From The Kathmandu Post (25 October, 2013)
Soon, the non-resident Nepali will inject great energy to a country that has long been in the doldrums
On Tuesday, the last day of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) jamboree, UCPN (Maoist) Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal was asked challenging questions of the kind that he does not get from the intimidated cognoscenti of Kathmandu. One asked Dahal for “an accounting of the 17,000 dead” that took the Maoists to power. Another sought hisaab for the billions that went from the exchequer for ‘ex-combatant integration’.
As the questions and challenges added up, Dahal decided that aggression was the best counterattack. He hit upon the tried and tested formula of blaming the overseas Nepalis for abandoning the country, something that has been in use probably since the birth of Nepali nationalism. The efficacy of this formula is seen in how it tends to put many non-resident Nepalis (NRNs) on the defensive.
Dahal collectivised his invective, telling the NRNA as a whole: “Where were you when the country needed sacrifice? You fled! And now you come here to talk big!” As the organisers rushed to control the hooting, there was no one to tell Dahal that the primary reason (literally) millions of Nepalis go to toil beyond our borders is the decade of conflict started by his Maoist cohort and the never-ending transition (sankramankaal) that he has overseen since 2006.
In itself, Nepal is a country where the majority of the middle class and youth would leave for Western shores if they could. With the insurgents, politicians and civil society stalwarts working in unison to destroy the country’s prospects in wealth creation and employment generation, the departure of labour migrants and the educated middle class only escalates.
Great Opening of 1990
The extreme romance that the Kathmandu middle class holds for the West can be blamed on our non-colonisation. We are still starry-eyed about the Western shangrila, and added to this is the desperation born of lack of prospects and productive employment. So much of the hills and plains today is devoid of the able-bodied, and in many places, the fields have reverted to jungle. Perhaps a sixth of the voting-age population is out of the country and without franchise as we go in for the Constituent Assembly-II elections.
Those left behind tend to believe that the overseas Nepalis are raking it in, particularly those migrants who are able to push beyond the Gulf and Malaysia and onward to Japan, South Korea, Europe and North America. This feeling permeates the intelligentsia, which helps explain the level of antagonism that the NRN confront.
While there is no shortage of sukulgunday carpetbaggers among the NRN (as with the Nepali home population generally), one can say there is little empathy here for the challenges faced by the out-migrant—the alienation from one’s culture and within the other’s; the loss of friends, family and festivals; the lonely struggle to succeed; the challenge of being second class citizens; the lack of access to social services; and so on.
When unrealistic expectations are made of the NRNs, such as in investments, we need to understand that Nepal started late as an overseas migrant exporter (though overland migration started as far back as when mercenaries went to Lahore to join the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab—hence the term lahuray). This happened in earnest only when passports were made easily accessible after the Great Opening of 1990. While elsewhere in South Asia, middle class migrants to the West and job migrants to the Gulf and elsewhere began in the 1970s, Nepalis had to wait a generation or more.
Given the late start, the overseas Nepalis who migrated permanently needed time to settle down and consolidate their careers. Meanwhile, the subsistence migrants in the Gulf and Malaysia who have helped keep the home economy afloat (remittances make up a fourth of the GDP) have little prospects of self-advancement in their host societies.
The NRNA conventions traditionally take place around Dashain, opened by the head of state and closed by the head of government. This year’s event was noteworthy because it was the tenth anniversary of the organisation and also the year when the government finally agreed to formally register the NRNA. This was also the first time that a new president was chosen through election, with Jiba Lamichhane succeeded by Shesh Ghale (who defeated Tenji Sherpa).
Upendra Mahato, the founding president of NRNA, says the organisation has prospered beyond his wildest dreams since the time he and friends worked to start it ten years ago. Mahato says he knows of no other country with a unifying overseas organisation such as the NRNA. The NRNA’s much-touted ability to bring investments has been the butt of jokes but the President of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) Suraj Vaidya told the inauguration that the inflow has been healthy. He listed more than 130 NRN initiatives amounting to more than Rs 30 billion and suggested that the graph was on a sharp incline.
What is noteworthy about the NRNA, as evident in the jamboree that just concluded, is that it is much more inclusive than the average Nepali organisation, in general membership as well as leadership positions. The presence of people of hill-ethnic background is impressive and heartening. However, the demographic realities of Nepal are also seen here, in the weak presence of the Madhesi, Dalit, women and others. This was the first year in its decade of functioning, apparently, that a woman was elected as office-bearer.
One has to be alert to the critical distinction that divides the NRNA more than castes, ethnicities, language and gender, and that is seen in the two broad categories that the NRNA seems to be alert to. One, are the permanent migrants to the West, concerned about their Nepali identity and the situation in the home country but planning for a future overseas; two, job migrants who do not have the flexibility of permanent departure and therefore, harbour a rather different set of priorities.
The category that is completely absent from the NRNA roster, on the other hand, are the Nepali citizens who cross the open border to toil in India. These citizens form the bulk of our out-migrants, the poorest, who cross the border unregistered, un-counted, unprotected. More than even the NRNA, it is the opinion makers of Kathmandu who tend to neglect the Nepali citizen in India.
Pain of diaspora
The words that have followed the Nepali diaspora over the decades, reflected in scores of songs since the 1950s, go thus: “Farkahne farka nepali, timilai dakchha…” (return, your country calls out to you), “Nepali le maya maryo bari lai…” (The migrants have lost their love for the land of birth), and so on. The evergreen “Naulakha tara udaye” by Amber Gurung is all about the pain of diaspora.
Beyond romantic references to the home country, these songs speak of the reality of the desperation that takes Nepalis across borders and overseas. For long in the modern era, we have talked of turning things around, so that Nepalis will no longer have to leave their own resource-rich country to serve someone else.
That time has yet to come, and there is not much that the NRN can do about it, whether it is the steel worker up on a high girder in Doha, the analyst on Wall Street or the restaurant boy in Jalandhar. It is up to us left behind to try and create conditions so that the hopes, abilities and resources of the NRN of all categories can be harnessed. That will be the motherland’s gift to the lahuray!