This review, originally written in 2019 and slightly amended in January 2022, is to be published in Journal of the Global Nepali Diaspora. an open-access periodical which the Centre for Nepal Studies UK (www.cnsuk.org.uk) are planning to launch. For Nilamber Chhetri's favourable review of the same book, describing it as "of immense value for scholars engaged in migration studies in a globalized world and .. a fountainhead for all subsequent discussions and debates on the subject", see Asian Ethnicity (20: 4), 2019.
Nepali Mela UK 2014, Kempton Park Racecourse. (Image: Premila van Ommen)
Global Nepalis: Religion, Culture and Community in a New and Old Diaspora. Eds. David N. Gellner & Sondra L. Hausner. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2018. xvii + 580 pp.
This volume presents the results of a collaborative project `Vernacular Religion: Varieties of Religiosity in the Nepali Diaspora (2009-201)’, though many of the contributors address other aspects of the diaspora experience. It brings together in twenty papers a wealth of ethnographic data on persons of Nepali origin in many of the countries where they have settled in significant numbers. This breadth ensures that every reader will find much in it that is new and the absence , except in one or two papers, of `heavy’ anthropological theory makes it readily accessible to non-anthropologists both inside and outside academia. Its main value is as a treasure-house of information on many diaspora communities, some of which (as with Fiji, for example), even Nepal specialists may previously have known nothing about. Nevertheless, many of the papers also raise important questions about migration in general and about conflicting identities.
A collection of this kind cannot, of course, present a unified thesis but Gellner’s introduction sets out a basic framework, distinguishing three main waves: a continuation of the age-old westward movement along the Himalayas that brought the Khas into Nepal in the first place and which established Nepali populations in Sikkim, Burma and Thailand; then migration by land to find work in Indian cities; and finally migration by air to more distant places. This is a useful classification, even if, at least in the case of Darjeeling, movement beyond Nepal’s eastern border had begun before the Rana period (see Pradhan 1991). Reflecting this scheme, the main body of the book is divided into four parts: the first deals with the `Old Diaspora’, i.e the first two waves, the second and third focus on the `New Diaspora’, first Singapore, the Gulf and the USA together and then the UK, where the editors themselves have been at the forefront of recent research. A shorter, final section deals with the impact of migration on Nepal itself, including the role of the non-Resident Nepal Association and Hausner’s own concluding remarks.
With any immigration studies, a key issue is how far those who make a new country their home assimilate to the society around them, though this , of course, begs the question of how homogeneous a `host’ society is in the first place. As one might expect, the maintenance of social boundaries between Nepali settlers and other inhabitants depends primarily on the demography of the new arrivals and on their time in the country. The circumstances of predominantly male Nepalis’ arrival in Fiji as indentured labourers led to extensive intermarriage with other South Asians, and their incorporation in the `Fiji Indian’ category. Krishna Adhikari and Bhimsen Sapkota (chapter 6) note, however, a tendency to stress the importance of Nepali descent on the father’s side, even if marriage with women from other parts of South Asia is common, and also a belief among some Fiji Nepalis that marrying another Nepali in the ideal. Anil Shakya’s study of the Nepali community in Thailand suggests that the younger generation, mostly with at best a passive knowledge of the Nepali language, are beginning through intermarriage to merge with the ethnic Thai community, whilst persons of Nepali origin (PNO) who trace their arrival in the country back to the 19th century already call more recent arrivals by a derogatory Thai term for South Asians in general. In Myanmar, covered by Sushma Joshi in chapter 4, Bahuns and Chetris generally do not marry out, but there is some intermarriage between Janajatis and ethnic Burmese. One wonders how far this reflects lesser concern among the Janajatis with ritual purity, a tendency to identify as Buddhists, or their greater physical resemblance to the dominant population.
One useful way of considering the whole issue, is the distinction between civic, cultural and structural assimilation – that is between simple citizenship, becoming culturally (and particularly linguistically) similar to those around them, and virtually ceasing to exist as a separate community, as has happened, for example with the German community in the USA and also largely with the descendants of the 19th century wave of Irish immigrants to Britain. Many members of the Nepali diaspora, most prominently those working in the Gulf chapters 8 and 9) or in the Singapore police force (chapter 7), have not even reached the first rung of this ladder as their status is purely that of temporary guest workers. However, where they have been accepted as permanent residents, citizenship, if not already granted, is in principle attainable, even though in some case there are obstacles such as the English language tests which will prove difficult for elderly Nepalis settling in the UK (chapter 13, p.323-4). Cultural convergence is under way in many places, though the ease of international air travel and the possibility of interaction with one’s homeland over the Internet arguably make it less necessary to forge social links outside the immigrant group and to settle instead for `parochial cosmopolitanism’ , Rajak and Stirrat’s phrase coined to describe the `expat bubble’ in which many Western development specialists conduct their social lives while posted in Third World countries, but applied by Radha Adhikari (chapter 16) to Nepali nurses working in the UK.
Alongside relations with non-Nepalis, the question of ethnic/caste barriers separating Nepalis from one another looms large in many of the chapters. This issue is most directly addressed by Mitra Pariyar (chapter 17) who focuses on discrimination suffered by Nepali Dalits in the UK at the hands of fellow Nepalis. He argues that since the Brigade of Gurkhas recruited from a small number of specifical ethnic groups/castes and often from specific villages, the social structure was easily replicated in the UK, in contrast to the situation with the indented labourers discussed above. He also points out that the `Aryan’ appearance of the small number of Dalits in the country make them more visible among the `Mongoloid’ majority in the broader British Nepali community. This is an ironic counter-point to the difficulty faced by north-eastern Indians in other parts of India, where their `Chinese’ features can make them targets for hostility (Wooters and Subba 2013).
In an earlier publication, Pariyar (2011: 6) suggested that one motivation for the proliferation of ethnic/caste associations in Britain and elsewhere was the wish to find marriage partners from one’s own sub-group. While he does not make this specific claim here, he nevertheless rightly sees resistance to out-marriage as the key to the perpetuation of caste/ethic differences and, therefore, to inter-group hostility. The problem is especially acute at the fault-line between Dalits and the rest but there is, of course, plenty of tension among the various `pure’ groups: there is, for example, a feeling among some Rais in the Brigade of Gurkhas that the more numerous Gurungs discriminate against them.
Pariyar supports those in the UK campaigning for caste to be treated like race, gender or sexual in the UK’s anti-discrimination legislation and he also uses the term `caste’ in the broader sense of Nepal jat, thus including groups like Gurung, Tamang etc. as well as those like Bahuns, Chetris or Sarkis. The caste/jat v. ethnic group/jati distinction employed by the groups themselves and by social scientists does have some validity, as is indeed implied by Pariyar’s own use of the phrase `ethnicised-caste’, but he is right to see the difference as really one of degree rather than kind: both jat in the narrower sense and jati are (putative) descent groups, with the latter generally possessing stronger cultural markers. Essentially the same spirit lies behind the resistance among Nepalis to marriage between sub-groups and the declaration by General Sir Walter Walker, when explaining why he refused to have on his staff a British ex-Gurkha officer with a Nepali wife: `I was brought up to believe that one only married into one’s own race.’ (Sarony 2017:6). Particularly in the case of smaller groups faced with possible absorption into a larger one, we can sympathise with the wish to protect their own distinctive characteristics, but we have good reason to be worried that an obsession with boundary maintenance, whether physical ones like Trump’s proposed wall or the symbolic ones championed by identity politics, is a threat to vital, broader solidarities (cf Whelpton 2018).
The rise of identity politics in Nepal is, of course, another reason for the growth of ethnic consciousness and organisations in the diaspora. One example among many is Hong Kong, which does not have its own chapter in the collection but which is mentioned as the previous home of many in the UK Nepali community. Taking their cue from the anti—Bahun campaign in their ancestral home, Hong Kong Janajati activists campaigned against the appointment of another Bahun as Nepal’ s consul-general to the city. In India, where reservation/affirmative action policies are in place, there is also strong motivation to utilise – or indeed invent – distinct cultural traditions in order to better compete for state resources and to downplay shared status as persons of Nepali origin. This is brought out in Mélanie Vandelhelsken’s study of Sikkim, echoing the earlier findings of Shneiderman andTurin (2006).
Bandita Sijapati’s study of attitudes to secularism in New York (chapter 11) shows how opposition to the Hindu state is an aspect of inter-ethnic struggle, with Janajatis seeing this as a means of resisting the traditional dominance of the Hindu upper-castes. She also analyses the motivations for an anti-secular stance, which, although found more among the high castes does not necessarily stem simply from a wish to preserve their own dominance. She argues that immigrants who feel their own traditions are under attack may react defensively by clinging more tightly to conservative attitudes. This is a good point but I was puzzled by a Bahun informant’s claim that the Jesuits who educated him at St. Xavier’s in Kathmandu sought to undermine his own Hindu beliefs. My understanding had been that Catholics in Nepal, in contrast to Evangelical Christians, did not seek to convert. Sijapati , whilst allowing that the school did not actively proselytize, sees the phrase `service of God’ in the school’s motto as an example of `religious influence’ but surely `God’ in this context does not imply a specifically Christian belief..
Though less prominent than identity issues, the role of Non-Resident Nepalis’ Association(NRNA) and its relationship to the diaspora as a whole in highlighted both in Krishna Adhikari and David Gellner’s paper (chapter 18) and elsewhere in the volume. Adhikari and Gellner argue plausibly that, whilst regarded in Nepal itself as the legitimate voice of overseas Nepalis, the NRNA has generally failed to connect with the older waves of Nepali settlers, with its members probably seen as expatriates – persons who will eventually return to their native land after a period abroad – rather than immigrants who generally are in their new home for good. Added to this is the perception of the organisation as a `rich man’s club’, as evidence, for example, by the phenomenal amounts that now have to be spent to secure election to leadership positions. The organisation, even though focussed much more on engagement in Nepal rather than meeting the needs of Nepalis abroad, has also not yet produced inwards investment on the scale hoped for. Since the book was published it has in addition become apparent that the NRNA’s flagship contribution to post-earthquake reconstruction has been a fiasco, producing, at the cost of 350 million rupees, replacement homes for the villagers of Laprak that the villagers themselves do not want to move into (Lal 2019).
On the dual citizenship, the NRNA has been rather more successful, with the 2015 constitution providing extensive facilities in Nepal to those resident long-term outside South Asia, though not the right to take part in politics. The worldwide trend towards acceptance of dual or multiple nationalities, which the book notes, holds out hope that eventually this situation can be further improved.
The general standard of editing of the collection is high, though a number of inconsistencies or typos have inevitably escaped the net. Both 1966 (p.82) and 1964 (p.84) are given as the year Burmese schools were nationalised whilst the same chapter uses both `Sankhai’ and `Shankhai’ as names for the site of a major Shiva temple, with neither spelling included in the index. The statement on pg. 105 that Nepalis in Myanmar and Thailand are not considered Burmese or Thai by the Burmese and Thai government conflicts with the claim on pg.104 that most Nepalis in Thailand are now citizens. Table 5.1 in the Thailand chapter includes amongst different categories of citizenship the rather confusing entry ``illegal immigrants such as minorities of aliens married to Thai citizens.’ The chapter on Limbu religion states (p.346) that a Phedangma priest was appointed in 2005 but on p,342 that there is no Phedangma in Kathmandu and one has to be regularly summoned from Dharan, The footnote on p.144 gives 1852 for Jang Bahadur’s return to Nepal rather than the correct 1851. There is finally `Suapati’ for `Sijapati’ on p.248
None of this, however, detracts from the fact that the volume is a major contribution which all students of Nepal, as well as those working in general diaspora studies, will read with profit.
NOTES  Concern that the transmission of distinctive Afro-American cultural traditions might be endangered, was one of the reasons that prominent Black intellectual Zora Neale Hurston opposed the de-segregation of American education ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 (Marcucci 2017).  The target of the campaign completed his term in office but in December 2020 a civil servant of Magar ethnicity was appointed as consul-general in Hong Kong.
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