– Hem Raj Kafle
The term ‘diaspora’ becomes a buzzword in Nepalese mainstream media at least for a week every two years. The occasion is the international ‘congregation’ of Non-Resident Nepalis (NRN) in Kathmandu. In everyday mediated sense diaspora takes the same semantic value of ‘someone living outside the national border’ as rhetoric does for ‘a cunning, cheap, false comment.’ A conscious user, initially fed with the mass-mediated meaning of these terms, may turn gravely self-critical and self-emulative after learning that they reveal serious implications at specific contexts. But one certainly has to have zeal to quiz beyond the superficial.
I learned both ‘diaspora’ and ‘rhetoric’ in two levels and two phases. My learning started with acquiring the clichéd but diverged into the serious and critical when faced with academic challenges. I love both concepts, the first as the area of my completed M. Phil. research and the second as the subject of my ongoing doctoral studies.
But I leave rhetoric at this point for future ruminations. There is more to know, much more to realize, and even more to practice and share about it. Though, for me, diaspora as a field of scholarship is a bygone thing, or is temporarily postponed/suspended before rhetoric matures into doctorate, I always cherish the phases of growing with it from ignorance to research to realization.
I picked up diaspora from a mainstream English daily sometime in the autumn of 2003 around the first International conference of the Non-Resident Nepalis Association (NRNA). NRN was strange and new and special as a human species as was its signifier, diaspora, at least for some newspapers which took this species for harbingers of hopes come all of a sudden from out of nowhere.
I got academic curiosity about Nepali diaspora only in February 2006 after joining Pokhara University’s M. Phil. programme. It happened during a visit to a small community of Nepalis in Jammu, India, at the end of the first South Asian Universities Youth Festival. And it so happened that, having known through local media about the arrival of “a group of Nepalis from Nepal,” who danced to Nepali folk songs and wore traditional Nepali costumes, two gentlemen came to invite our team to Gorkha Nagar, a settlement of the second and third generation Nepali migrants on the Tawi river. The purpose of this invitation was simple: “to meet Nepalis from Nepal.” One of the two men, S. B. Rana, the then president of J & K Gorkha Sabha, an organisation of the settlers of Gorkha Nagar, explained, in largely creolized Nepali, that they wanted their young children to see the ‘actual’ Nepalis and hear the ‘pure’ Nepali we spoke.
We managed to reach the settlement only at the office time when most adults were out for work and the young to schools and colleges. So, Mr. Rana’s plan of getting the younger generations to talk with us literally failed. The population that stood in our welcome comprised only the old and middle-aged. They showed great excitement for the fact that we shared with them (at least) one distinctly common heritage, Nepali, although the ‘danger’ of their gradual melting into the local community of Dogris and Punjabis rang sharp in their own accents. But they seemed to struggle to retain Nepaliness with such regular rituals as congregating every evening in the temple of Gorakhnath, which as much was an ideal deity as a symbol of Gorkha, a little surrogate for Nepal.
I perceived a sense of mutual identification between the Gorkha Nagar residents and us – of real and imagined homeland. They were our hosts and constituted an imagined home, at least after our two-week sojourn in a foreign land. On their part, we represented their living memory of a homeland which was lost long ago by their ancestors with rare chance of physical reconnection. The meeting appeared to be an opportunity for a distanced community to actualize the identity which was imagined but not experienced in real Nepal. I realized our presence had induced their reorientation towards Nepal, to an extent though very scanty. I concluded instantly that this small community was a real Nepali diaspora.
Even if the early instances of dislocation are excluded on the plea of inadequate official records and for migrants’ possible assimilation into the host communities over the last centuries, the spread of Nepalis to Bhutan, Northeast India, and Burma lends a very discernible location for diaspora scholarship.
Later, during my M. Phil. studies, I thought writing a research paper about Gorkha Nagar and its people would be one of the best contributions ever; it would be a substantive addition to diaspora scholarship in the Indo-Nepal context. But having had nothing documented for a research work, and with only fragmented recollection of that meeting with the enthusiastic settlers, I could produce only a two-page text in the structure of an argumentative essay with a thesis “The people of Gorkha Nagar suffer a perpetual crisis of identity.”
The thought of exploring the lives of migrant Nepalis persisted. I turned from Gorkha Nagar to the proposed Gorkha Land and beyond, where there was far greater population of Nepali migrants and a bulk of literature to go through. I got hold of the novel Brahmaputraka Chheuchhau by Lil Bahadur Chhetri and critiqued it as a book on Nepali diaspora. I took very scanty trouble in exploring the theoretical intensity and eclecticism of the term “diaspora” with a general cocksureness for its usage as a substitute for a migrant community. My first treatment of Nepali diaspora was by no means satisfactory to myself. I realized I was too preoccupied with the mass-mediated meaning of diaspora to see any need to study its origin, critical intensity and contextual relevance.
But these questions regularly bothered me: Can’t Nepali migrants be placed within the framework of diaspora? Aren’t Nepalis of India Nepali diaspora? Does geo-political and cultural proximity affect the formation of the real diaspora? What are the accepted modes of mobilities and resettlements that determine the formation of a diaspora? Are there specific diasporic features and related theoretical paradigms? I began to realize that diaspora studies should incorporate diversity of meanings and theoretical dimensions. The initial considerations would be to see whether migration and diasporization meant the same. Upon reading writers like Khachig Tololyan, Robin Cohen, Steven Vertovec and many more, I saw that scholarship in diaspora departed greatly from its clichéd usage, for the former strictly considered at least three factors about migrants: first, the (unfriendly) nature of dislocation from the country of origin; second, the (often unfriendly and distanced) condition of living in the country of relocation; and third, the migrants’ efforts to negotiate their identities across the homeland, hostland and the migrant community themselves through constant networking and lobbying.
My critical pursuit towards Nepali diaspora culminated into a 9-credit thesis for M. Phil. Degree in English Studies. I titled the work “Diasporic Nepalese Identity in the Cyberspace.” The kernel of my thesis is that the recent Non-Resident Nepalis (NRN) movement is a veritable critical ground for the study of the discourse on Nepalese diaspora. I had to get back to NRNs in 2008, to see profundity in their supposed identity politics, only when they were reduced to clichés by Kathmandu’s critical circles in a span of mere five years from their first emergence to ‘amuse’ Kathmandu’s elites in the autumn of 2003.
What I achieved through my critical pursuits is very little, considering the scope of knowledge further work can uncover.
Aside from taking the recent case of NRN activism, which is critiqued as representing the west-centric affluent Nepalis in majority, I think the Nepalese diasporic discourse can expand to earlier historical realities taking as distant issues as Nepalis’ dispersions at different points of pre-and post-unification eras. The aftermaths of power-mongering in and around the central courts of Nepal during the whole of the nineteenth century signal the displacement of a huge population to India. Though there is hardly any record of how many and where of the eviction of courtiers and commoners during the unification, in the times of Bhimsen Thapa and Junga Bahadur Rana, and at the rise of Shumshers after the massacre and exile of the Jung lineage, this early historical reality cannot be ruled out from representative Nepalese diaspora scholarship. Even if the early instances of dislocation are excluded on the plea of inadequate official records and for migrants’ possible assimilation into the host communities over the last centuries, the spread of Nepalis to Bhutan, Northeast India, and Burma lends a very discernible location for diaspora scholarship.
The case of Bhutanese Nepalis (refugees) in Nepal lends a curious subject of study. The chain of settlement (in Bhutan), expulsion, resettlement (in Nepal) and repatriation (in the West) of this population could always provide interesting arenas of study, especially in view of the repercussions of these multiple physical shifts and cultural exposures on the people.
Finally, there is this everyday flow of hundreds of Nepalis out of the country to destinations like Malaysia and Gulf region for employment, and to Europe, America and Australia for studies, employment and permanent settlement. With all these instances to qualify as a migrant supplying country in South Asia, Nepal remains to be a productive space for diaspora scholarship.
I see that diaspora and rhetoric will easily go along. My post-doctoral work may be to cross-pollinate these two domains: one the discourse on identity politics, the other the lens for unraveling the intricacies and nuances of a discourse. Broadly, the product of cross-pollination will be either ‘rhetoric of Nepalese diaspora’ or ‘Nepalese diaspora as rhetoric’ or ‘diaspora as Nepalese rhetoric’ or any meaningful phrase that combines diaspora and rhetoric.