Never having been subject to British rule, Nepal’s historical trajectory has been quite different from its South Asian neighbours.
Yet, geography ensured that Nepalis themselves could not remain unaffected by developments in colonial India, including one of its defining features – the dispersal of South Asians across the globe. As a result, wherever migrants from the subcontinent (or, Indians, as they are generally known) can be found, there are high chances that Nepalis would be among them.
Some have retained their separate identity, as in Myanmar; others, barely, as in Malaysia; the small group in Fiji is almost entirely Indianised; while full assimilation into Indian communities was the norm in Africa and the West Indies. As the writer V.S. Naipaul said of his family in Trinidad: “I know nothing of the people on my father’s side; I know only that some of them came from Nepal.”
Despite having a relatively little-known and small global diaspora, Nepal has played catch-up rather quickly. It began mainly with Nepalis following in the footsteps of other South Asians to the Gulf initially and later Malaysia as migrant workers, that now results in hundreds of thousands leaving every year.
Close behind them have been students. Going by the numbers to the three major destinations – Australia, Britain and the United States – it is astounding that so many Nepali families can even afford to send their children to those places.
For the past three years, Nepalis have comprised the largest student group overall in Australia behind China and India. In fact, Nepal has, for more than a decade, consistently ranked second after India among South Asian countries sending students to Australia, and the United States.
The colonial legacy, though, has ensured that the Nepali student population in Britain, although substantial, is smaller than those from larger South Asian countries.
Nepalis are very much part of the irregular channels that operate regionally taking people through the long, circuitous, arduous, perilous and very expensive journeys into the US and Europe.
There are also legal migrants such as those who qualify for migration to Canada and Australia under the points-based system. And then there is the Diversity Visa (DV) lottery run by the US.
The DV application process has become so ingrained in the annual calendar of the Nepali public that even the opening of applications makes the news. Thus, it is no surprise that Nepal is only one of four countries from where more than a million people applied under this programme in the past three years.
In fact, Nepal has sent more migrants to the US than any other country under the DV programme in the previous five years for which figures are publicly available.
This rapid increase in the Nepali migrant population across the globe has resulted in the relatively new phenomenon of the non-resident Nepali (NRN). With that came the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) established in 2003 to bring together Nepalis living abroad and promote their well-being.
But, with its suspiciously strategic requirement of a two-year stay abroad for membership, NRNA immediately barred the vast majority of Nepalis living and working abroad, the labour migrants, since nearly all such workers are away on two-year work permits. Hence, the NRNs comprise mainly professionals and business owners.
Given the relatively late emigration by Nepalis beyond the subcontinent, we are still in the phase that our neighbours went through decades ago.
The NRNs, especially those with a passport of a different colour, are still somewhat of a novelty in Nepal. Naturally, that status also opens up doors in Nepal, not least because of NRNA’s professed goal of working for Nepal’s progress but also because of their proximity to the movers and shakers of the country by acting as their hosts in their adopted lands.
That perhaps explains why the president of NRNA is always in the news for one reason or another. For the same reason, NRNA’s biennial global conference to elect a new executive body is treated as an event of national importance.
The last such conference was held a few weeks ago and it appears that the sheen of the NRN has begun to wear off. This was not only because Nepali commentators have begun to take a more critical view of how much NRNs actually contribute to Nepal’s economy compared with the outsized clout they wield.
The conference this time was also marred by that most Nepali of phenomena – political partisanship that pitted the country’s two major parties against each other through proxy candidates.
The election was marked by accusations of foul play and preceded by all manner of unruliness in its run-up – all gleefully reported by the media.
If that was not bad enough, an Australian of Nepali origin arriving for the conference created a ruckus at the Kathmandu airport. He was duly arrested and the immigration office even put out a press release explaining the circumstances of his arrest.
Most tellingly, the statement also noted that foreign nationals of Nepali origin repeatedly misbehave with immigration officials and requested that such behaviour best not be repeated.
That the immigration office made a request rather than threaten dire consequences speaks volumes about how powerful the NRN is perceived to be. But a start seems to have been made and the easy pass accorded to NRNs may finally be on its way out.
Deepak Thapa is a columnist with The Kathmandu Post. This article is part of the Asia News Network’s weekly commentary series, Asian Editors Circle.
This story is exclusively For StarBiz Premium subscribers only.