted the Nepali-style sel-roti there, but also got a chance to experience a blend of Nepali and Assamese culture. This house-owner informed me that his father came to Assam from Nepal when he was a boy, settled here, married a girl of Nepali origin, and raised a family. Although the house-owner’s parents struggled to raise him and his five siblings selling cow-milk and practicing agriculture, he leads a good life. He is a life-insurance agent, earns good money, his children go a reputable school and he has a house and some land of his own. At the end of our meeting, he informed me that he has never been to Nepal and aspires to visit the Pashupatinath one day.
Sometime later, while on the bus to Guwahati, the capital of Assam, I overheard men talking in Nepali. As I was very new in Assam then, I was excited on hearing people speak in Nepali. So I went over and started a conversation. One of them, who had the most welcoming personality and looked like he was in his late fifties to early sixties, was a teacher in Assam, now retired, and was going to Guwahati for some personal work. He, like my first host on the first evening, was born here, and his father too came to Assam as a boy with his grandfather. He remembered how he went to Nepal for the first time for his son’s eye check-up. Later, in a conversation with his son over the phone to update his travel status, he spoke fluent Nepali, perhaps his son was also talking in Nepali. It seemed as though Nepalis in Assam have not only adopted the local Assamese culture but also kept their ‘Nepaliness’ alive, through the means of language. This person whose grandfather came to Assam talks fluent Nepali with his son now. This might have been fostered by an overwhelming presence of the Nepali community in various parts of Assam.
At the end of the trip, I felt good that amidst the sad news of Nepali migrants facing a terrible work environment in the Gulf and Malaysia, this visit to India showed the brighter side of the situation of Nepali migrants there. On exploring the situation of Nepalis in India, one will come across people of different castes and creeds all of whom are fascinating in their own ways. While the documented history might be closely related to the migration of Nepalis as mercenaries in the early 19th century, accounts maintained by scholars like Mahesh Chandra Regmi show that the undocumented history is far ahead of the documented one, with the stories of women migrants largely unheard of.
Sharma is research associate at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (firstname.lastname@example.org)